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Liberty? Or License?

The two have frequently been confused. “Liberty” is often taken to be the right to do what ever one pleases. After all, is not “liberty” to be understood as “freedom”—freedom to do as one wishes? Does not liberty imply that one is not bound by laws and regulations?

No wonder such conclusions are drawn! Much is made in our own country of the cry of one of the “patriots” at the time of the American Revolution: “Give me liberty or give me death!” It was a cry against established authority in violation of the teaching of Scripture in Romans 13.

So some Christians insist that they have “liberty” in which they are freed from the requirements of God’s law. For such the law has no significance anymore. These are “antinomian” in outlook.

Scripture, indeed, speaks exultingly of the Christian’s liberty, calling it the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). One is not freed from the law of God, but from the condemnation of that law. He is freed from sin and death. But the Apostle Paul insists that we can not therefore “sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6).

One recalls from Scripture how the Apostle Paul complained of those who judged his liberty, i.e., condemned him in doing the very things which he believed to be permissible. In I Cor. 10:29 he states, “…for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?” Again, Paul complains in Gal. 2:4, “And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage.”

On the other hand, Paul issues warnings about the abuse of “liberty.” In Gal. 5:13 he states, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” And in I Peter 2:16 we read, “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” Again, in II Peter 2:19, the apostle warns of those who while they “promise… liberty,.. themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage.”

“Liberty” has an important part in a Christian’s life. We are told in II Cor. 3:17, “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” We are reminded in Gal. 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” It ought to be very clear that liberty follows out of Christ’s perfect work on the cross. He merited liberty for His people. That liberty is also the fruit of the work of the Spirit of the Lord in His people.

The question is, of course, “What is then this liberty which is now ours?” Does “liberty” mean that each individual can have his own peculiar interpretation of Scripture? Does it mean that each can determine for himself what his “life-style” ought to be? Does this “liberty” allow two equally legitimate, but opposite, views concerning “women in office?” Does one have the “liberty” to attend movies if he believes it does not violate his conscience—or can another for himself say that it is wrong and a sin? Can one hold to abortion and another condemn it—all under “Christian liberty?” It comes down to this: is one’s own conscience to be his guide concerning what is right or wrong? Does “liberty” allow one to do whatever he pleases?

The question is especially important for the covenant youth. Are they to have another “judge” their liberty—or are they to determine for themselves what they may do? It should be obvious that the law of the land necessarily restricts one’s liberty. One has said, “My liberty to swing my fist stops at the point where your nose begins.” One can not plead “liberty” when he is brought into a court for deliberately harming another.

The Bible itself makes very plain what Christian liberty is not. It does not give one the right to sin if he pleases. Gal. 5:13 states, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” Or again, I Peter 2:16, “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness….” In fact, “liberty” is contrasted with the “yoke of bondage” in Galatians 5:1. Our liberty, therefore, is not a license to sin. One is warned of those who promise liberty who themselves are “servants of corruption” (II Pet. 2:19). Scripture clearly recognizes the danger of abusing liberty. The danger is real. Satan himself would convince God’s people that they have a “freedom” or “liberty” to do as they will. In fact, with this very idea he approached Eve and convinced her to eat the forbidden fruit.

But our liberty is godly, spiritual, and heavenly. It is that which is possessed only by children of God. In Rom. 8:21 we read of those “delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” And in II Corinthians 3:17: “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Those who are not children of God, remain in the “bondage of corruption.” These might boast of liberty, while they are in fact bound by sin and death. These are not free at all.

Liberty does not free one from the law of God. Liberty exists within the bounds of the law. In James 2:12 we are reminded that we are judged “by the law of liberty.” And in James 1:25 we read of the “perfect law of liberty.” That law is the law of God. It serves to mark the bounds of true liberty. But the law no longer condemns.

Our conclusion must then be that Christian Liberty demands obedience to God’s law—not an ignoring of that law. Liberty is not to live as one pleases, but an ability to live as God commands. It is “liberty” to serve God and honor His commands. It is “liberty” exactly because one has been freed from the bondage of sin and death through the perfect work of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. His “liberty” is that he is able and free to serve God perfectly.

The whole concept has been compared to the restrictions of “freedom” within the realm of creation itself. A fish is free to swim as it will through the water. But should it decide that its “freedom” ought to allow it to jump to the shore, it has not continued freedom but death. A person who would swim underwater can not remain there. He may insist that he is free to do as he will, but to disobey the physical laws of God can only result in his death.

So also we are to regard our spiritual freedom. The blood of the Lamb of God delivered us from the condemnation of the law. We are freed from that. The result is that we can begin to serve God—which alone is liberty. As soon as we insist that our “liberty” ought to allow us to escape the bounds of God’s law, we are not free but once more under the “yoke of bondage.”

Ours is indeed a blessed liberty. It is not license. It does not allow any activity in which we would engage ourselves.

It is the freedom and liberty we enjoy perfectly in glory. The liberty of heaven is not, again, to do whatever one wishes contrary to the righteousness of God. It is a liberty in Christ whereby we perfectly and forever will be able to serve Him. Anything else would be death.

Let us, then, use our liberty in the service of God’s Name and to help the church of Jesus Christ. ❖