Stand Fast in Liberty by Phil Johnson

“So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman” (Galatians 4:31).

Christian liberty is a major theme in the New Testament, starting with the earliest recorded event in Jesus’ public teaching ministry. In His very first sermon in his hometown synagogue, Jesus unrolled the scroll to Isaiah 61:1 and read from that ancient prophecy to announce that He had come “to proclaim liberty to the captives . . . to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). He later told His disciples, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Then He added, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36).

The same theme looms large in the writings of the apostle Paul. His teaching is full of references to our freedom in Christ. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). “The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2). “You were called to freedom, brothers” (Galatians 5:13). Furthermore, when Paul speaks of Christian liberty, his language is always categorical and unapologetic. He had been saved out of a rigorous system of religious bondage, and he reveled in the freedom Christ gave him.

Many Christians seem confused by the idea of Christian liberty—even a bit fearful of it. What does it mean to be set free spiritually, and what are the limits of Christian liberty? How do we sort out the various disagreements among Christians regarding questionable activities? What is our duty with regard to the styles and standards of secular culture? Questions like those are pervasive in every community of believers.

The very idea of liberty is at odds with what some people think the Christian life is all about. Their concept of holiness is dominated by a list of taboos and restrictions. They talk as if the word righteousness were synonymous with strict rules about what Christians are not free to do. They tend to cringe and get defensive when the subject of Christian liberty comes up.

That way of thinking is fleshly, not spiritual. It mirrors the spirit of first- century Pharisaism. The Pharisees were obsessed with rules governing public behavior mainly because “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43). Their religion therefore consisted mostly of doing things to be seen by other people (Matthew 6:5; 23:5). Jesus dismissed the whole system as a form of cruel and carnal bondage (Luke 11:46).

In stark contrast, Scripture defines the Christian life as a life of complete and total liberty. In Galatians 5:1, Paul gives this strong, unequivocal command: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The apostle clearly regarded freedom in Christ as a sacred trust to be carefully guarded. Liberty is not just one optional benefit of our salvation, but it lies at the very heart of God’s saving purpose. “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

That verse perfectly sums up Paul’s answer to the legalism that had infected the Galatian churches. It is not a complex lesson about some abstract doctrine. It is a simple, practical prescription. It is not merely a suggestion, but an emphatic command: stand firm in your liberty.

There is a pressing tone of urgency in the exhortation. No wonder. A major doctrinal crisis was brewing in the Galatian churches. The believers in that region were mainly Gentiles with pagan backgrounds whose biblical knowledge was sparse. But they had believed the gospel in response to Paul’s preaching. Then, apparently, when Paul’s ministry took him elsewhere, a group of false teachers to Galatia and told the Galatians that they could not be truly and fully saved unless they were circumcised (cf. Acts 15:1). In other words, they insisted that Gentiles could not fully enter into the Christian community unless they first became proselytes to Judaism.

That, of course, would make Old Testament ceremonial law a prerequisite to conversion, thus nullifying the principle of justification by faith. In effect, these Judaizing false teachers were trying to make Christianity a legalistic religion of works, just like Pharisaism. In fact, according to Acts 15:5, they “belonged to the party of the Pharisees.” They professed faith in Christ, but they were altering the gospel with an erroneous application of Old Testament law. They were such determined foes of spiritual liberty that they could not bear the principle of sola gratia (grace alone), so they replaced the true gospel with a modified, superficially Christianized version of the old Pharisaical works system. In Galatians 1:8-9, the apostle Paul anathematizes them, employing some of the strongest condemnatory language you will find in any of his epistles.

The words of Galatians 5:1 are likewise infused with passion as Paul commands the Galatians to stand firm in the liberty with which Christ has set them free. He uses the Greek word steko, “be stationary; persevere.” It’s the same term used in 1 Corinthians 16:13: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” He is calling for guardedness with a militant posture. We’re to lay hold of liberty and refuse to let go of it. This is a holy obligation—to fix ourselves in defense of Christian liberty.

