21 Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
– James 1:21-25
I found this in James earlier this week, and something caught my eye. At first it was the word perfect, but then I looked at liberty and all but forgot perfect. But first, why don’t you go ahead and read the first two chapters of James so you have some context to what we’ll be talking about today.
The word in the original Greek text (Strongs G1657 – click on the word for a lexicon entry) is ἐλευθερία–or for those of you who don’t actually read Greek it transliterates to eleutheria – it translates to “liberty” all of the 11 times it is used in the New Testament. The image above is the entry in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon for this word, and I’ll tell you why liberty excites me so much.
The first and lengthier entry follows so:
a. liberty to do or to omit things having no relation to salvation (1 Cor 10:29); from the yoke of the Mosaic law, (Gal 2:4; 5:1,13; 1 Pet 2:16) from Jewish errors so blinding the mental vision that it does not discern the majesty of Christ, (2 Cor 3:17) freedom from the dominion of corrupt desires, so that we do by the free impulse of the soul what the will of God requires … i.e. the Christian religion, which furnishes that rule of right living by which the liberty just mentioned is attained, (Jas 1:25; 2:12) freedom from the restraints and miseries of earthly frailty … manifested in the glorious condition of the future life, (Rom 8:21)
The second, and much shorter entry is simply:
b. fancied liberty, i.e. license, the liberty to do as one pleases, (2 Pet 2:19)
Now let’s take this new concept of liberty back to the context and see what James was talking about. Take a look back at James 1:25 again:
25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
Perfect law of liberty. The reason this phrase piqued my interest at all in the first place is because until now I’d believed James to be quite traditional, and here we have a law, right in the middle of James’ letter clung to by traditional thinkers for his pro-works message, but it doesn’t sound very traditional! He appears to be saying that people who do whatever they want–even if they put aside every scripture unrelated to salvation–and simply follow their desires, are blessed.
Wait a minute. You might say. Who’s gonna keep them in line?
Well, let me introduce you to something–rather Someone–John the Beloved calls The Word:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend[a] it. – John 1:1-5
Verses 14-18 go on to declare:
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 John [the Baptist] bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’”
16 And[e] of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son,[f] who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.
From this–not to mention the rest of the book of John–we know that Jesus is the Word become flesh and Jesus the logos–the very spoken word of God–declares the Father. So what does James say about this Word? Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (1:21) but it’s not enough to just hear. It’s not enough to sit through church every week–it’s not even the same!
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. (1:22-24)
I can just hear the urgency–but be DOERs of Jesus, not just HEARERs; you’re just fooling yourself otherwise; you have no sense of your identity outside of Christ. And the method? Looking into the perfect law of liberty and continuing in it. The real question now is what is the perfect law of liberty and how do we do it? If I were to put what I’ve learned so far into a basic statement I would say that the law of liberty can be summed up as simply being true to our desire; does that sound like the life of a Jesus-doer? I believe it is, so much so that I would say it is the crux of living in the New Covenant.
Does it still seem like there’s a missing piece to the puzzle–like how we are going to keep people on the straight and narrow with a law that lets them do whatever they want? You’re right, but it’s not like that. If you still think there’s something missing, or that this law sounds like chaos, you may not have understood the gospel or what Christ did on the cross. Colossians 2 says this:
8 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; 10 and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. 11 In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins[c] of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, 14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. (2:8-17)
The New Covenant’s life in Christ involves total transformation; you can’t enter into the law of liberty without being cut off from your old self and implanted, as James says, with Jesus’ spirit. Salvation is of utmost importance to liberty because salvation produces liberty. There would be no good desire in us unless Christ cut our sinful nature away. And with the Spirit of God in us, there is no longer need for that old covenant system of doing things, because as Galatians 5 declares, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. It should never be a bad thing for people full of the Spirit to do whatever they desire, because what they desire is what God desires. I believe we continue in the law of liberty, the new covenant law of love, by remaining true to His desire in us, and following His voice.
The perfect law of liberty, salvation and the new covenant–it’s all about freedom: freedom not to be used as a pretext to get away with doing wrong, but freedom to be who we were created to be. Scandalous freedom to do whatever we desire. Freedom to do what all true believers desire: the will of our Father.