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After instructing us to put off “all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness” in James 1:21, the Bishop of Jerusalem then gives us the basis of the rest of his teaching on biblical law.
22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does.
The purpose of law is to set the standard of righteous behavior and to establish a guideline on how to love one's neighbor according to the mind of God. Divine law is the righteous standard of God as expressed through the life and example of Jesus Christ.
James says it is “the perfect law,” reflecting King David's Ode to the Law in Psalm 19,
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. 8 The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. 9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
It is also the law of liberty, because its goal is to set men free from the power of sin and iniquity (anomia, “lawlessness”). Christ's death on the cross did not set men free to sin with immunity, but set them free FROM the power of sin, so that we may NOT SIN but rather attain to the image of God and the fulness of the stature of Christ.
Paul confirms this as well in Gal. 5:13,
13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul's letter to the Galatians was not written to give us the privilege of violating the law of God, but to set us free from the Old Covenant, which made perfect obedience the prerequisite for justification. See my commentary on Galatians.
The goal is to set us free from the power of sin, and ultimately to bring all of creation into the glorious liberty of the children of God. This goal is prophesied in the law of Jubilee, for Lev. 25:10, quoted on our “Liberty Bell” in Philadelphia, reads,
10 You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaimliberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. It shall be a jubilee unto you. . . .
In the song, America the Beautiful, the second verse ends:
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
The final verse in the song ends this way:
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!
A “whiter jubilee” was not meant to be a racial statement, of course. It meant a better or greater Jubilee than mere freedom that was established by the Constitution itself. Today, as we see the soon-coming end of Mystery Babylon's slavery, the “nobler men” have opportunity to fulfill this prayer.
The divine law points the way to true liberty. Its purpose was not to enslave men, but to set them free. It pointed to the goal, and it prophesied of Christ on every page. The problem was that fallen men were unable to attain the righteousness of God by the force of their own will and the power of positive thinking.
The Israelites vowed perfect obedience in Ex. 19:8, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” They had admirable intentions, but their flesh was weak. They had more confidence in the will of the flesh than was possible to fulfill. Hence, a New Covenant was needed, one based upon the will of God, rather than upon the will of man.
By the New Covenant, men will reach the full righteous standard of the law and come to the fullness of the stature of Christ. Paul says that it comes in two stages, as prophesied in the law: first, righteousness is imputed to us by faith (Rom. 4); and secondly, righteousness will be infused into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, gradually at first (as we are led by the Spirit) and then concluded in an instant when the metamorphosis occurs, as revealed in 1 Cor. 15:52.
James' revelation spoke of the law's standard of righteousness that was to be obtained. One must understand both Paul and James in order to know the full truth of the matter.
Some men have argued that the “law of liberty” is a new law that Jesus set forth as He abrogated the law given by Moses. The argument has no merit, because the entire book of James was written to show that faith was not a substitute for the law. Though some would interpret James’ term according to their own viewpoint, the truth is that we must acknowledge the intent of the author of the letter. In fact, as we will see, faith without works [law] is “dead” (James 2:17).
In other words, if a person claims to have faith, but continues in his lawless behavior, James questions his faith. Faith requires hearing and obeying to have any meaning. Christians who continue living according to the life style of the world and its flawed standard of righteousness do not have genuine faith, regardless of their claims. Their faith is in their own viewpoint.
James says that such people are “hearers” but not “doers.” They are like people who look in the mirror and receive a temporary revelation of their sinful, carnal condition, but then they go about their business without any change in their lives. But he who looks at the law of liberty and abides by it “shall be blessed in what he does” (1:25). In other words, this is the way to obtain divine approval.
A doer of the word is one who bridles his tongue.
26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless.
The Hebrew word for bridle is rehsen, which means “a restraint.” James was telling us that one must restrain his tongue, and if a believer thinks he does not need to do so, he “deceives his own heart.” An unrestrained tongue, in fact, does not deceive anyone else, for his unrighteousness is obvious to all who hear.
27 This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The law says in Ex. 22:22, “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.” These are without the covering of a guardian (“avenger of blood”), so God Himself becomes their covering, as it says. The law indicates that this is a very important issue to God, so James gives it as a primary indication of “pure and undefiled religion.”
The other issue is that we are to keep ourselves “unstained by the world.” In other words, we are not to leave the world, nor even to become a “separatist,” but to be a positive influence on the world without being “stained” (influenced) by its carnal life styles.
To do this, however, requires first that we know and understand the mind of God as expressed by the law, the prophets, the psalms, and the gospels. Over and beyond this, it requires an ability to be led by the Spirit, because we often encounter situations where we must discern which direction to turn and must know how to apply the law's instructions in daily life.