"The Law of Liberty"

"The law of liberty" sounds almost like a contradiction of terms, and James, "the Just" is not the man to whom at first thought we should have gone to learn the secret of a life of liberty. With his bridle for the tongue and denunciation of so many things that men look upon as desirable, we should have been more inclined to expect restraint and bondage from his ministry. Yet he it is that talks of liberty, and this law of liberty he pronounces to be perfect; it is freedom from all irksome fetters; a royal law according to the Scriptures. This surely calls for enquiry.

The context in which the expression occurs is instructive. He tells us that if a man hears the Word and does not do it, he is like a man who beholds his natural face in a mirror and straightway forgets what manner of man he is. That is to say, he gets nothing more than a cursory glance of his inward condition and never really knows himself. It may be that the passing glimpse angers him, and because he is not honest and does not want to know the truth about himself he turns from it to forget. In one of the very interesting annual reports of the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society, there is a story of a Mohammedan who bought a Bible from one of their agents. After a little while he brought it back saying he did not want it: he did not like it. "Why?" asked the agent. "It kicks me" was the answer. Many are like that, they listen to ministry or read the word, and since, as in a mirror, they see themselves for what they really are, they are ashamed. It hurts them: they do not care to face the truth and make haste to forget it. This is a prevalent and serious evil.

It was doubtless the law of Moses that James had in mind, for that does most definitely expose what a man is; but if that were all it did, there would be nothing attractive in it and it would be impossible for any man to look earnestly and steadily into it; for that is the meaning of the word that he uses. It is the same word which is used to describe John attitude when he stooped down and gazed into the empty sepulchre of the Lord. One can understand the concentration of his gaze, and the surprise and wonder of it, for he saw something in that sepulchre that he never expected to see. And this, it seems to me, is suggested in the way James speaks of looking into the perfect law of liberty.

The fact is, eyes are needed, new eyes in a renewed heart, if we are to look steadfastly into this law and find in it not a curse but a blessing, not bondage but a life of liberty. We have spoken of God as the Father of lights (see separate article) but of what use are lights to us if we have eyes that see not? James had spoken of the double-minded man, and the Lord spoke of the single eve; that sort of eye the double-minded man does not possess, he has the evil eye that cannot endure the light, but turns from it and forgets. The single eye is God-given, and it looks with wonder into the law. "Open Thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law" (Ps. 119:18), is the prayer of a man who has the single eye. He is filed with surprise as these wondrous things unfold themselves to him. But what are these wondrous things? Not the corruption of his own heart; that is not wondrous, but God's character and will, and His desire that men should draw near to Him, and know and respond to the love that is in His heart for them.

James knew as well as Paul that "by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). He had agreed with and confirmed Peter's moving appeal to the legal brethren at Jerusalem, "Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). He could write of "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory" which faith teaches that "ye are not under law but under grace." So that we may be sure that he was not turning the disciples from the gospel to the law as a means of blessing and liberty; it was not the demands of the law or its awful sanctions that were in his mind when he talked of looking into it but the beauty and the blessedness of it as he had seen them filled out in the life of our Lord Jesus. He was, we believe, the brother of our Lord and must have had extraordinary opportunities of noting that life. He probably, like the rest of the family, misunderstood it, at the time, for it was a mystery to all those whose eyes were not opened by the Spirit, but afterwards he would recall it; it would all be brought to his remembrances. He would think of Him as the blessed Man whose "delight is in the law of the Lord: and in His law doth He meditate day and night" (Ps. 1:2), and who always found the will of God, "good and acceptable and perfect;" and he desired that the Christians to whom he wrote should look into the same law and walk in the same steps.

It would be impossible for any man to delight in the will of one whom he did not know and love, and if God were only known in the lightning and thunder and darkness of Sinai we could not delight in His will. But see how James, who had looked into the law of liberty, describes Him. "He giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not" (1:5). He is the unchanging One from whom every good and perfect gift comes (1:17). He evidently cares for the fatherless and widows in their affliction (1:27), He giveth grace to the humble (4:6), He draws nigh to them that draw nigh to Him (4:8). He is "very pitiful, and of tender mercy" (v. 11). All these features are plainly seen in the law, but how livingly were they expressed in the Lord Jesus. We see them in all their perfection in Him.

It is the true knowledge of God that leads to a life of liberty. "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." No man is free who believes the lie as to God's character, or does his own will instead of God's; but those of whom it can be said "Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth" (1:18), they love Him and find the life of liberty in happy subjection to His will, and the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in them, for they walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. It puts us in no bondage to do what we delight to do. And if we delight in the law of God after the inward man and have the power of the Spirit of God enabling us to do His will, that is liberty indeed. It is liberty to do what new nature within delights to do and in doing it we are blessed indeed.