In the biblical story, “law” is not an oppressive constraint. Good law is a gift that channels us toward flourishing.

On the last Sunday of Pentecost, the Feast of Christ the King, we come face to face with a paradox: we are liberated by a King—and our freedom is found in submission. This dynamic is captured in an Anglican prayer for that feast day:

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Can you hear the paradox? We are freed by rule. We are liberated by a Lord. How can that be? In our experience, “law” is usually associated with “law and order,” and we associate that with legalism, maybe even oppression. Doesn’t Jesus free us from the burden and judgmentalism of the law? 

That is why we might be puzzled when Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:17 that he didn’t come to abolish the law. We sometimes fall into assuming that Jesus is our liberator precisely because he liberates us from the law. Or that the gospel is good news because it is anti-law. We can’t imagine law apart from legalism, and we can’t imagine freedom that is unconstrained. 

Our confusion and puzzlement stem, I think, from a mistaken understanding of law and a distorted understanding of freedom.

Freedom From Freedom For?

“Freedom” sounds like something we understand. It’s a powerful motif in our culture. Stories of liberation are powerful tropes for Hollywood and novelists alike (think blue-faced Braveheart screaming “Freedom!”). We rally around stories of liberators because liberators save us from those who would deny us our independence, our “authenticity.” 

But it’s crucial for us to realize that we have absorbed an understanding of “freedom” that often runs counter to the biblical witness. We imagine “freedom” in a certain way because cultural stories have unconsciously trained us to do so. 

As a result, most of us just assume that freedom means the absence of constraint. To be free is to be autonomous, unfettered, independent. Our freedom is compromised by anything or anyone—whether that be parents or society or rules or religion or institutions or high school principals (what John Hughes movie isn’t a paean to “freedom?”)—that would impose on our free expression, our “authenticity.” Pick pretty much any coming-of-age story from The Breakfast Club to Footloose, and you’ll usually see a narrative arc in which external forces are negative constrictions on independence, compromising freedom. In these stories, “authority” always wears a black hat.

A liberator, then, would be someone who liberates us from such oppressive constraints and rules and laws and authorities. In these stories, freedom is always freedom from, especially freedom from authority. It’s negative freedom.

Because this is the notion of freedom that is in the cultural air we breathe and the cultural stories we drink in, we then read this notion of freedom back onto the Bible. So when we hear that Jesus is a Savior, a deliverer, a liberator, we feel like we know what that means: Jesus has come to free us from all those external constraints that compromise our independence and authenticity and self-expression. Jesus comes to secure our autonomy. Jesus is the one who saves us from authority. Vive la revolution!

There are a just a couple of problems with this.

Be Careful What You Wish For

First, unconstrained independence and autonomy might sound like a good thing—that is, until you get it. For those who are suffering under oppression and tyranny, unfettered freedom might sound like salvation. But unfettered freedom can become its own sort of prison. Is it really liberating to have the door of your cell opened, only to be led out into a freedom with no direction at all? Is it really liberation if your chains are unshackled but no one helps you understand what you should do next? Do you really want to be left to your own devices? I know myself just well enough to know that I am the last person who should be telling me what do do!  (That’s why I got married!)

We might be approaching a cultural moment where the quest for unfettered freedom is beginning to feel like its own sort of prison—a moment in which utter independence seems less like something to celebrate and more like something to fear. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat puts it: If you want to see how ugly “freedom” is, try to watch Lena Dunham’s Girls. A life without constraints isn’t “free”; it is its own kind of enslavement and burden and paralysis.

We were not made to live without constraints; we were created to live with good constraints. So authority in itself is not the problem; law in itself is not the issue. Jesus doesn’t come to save us from the law; he fulfills the law so that we might live with the grain of the universe. Indeed, you might say that good law sets you free.

A Jig for Flourishing

A few months ago, thanks to the prefab help of IKEA, I assembled some closet shelving for my daughter’s room. When I dumped out the contents of the box, there was a mix of pristine white shelves and shiny silver bolts and one odd-looking little piece of black plastic that didn’t seem to fit. Only when I got to the final stage of construction did I realize what it was for.

The odd little piece of black plastic was a jig—not the Irish dance but rather the carpenter’s friend. In carpentry, a jig is a device that saves time and error because it enables the builder to do the same thing over and over again—make a cut, drill a hole, attach a piece—without having to stop and measure each time. Not only does a jig save time, it also guards against error. If I have to measure each cut, there is more opportunity for my distracted mind to make mistakes. The jig gives me a guide that I can trust. And this marvelously odd piece of black plastic from IKEA was just that sort of gift. Not only did it hold tiny finishing nails perfectly straight, it also positioned them to be perfectly centered every time. The jig enabled me to be a better carpenter.

You might think of the law as that kind of jig—a nudge, a God-given conduit or guardrail that channels you toward flourishing because it prevents you from going over the cliff. This is how the psalmist describes the law: it nourishes, it fuels, it strengthens, it bears fruit (Ps. 1:3). Think of God’s law as a conduit that guides you into the life God wants for you, a set of God-given guardrails not to prevent you from roaming but to channel you into your own good. 

The Gift of the Law from One Who Loves You

Now, this is not a blank check for “law” in itself. It all depends on who’s giving the law. At the heart of this vision is trust in authority. In the celebrated vision of “autonomy” that characterizes our cultural moment, I only trust myself. But I’ve learned the hard way that that is a bad idea.

The law is a gift if it comes from someone who loves you. And what Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 is not only that the God who loves you has given the law, but the God who loves you has fulfilled it. Christ does not abolish the law, but he also fills it—and we are in Christ. So we’re not trying to earn credit or score points or show off to God. By obeying the law, we’re living into the life we’re made for. 

