Liberty and Law
Our calendar tells us that this is the season to celebrate Independence Day. Even if we are not history buffs, many of us remember the Preamble to the Constitution, or at least the words life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Our founding fathers purposed to establish or maintain a certain order and condition of existence, but the Constitution protects only life and liberty. It does not promise happiness. As for that condition of existence, we are merely guaranteed the freedom to pursue it. The Constitution gives no hint of how to obtain happiness and no reassurance that we will ever catch what we are pursuing.
There is much discussion about liberty these days. Aside from pure unselfish love, it is one of the most difficult concepts for us to understand! The man on the street would probably define liberty as the right to do whatever he wants whenever he pleases, in whatever manner he chooses. As our society becomes more self-indulgent, we find that we do not really want liberty but license. Whereas liberty refers only to freedom of choice, license confers the right to indulge or participate in some specific action. Furthermore, human nature being what it is, license can quickly deteriorate to licentiousness, which is unrestrained self-indulgence.
God’s way is liberty, not license. His liberty confers on us the freedom to choose whether or not we will belong to him and whether or not we will serve him. When we do not commit ourselves to him, do not serve him and do not follow him, then no matter which way we go, no matter whom we serve, no matter what we believe, we are not right.
God never forces anyone to do right. He asks us to make the right choices and gives us the liberty to decide one way or the other. If not, Joshua could not have told the Israelites, “…choose you this day whom ye will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the (river), or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell” (Joshua 24:15).
Perhaps God allows us freedom of choice because he desires that we love him. Without the liberty to choose, love is impossible. Nevertheless, some people confuse liberty with independence and license.
God’s world is orderly. His Law entails physical laws of nature and moral and spiritual principles which tell us how we ought to relate to him, to our fellow humans and to the world around us. These are to be etched into our hearts and consciences by the Holy Spirit as we give ourselves to God in Yeshua.
There are also those special laws God gave through Moses to Israel. Like our national laws, God’s laws were and are for the purpose of establishing and maintaining an appropriate condition of existence—in this case a life of holiness in his people, that they might be set apart in order to please him.
God’s Law cannot create holiness any more than the Constitution of the United States can guarantee happiness. God’s Law can only help an individual maintain such holiness as already exists. God’s Law enables the “pursuit” of the holy life, but it does not guarantee it.
In order to pursue a holy life, the believer must be redeemed, rescued and reclaimed from sin by the blood of Christ. Paradoxically, the one who is thus freed from the penalty and power of sin is to all intents and purposes a corpse, because the Scriptures tell us that sin is “toxic” even from birth and kills the soul. Therefore, before one can submit to God’s Law and live a life of holiness, one more thing must be accomplished—regeneration or the new birth.
Through the new birth the redirected people of God now have the Law written in their inward parts (Jeremiah 31:33), and when they are free from sin through confession, their impulses are holy. If they follow the new impulses they will do the right thing, not because it is required or because they are compelled, but because it is now part of their nature.
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt named his social platform “The New Deal.” A later president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, called his political platform “The Fair Deal.” For redeemed Israel, Sinai was both a new deal and a fair deal. It did not begin with a declaration of independence, as did the United States. Instead, it began with Israel’s declaration of dependence as they promised their obedience to God and interdependence on one another as the people of God.
The purpose of Sinai’s Law was to provide for orderly relationships between God and man, between fellow Israelites and between family members. It established property rights, propounded a fair society, promoted the worship of Jehovah, made propitiation for sin, ameliorated punishment, and promised a greater rule of God yet to come—that of King Messiah. The Law prescribed worship of the Almighty but left room for innovation. It ordered stated sacrifices but encouraged spontaneity in prayer and offerings. It provided a baseline for behavior and boundaries for morality.
The Law could only be effective in “the land” with the full consent and participation of the Israelites. There seemed no apparent penalty for failure concerning some of God’s admonishments. Yet concerning social justice, God warned that he himself would oppress those who oppressed the fatherless and widows. For the ultimate justice, penalty or reward, the final word was with the Almighty. He was to be Israel’s king and Israel’s judge.
The rabbis often have compared the Law to a fence. For safety, they instituted other laws, other fences, that would prevent anyone from getting close to that original fence. Soon the fences became a prison instead of a protection. Almost from the beginning, Jewish jurisprudence sought to make exceptions in order to avoid some of the obligations required by the Law. It became a “push/pull” situation. Some rabbis pushed for the enactment of more laws to keep the people from breaking the original laws, while other rabbis pulled back and rendered judgments to nullify the consequences of breaking the laws they deemed excessive or oppressive.
What had begun as a simple, straightforward set of ordinances given by God became a complex burden. If people had experienced difficulty knowing and following the Law before, by the time the rabbis had finished there was real trouble. One rabbi’s mitzvah (act of obedience to God’s commandment) became another rabbi’s declaration of sinful disobedience. Confusion reigned, and even before the time of Jesus, Jewish society had become fragmented over the rabbis’ pronouncements and apparent contradictions over God’s Law.
Because of those problems, some see Yeshua as having come to do away with the Law. The fact is that he did not. He said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
Jesus came to earth not merely to deal with the Law, but to deal with the inadequacy of the human heart. Nothing about God’s Law needed changing. The human heart needed changing. By his life, atoning death and resurrection, Yeshua enabled that possibility of changed human hearts through the new birth. People who have not committed their lives to God seek independence on all levels, whether governmental or in private life. National independence is not bad, but there is a kind of dependence that is better. It involves the life of faith which requires dependence upon God, and that’s not so bad.
The New Covenant is God’s “New Deal.” It is not a new law but the new and only way of relating successfully to God’s Law. We no longer approach God’s Law as a fence or hedge that restricts our freedom. God’s Law written upon the human heart by virtue of the new birth contains life. Under the New Covenant comes a new nature, a new instinct, a holy impulse and a wholeness of soul.
We need not doubt or wonder. We really know what it’s all about. It’s about true obedience and the opportunity to please God.
Jesus is the Man of the Law. As we are in him and he is in us, concerning God’s Law we are as complete, as whole and as healthy as he is. Yeshua is our sacrifice and our priest. He is our rabbi (teacher) and our teaching. He is the Word in which all other words find meaning. He is our king and our armor. He is our prophet and the one who enables us to heed the prophecy. He is our root and we are his blossoms. He is the vine and we are his branches. He is our judge, but he is also our advocate. In him we stand acquitted of all wrongdoing. He is not only our lawyer but our law. As we obey him and his teachings, we will produce the fruit of the Spirit against which there is no law (Galatians 5:22, 23).