Glossary 20 Liberty
Liberty. Liberty is not freedom from God (1 Pet 2:16); and true liberty is not what the State grants (Jn 8:36). When Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden, they were not free. The matter is not whether there is relative freedom to live as one chooses, but that one’s choices are not free of a sinful nature (Rom 7:15-24). “In the NT it is evident that freedom is not absent because there is inadequate control of existence but because there is no control of it at all.”[i]
This is the grand lesson of the OT pictured in the lives of the patriarchs and the life of national Israel. The sons of Jacob fell into Egyptian slavery (Gen 46:3) and when they had fully gestated as a nation of slaves, they were ready to be delivered from bondage (Deut 4:34). Free from the grasp of a human taskmaster, they entered into covenant as treasured priests of the divine liberator (Ex 19:5), who, though forbearing and merciful (Ex 34:6-7), was also to be feared for His anger (Deut 4:24-26; Lev 26:14ff; Heb 10:26-31). Unfortunately, but predictably, the ensuing history of Israel is filled with one breach of covenant after another (Ps 78:10, 37; Josh 7:11; Jdg 2:1-2; 2:20-22; 1 Ki 11:1 1; 19:10; 2 Ki 17:15; Ez 10:2-3; Neh 13:29; Jer 11:10; Ez 16:59; Hos 6:7; Mal 2:8, 10). But why? Because they were still slaves to their sinful nature (Hos 4:11); their hearts were uncircumcised (Jer 9:26; Acts 7:51), inclined toward spiritual harlotry (Num 15:39) and in stubborn pursuit of their own interests (Jdg 2:19). “The main idea is always the same: God exercises his right of ‘recovery’ and the Hebrews, previously under the rule of alien tyrants, return into the hands of their true sovereign.”[ii]
The Mosaic covenant was designedly inadequate to deal with the sinful nature of Israel, but preparatory for the new and better covenant to come through Jesus the Messiah (Isa 42:6-9; 49:8-9; Jer 31:31-33; Lk 1:68-75; 22:20; Heb7:22). Jesus claimed that He is the source of this new spiritual freedom in an exchange with professing Jewish ‘believers.’ “If you abide in my word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:31-32). But some of them believed they possessed all the freedom they needed as descendants of Abraham (Ex 4:22; Lev 25:39-43). The contrarians were mistaken on several levels (Deut 9:5; Ezek 33:24-26; Isa 64:6; Ez 9:6-9; Mal 3:13-15; Jn 8:33-34;). Ignoring for a moment their national history of subjugation to other nations, not all descendants of Abraham are children of promise (Gen 21:12-14; Gal 4:21ff.) and even those who were could fall in the Lord’s displeasure (2 Ki 17:20; 1 Cor 10:12). These self-satisfied disciples would not believe what Jesus was teaching but preferred to cling to a false hope that masqueraded as truth. God takes pleasure in a clean and contrite heart (Ps 51: 10, 17), a circumcised and grateful heart (Deut 10:16-22), a trusting and believing heart (Ps 22:4-5; 27:13-14). “In short, Jesus resorts to a moral and ethical notion of descent as being of far more importance than merely physical descent, and as being already supported by Scripture.”[iii]
While these spiritual truths are present in the OT, the new covenant was still necessary to provide complete and eternal redemption (Gal 4:5). Jesus instituted the new covenant through His blood sacrifice (Heb 9:15), and then gave commission to the Twelve to bring the good news of this covenant first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Rom 1:16). God provides an amplified liberty concomitant with the exceeding glory of His new covenant (Rom 6:22; 2 Cor 3:9-10), as conveyed through the message of the gospel (Eph 3:1-7). So monumental is the freedom to come through Christ, that even the law is pictured as binding and ruling over Israel (Rom 7:6; 2 Cor 3:14-17; Gal 3:23-24; 4:3-10; 5:1).[iv] Yet, the disciples of Christ are not without a law (Matt 28:19-20). The law associated with this new covenant is variously called “the law of love,” “the royal law,” “the perfect law of liberty,” or “the law of Christ” (Jn 13:34-35; Gal 5:13-14; 6:2; Jas 1:25; 2:8, 12; 2 Jn 5). But at the same time, certain accounts (1 Pet 3:1-6; Jas 5:16b-17), OT laws (1 Cor 9:9; Heb 10:28), or theological statements (Rom 9:15) are cited as ethical or doctrinal norms. At the same time, many commands of the NT are without parallel in the OT (Rom 12:9-18; 1 Cor 8; Titus 1:5-9). God is bound by His new covenant to write His law on the believer’s heart. Given the uniqueness of the Christian standard of conduct, the law written on the heart cannot be simply the Ten Commandments.