I said there were two problems with reading “negative” freedom back into the biblical story.  First, unfettered freedom—freedom from—turns out not to be good for us. This points us to a second reason we need to think more carefully about freedom: the biblical narrative tells a very different story about freedom. In the biblical narrative, freedom is not freedom from; it is freedom for. In the biblical story, “law” is not an oppressive constraint that fetters us from self-expression; good law is a gift that channels us toward flourishing, toward shalom, teaching us how to be human. 

In the biblical story, we are not liberated from God’s law; we are liberated for grateful obedience.  This is precisely why the Ten Commandments show up in the third section of the Heidelberg Catechism, the one called “Gratitude.” This is what the Reformed tradition calls “the third use of the law”: it’s not just something that convicts us but a gift that channels us to flourishing. It’s how we learn to love our neighbors.

I thought about this a lot recently when our congregation’s time of confession focused on the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery. Is this some imposition on my freedom, a limit on my libido, a constraint on my desire? Or is it rather a gift that channels me to find wholeness and healing in monogamy, and benefits my children with a father who never leaves? The reason it struck me so starkly is that this is the commandment my father and stepfather both broke, and I’ve been living with the brokenness ever since. In that sense, obeying the nudge of the law would have been a way to love someone other than themselves.

Or consider the ninth and tenth commandments: You shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness. Can you think of any more direct way to describe what’s wrong with predatory mortgages and the injustice of payday lending that preys on the vulnerable? A society that obeyed the law in this respect would not be legalistic—it would be just, and the poor would be freed.

True freedom—positive freedom—is being enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit to live into the way of life that God desires for us (Rom. 8). We’re not just liberated from; we are liberated for. The good news is not only that the God who loves us gives the law, but he has also given us the Spirit to live into it.

You’re Expected for Dinner

So the question isn’t whetherwe live under authority, but, instead, which authority we live under. True liberation is being invited to live under the authority of One who loves us, and whose law is love. True liberation isn’t being unlocked from prison just to be left to your own devices; it is being set free to be adopted as a child of the King who loves you enough to give you direction, to channel your gifts, to direct your path, to give you guardrails that foster your flourishing.

The Lord’s Table is a wonderful illustration of this. Think of the family table as that IKEA jig we talked about earlier. In our family, there was an expectation that everyone be home for dinner—an expectation to check in and to be part of the household. This wasn’t a legalistic expression of parental authority; it was a hope for familial bonding. When the kids went out the door and we shouted after them, “We expect you to be home for dinner!” what we really meant was, “We love you!”

The Lord of life who has fulfilled the Law for us now expects us to show up for dinner, to sup with him at his Table, to commune with him in this Supper. That expectation is not a burden; his yoke is light. Here are the gifts of God for the people of God. Here is good for a free people, he says. Come and have supper with the King.

About the Author

James K.A. Smith holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College and is editor of Comment magazine. His new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos) will be published in April. He attends Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

Thank you, James, for this helpful article.  There was much to appreciate in it.  But I can’t say I agree with you altogether.  Just because Jesus didn’t come to earth to do away with the law altogether didn’t mean he agreed with the law as a standard of Christian living.  The law, as in the ten commandments, is mostly a standard of justice or fairness.  It calls on people not to violate the rights of others.  Do not steal, in other words, do not take from others what belongs to them.  Do not commit adultery, in other words, do not have sexual relations with someone else’s wife.  Do not murder, in other words, do not take a life which is not yours to take.  Do not lie, in other words, do not speak untruthfully, especially with the intent of hurting someone else.  In other words treat your neighbor fairly.  This is a code of conduct that has been used as a basic standard of conduct, being the judicial code of many nations.  It says we must treat our neighbor with fairness and is a code that is enforceable in the courts.  This was the code of conduct that was upheld within the nation of Israel.  But such a code of conduct, whether enforced by a court of law or in a person’s own life, does not require love.

When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment of the Old Testament, he didn’t appeal to any standard of fairness or the ten commandments, but rather appealed to the law of love which goes beyond the standard of fairness.  “You shall love God above all else and your neighbor as yourself.”  He commended the golden rule, to do to others as you would want it done to you.  In other words, go beyond fairness to a love that is extreme, to a love that is not enforceable by law. When Jesus was brought the women caught in adultery, the Pharisees wanted the judicial code of stoning to be enforced.  But the standard that Jesus advocated for was the standard of love and forgiveness, going well beyond the law of justice, that of stoning the adulterer.

When a law requires that you give a coat to another, Jesus said, give not only your coat but your shirt as well.  When a law requires that you walk or carry a load for a mile, Jesus said, go a second mile. When Jesus, in speaking of the judgement day, it was the sheep who did it as unto the least of these who were commended by Christ.  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for thinking that a godly ethic stopped at fairness.  The ethic he commended always went beyond to that of love, love for God and neighbor.

So, of course, Jesus didn’t claim to do away with the law, it is a standard of justice or fairness for nations and for all people who interact with each other. Nothing less than that can be expected of anyone. But the standard that Jesus advocated for in a faith relationship with God is always the standard of love, a standard that goes well beyond what is fair.  It’s the new law that Jesus gave to regulate the life of his followers.  So as a judicial code of ethics, Jesus upheld the moral laws of the OldTestament.  But as a standard of one’s personal relationship to God, Jesus gave a new law, the law of love. 

As a judicial code of conduct, the law still serves a good purpose.  But as Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for holding up the law as a personal standard of righteousness, his rebuke still stands today.  Our standard as Christians should always be the new law of love.