Liberty in Relation to Law

It is especially this subject that is the concern of every Christian who has first awakened to the glorious liberty that we have in Christ Jesus and who at the same time reads the perfect law of God. And it is this subject that was the main reason for establishing first of all, in a former article, the meaning of the term “law” as the apostle Paul used it in his epistle to the Galatians. In that article I sought to explain that in that epistle Paul did not use the term “law” in any instance with a reference to the ceremonial law only. Rather was his reference to the entire law of God. I made two main distinctions, however, in the reference of Paul to the law. Essentially though they are the same, they are nevertheless to be clearly discerned in the epistle. The first use was a reference to the concept law as such. The second was the use of the term with the definite article “the” and referring to the revelation of that same law of God upon Mount Sinai.

Instead of treating this subject from the general aspect of the teaching of the entire Bible, let us again limit ourselves to a consideration of the explanation of Paul in his epistle to the Galatians. Our task would, of course, be much easier if we had explained that the apostle Paul referred in the main to the ceremonial law. Our simple conclusion would have been that the apostle teaches that since the fullness of time, the coming of Christ, we are no longer bound by the ceremonial ordinances of the old dispensation; we are free from them though not from the moral law of the ten commandments. Since it is my conception that, the reference is not to a particular part of the Mosaic legislation but to the law of Moses, and therefore of God, in its entirety, my burden of proof is more difficult. I must make clear our liberty as Christians to the entire law of God.

As to the question what is our relation to the law there are different answers. At one extreme is the position of the Antinomian who maintains that we are free from the law in the sense that it is useless for us; we have the liberty even to transgress it. Very evidently this position is not the position of the Bible and of Paul to Galatians. It is not worthy of our further consideration. On the other hand there is the extreme position of those who are similar to the Judaizers and who teach the law as a code of ethics which can be fulfilled by us in this life. Perfectionism plainly argues from this position. It is also the position of many who though they deny perfectionism, nevertheless teach salvation by works of the law. It is the error of Roman Catholicism and all Protestantism which has left the original position of the Reformers. This position is clearly condemned by the apostle Paul who reaches the point where he wishes that they were cut off from the Church of Christ who teach such heresy; who in his epistle to the Philippians speaks of such teachers as “dogs” and those of “the concision”.

This teaching of the Judaizers must not be dismissed with a mere statement that it is not the position of the Bible. It is too powerful in its temptation and attraction to the natural man to be so quickly dismissed. The apostle discerned the attraction of this position and the grave danger for the Gentile churches and the truth of the Gospel that he devoted this entire epistle to explain and expound our Christian liberty. We must therefore be positive and carefully interpret the position of Paul in Galatians. So too, over against the Roman Catholic, and all those who teach salvation by works, we must understand the position of the Reformers.

Interesting it is to read the views of the reformers, Calvin and Luther, on this subject. Before I summarize the teaching of the apostle Paul as it is in Galatians allow me to quote from these two men to show their conception.

First of all the position of Martin Luther. I wish to quote from Luther’s commentary on the Galatians as it is found in the abridged translation by Theodore Graebner, page 84. It is Luther’s explanation of verse 19 of chapter two.

“Paul does not refer to the Ceremonial Law, but to the whole law. We are not to think that the Law is wiped out. It stays. It continues to operate in the wicked. But a Christian is dead to the Law. For example, Christ by His resurrection became free from the grave, and yet the grave remains. Peter was delivered from prison, yet the prison remains. The Law is abolished as far as I am concerned, when it has

driven me into the arms of Christ. Yet the law continues to exist and to function. But it no longer exists for me.

“I have nothing to do with the Law”, cries Paul. He could not have uttered anything more devastating to the prestige of the Law. He declares that he does not care for the Law, that he does not intend ever to be justified by the Law.

“To be dead to the Law means to be free of the Law. What right, then, has the Law to accuse me, or to hold anything against me? When you see a person squirming in the clutches of the Law, say to him: “Brother, get things straight. You let the Law talk to your conscience. Make it talk to your flesh. Wake up, and believe in Jesus Christ, the Conqueror of the Law and sin. Faith in Christ will lift you high above the Law into the heaven of grace. Though Law and sin remain, they no longer concern you, because you are dead to the Law and dead to sin.”

