Obeying the Perfect Law of Liberty

James 1:25a


From Faith, Love & Hope: An Exposition of the Epistle of James, AMG Publishers, 1997.

"But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25a).

The Apostle James knew that not all men are mere hearers of the Word. There are also those who do what they hear, although they are in the minority. From the first reading of this verse we are apt to conclude that James is definitely reaching legalism, and therefore Luther must have been right in calling this epistle "an epistle of straw." As we carefully examine this passage from the original Greek, however, we shall discover that such is not the case and that there is no contradiction between the teaching of James and Paul. In fact, there is full agreement.

The confusion, I believe, arises from the fact that most people take the word "law" always to mean the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. This is not so. The word "law," I believe, in this connection and many others, refers simply to the principle of rule or command that has to be obeyed. Thus, in the physical world, we have the law of gravitation and many others. So it is in the spiritual world. God has instituted a great many laws, the disobedience of which will bring upon us unavoidable consequences. Later we shall see exactly what James means by this "perfect law of liberty."

The first word with which our verse starts is a participle which comes from the Greek verb parakrptō. This is a compound word made up of the preposition par, which among other things means "near, close to," and the verb kptō, which means "to stoop down." In the previous verse the Apostle spoke of the hearer of the Word of truth who looks at himself in the mirror and then goes away without doing anything about his condition. Now why is it that a person insists on being just a hearer of the Word and not a doer thereof?

One of the main reasons is pride. A man cannot be cleansed unless he confesses he is dirty. He cannot be healed unless he admits he is sick. Admitting that one is a sinner takes courage, a great deal of courage, which most men unfortunately do not have. This Greek word parakpsas,used of the doer of the Word, carries with it a definite connotation of humility. Who is a doer of the Word? The one who is humble enough to stoop down from the high pedestal of self-righteousness and religiosity.

I was told of a great cathedral where there is a statue of Christ. As one enters the cathedral and stands before that statue, he is appalled at the ugliness and repulsiveness of the sculptor's representation of Christ. He wonders whether that is what Christ really looked like. He is keenly disappointed. But then, as he comes closer to the statue, he can see an inscription on it which reads: "Kneel down and look up." He kneels down and looks up, and lo, everything about it is different. The repulsiveness is replaced by a wonderful attractiveness. The face of Christ is nor ugly anymore. What makes the difference? It is the position of the observer. If he stands up and looks at the statue, there is no beauty to it, but if he kneels down and looks up, he simply falls in love with that Person.

This, then, is the first message from our verse. If we want the Word of truth, in its incarnate or written form, to have attraction for us, we had better stoop down close to it, we had better humble ourselves and then, as we confess our needy condition, we shall be attracted to Christ, who can help us. F. B. Meyer once said: "I used to think that God's gifts were on shelves one above the other; and that the taller we grew in Christian character the easier we could reach them. I now find that God's gifts are on shelves one beneath the other; and it is not a question of growing taller but of stooping lower; and that we have to go down, always down, to get His best gifts." If the Christian wants to benefit in any way as he looks in the mirror of the Word of God, he must approach it with humility.

A man can counterfeit love, he can counterfeit faith, he can counterfeit hope and all the other graces, but it is very difficult to counterfeit humility. One soon detects mock humility. They have a saying among the Arabs that as the tares and the wheat grow together they show which God has blessed. The ears that God has blessed bow their heads and acknowledge every grain, and the more fruitful they are, the lower their heads are bowed. The tares lift their heads high above the wheat, but they only produce evil. The proud heart cannot possibly obey. Implicit in this Greek word given by James is also obedience to the Word of truth. A habitually disobedient child may hear and understand, but will not necessarily do. A person may have good listening ears, a good understanding mind, but if his heart is not inclined to obedience, he is unprofitable in the sight of God.

A doer of the Word is one who at all times says, "Yes, Lord," and goes ahead to do His bidding. A distinguished French officer asked Washington's mother how she managed to rear such a splendid son. She replied, "I taught him to obey." We too can be splendid children of God, if we simply learn to obey.

But the believer must have something to obey; he must have something to stoop down to. James tells us to stoop down to a law, a perfect one, a perfect law of liberty. That is the exact translation of the original text. James does not say "the law," because the definite article is missing. He definitely does not refer here to the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. He says, "Follow a law, a perfect law, a perfect law of liberty."

There seem to be two contradictory words here-"law" and "liberty." How can we be free and under law at the same time? We who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal Savior have been emancipated from the Law of Moses, and we are now under grace. Surely we are now free, but let us not forget that, in the exercise of our freedom in Christ Jesus, we are still under certain unavoidable restrictive orders. In order to understand this we must remember what has gone before.

James has been speaking of the believer who has accepted the Lord Jesus, but who has forgotten his first love for his Master, and is therefore unwilling to do the things that please Him. He is satisfied with just hearing the Word. He is free, of course, just to hear. There is no freer individual than the Christian. The only perfect freedom is that which we have in Christ. However, to be in Christ is to do only those things which will please the One who has given us this freedom. What, then, is the perfect law of freedom described by James?

Let me illustrate what he means. There was a man who was saved by grace from strong drink. He was seen one day by the tavern keeper, whom he knew only too well, carrying a sewing machine to his wife. "Come and have a drink," cried the tavern keeper. "It will strengthen you." "No, no," replied the former customer. "I've seen the day when I could not carry a dollar past your door, but since God saved me I can carry a whole sewing machine." Now here we have a man who was saved by grace. Before his salvation he could not keep the Law of God under any circumstances. After he was saved, he was free to make his own choice concerning certain things pertaining to life.

Henry Ward Beecher once said: "Laws are simply aids to weak folks, to tell them where to go, to help them to go, and to make them remember the next time if they do not go. Laws are men's servants; and they are servants which serve them in that way, but if a man has a direct inspiration of God; or if his culture has gone so high that he does not need these external stimulants; or if he has another sphere of influence which leads him to the same things from a higher point of view, the lower ones drop, not because they are wrong, but because the man is doing the same things better by a different set of instruments. Therefore it is, that there is no law to some men. A man who needs a law is yet a child. There is not one man in a hundred who ever does live by the laws of the land. You do not know one-quarter of the laws that are on our statute books. A virtuous and honest man does not need to know what the laws are. The greatest proportion of men live and die without hearing once in all their life a tenth or a hundredth part of the laws that pertain to good conduct. They do right of their own accord, and therefore the Law has no force on them. So it is in regard to true manly living. As far as a real, upright man goes, he goes voluntarily. He does from spontaneity and from choice what men lower down do from necessity, or from fear of punishment. The consequence is, that men live toward freedom in proportion as they live toward fidelity."

That is exactly what the perfect law of freedom is of which James speaks. The more faithful we are to Jesus Christ, the more we do His will and His Word, the easier it becomes for us to choose that which pleases Him. There is no pleasure at all when we obey the Law because we have to. But there is tremendous satisfaction when it is in our nature to obey.

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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