The Law of Liberty

by Rick Shrader

The “Law of Liberty” has always struck me as a perfect oxymoron.  How can you be under the law if you are at liberty?  Or how can you be at liberty if you are under the law?  Isn’t this kind of like jumbo shrimp?  How can you have it both ways?  Yet the New Testament has many such seemingly contradictory statements.  “While we look at the things which are not seen” (2 Cor. 4:18).  “And to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:19).  Obviously, we are being asked to accept the impossibility as a figure of speech, and yet to accept the intended meaning literally.

James uses this term twice in his book.  First, in 1:25, “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.”  Here James is comparing two men who look into God’s Word.  One sees and understands but goes away without changing anything, like a man looking in a mirror and then forgetting what he saw that needed to be fixed.  The other man looks, sees, and then changes his appearance.  The second usage is in 2:12, “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the perfect law of liberty.”  Here James is warning his readers that we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (vs. 13) and be held accountable for what the Word of God revealed to us and whether we heeded it or not.  The ‘law of liberty” refers to all that God has said.  James doesn’t limit it just to the Mosaic law but to all of God’s revelation.  Even though James may actually be the first New Testament book written, anything spoken by Christ or written under inspiration is still the “law” of God to a believer (see 1 Tim. 5:18, 2 Pet. 3:16).

Many seem to struggle putting the two concepts together.  Some push it to legalism and teach that there are certain things we must to do be saved or remain saved.  If we keep the “law,” maybe baptism or church membership or various sacraments, we will be given the liberty from sin.  Others, and I think more common today, push this into license and teach that salvation sets the believer at “liberty” from any law which must be obeyed.  As to the latter, we often hear accusations that believers who abstain from questionable things or religiously practice good things are judgmental and have not found the true joy in Christ.  To them, it seems, liberty and joy can only be found where there is no law pressing upon the believer.

William MacDonald, however, explains the “law of liberty” in 1:25 this way,

In contrast [to the forgetful hearer] is the man who looks into the word of God and who habitually reduces it to practice.  His contemplative, meditative gazing has practical results in his life.  To him the Bible is the perfect law of liberty.  Its precepts are not burdensome.  They tell him to do exactly what his new nature loves to do.  As he obeys, he finds true freedom from human traditions and carnal reasonings.  The truth makes him free.1

Douglas Moo also explains James’ “law of liberty” in 2:10 in a similar fashion,

God’s gracious acceptance of us does not end our obligation to obey him; it sets it on a new footing.  No longer is God’s law a threatening, confining burden.  For the will of God now confronts us as a law of liberty—an obligation that is discharged in the joyful knowledge that God has both ‘liberated’ us from the penalty of sin and given us, in his Spirit, the power to obey his will.2

The gospel does not make demands on us as a condition for salvation but the life of grace does, as we walk in the Christian life.

Restrictions are necessary

Every country has laws which are binding on every citizen.  We refrain from killing, stealing, cheating, and other crimes for the sake of peace and liberty.  Even the presence of a policeman on the street is a deterrent to law breakers and thus creates liberty for other people.  When there is no respect for the law there is no liberty for citizens to go about their daily lives.  This week in Chicago we saw a policeman shot to death while trying to help someone in a car accident.  The murderer not only robbed the policeman of his right to do good work for the community, he robbed the accident victim of his right to receive help.

Someone likened law and liberty to a great train.  A locomotive is one of the most powerful land machines that we see and use.  Most of us have traveled at sometime on one of these huge vessels.  A train is made to travel on a track and if you take the train off of the track and set it in a field or on a parking lot, that powerful creation becomes useless.  Without the restriction of the track the train loses its purpose.  In a similar way our automobiles must be governed by rules of the road or they lose their purpose too.  If we all stopped obeying the traffic laws and went our own ways by our own rules there would be chaos.  In effect we would all lose our liberty by eliminating the things that restrict us.

God gave man liberty by restriction

God put the first man and woman in His garden with wonderful liberty to enjoy the garden and to eat of an endless variety of fruit and food.  Yet we all know that God also placed a single restriction on the man and the woman, a single tree of which they were not to eat.  Charles Ryrie wrote, “The test to which Adam and Eve were put was both extremely significant and relatively minor.  It was minor from the viewpoint that a single prohibition in the midst of all the bountiful provision of the Garden of Eden was a relatively  minor matter.  Not to allow them to know evil experimentally was a blessing from God, not a lack in their lives.”3   What Adam and Eve did not realize, nor did they need to, was that their liberty in the garden was being safeguarded by the restriction to the one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God was keeping them from knowing evil experimentally which would limit, even destroy, their wonderful liberty in the garden.  Satan fooled Eve into thinking that God’s restriction was a negative thing not a good thing.  When she and Adam broke God’s simple restriction they consequently lost their liberty.

Restrictions free us

Sometimes we tend to think that the restrictions God has placed on us even now, in our fallen condition, are robbing us of our own liberty.  When I pastored in Ft. Collins, CO, a young college student from Colorado State University visited me in my office.  He was a Christian young man away from home and living in the dormitory with all of its worldliness and temptations.  He was questioning why God would not want him to commit fornication like most of the rest of his fellow students did.  He figured if God made him with this desire that it couldn’t be a bad thing; in fact, remaining “pure” seemed to rob him of his “liberty” and was making his life more difficult, not better.

