Psalm 119:45 reads, “And I will walk at liberty: for I seek your precepts.” The meaning of the inspired poet could not be clearer. Liberty is the fruit of obedience to God. David writes as a member of the covenant community of Israel. He knew that sin enslaves the soul to evil, produces spiritual impotence, and inevitably results in slavery to the state. On the other hand, God’s law shows the redeemed man the path of liberty in joyful service to God.
Today’s church may find it difficult to identify with David’s pious sentiment. For too long the dominating ethical perspective has viewed liberty apart from God’s law. In place of God’s law, various “paths to freedom” are suggested: love, the Holy Spirit, personal feeling.
The Only Standard for Freedom
Apart from the law of God, each of these lacks an objective standard for defining, implementing, and evaluating freedom. They produce personal subjectivism and relocate the moral fulcrum to the individual. The present moral state of the church and the corresponding decline of civic faith, virtue, and liberty in the West testify eloquently to the sterility of all such definitions of “freedom.” True freedom must have an objective, universal foundation that transcends individuals, their circumstances, and their experiences.
That standard is the law of God — God’s revealed will, set down in the inspired Old and New Testaments. God’s law is a written exposition of His character. It reveals His holiness and justice, His goodness and truth, His covenant and faithfulness. Even before the entrance of sin into the world, man was ruled by the law of God. The law was written upon his heart, and God spoke to him.
Law is our environment. We belong to our Creator and owe to Him whatever service, worship, and obedience He is pleased to require of us. The idea that law is antithetical to the creature’s freedom is a complete misreading of man’s existence and purpose as created by God, subject to Him, and dependent upon Him for life and blessedness.
Sin has changed man’s relation to the law. God’s law pronounces a curse upon him for his lawbreaking. For man to be restored to fellowship with God, the death sentence upon him must somehow be removed. His position with respect to the law must be radically changed, for while God is merciful, He cannot leave the guilty unpunished without violating His righteous character.
Jesus Christ alone restores man to liberty. He does this in two ways. First, in our flesh He obeyed the law of God perfectly as man should have done. Paul teaches in Romans 5 that by virtue of Christ’s obedience the man who believes in Him is declared righteous before the eyes of the law.
Second, He suffered for His sheep the penalty that their lawbreaking demands. By paying their penalty, He freed them from the curse of the law. This does not mean, as commonly thought, that the law itself is the curse. Rather, the curse envisioned is the curse pronounced by the law upon all who violate it. He removed this curse by becoming a curse for His people. In Him alone, therefore, is man restored to a right relationship to the law. In Jesus, the curse of the law is satisfied, and the righteousness demanded by the law as a condition of fellowship with the holy God is graciously provided.
Slaves of Righteousness
Having been made free from the curse of the law, the redeemed man is made a “slave of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). This vital aspect of the gospel is missing from many presentations today. Freed from the dominion of sin, man is freed unto righteousness, which means to live in glad and joyful obedience to God’s law. Paul can term this “slavery.” He speaks of himself as the slave of Jesus Christ. Slavery to God and His law is the liberty of the creature.
This point requires great clarity. The redeemed man’s obedience is produced in him by the grace of God and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus does not free us from the curse of the law only to bring us back under the curse by leaving it to us to stay in the covenant by our own strength. The union between the believer and Jesus Christ gains for him justifying righteousness, by virtue of which he is no longer under condemnation, and also produces within him fruits of righteousness.
Our definitive freedom in Christ results in progressive freedom in life as we are sanctified. These two works of God in the soul of man are distinct, but inseparable. All whom God definitively justifies He progressively sanctifies and eventually glorifies.
The liberty the believer enjoys by virtue of union with Jesus Christ in His saving work is progressively enjoyed as he continues in Christ’s Word. He will then know the truth, love the truth, and obey the truth. The result is moral freedom.
The standard of this freedom is the Word of Christ, which is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. It must be insisted upon that the believer cannot enjoy true freedom unless he fulfills the purpose of his re-creation in Jesus Christ — good works (Eph. 2:10). This freedom will progressively manifest itself in a changed life marked by joyful obedience to God and loving service to man.
The Only Foundation for Civil Liberty
The spiritual liberty of the believer, received through justification and enjoyed progressively through sanctification, is also the foundation of civil liberty. This connection is rarely mentioned.
It is commonly thought that civil freedom can be legislated through constitutions and guaranteed through free markets. It is equated with freedom from excessive government regulation and defined as the right to do whatever one pleases provided it does not harm others.
This is humanistic slavery, not liberty. It lacks foundation, objectivity, and universal authority. There can be no true civil liberty unless the majority of a nation’s citizens have been delivered from the bondage of sin and all its devastating consequences. A Biblical application of the doctrine of redemption must insist that self-government in union with Jesus Christ, empowered by His resurrection life in the soul of the believer, is the source of all true civil liberty.
The hope of a return to true civil liberty in the West must be preceded by a return to a full understanding of the liberty of the redeemed man in Jesus Christ. Without this, none of our elections, lawsuits, publicity campaigns, or proclamations will accomplish anything.
Freed from the curse of the law brought upon him by his sin, man is freed unto Spirit-wrought obedience to God by virtue of his union with Jesus Christ. As he continues in Christ’s word, he shall be free indeed. As long, however, as many in the church maintain a radical misunderstanding of the relationship between law and grace, endorse mystical standards of piety, and refuse to uphold God’s law as the source of liberty for men and nations, spiritual impotence will characterize much of the church, and rising statism will continue to erode our civil liberties.
- Christopher B. Strevel
Rev. Christopher B. Strevel currently pastors Covenant Presbyterian Church (RPCUS) in Buford, Georgia. He also oversees students in Bahnsen Theological Seminary specializing in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He currently resides in Dacula, Georgia, with his wife of twelve years, Elizabeth, and his three children, Christopher, Caroline, and Claire.