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What is the Law of Liberty?

By: Pastor Brian Wipf

In Adult Sunday School on June 25, we were introduced to James’ reference to the law of liberty. Because time was limited we weren’t able to tease out the nuances and significance of this, so I thought it might be helpful if I do this here.

James 1:25 says, “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” Clearly, James is encouraging us to “look” into the “perfect law,” which he defines as the law of liberty (meaning, those are the same thing). So, James is saying this is an important strategy of our acting on the word of God (not being merely hearers). But that begs the question: what is this law of liberty that I am to look at?

Whenever we hear the word law we oftentimes think of God’s law given to Moses; the OT law. And that’s the correct assumption most of the time. But is it here? One thing that should make you suspicious is James’ title of the law; the law of liberty. That’s an odd way of referring to the OT law, especially by a new covenant follower of Jesus.

One of the first things you should do when trying to figure out such things is see if that description or wording is used elsewhere, especially in the same book (or by the same author). Lo and behold, that’s exactly what we find. In James 2, James uses that exact same phrase again. In vs. 12 he says, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” So, look what he’s doing: He’s trying to motivate a kind of life; he does so by saying we should behave as one being judged by the law of liberty.

Now, that should make you new covenant Christians think: would God want me to live and act like I’m going to be judged by the OT law? Would God want to motivate me towards good works by having me live as if I’m under the law? I think I can give a resounding NO to that answer. How come? Because the NT continually tells me that the OT law and old covenant kills (2 Cor. 3), that it was a burden too heavy to carry (Acts 15:10-11), and once free we should not submit ourselves to a yoke of slavery trying to keep the law apart from God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:1).

With these considerations, I would argue that the law of liberty isn’t merely a reference to the OT law, or the OT commands given to us. So, what does it mean, then? I think it is akin to the law of Christ referred to in passages like Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The origins of this law of Christ or law of love is most likely John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

How, though, is this new? This sounds just like the OT law saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). It’s new in a couple of ways. 1) Maybe most importantly, it’s new in that it’s a call to love without any fear of judgment; without any fear of falling short of God’s standard. That’s what’s unique about the new covenant and the work of Jesus. Because Jesus has fulfilled the law for us and has become our righteousness himself by sacrificing himself on the cross for our sins, the demands of the law no longer apply to us. This is why Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:21 that he is under the law of Christ and is not under the law according to vs. 20. He makes a distinction here, doesn’t he, between the OT law and the law of Christ because they are different; the law of Christ is new. 2) It’s also new in that that the Holy Spirit is now given to every new covenant believer to empower him or her to accomplish the task God has given.

One last thing: it’s not that the OT law of God is irrelevant for us new covenant believers; it’s very relevant. The OT law is summed up in this one statement: Love God and neighbor. So, if we want to know what that looks like, hearing from the OT will give us a great start – a necessary start. To put it more bluntly: I can only live the life of love Jesus calls me to if I know and follow the law Jesus followed. It’s just that Christ transcends this with a law of unfettered love free from judgment. Living under the law of Christ, I break free of the written code and live by the Spirit of Jesus as he models for me and instructs me in his word.

So, FBC brothers and sisters, let us do exactly what James is calling us to do. Let us look into the law of liberty, the law of Christ that frees us from the burden of keeping the law, so we can love others with no boundaries or limitations whatsoever.