Calvin’s idea may be obtained somewhat from his Institutes, Vol. II, chapter IX, on the subject of Christian Liberty. Calvin writes: “Christian liberty, according to my judgment, consists of three parts. The first is that the consciences of believers, when seeking an assurance of their justification before God, should raise themselves above the law, and forget all the righteousness of the law.” (page 77) “The second part of Christian liberty, which is dependent on the first, is, that their consciences do not observe the law, as being under any legal obligation; but that, being liberated from the yoke of the law, they yield a voluntary obedience to the will of God.” (page 79) “The third part of Christian liberty teaches us, that we are bound by no obligation before God respecting external things, which in themselves are indifferent; but that we may indifferently sometimes use, and at other times omit them.” (page 81) Concerning his elucidation of the first part Calvin writes the following: “Nor will this authorize any one to conclude, that the law is of no use to believers, whom it still continues to instruct and exhort, and stimulate to duty, although it has no place in their consciences before the tribunal of God.” (page 77) Furthermore Calvin writes about this: “On this point turns almost the whole argument of the Epistle to the Galatians. For that they are erroneous expositors, who maintain, that Paul there contends only for liberty from ceremonies, may be proved from the topics of his reasoning. Such as these: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.” (Gal. 3:13) Again: “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. Every man that is circumcised is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:1-6) These passages certainly comprehend something more exalted than a freedom from ceremonies. I confess, indeed, that Paul is there treating of ceremonies, because he is contending with the false apostles, who attempted to introduce again into the Christian Church the ancient shadows of the law, which had been abolished by the advent of Christ. But for the decision of this question it was necessary to discuss some higher topics, in which the whole controversy lay.” (page 78).

There is something fundamentally alike in the views of these two Reformers in their conception of the Christian’s relation to the law. Both Calvin and Luther condemned Roman Catholicism on the one hand and Anabaptism and Pieism on the other. However, as Bavinck points out there is a difference between these two points of view, the Lutheran and the Calvinistic. Whether the criticism of Luther made by Bavinck is entirely correct, is a matter which I doubt, but which I cannot at this time determine because I have not read enough of their works. Bavinck says in Vol. II, p. 525 that Luther looked upon freedom from the law as freedom from the curse of the law, and that he only had a place for the law in the abnormal life of sin. Whereas Calvin explained the law also as for faith, a norm for the moral life, derived from the will of God and serving as an incentive to good works.

Having indicated the Reformed conception of this relation of the Christian to the law, I would like to direct your attention now to the teaching of the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Galatians.

To see the Christian’s liberty in relation to the law let us ask ourselves what the apostle tells us is the purpose of the revelation of the law of God at Mount Sinai. Immediately we can state definitely that the law was not given to show in itself the way of life for the Israelite. The law as such was weak. It could not show the way to salvation for them who could not keep it. It only showed them their sins. Galatians 3:11 “For that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, the just shall live by faith.” Galatians 3:18 tells us that it was added to bring out transgressions. We read: “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” It is the same as the teaching of Paul in Romans 3:20 “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” The way of life was shown before the revelation of the law of God at Mount Sinai. That was promised to Abraham four hundred and thirty years before the giving of the law. And the law could not change that promise of God. Life was to be given by the covenant Jehovah through His promise and that covenant could never be altered, not even by the unchangeable law of God at Mt. Sinai.

Though the promise was given first and the revelation of the law in the form of the entire Mosaic legislation was given afterwards, and’ although the law in itself as it comes to sinful man only serves to make him more miserable, the ultimate purpose of God in the giving of the promise and in the giving of the law was always the same, the salvation of His covenant people. Jehovah did not give the law to terrify His people from Mount Sinai in such a way so as to cause them to lose faith in Him and His eternal promises. Though Jehovah gave the law to bring out the sins of the people it was to serve antithetically to bring them to Christ. Paul says of the law, “it was a schoolmaster to bring us (drive us) unto Christ.” Gal. 3:24. It was to show them salvation in the only way, that is by faith. Abraham knew and it was made plain: to him, Israel was shown through the law, that the just shall live by faith and not by the works of the law. “Before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed,” says Paul in Galatians 3:23. That means, before the faith in the revelation of the Christ, which was reserved for the Church of the New Testament, God kept his people, saved them through the law. Yet do not mistake this. They too were saved by faith. They too were children of faithful Abraham . Their faith was worked through the law and the promise of the Christ to come. Therefore, when the Christ has come, faith in Him who is revealed is called the faith which was to come also. Apparently only the giving of the law seemed to be against the giving of the promise of life to Abraham and his seed. But if we would ask whether that were actually so the apostle would tell us, Galatians 3:21: “God forbid.” That is his answer to the question he put himself, “Is the law then against the promises of God?”

In this connection we might seriously question how Jehovah could reveal His law with the serious intention of having Israel know that He desired that they keep the law; and at the same time seriously intend them to know that though their sins were as scarlet He would keep His promise to them given to their fathers.

Jehovah showed that he intended that His law should be taken seriously, in the way He revealed it to Israel. We ought to remember the description of the giving of the law as given in the books of Moses in this connection. Nevertheless, the important interpretation of the Holy Spirit in this epistle is that the law was ordained through angels, Galatians 3:19. This shows at least that God gave to Israel the clear revelation that only they who live as perfectly as do the angels in heaven may be His people standing before His face. The Israelite answered the question, “who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?” by the answer, “He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.” Psalm 24:3, 4. God showed that He demanded that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, for God is holy.

At the same time Paul explains that God provided that His people would receive the revelation of His law together with His promise of its fulfillment. After saying in Galatians 3:19 that it was ordained by angels he further adds, “in the hand of a mediator.” That mediator is Christ, who had His living type in Moses.

