What the Bible says about
Law of Liberty
(From Forerunner Commentary)
In preparation for Israel to enter the Promised Land, Moses repeats the commandments in Deuteronomy 5. The Sabbath command here has a significant change from its wording in Exodus 20. The emphasis here is to remember our slavery and, by implication, being free. "Remember that you were once a slave. Observe this day to remain free." The Sabbath draws us to remember the past and consider where we are headed. We do this by remembering that the Sabbath is a memorial of creation and a type of the Millennium.
The ministry enhances this through the messages they preach about the world today and the world tomorrow. In some way, most sermons involve sin, which can bring us into slavery. James, though, calls the Ten Commandments "the law of liberty" (James 2:12). By keeping them, we remain free of enslavement to Satan and this world. On the Sabbath, God instructs His people through His Word about how to keep His commandments and thus remain free.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part One) (1997)
Interestingly, of the three "weightier matters" Christ says to focus on—judgment, mercy, and faith—only one is even mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Mercy is not listed as one of the Ten or emphasized as a major tenet but as a blessing from God to the thousands who keep His law (Exodus 20:6).
How then, do these three virtues carry such weight with the law? The Pharisees were in horrendous spiritual condition. Notice that Christ did not simply say, "You are breaking the law—keep it!" They had the law, and they allegedly kept it, ever so minutely. The problem was that they had completely lost the meaning and purpose of the law! Rather than it being a joy and benefit to them, it had become a burden grievous to be borne and unhealthy to their spiritual state.
God intends the law to be "the law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12). If a person looks into it and obeys, he is liberated from guilt, shame, feelings of worthlessness, self-pity, abandonment, and loneliness. In short, we can only obtain joy and happiness when we keep the law with God's intended spirit and attitude. Any other use of the law or the breaking of it leads to negative effects that preclude joy and happiness.
They had taken what Jesus and His Father had instituted as a blessing and turned it into a curse. Paul, "a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6) recognized how the law could become an enemy: "And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death" (Romans 7:10). When the law is applied wrongly, the consequences are always destructive.
The scribes and Pharisees used the law on others like a club and perverted it for their own selfish gain. "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble" (James 1:27). How could anyone, by any stretch of the imagination, reason a way to turn this around to the point he could turn widows and orphans out of their homes, then stand in the streets as if righteous, making long prayers to God?
Is it any wonder Christ denounces them so harshly? Considering the content and repetition in His vilification, Jesus Christ is as incensed at them as perhaps anyone He ever addresses in the Bible, Old or New Testament. After calling them snakes in Matthew 23:33, He questions if there is any way they can escape eternal damnation!
Yet in His righteous anger, He still gives them insight on how to correct their course, to put them back on track regarding the spirit and attitude necessary to keep the law properly. Christ intends His instruction to cause us to think through three basic elements of the purpose of that law and how it should work to man's good.
To the Pharisees, He did not explain the relationship of judgment, mercy, and faith to the law. Why cast His pearls before swine? But if they would make the effort, He gave them a clue about how to straighten out their thinking. In so doing, they would re-establish the law's purpose and meaning and gain correct perspective in how to keep it. History shows they did not take the hint.
The Weightier Matters (Part 1): Introduction
Paul uses an analogy that is similar to Galatians 3:23-25, where he likens the Old Covenant to a tutor meant to teach, but his application is very different. He says, "Now I say," indicating a different approach to his instruction.
As long as an heir is a child, as long as he is immature and unable to inherit, he is not much different from a servant. The child's potential is much greater, and his future is much brighter, but in day-to-day activities, he is restricted, limited, and controlled just as much as a servant of no lineage. The net effect of the immaturity is the absence of control. The child, like the servant, can only respond to what happens to him rather than having any power over his well-being or destiny.
Galatians 4:2 shows that the immature child is ruled over by others until the father, the one who gives the inheritance, decides that the heir can be freed from the grasp of the tutors and governors. This does not mean that at the "appointed time" the heir actually inherits from the father, but rather that at the appointed time he is no longer under the control of somebody else.
