“But the one who looks into the perfect law,
the law of liberty,
being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts,
he will be blessed in his doing.”
James here refers to the gospel, which, although it is called here a law, is not, strictly speaking, a law comprised of requirements and enforced by sanctions. Rather, it is a declaration of righteousness and salvation by Christ, an offer of peace and pardon by Him, and a free promise of eternal life through Him. The juxtaposition of the two contradictory terms—“law” and “liberty”—made the point, especially to the Jews, that this was an entirely new way of thinking about both.
Paul uses this same technique when he refers to the
“law of faith”
in Romans 3:27.
The perfect liberty found in Christ fulfills
the “perfect law”
of the Old Testament because
Christ was the only one who could.
Those who come to Him in faith now have freedom from sin’s bondage and are able to obey God. Christ alone can set us free and give us true liberty (John 8:36).
The phrase “law of liberty” is found again in James 2:12. In this portion of his epistle, James is discussing the sin of showing partiality within the church. He reminds his hearers that to show favoritism toward others is a violation of the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus Himself reminded us that all of the Law that God gave to Moses could be summed up into one concise principle—to love God with all the heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37–40).
God’s Word teaches plainly that all have sinned and stand condemned before God (Romans 3:10, 23; 6:23). No one but Jesus Christ has ever fully obeyed the law of God. He who knew no sin became sin for us (Isaiah 53:5–6; 2 Corinthians 5:21)! Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has redeemed from the curse of the Law all who trust in Him by faith (Galatians 3:10–14). Believers have been justified (declared righteous) by His grace (Romans 3:24–28) and are no longer under condemnation (Romans 8:1). All who have trusted Christ have received the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9). It is His power in us that gives us the ability to please God (Galatians 5:13–16).
Christ’s perfect sacrifice brings release from the eternal death sentence that the Law brings upon all sinners, and it gives believers the ability to please God as we put off the works of the flesh (Colossians 3:1–9), put on love (Colossians 3:12–17), and walk in (or by) the Spirit day by day.
It is by the Spirit’s filling and control
(Galatians 5:16-26; Ephesians 5:17–21)
that we can walk in love and please our Heavenly Father.
What perfect liberty we now enjoy!
What a blessed privilege to have received mercy, to be redeemed (liberated) from the bondage of sin, and to be empowered for service by our Creator! Our love for others proves the reality of our faith (1 John 4:7–11). Let us love one another even as He has loved us (1 John 4:19).
One side says, “Salvation is by grace and grace alone.” The other side counters, “That idea leads to lawlessness. God’s righteous standard in the Law must be upheld.” And someone else chimes in with, “Salvation is by grace, but grace only comes to those who obey God’s Law.” At the root of the debate are differing views on the basis of salvation. The importance of the issue helps fuel the intensity of the discussion.
When the Bible speaks of “the law,” it refers to the detailed standard God gave to Moses, beginning in Exodus 20 with the Ten Commandments. God’s Law explained His requirements for a holy people and included three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. The Law was given to separate God’s people from the evil nations around them and to define sin (Ezra 10:11; Romans 5:13; 7:7). The Law also clearly demonstrated that no human being could purify himself enough to please God—i.e., the Law revealed our need for a Savior.
By New Testament times, the religious leaders had hijacked the Law and added to it their own rules and traditions (Mark 7:7–9). While the Law itself was good, it was weak in that it lacked the power to change a sinful heart (Romans 8:3). Keeping the Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, had become an oppressive and overwhelming burden (Luke 11:46).
It was into this legalistic climate
that Jesus came,
and conflict with the hypocritical
arbiters of the Law
But Jesus, the Lawgiver, said,
“Do not think that
I have come to abolish the
Law or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them
but to fulfill them”
The Law was not evil. It served as a mirror to reveal the condition of a person’s heart (Romans 7:7). John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Jesus embodied the perfect balance between grace and the Law (John 1:14).
God has always been full of grace (Psalm 116:5; Joel 2:13), and people have always been saved by faith in God (Genesis 15:6). God did not change between the Old and New Testaments (Numbers 23:19; Psalm 55:19). The same God who gave the Law also gave Jesus (John 3:16). His grace was demonstrated through the Law by providing the sacrificial system to cover sin. Jesus was born “under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and became the final sacrifice to bring the Law to fulfillment and establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20). Now, everyone who comes to God through Christ is declared righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 9:15).