Now, if we see this purpose of the giving of the law, we shall see too that it did not take away the liberty of the Jew. The Jew was free from the law. He did not have to keep the law himself, he had the promise from God, as a child of Abraham, that God would keep the law for him in Christ. Essentially, the Old and New Testament enjoyed the same liberty. Very strongly Paul reminds Peter of that glorious principle that one enjoys as a true Jew. Galatians 2:19 “For I through law am dead to law, that I might live unto God.” And this follows the reminder to Peter, already given in verse 15 and 16, “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ. . . .” With this concept of liberty to the law for all Jews he speaks to the Gentiles that they too are free; though not as Gentiles, but as believers, as children of Abraham, as spiritual Jews. Galatians 3:29: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” The Jews are the first ones of the nations who enjoyed liberty! And God never took away their liberty. Even when he reminded them of their bondage to sin by giving them the law, which was a reminder of bondage to sinful people, He carefully introduced them first of all to His great deliverance from Egypt, type of bondage, and introduced the giving of the law to the Jew, whom He loved, with the words, “I am the Lord thy God which hath brought thee out of the land of Egypt.”

In the epistle to the Galatians, the apostle Paul must not be interpreted to say or intend to say that the Jew did not have liberty in relation to the law whereas the Gentile Christian did. He explains on the contrary that the Jews were free, but that their freedom was overshadowed by the New Testament fulfillment in Christ. So he begins chapter four with the word “now” in order to explain that idea, the difference between the Old and the New. It is briefly: the difference between the heir as a child and a full grown son.

Having shown that both the Jew of the Old Testament and the Christian of the New Testament enjoy the liberty of God in relation to the law, and that the difference is only one of degree of enjoyment and experience, of shadow and fulfillment, let us take up the questions, what is the real meaning of liberty in relation to law; and, what is the purpose of the decalogue for the Christian?

Paul’s expressions which will make clear our liberty as children of God are found in Galatians 2:19 “For I through the law am dead to the law.” Galatians 4:5, “To redeem them that were under the law, and verse 21, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law”. (I have italicized)

These expressions are clear in themselves but the connection is difficult to see unless we interpret that Paul is referring to the children of God as sinners under the law. According to election we are the free children of God. But here the apostle is thinking of himself and all the elect of God as they are born in time under the law, sinners before the bar of God’s righteous law. This is evident from the expression “under the law”, and from the development of the idea of redemption in the context. To be under the law is the bondage in which we are all by nature. It is the bondage of the elements. These are the fundamental laws of God according to creation, which now curse us all as we are born because we are sinners. The ten commandments are the expressions of these elements. And Paul tells us that God sent His Son also under these elements. He was born of a woman, made under the law. He was subject to the curses of creation as they were directed against all those born of women. He hungered and thirsted, felt sorrow and pain. And all the curse of God against His people was concentrated upon Him as He was under the elements, that he might redeem them that were under them.

Such is the glorious liberty of the sons of God. We are delivered from the curse of the law, death. As sinners we died in Christ to the law and that even according to the law. “I through law and dead to law” is the word of Christian liberty. I as a sinner do not have to fulfill the law any more. I am free from that. Who desires now to return under the law and work out his own salvation? If you do, listen to the law. The law demands perfection and curses everyone who does not abide in all that is written in the book of the law to do them; and, it also is no respecter of persons; for, it also cast out the bond-woman who was under the law, and her son. But we are children of the free woman, perfectly delivered from the law, as criminals.

But does that mean, that I as a sinner delivered from the obligation to fulfill the law myself, when delivered will return to a condition without law, to a lawless state again. Not at all. Paul says, it is all “that we might live unto God”. To live implies righteousness to God’s law. That we have now also in principle by the Spirit of Christ which is given us to know of our deliverance and to also walk in the way of salvation. Liberty in relation to law then means, free from the obligation to pay myself, in order to live forevermore, according to law perfectly from the heart.

God promised that. The time came when He wrote His law not upon tables of stone, but upon our hearts.

In the Old Testament dispensation God spoke of liberty by giving the decalogue on stone with the ways of sanctification in the ceremonies, exercises for faith. And all the law was object of delight and daily meditation for the believer! In the New Testament we have the perfect law of God given to us through the only interpreter and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. It is the “law of Christ” now as Paul speaks of it. It is essentially the same as the ten commandments. Christ never discarded that record, but always built upon it. But He gave the real spiritual thrust to it, love God above all and thy neighbor as thyself. Galatians 5:14.

Perfect liberty in relation to law shall be fulfilled, however, when we are redeemed according to our body also. Now we have that perfect liberty only in our conscience by faith. And we and all creation groan for the redemption of our bodies. Then we can discard the decalogue as a written record. It shall forevermore be a living law in and through our whole existence.

However, in this world we must have the decalogue and the work of Christ, the law and the gospel. We must not think that we now know perfectly, instinctively, how to live in our body. That is flesh, the life of the old nature. Therefore Paul comes with that clear warning after having expounded the subject of Christian liberty “for brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.”

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. But crucify the old man of sin; for, that cannot be reformed into the life of the law; it must be mortified in the light of the guide to good works, the law of God.