In this analogy, Paul does not say that the "tutors" and "governors" are positive elements, or that they are good for the child. He only says that they restrict the child and make him little better than a servant. Verse 3 likens the "tutelage" and "governance" to bondage, not like the schoolmaster of Galatians 3:24-25, which was meant to train and prepare.
In this series of verses, Paul is showing that until God the Father decides to drag someone out of this world (John 6:44), even though it has been preordained that they have a chance to "be a lord" and to inherit eternal life and other promises from the Father, they are powerless against the "elements of the world"—the rudiments of the cosmos, the world apart from God. These elements are demonic in nature. Before God called the Gentile Galatians, they were in bondage to sin and to Satan. Even though they had a higher potential—to inherit the Kingdom of God at the resurrection—until the appointed time when God saw fit to remove the shackles, they were just as controlled and powerless as the average servant of Satan.
Similar imagery is found in Colossians 2:20-22, where Paul was arguing against Gnosticism and asceticism:
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles [rudiments, KJV] of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—"Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men?
Paul is clearly not referring to a commandment of God, as verse Colossians 2:22 shows. He is referring to false, pagan teachings that are considered to be the "basic principles" or "rudiments" of the cosmos.
This is also shown in Ephesians 2:1-3:
And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.
Before God redeems a man and "quickens" him—makes him alive—he walks according to the course of the cosmos. This passage shows clearly that the cosmos is ruled by the "prince of the power of the air," Satan the Devil. His spirit works in the children of disobedience, and they serve him. They are powerless in his grasp until God pays for them with the blood of His Son.
The "elements of the world" in Galatians 4:3 cannot be a reference to the Mosaic law, because the Gentile Galatians were never exposed to it until after their conversion—after God had ordained that they be taken out of the control of the "governors of this world" (Ephesians 6:12). The "elements of the world" are those basic things that make this cosmos what it is—a world apart from God. These elements are sinful, rebellious, and pagan.
It is blasphemous to say that anything that God ordained as a way to live (e.g., the Old Covenant) would put a man in bondage, when God's every intent is to free mankind from the bondage of Satan, sin, and human nature (Exodus 6:6; 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6; 13:5,10; John 8:33-36; Romans 8:15). Would God liberate the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt (Exodus 1:14; 2:23; 6:5; Deuteronomy 6:12; 8:14; 26:6; Acts 7:6-7) only to shackle them again? On the contrary, He had their best interests in mind, providing for them a "schoolmaster"—the Old Covenant—which would be in effect until the Messiah came. Those who declare that the law of God brings one into bondage are pronouncing that they are anti-Christ: "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Romans 8:7).
God's law is not a burden. It is a definition of right and wrong and an extension of God's own character. It is the way that He lives, and there is no Being in the universe that has more freedom than God! James refers to the law of God as the "perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25), not the "law of bondage." He also calls it the "royal law" (James 2:8), not the "weak and beggarly law." Further, the apostle John was inspired to write in I John 5:3 that "this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous [burdensome]." It is the height of carnality and blasphemy to consider God's perfect, royal law of liberty to be a weak and beggarly element that keeps mankind in bondage.
Some have tried to use Galatians 4:3-5, 9-11 to argue that God's law in general, and the Sabbath in particular, has been "done away with." They twist these scriptures to try to say that God's law kept us in bondage, but now Jesus Christ has redeemed us from the law so we no longer need to keep the Sabbath(s) holy. This is ironic, because one of the fundamental meanings and symbols of the Sabbath is redemption and liberation—not from any moral law, but from slavery and bondage to Egypt (sin):
Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work ... And remember that thou [were] a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out [redeemed, rescued, freed] thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:12-13,15).
God had to instruct the Israelites about the Sabbath again because they had been in Egypt for centuries and had forgotten the instructions to their fathers. The Sabbath was reintroduced right after they were brought out of Egypt (Exodus 16), long before God made a covenant with Israel (Exodus 20). So, while the Sabbath command was a requirement included in the Old Covenant, its validity, importance, and necessity by no means ended when the Old Covenant became obsolete.
