James 1:25 The “Law of Liberty”

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. James 1:25

Laws forbid us from doing certain things, or command us to do things. By their very nature, therefore, they restrict our freedom to do whatever we like. So when James uses the phrase, “the law of liberty”, we might be tempted to think it is an oxymoron, a bit like saying “the chains of freedom”.

To understand this phrase, we first need to ask what “law” James is referring to. We might assume that he refers to the law of Moses, to the 10 commandments and the other rules and regulations of the Old Covenant. But commentators are broadly agreed that this is not in fact the case. Douglas Moo puts it like this:

James’s “law” does not refer to the law of Moses as such, but to the law of Moses as interpreted and supplemented by Christ.

In other words, James is referring to what we might call the “New Covenant law”, or the “law of Christ”. Elsewhere James calls it the “royal law” (James 2:8) and here in James 1:25 he calls it the “perfect law”. It is the law “written on our hearts” that Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 31:33). So the “law” essentially refers to God’s will for the way we are to live. It is as the Spirit fills us that we are given the three things we need to live according to this law:

  1. The knowledge of what God’s will for our lives is
  2. The desire to live in a way that is pleasing to God
  3. The power to overcome sin and temptation and to do God’s will

But that still doesn’t full answer the original question. How is living this way “freedom”? The answer surely is that true freedom comes when we do what we were made to do. “Freedom” to sin isn’t freedom at all – in fact, Jesus makes plain that sin leads to the very opposite of freedom – slavery (John 8:34). The question for us is are we willing to believe this? The most liberating way of life that is possible is one that gladly submits to the gracious constraints of God’s law. What seems like a straightjacket to the carnal-minded person, is glorious freedom for the God-obsessed.

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