A man who seldom came to church on Sunday, seldom missed a Wednesday night bible study, and seldom failed to ask difficult questions that kept the evening interesting. One thing bothered him enough to stick with it for several weeks: What is the law of liberty?
James, in his letter, says that “…those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere…will be blessed.” A few sentences later he says, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” Jewish tradition holds there are 613 laws in the Torah; none of them are the law of liberty. Words like free and freedom are frequently used in the New Testament, but none imply a law of liberty. Jesus says in John’s gospel that “the truth will make you free” (John 8), but it’s not stated as a law might be stated. So what is the law of liberty?
I don’t think the question can be answered without reflecting on the core meaning of James’ letter, which is that we are to “be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” The law of liberty is to be a doer of the word. The law of liberty is not like a legislative statute. It’s more like a scientific law that states if such-and-such is present, then it will produce a predictable result. If you are a doer of the word, you will experience liberty. To put it another way, if you want to experience liberty, you must be a doer of the word. The most curious part of the law is that the liberty it promises can be had no matter what conditions of oppression one finds one’s self in. That makes very little sense in our time and culture, especially when we’ve been witness to its abuse by those who kept others in forced servitude while promising that, with the right attitude, one could be happy in it. We should know better. Being a doer of the word means confronting the forces of oppression with the power of the word.
So now the question is, be doers of what word? Jesus spoke lots of words. Of which are we to be doers? Anyone who’s read recent Country Parson columns already knows my answer: we are to love God, neighbor and self with everything we have. That condenses the two great commandments, as described in Matt 22 and Luke 10, on which hang all the law and the prophets. It means everything we do, and everything in scripture must be interpreted in their light.
Jesus had a lot to say about going, doing, following. He called some to follow him, and sent others away to proclaim what God had done for them. He told parables that ended with “go and do likewise.” He said: come and pray; you feed them; go into nearby villages and heal the sick. Jesus was a doing messiah, and he instructed his disciples to follow his example. How could James understand the two great commandments in terms other than to be doers of the word, and the word to be done was to love God, neighbor and self in thought, word and deed. That is the law of liberty.
It is not a simple law. It’s not a matter of do this or else. It’s a law that establishes the conditions necessary for experiencing a holy sense of liberty, knowing that one is already living into one’s eternal life, and has the joy filled privilege of sharing the good news of God in Christ that calls all to walk in the way of love, experiencing liberty for themselves. The hagiography of the early martyrs attests that is what they did, even to their death. Not many of us are called to that kind of witness these days. Moreover, their history creates a false expectation that walking in the way of love is nothing but eternal joy regardless of what’s going on in the world. It doesn’t work that way. Living with confidence in one’s liberty that comes by walking in the way of love does not exclude discouragement, failure, pain or tragedy. It does not expect one to go through life with a forced smiley face no matter what.
The law of liberty imparts a type of contentment and inner strength sure and certain that the light of Christ one bears cannot be extinguished by the powers of darkness. It’s a contentment finding its confidence in “…him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than we can ask or imagine…” (Eph. 3) The law of liberty fnds its place in imperfect human beings who are able to live into it only in part, but that is enough. Exemplars of the law of liberty might not even be Christian, at least in the formal ways we define it. There is not one person who claims to be Christian who cannot enjoy the benefits of the law of liberty by walking in the way of love. Not one. But no one has to. It’s a free choice. One is always free to choose between holy liberty, and something else that isn’t and can’t be holy liberty. Choosing liberty does not take us out of the world, it takes us deeper into it as bearers of light poking into dark corners.
Take the risk. Choose liberty.