David C. Grabbe
The "days and months and seasons and years" of verse 10 do not refer to God's holy days, but rather to pagan, Gentile holidays that the Galatians observed before conversion in service to "those which by nature are not gods," as verse 8 says.
This, in turn, reinforces our understanding of "the elements of the world" in verse 3. It clearly does not say "the elements of God." Just like in Colossians 2, the "elements of the world" are clearly identified as being demons—personal powers that are capable of being worshipped. We are not dealing with something from God. However, they are elements, foundations, of the world.
A second important facet is that verse 3 mentions being "in bondage," that is, we were enslaved to the elements of the world. Bondage suggests something difficult to be borne, of oppression, of captivity, of withholding liberty. Notice James 2:11-12:
For He [God] who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.
Consider this in relation to the bondage of Galatians 4:3. It puts these two concepts into direct opposition. There is a great difference between bondage and liberty; they are, in this sense, mutually exclusive. Galatians 4 is not talking about the law of God being a means of bondage.
Similarly, I John 5:3 says, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome." Bondage is grievous, but keeping of God's law is not. Bondage gives a person difficulty, but keeping the commandments do not, for they are a law of liberty. Keeping God's commandments is freeing, liberating. It is not a burden. Love is never a burden but always supports, frees, and liberates.
It becomes very clear that the "elements of the world" and "bondage" of Galatians 4:3 do not refer to the law of God, nor does verse 10.
Judaism, though it was a very poor interpretation of God's Word, did at least have some basis in the Old Testament. When people read the book of Galatians and see all these references to "law" and "bondage," they immediately assume that Paul is speaking about Judaism. Indeed, Judaism is part of the picture, but not all of it. We can prove this from verse 9: "How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements. . . ?" It would be about as close to blasphemy as one could get if a person—in this case, God's apostle—were to call something that God gave, intended to be good and liberating, "weak and beggarly" and tending to "bondage"!
Thus, the "days and months and seasons and years" is not something Paul wrote in reference to the law of God or even to Judaism. Instead, they are something apart from both of them.
Though Judaism is clearly within the context of Galatians, so also is pagan Gnosticism—which wormed its way into the church primarily through people in the area becoming members of the church, and through church members' contacts with friends outside of the church. We can tell from books like I, II, and III John that Gnosticism eventually grew to dominate the church of God in Asia Minor.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part Twenty-Four)
Verse 18 appears as a summary statement in light of all that Paul wrote previous to this. It needs a bit of defining. According to what the apostle wrote earlier, to be "under the law" includes three areas:
1. Most obviously, it means to be under the law's penalty because we have sinned. Jesus died so that we can be freed from that penalty.
2. It means to be striving to achieve justification through lawkeeping, which is what the main body of this epistle covers.
3. The third meaning is also covered but less thoroughly: that a person is trying to earn God's election and salvation by becoming a member of the Old Covenant. Chapter 5 covers that to a very small extent.
Paul's statement, then, must be seen in context of all that has been written before. Notice what Kenneth Wuest writes in Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Volume 1, page 156. This is a typical Protestant statement regarding verse 18.
The exhortation is therefore, to be led by the Spirit. The assurance is given those who do so, that they will not be living their lives on the principle of legalism. The Spirit and the law are here contrasted, and are shown to be methods of living a Christian life that are diametrically opposed to one another. The law is not only no safeguard against the flesh, but rather provokes it to more sin. Therefore, the believer who would renounce the flesh, must renounce the law also. Thus, the flesh and the law are closely allied, whereas the flesh and the Spirit are diametrically opposed to one another. (Author's emphasis.)
To understand this truthfully, all he needs to do is reread what Paul wrote. What the apostle contrasts is Spirit with flesh, and Spirit with those under the law—not the law per se. But this commentator made no attempt to define what Paul means by "under the law," as Paul himself uses it in the epistle. Also, there was no attempt to define what the author of the commentary means by "legalism."
We have already seen what Paul means by "under the law." To these people, legalism is "the belief that one is obligated to obey the law." The key word in that definition is "obligated." They hate it (Romans 8:7), and therefore lawkeeping is seen as a burden, a yoke of bondage, despite the undeniable fact that God (through James) says it is a "law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12).
