Law and freedom

Those two words may seem like they don’t belong together: “law” and “freedom.” Think, for example, about the deep divide over mask mandates during the pandemic. To some extent, this is because people differ over how to read the science.

But that’s not the only issue. Part of the resistance to wearing masks stems from the fact that Americans just don’t like the government restricting their freedom by telling them what to do. If I do this, the logic goes, it will be because I choose to do it, not because you order me to do itor it just won’t be America anymore.

Politically and morally, it’s a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, we want people to voluntarily do the right thing for the right reasons. Stoking fears of a totalitarian state by being heavy-handed with policy breeds resentment and rebellion. On the other hand, what are policymakers to do when they believe public health is truly at stake, and they don’t believe that enough people will freely make good decisions?

. . .

Situations like these help illustrate why a phrase like “the law of freedom” — which, as we’ll see, is found in the epistle of James — might sound so odd to citizens of a modern and highly individualistic democracy. As many have taught through the years, we need to distinguish between two senses of freedom, what could be called “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

One way of stereotyping American notions of freedom is to say that we want freedom from coercion (“You can’t tell me what to do”), so that we can remain free to do… well, whatever the heck we want. Everyone knows, of course, that the latter must have its limits; people can’t really do anything they please. But anyone who tries to establish such limits as policy will be accused of coercion, of hampering individual freedom of conscience and behavior.

We may, for example, take for granted that wearing seat belts in the car is the wise and proper thing to do, and so teach our children. But we should also remember how controversial the laws were when they were first introduced. Cars were required to have seat belts long before their occupants were required to wear them. When a state representative in Michigan introduced a bill to require wearing seat belts, he received tons of hate mail comparing him to Adolf Hitler.

Theologically, Christians sometimes speak as if law and grace were opposed to each other, and may even make a similar distinction between the Old and New Testaments. We love hearing about God’s grace, but disdain law as legalism.

But that’s not a truly biblical perspective.

First, God’s love and grace are shot through the Old Testament. It’s not as if God started out harsh and demanding and one day decided to lighten up; God has always been full of grace and mercy, as we see throughout the Psalms. But God has always been holy as well, demanding holiness of those who would be known as his people.

Second, to the faithful of the Old Testament, the law was an object of devotion, not terror; it was loved for its wisdom rather than feared as a moral straitjacket. Consider Psalm 1, which sets the tone for the entire Psalter: the devout “delight” in God’s law, and it is always on their lips and minds (vs. 2). Or for that matter, read Psalm 119: the longest chapter in the Bible is a love poem to God’s law. Hardly the stuff of legalism.

Third, Jesus himself would never separate law and grace in this way. Though we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, he is the one who declared unambiguously that he had come not to do away with the law, but to fulfill its every requirement (Matt 5:17-18). None of it was to be ignored.

All of this can be found in the mindset toward the law that we find in James:

But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do. (James 1:25, CEB)

Indeed, that last phrase seems to echo Psalm 1:1-3, where the righteous are pronounced “blessed” and the psalmist states that “whatever they do succeeds.”

In context, James has just said those who “hear” the word without doing what it says are like people who glance in a mirror then forget what they saw. By contrast, therefore, those who rightly hold up the law as a moral mirror will remember what they see and take appropriate action. They don’t just glance, they study; like the psalmist, they look intently.

But again, this is done from devotion, not fear, because the law is “perfect.” James has already used the word twice in verse 4, to describe the completeness of the work endurance in the face of trials does in moving us to full spiritual maturity. It’s all of a piece: looking intently at the law is bound up with our spiritual growth.

And again, if we are to appreciate that function of the law, we may need to revise our understanding of freedom. What must we be free from? And what are we to do with that freedom? We’ll explore those questions in the next post.