The believer in Christ is free indeed because he continues in Christ’s word and truth. Obviously then, the liberty of a Christian could be undermined by the entrapments of false teachers (Gal 2:4), submission to sin (Gal 5:13, 1 Pet 2:16), an inconsiderate heart (Rom 14:15, 1 Cor 8:9), or failing to apply God’s word (Jas 1:25). “[Paul’s] task now is, first, to guard his God-given liberty against any who would tell him that faith in Christ alone is not enough to save him and, second, to put his liberty to the best use by letting the Spirit lead him into responsible fulfillment of the law of love.”[v] Freedom in Christ allows one to live fully in truth with the caveat that the freedom it gives is not used to offend a brother in Christ whose conscience has not yet been fully informed by truth (Rom 14:1, 13, 19-23; 1 Cor 10:23-33). Paradoxically, our freedom is to be as a slave motivated by love to love, to the glory of God, just as Jesus was a servant to all (Gal 5:13; 1 Cor 10:31; cf. Isa 42:3; Lk 17:2).
Liberty is contrasted with slavery and imprisonment, which, at least metaphorically, preceded the freedom of redemption. Hence, Christ inaugurated His ministry as a proclamation of fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1, “to preach deliverance to the captives” (Lk 4:18). The liberty of Christians is foremost to be found in the benefits of redemption, to wit, freedom (Gk. eleutheria) from the guilt and condemnation of sin (Rom 6:18-23; 8:1-2), from the domination of Satan and this world (Eph 2:1-5; Col 1:3), from the sting of death and the grave (1 Cor 15:54b-57),[vi] and instead gaining freedom through the gift of the Holy Spirit to access God’s throne, to address Him as Father (Rom 8:16-21), and to have the hope of the resurrection and the restoration of the creation (Rom 8:21-23). “This is full liberty—that Christ has by his blood not only blotted out our sins, but every hand-writing which might declare us to be exposed to the judgment of God.”[vii] Liberty is also the consequence of seeing and knowing the truth as found in Jesus Christ, a truth that can set one free from darkness and falsehood and give a better understanding about the Old Testament (Jh 8:31-36; 2 Cor 3:17).
Liberty for a new covenant believer also involves freedom from obeying Jewish ceremonial laws.[viii] Paul describes his visit to Jerusalem where false brothers “came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (Gal 2:4). At issue was whether the Gentile Titus should submit to circumcision.[ix] On this, Paul would not yield. “Paul has not changed religions, but he now has a new center—the crucified and resurrected Messiah, who has inaugurated a new era in salvation history and brought a new dynamic to his existence. He could no longer have felt comfortable in his former Judaism.”[x] “Under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected.”[xi]
Paul has grave concerns for the church at Galatia. “How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain. (Gal 4:9-11)
“Let us not grow weary in well-doing” (Gal 6:9) and “Stand fast in the liberty with which Christ has made us free” (Gal 5:1) express two prongs of Christian obedience. On the one hand, a Christian must obey in faith the law of Christ to love one another by the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:18-6:2), and on the other hand, he must protect himself from doing anything unnecessary or compromising, even though some minister or authority proclaims its importance (Gal 2:11-16). Christians, therefore, are as obligated to disobey the commandments and traditions of men as they are to obey the law of the Lord. History and experience convince us that this level of obedience is not that easy to attain. “Men still insist on the right of making that sin which God does not forbid; and that obligatory which God has not commanded.”[xii] In view of the power some have over others and the willingness of some to submit to their demands, Paul’s advice is crucial to living life as a new creation and as the [new or true] Israel of God (Gal 6:12-16).
