04 July 2007

Real Liberty

by Phil Johnson

The truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).

or readers of PyroManiacs who aren't American, it's our nation's Independence Day. We're celebrating when we threw off the yoke of British rule. But here on the blog, we're going to forego the patriotic themes and think instead about Christian liberty.

Galatians 5:1 says, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." That's a command. It gives us an order to obey. Guarding Christian liberty is every believer's duty.

Now, the biblical concept of liberty has little to do with the way that word is popularly used in the evangelical community nowadays. When Paul speaks of liberty, he is not primarily concerned with the dos and don't of Christian behavior, styles, entertainments, beverages, and such. (Pushed to its extreme, the perspective of "liberty" that obsesses about rules and "standards" will spawn either Pharisaical legalism on the one hand or worldly libertinism on the other.) But in Paul's view, authentic Christian liberty has two vital aspects:

First, our liberty in Christ is a freedom from the yoke of sin.

Liberty in Christ is not a freedom from spiritual responsibility. It is certainly not any kind of moral autonomy. It is not a release from the divine standard of righteousness. It does not mean we are discharged from our duty to obey the moral law. If you think of liberty in those terms, you need to think again.

In fact, there's a name for that kind of thinking. The theological term for it is antinomianism. Antinomianism is the belief that our liberty in Christ releases us from any and all obligation to the laws and commandments of God. Some will even boldly tell you that the moral law of God has no binding authority for the Christian. But the liberty described here is not freedom from the moral demands of the law.

On the contrary, Scripture clearly teaches that freedom from righteousness is no freedom at all. The apostle Paul says in Romans 6:20 that to be free from righteousness is to be enslaved to sin. Jesus said in John 8:34, "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin."

So fix this in your thinking from the very start: The liberty Christ promises is first of all a liberty from the bondage of sin, and therefore it cannot be a the kind of freedom that nullifies our obligation to the moral law of God.

Romans 6:7 says, "He that is dead is freed from sin." And verse 8 goes on to show that we are dead in Christ and therefore we are liberated from the bondage of sin. Paul's whole argument in Romans 6 is summarized with these words in Romans 6:17-18: "Ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness."

So our liberty in Christ, paradoxically, involves a positive kind of servitude as well. It's not an absolute freedom or moral autonomy.

Second, true Christian liberty is freedom from the yoke of the law.

Now this is the point at which many people get confused. Didn't I just say that Christian liberty doesn't erase the moral duties set forth in God's law?

Yes, but the "yoke" or burden of the law doesn't consist chiefly in the standard of moral righteousness it affirms. The moral demands spelled out in the law were not inaugurated by the law, nor is our duty to live in accord with God's moral standard eliminated just because we're "not under the law" covenantally (Galatians 5:18; cf. Romans 6:14-15).

What made the law of Moses a burden was not its moral content per se. In fact, the law's exaltation of righteousness is what made the law holy, just, and good (Romans 7:12). But two major factors made the yoke of the law onerous.

In the first place, the Old Testament legal system included a full array of ceremonial commandments, dietary laws, laws governing the observance of holidays, laws about ceremonial uncleanness—and all of it was related to a large, complex sacrificial system. That whole system of sacrifices and ceremonies was burdensome, but it was set aside, or rather fulfilled, in the work of Christ. We're liberated from the rigors of that system—free from the law's ceremonies.

Moreover (and more important), we are free from the law's curse.

The law itself could never justify sinners. Even in the Old Testament, believers were justified by faith when a righteousness not of their own merit was imputed to them. That's Paul's whole point in Romans 4. No one was ever saved by his or her own obedience to the law.

The whole point of the law is to condemn sinners and leave them with no hope but the grace of God. The law is a killer. It can only condemn; it cannot save. That is the curse of the law.

And that is the very curse Christ frees us from. Galatians 3:13: "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." He took the guilt of our sin, and He was punished in our place. He died, bearing the guilt of our sin, not His own. So the curse of the law is eliminated. The demands of the law are fulfilled. Our guilt was transferred to Christ, and He paid for it. Now His righteousness is transferred to us.

That's real liberty. "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:36).

Phil's signature


Timotheos said...

Is that Barry?
If so, there's some irony in his being dwarfed by the Pyromaniac logos - since the blog exists to highlight truth and truth appears to be something that is right behind Barry's shoulder.

Carla Rolfe said...

Excellent words on genuine Christian liberty. Thank you for this post today.

Stefan Ewing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan Ewing said...

Phil, by the Lord's providential will, you seem to have answered the very question I was asking to someone else this morning.

I'm Jewish according to rabinnic law, but was raised as an atheist and even through all the years that God was drawing me inexorably toward Himself, I never discerned the least compulsion to conform to the commandments of Torah, despite my having observant ancestors and distant cousins. Now, reborn in Christ, I have sound theological reasons for not observing the 613 mitzvot, even if I don't yet fully understand those reasons.

I already understood that the sacrificial system explicitly ordained by the Lord Himself was merely a preparation for the perfect sacrifice of the ultimate Paschal Lamb, Christ incarnate—a sacrifice also prefigured in Abel's offering to the Lord, the ram sacrificed in the place of Isaac, and the original Passover sacrifice on the eve of the Exodus.

"But what about all those other laws?" I wondered. What about the purity laws, for example? Why can we so freely disregard something now that the Lord himself ordained? Now you explain that all those other mitzvot—laws, commands, precepts—were also a transitory preparation: fulfilled, completed, subsumed in the perfect sacrificial, substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.

Have I read this correctly? If so, the Lord has answered my question. I just pray that in clarifying this, I won't set off a long thread of sidetracking comments.

Oh, and happy 4th of July to all of you down there. Too bad you couldn't have had your holiday on the 1st like us Canuckleheads and made a long weekend of it!

Stefan Ewing said...

"rabbinic," not "rabinnic." Duh.

Seth Fuller said...

Good, precise summary of Christian freedom. Thanks for sharing.

Theological Satire

Ben N said...

Nicely put, Phil.
Law + Grace = Freedom.
A freedom without either one is no freedom at all.

I'm also am reminded of the old saying:Freedom is not free.
We tend to believe sometimes that everything that we get freely is of no value. That is true in most of the cases; however, we should always remember that Christ paid a big price for our freedom, and we better take our freedom seriously.

Solameanie said...

Excellent post. Thanks, Phil.

lawrence said...

not b, my man. Actually very good and quite helpful. Very relevant to my life right now. Often I am tempted to claim "freedoms" b/c they are not explicitly forbidden in scripture.

Matt said...

Phil said:

Pushed to its extreme, the perspective of "liberty" that obsesses about rules and "standards" will spawn either Pharisaical legalism on the one hand or worldly libertinism on the other.

Well said, Phil. The more I think about it lately, the more similarities I perceive between legalism and liberalism. Is this an accurate observation? If so, why is it so? Is it because "I" am the narcissistic focal point of both? Is it because "I" get to be the arbiter of truth? Any thoughts on how these two things which seem diametrically opposed to one another appear to actually stem from the same root problem?

philness said...


When Paul took that Nazarite vow was he observing the ceremonial law, moral law or was he simply being all men to all men?

Daryl said...

Given the conclusions of the Council of Jerusalem I think you'd have to conclude the latter (all things to all men) or, possibly, it could fall under worship (Paul being a Jew & all.)