I asked the young man if he was a born again believer and he gave me a clear testimony.  I asked him why he trusted Christ simply by faith.  After realizing what I was asking he said, because God said he was to accept Christ that way.  Then I pointed him to Scriptures such as 1 Thes. 4:3, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that you should abstain from fornication.”  I asked him why he should obey that verse.  He smiled and said, “because God said to do it.”  A believer is a person who believes God in all that He has said, whether for salvation or Christian living.

Of course, what the young man was about to learn, whether by obedience or disobedience, was that God’s law was actually liberty from a life of destruction and ruin.

Obedience is of the will, not emotion

Our human personality is made up of intellect, emotion, and will.  We can know things, feel things, and do things.  All knowledge comes from God, “In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).  Emotions about things come and go.  We can like something at one moment and despise it the next.  We can love and we can hate.  Paul said of lost men without the Spirit of God, “Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph. 4:19).  If we try to navigate this world by our emotion we will end in an emotional mess.

God deals with us primarily through the will.  He reveals knowledge to us and tells us to do the right thing based on that knowledge.  In our fallen condition doing the right thing is not always easy, in fact it can be very difficult because our fleshly emotion wants it another way.  Our very salvation starts out by an act of the will as God says, “whosoever will may come.”  Our Christian life continues as God says, “whosoever will, let him take up his cross and follow me.”  God never asks us to feel right and then do right.  Trusting God is a matter of obeying first and finding the right feeling because we obeyed.  This is why love can be commanded,  “Husbands, love your wives.”  Believe what God says, set your will in that direction, and the joy of the Lord will certainly follow.

The cross kills and gives life

The Roman cross of crucifixion was not a pretty thing.  It was ugly and cruel, merciless and deadly.  It killed effectively and completely.  Jesus died for our sin on such a cross.  He paid the penalty for our sin.  His was a foreign guilt, our guilt, which He bore for the whole human race.  When we accept that death for us, we receive a foreign righteousness, His righteousness, which is placed upon us.  As the song writer wrote, “Tis done, the great transaction’s done.”

The repentance process is to realize that we should have died there on that Roman cross.  We would deserve what we got.  Faith is to realize that Jesus did not die for any sin of His own but for our sin and therefore He died as our Substitute.  The proof that He died for our sin and not His own is His resurrection bodily from the grave because death had no claim on Him. When we come to Jesus by faith we acquiesce to His death, or in fact, we die with Him.  Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

As a believer in Christ, I am directed by my will to take up my cross and follow Him.  I am walking to the death of myself.  It is not always kind nor pleasant but it is the direction my Savior went.  Yet as I go I find that this cross, this yoke, is easier than I thought and the burden is lighter than I thought.  I find a liberty in my soul, yes even in my emotion, that comes from such a cross.  “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Cor. 4:8-10).

Law is not legalism but liberty

A.W. Tozer compared the old cross of the Bible with the new cross of culture.  He wrote, “The new cross does not slay the sinner, it redirects him.  It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect.”4  There are always those who think of restrictions as something “legalistic,” something God would be less than God if He insisted upon.  So the cross is redirected into a lotion for the emotion, so to speak.  James had severe words for such an attitude, those whose very prayers were to consume things upon their lusts.  “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?  Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4).

To cover up for that friendship one only has to accuse others of legalism.  This is the vernacular for saying that pleasing God involves outward showiness and is almost always hypocritical.  It is implied that a person who maintains any outward separation from the world is working for salvation, to coax reward from God by works rather than by faith.  Some years ago a well-known writer and speaker made this same accusation of legalism about conservative Christians.  Dr. Ernest Pickering answered that man in a booklet titled, Are Fundamentalists Legalists?  He wrote, “The writer also declares that Christian leaders formulate rules of conduct so that persons obeying them can ‘earn God’s acceptance.’  After many years of ministry among thousands of churches both in this country and others I believe I can say with confidence that I have never met a pastor or Christian leader who believed this.”5  And neither have I.  One may disagree with another believer’s life style, but one should not accuse such a person of working for his/her salvation.  To be saved is to be accepted by God.

It is right to try to please God

Pleasing God should not be seen as a fleshly effort of legalism or Pharisaism.  In fact, pleasing God is specifically a New Testament life-style, a “law” of the New Testament for the believer.  Consider the following admonitions.  “But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts” (1 Thes. 2:4); “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more” (1 Thes. 4:1); “That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10); “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22).

The “laws” of the New Testament have always been understood, not as works “for” salvation, but as works “because of” salvation.  This is the only way to understand Paul’s warnings against good works and James’ admonitions to good works.  The author of Hebrews simply said, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 10:14).  Being born again and eternally secure, the believer should desire to please God with the time he has left on this earth.  There is no better way to be relevant to the present generation than to please God.

And so . . .

In light of these things, the law of liberty makes sense.  It is an oxymoron but only as a figure of speech.  The laws of God as seen in the Word of God protect the believer’s liberty.  They stand as a warning just as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stood as a warning to Adam and Eve.  Our life is freer and better when we heed those warnings and abstain from (or adhere to, as the case may be) those things that would hurt us and thus impede the liberty to which Christ has made us free.  Freedom is not free, for Christ paid the awful price for our sin and disobedience.  Our freedom, our liberty, comes freely to us in salvation but admonishes us to walk as He walked, in obedience to His laws.


  1. William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995) 2224.
  2. Douglas Moo, Tyndale New Testament Series, James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 98.
  3. Charles Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1972) 108.
  4. A.W. Tozer, Man, the Dwelling Place of God. Kindle version, chapter 10.
  5. Ernest D. Pickering, Are Fundamentalists Legalists? (Decatur: Baptist World Mission, nd.) 15.