The conflict between Jesus and the self-righteous arose immediately. Many who had lived for so long under the Pharisees’ oppressive system eagerly embraced the mercy of Christ and the freedom He offered (Mark 2:15). Some, however, saw this new demonstration of grace as dangerous: what would keep a person from casting off all moral restraint? Paul dealt with this issue in Romans 6: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (verses 1—2). Paul clarified what Jesus had taught: the Law shows us what God wants (holiness), and grace gives us the desire and power to be holy. Rather than trust in the Law to save us, we trust in Christ. We are freed from the Law’s bondage by His once-for-all sacrifice (Romans 7:6; 1 Peter 3:18).
There is no conflict between grace and the Law, properly understood. Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf and offers the power of the Holy Spirit, who motivates a regenerated heart to live in obedience to Him (Matthew 3:8; Acts 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:14). James 2:26 says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” A grace that has the power to save also has the power to motivate a sinful heart toward godliness. Where there is no impulse to be godly, there is no saving faith.
We are saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). The keeping of the Law cannot save anyone (Romans 3:20; Titus 3:5). In fact, those who claim righteousness on the basis of their keeping of the Law only think they’re keeping the Law; this was one of Jesus’ main points in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20–48; see also Luke 18:18–23).
The purpose of the Law was, basically, to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Once we are saved, God desires to glorify Himself through our good works (Matthew 5:16; Ephesians 2:10). Therefore, good works follow salvation; they do not precede it.
Conflict between “grace” and the “Law” can arise when someone 1) misunderstands the purpose of the Law; 2) redefines grace as something other than “God’s benevolence on the undeserving” (see Romans 11:6); 3) tries to earn his own salvation or “supplement” Christ’s sacrifice; 4) follows the error of the Pharisees in tacking manmade rituals and traditions onto his doctrine; or 5) fails to focus on the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
When the Holy Spirit guides our search of Scripture, we can “study to show ourselves approved unto God” (2 Timothy 2:15) and discover the beauty of a grace that produces good works.
In the earliest days of the Christian church, the church was comprised predominately of Jews. In Acts chapter 8 the gospel spread to the Samaritans (who were ethnically mixed Jews-Gentiles), and many Samaritans received Jesus Christ as Savior. In Acts chapter 10, the apostle Peter was the first to take the gospel specifically to the Gentiles, and many received Christ as Savior. In Acts chapters 13—14, Paul and Barnabas had a very fruitful ministry among the Gentiles. All of these Gentiles turning to faith in Christ caused concern among the Jewish believers, first expressed in Acts 11:1–18, and the issues that caused concern were ultimately decided upon at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The issues centered on two questions: Do Gentiles first have to become Jews before they can become Christians? Do Gentiles have to observe the Mosaic Law after they become Christians?
The impetus for the Jerusalem Council is given in Acts 15, verses 1 and 5, “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ . . . It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the Law of Moses.” Some Jewish Christians were teaching that Gentiles had to observe the Mosaic Law and Jewish customs in order to be saved. Since this teaching clearly contradicted the fact that salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Acts 15:11), the apostles and church leaders held the first Christian council to settle the issue. In verses 7-11, the apostle Peter spoke of his ministry with the Gentiles, as recorded in Acts chapter 10. Peter focused on the fact that the Holy Spirit was given to uncircumcised Gentiles in precisely the same manner the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles and Jewish believers on the day of Pentecost. This led Peter to the conclusion that there should be no “placing a yoke on the neck of the [Gentile] disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10).
Jesus’ half-brother James, who had become a leader of the church in Jerusalem, agreed with Peter and declared, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). The Jerusalem Council then proceeded to give four “rules” that Gentile Christians should live by. These were not rules the Gentiles must follow in order to be saved. Rather, the rules were to build harmony between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first century. The four rules the Jerusalem Council decided upon were that Gentile Christians should abstain from food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals, and blood. The instructions were not intended to guarantee salvation but to promote peace within the early church.
It is interesting that the issue the Jerusalem Council was dealing with is still very much an issue in the church today. There are groups still teaching that Christians must obey the Old Testament Law. Whether it is the Sabbath day or the food laws or all of the Old Testament Law outside of the sacrificial system—there are groups that declare observance of the Law is either required for salvation or at least a crucially important aspect of the Christian life. Sadly, these groups either completely ignore or grossly misinterpret the decision of the Jerusalem Council. The specific goal of the Jerusalem Council was to decide what aspects, if any, of the Old Testament Law Christians must observe. The Jerusalem Council, for the sake of melding the Jewish and Gentile cultures within the Antioch church, said that the Gentiles should eschew their former pagan practices associated with idolatry. There was no mention of the Sabbath whatsoever. Further, the Jerusalem Council made it abundantly clear that these rules were not requirements for salvation by reaffirming that salvation is by grace for both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 15:11). How many arguments would be solved if the church today would simply follow the principle set by the Jerusalem Council—limit your liberty for the sake of love?