Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Law of freedom

This morning, when I was certain that Lisa was awake, I asked her a question that I had been mulling all night. In James chapter 2, what does James mean when he says, "So speak and do as by the law of freedom"? What is the law of freedom?

Lisa asked questions about the context; then she asked if any other New Testament writer uses the same phrase, law of freedom (no other writer does). Finally, she admitted that she had no idea. "It sounds like an oxymoron," she said. Of course, she was right. The phrase, law of freedom, presents an immediate paradox. I'm convinced that James thought so, too, which makes the pursuit of this concept all the more interesting. James 2 presents two basic themes:

  1. Favoritism within the assembly is sin.
  2. Faith without works is dead.

Bridging these sections, James presents a conundrum. Showing favoritism violates the Law of Moses because the Law requires that one love his neighbor as he would love himself. James goes on to explain that one infraction of the Law makes one a violator of the whole Law. He uses the sins of adultery and murder as examples. If you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are guilty of violating the Law. Once the Law was violated, there is no [CTRL-Z] undo. James' answer, then, is to "speak and do as if you are about to be judged by the law of freedom." He goes on to explain, saying, "For judgment is merciless to the one not having mercy, and mercy glories over judgment." James 2:13 (AB)

James then goes into his discourse about faith, or belief, with and without works. He concludes this section saying, "For as the body separate from the spirit is dead, so also the belief separate from the works is dead." James 2:26 (AB) James illustrates this by recalling Abraham. Scripture says, "Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness." James 2:23 (AB), but James notices that Abraham was also justified by works, ". . . having offered Isaac, his son, upon the altar." James 2:21 (AB) If Abraham believed God, then he would have no reservations obeying God. However, if Abraham disobeyed God, then there is no evidence that Abraham believed. Faith without works is dead.

How does this relate to the law of freedom? Just as violating the Law of Moses brought man under the judgment of the entire Law, so obeying the law of freedom affirms our faith! There is a converse relationship between the two laws. Paul calls the Law of Moses, the "law of sin and death." He writes, "The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus freed me from the law of sin and death." Romans 8:2 (AB) Violating the Law is irreversible—you cannot un-murder someone. Likewise, responding by faith to the law of freedom likewise forever sets us free from the law of sin and death. By faith, the law of freedom leverages God's mercy, and "Mercy triumphs over judgment." James 2:13 (NIV)

Abraham's example in James is especially interesting when we consider that Abraham believed and was justified before the Law (and the even the covenant of circumcision) was given (Romans 4:9-12). Abraham's actions did not emit from his obligation to the Law, but rather Abraham's actions flowed from his faith. This is how James is telling us to live. If we have no actions to show for our faith, then our faith is worthless — even the demons believe that God exists. If we indeed have true faith, however, it will fill our actions. This is the law of freedom! Actions flowing from faith may not look like a punch list; however, they stand as testimony to our faith.

James uses an example: suppose you know someone in dire need and you say something like, "Good luck with that," but do nothing to help, what good is it? On the other hand, the law of freedom causes us to intercede for the destitute. The law of freedom causes us to be merciful. The law of freedom causes us to treat people equally without discrimination. The law of freedom transforms our faith into actions.

Just as James merges two opposing concepts, faith and works, into one idea, he likewise coins the phrase, law of freedom, to describe how faith and works cooperate together. The law of freedom insists that our faith will result in works of kindness and mercy, just as the Law insists that sin results in death. The law of freedom is incontrovertible – almost like gravity – we may resist it, but if our faith is real, the law of freedom will demonstrate itself in our actions. However, the law of freedom is not a law of external coercion but rather a law of internal impulse. We will act as we believe.

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