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part Twenty-Eight)
James mentions "law" ten times in his epistle, and in each case it is the moral law. He has nothing but good to say about it. James, taught by Christ, exalts the law—he glorifies it, identifying it with the gospel.
In James 1, when speaking of the Word and the importance of hearing and doing it, he, in the same breath, speaks of looking into "the perfect law of liberty." James looks at the law as explained in the gospel—the gospel shows the law in its spirituality—as the guide of the true Christian who has entered into the spirit of the law or is keeping the spirit of the law as well as the letter.
Even in the Old Testament, as Psalms 19 and 119 specifically show, it was possible for spiritually-minded people to see the beauty of the law and find delight in its precepts.
Martin G. Collins
The Law's Purpose and Intent
An old Yiddish proverb reads, “Der Spigel iz der greste farfirer,” meaning “The mirror is the greatest deceiver.” We find this statement especially true when we use mirrors that distort the image. How many of us have:
seen mirrors at amusement parks that make us look taller or fatter than we really are?
tried to shave or perhaps to insert contact lenses using those stainless steel mirrors at Interstate highway rest areas?
tried to judge whether to pull out into traffic using a side-view mirror with the warning etched onto it, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”?
Jesus' brother, James, advises us that looking into God's law—“the perfect law of liberty”—and becoming a faithful doer of the Word is the only accurate and reliable mirror to evaluate spiritual progress (James 1:22-25). But many of us prefer to judge our spiritual progress by making comparisons with one another, something the apostle Paul points out in II Corinthians 10:12 as being unwise.
Human nature, very standardized and predictable, seems to have a blind spot to its own faults and shortcomings. Like the car mirrors mentioned above, human nature distorts what we see in ourselves. This mirror is the great deceiver when we apply it to ourselves, but so clear when observing the faults of others.
Jesus' admonition in Matthew 7:1-5 reflects this principle:
Judge not, that you be not judged [Jesus refers to condemning or passing sentence, something we are not authorized to do]. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me remove the speck from your eye”; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
In Romans 2:19-24, the apostle Paul gives a parallel warning to Jewish religious leaders for hypocritical condemning:
. . . and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law. You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” as it is written.
In both instances, the topic of judging is ancillary to the egregious evil of tolerating sin in oneself. In other words, the anger both Jesus and Paul express is far more intense against concealing or tolerating sin in oneself than against judging. As we learn in the first chapter of Amos, the sins of Israel's enemies were hideous and disgusting, but the concealed hypocritical sins within Israel—from the people who allegedly made a unique covenant with God—produced a more noxious stench in God's nostrils.
Other people's sins do and should make us angry. But the things that intensely annoy or anger us about other people's behaviors should serve as warning indicators of the very things that God finds offensive in us.
David F. Maas
Specks as Mirrors
James highlights the importance of mercy in keeping the spirit of the law. He exhorts us to speak and act as those who are to be judged by "a law of liberty," so that he sets no limit to the range of the law—meaning it covers all aspects of life.
In James 4:11, he warns us against speaking against the law or judging the law, that is, to assume the place of judge instead of "doer of the law." Our efforts should not be in judging someone else and whether or not they are keeping the law. However, we should be looking inwardly to determine whether or not we are doing what is required—not only in the letter of the law but especially in its spirit.
James would not have used such language unless he had a profound conviction of the perfection of the law as a rule of life for the saints redeemed from its condemnation. Thus, we can call it the perfect law of liberty—the royal law. Many Christians do not look at the law of God as being perfect. They pick and choose which parts of the law they will obey, ones they feel most comfortable with, and they ignore the rest. Yet the apostle says in James 2:10 that if we break one, we break them all.
All sin is lawlessness, as I John 3:4 states, and the sum of all lawkeeping is love of God and love of the brethren (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10), so the summary of the old law is echoed and endorsed. And it is continued—because Christ did not come to destroy the law but to magnify it (Matthew 5:17-18; Isaiah 42:21).
Martin G. Collins
The Law's Purpose and Intent
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