Paul mentioned the motivations and behaviors behind those Jews who attempted to compel Galatian believers to get circumcised (Gal 6:12-13): 1) they wanted to avoid the disparagement of other Jews for associating with uncircumcised Gentiles, 2) they wanted to be able to boast that they were instrumental in achieving a perceived good, 3) their focus was on the flesh, 4) they are unable themselves to keep the law, and 5) they misunderstood the radical nature of the new creation. “Circumcision signifies the intention to put oneself under the law of Moses and therefore to seek to secure one’s status with God in terms of that law.”[xiii] Worse is the effect of agreeing to circumcision (Gal 5:1-5): 1) it entangles one with a new yoke of bondage, 2) Christ will longer be a profit to them, 3) it obligates one to keep the whole law, 4) it estranges one from Christ as they seek another source for justification, and 5) sowing to the flesh will reap corruption. “The more mercy God has shown to any, in bringing them into an acquaintance with the gospel, and the liberties and privileges of it, the greater are their sin and folly in suffering themselves to be deprived of them.”[xiv]
Sabbatarianism casts its demands in terms of well-doing—behaviors that all humanity (or the church) is morally obligated to perform—and to object to them is “antinomian.” Non-Sabbatarianism considers those demands unnecessary, even to be avoided, and to teach them is legalistic, Judaizing, or even heretical. As such, there is no middle ground that the various interpretive camps can agree upon. A Sabbatarian will do all he can to comply with what he believes is morally binding, and a non-Sabbatarian will do all he can to be free of what he believes are fruitless obligations. One would have to make a paradigmatic shift to adopt a different view. This can happen when people ask themselves the right questions and study the Bible for the answers. Colleen Tinker was faced with the disparity between what she had been taught as an Adventist and what she observed as reality.[xv]
I knew “Sunday Christians” who believed in Jesus and lived godly lives, but they felt no conviction about worshiping on Sabbath. I saw in the New Testament that God said He would write His law on the hearts of His people and that when He did, they wouldn’t have to teach each other to know God. I could see that “Sunday Christians” were convicted of nine commandments out of the Ten. They loved God and despised idolatry, and they would never defame His name. They honored their parents, would never kill, commit adultery, or steal. They even had soft hearts that believed they should not covet. Yet one thing puzzled me: these earnest, sincere, godly “Sunday Christians” had no heart conviction that the Sabbath was holy. They had to be TAUGHT that Sabbath was holy. This fact confused me. If the law was written on their hearts, where was the fourth commandment?
Her observations about people, confirmed by biblical and familiar history, evince that the Sabbath was not and is not written on the hearts of the Jews nor the rest of the Gentile world. Was the supposed Sabbath switch from Saturday to Sunday something that the whole world wholly welcomed? Of course not, otherwise all Jews would have felt the internal struggle to reassign synagogue meetings to Sunday. Likewise, the Lord’s Day on Sunday is not written on the heart of Christians. The Jews were given a novel ceremony (Sabbath) by God as a sign of the Mosaic covenant by resting on the seventh day (Ex 16:29; 20:2, 8-11; 35:1-3; Deut 5:14-15). And Christians were given a novel ceremony (Lord’s Day Sunday assembly) by God as a sign of the new covenant by gathering together to proclaim to the world the gospel of Christ with unity and love (Jn 13:35; 1 Cor 10:16-17; 11:7-34; Heb 10:25). It is merely incidental, but understandable, that these two ceremonies share a weekly pattern, after all, the Lord thought of them both, and endowed both with the symbolism of creation—the former as a rest in the work of God for Israel and the latter as a new creation for the church. But Christian Sabbatarianism—both Sunday and Saturday expressions of it—is the new kid on the block. Christianity was fine without it for 1500 years and Christians may rightfully stand fast in the liberty with which Christ has made us free.
[i] TDNT “ἐλενθερόω” p. 496.
[ii] Daube, David. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, p. 273.
[iii] Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John (PNTC, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 351.
[iv] Johnston, Wendell G. “Freedom” in The Theological Wordbook (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2000), p. 132.
[v] Packer, J.I. “Liberty” in The New Bible Dictionary, p. 734.
[vi] Due to the association of sin and the law, and the victory in battle that earned freedom.
[vii] Calvin, Commentaries, Vol 21, Col 2:14, p. 190.
[viii] There may be a subtle implication that the reason for ignoring the food and diet laws contained in the Mosaic covenant (1 Cor 10:23-33) is because they fit in a class of commands that by (my) definition are no longer valid having been fulfilled by Christ. But the context of Paul’s argument here is different. Under the new covenant, the earth is the Lord’s and all (edible) foods are legitimate to consume. The old covenant is undone. Also, under the new covenant, the law of liberty compels him to consider the conscience of believers in order to bring glory to God and salvation to the world. Paul does not ground his freedom from Mosaic regulations on the “fulfillment” of those typic regulations in Christ. However, he does elsewhere (Col 2:16). Also note that when a Jewish contingent attempts to derail the faith of Gentile converts, it is not because they are advising Gentiles to refrain from stealing or to honor their parents; it seems to always focus on cultic laws that separated national Israel from the other nations, i.e., circumcision, dietary laws, and calendar laws.
[ix] Moo, Douglas. Galatians (BECNT, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 127.
[x] Hagner, Donald A. “Paul as a Jewish Believer—According to His Letters” in Jewish Believers in Jesus, p. 102.
[xi] WCF (1646), reprint Free Presbyterian Publications, 1997, (Ch. 20, para. 1), p. 84-85.
[xii] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology, Vol 3, p. 263. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1968.
[xiii] Moo, Douglas. Galatians (BECNT, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 325.
[xiv] Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 6, p. 536 (Gal. 4:8-11).
[xv] Tinker, Colleen. “Knowing the Covenants Puts the Sabbath in its Place” online https://blog.lifeassuranceministries.org/2019/08/16/knowing-the-covenants-puts-sabbath-in-its-place/ (accessed March 19, 2020)