What does that liberty entail and how far does it extend? What, precisely, have we been set free from? We cannot protect our liberty unless we understand exactly what it involves.

There are two great threats to Christian liberty: legalism on one side, and licentiousness on the other. All three of these crucial ideas (liberty, legalism, and licentiousness) are dealt with in Galatians 5, and each one helps explain the others.


The average worldling thinks of religion as a confining, restrictive regimen of meritorious duties. Scripture portrays Christianity as just the opposite: a liberating, emancipating, bondage-breaking release from sin’s bondage; acquittal from divine condemnation; and freedom from the necessity of earning God’s favor.

Understanding Christian liberty as Scripture defines it is crucial. When Jesus spoke of freedom for captives and liberty to the oppressed, he was not describing something as mundane as political liberty for people under earthly tyranny. He was not planning the overthrow of the Roman government. As despotic and morally unrighteous as that system was, Christ never tried to foment a political revolution. He was not employing emancipation language the way today’s radicals and purveyors of “liberation theology” typically do.

Instead, Jesus was speaking of spiritual liberty. This liberty is the birthright of every believer. It is a vast freedom from the yoke of any earthly, sinful, or Satanic bondage. It is the greatest, truest liberty imaginable. Two important aspects of Christian liberty must be kept in constant focus and in careful balance.

Freedom from the bondage of sin. Liberty in Christ is not freedom from spiritual responsibility. It is certainly not any kind of moral autonomy. It is not a release from the divine standard of righteousness. It does not mean we are discharged from our duty to obey the moral law. Those who think of Christian liberty in such terms are expressly condemned in Scripture. They use their freedom as a cover-up for evil (1 Peter 2:16). They talk about freedom, “but they themselves are slaves of corruption” (2 Peter 2:19).

There’s a name for that kind of thinking. The theological term for it is antinomianism. Antinomians believe our liberty in Christ releases us from any obligation to God’s law, period. They typically cite Romans 6:14 (“You are not under law but under grace”) as if that verse meant no law or commandment has any binding authority whatsoever for the Christian—as if the principle of grace completely abrogated every standard ever set by the law. But Scripture specifically says grace teaches otherwise, “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12).

Don’t ever think that the standard of righteousness revealed in God’s law has been annulled or truncated. The moral content of the law will never be repealed, because it is grounded in the very character of God. It is as eternal and immutable as He is.

For example, because God is truth, it is wrong to lie. Because God is just, it is sinful to murder or steal. Because God is love, it is unrighteous to covet or bear false witness. And because God is holy and all-powerful, it is blasphemy to have any other gods before him, to take His name in vain, or to worship a graven image—as if a piece of stone or wood could stand in His place. The laws prohibiting such evils reflect the holy, immutable character of God, and therefore the rules those commandments articulate are eternally binding. Theologians historically have referred to this as the moral law—a standard of perfect righteousness that can never be repealed or nullified. It was surely not without significance that when God gave the law to Moses at Sinai, the first precepts handed down were the Ten Commandments, and they were inscribed on tablets of stone.

But there was never a time when the moral law was not in effect; it was binding on people long before God wrote the Decalogue at Sinai. That’s why it was a sin for Cain to kill Abel. It was a sin for Pharaoh to covet Abraham’s wife. It was a sin for Joseph’s brothers to resent what he had, and to bear false witness against him. It was a sin for Nimrod and the Babylonians, Pharaoh and the Egyptians, to worship other gods. The moral principles delineated in the Ten Commandments were binding long before God wrote them on stone tablets.

In fact, God himself made that very point when He gave the law to Israel. He told Moses, “Whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving [the Canaanites] out before you” (Deuteronomy 18:12). In other words, God punished the pagan inhabitants of the land for violating His moral law even though as far as we know from Scripture, no one had ever received any written commandments from God. But the moral precepts given in the law were clearly binding anyway, and God’s punishment was severe.

Was that punishment just? Absolutely. Those people knew what they did was wrong. A sense of right and wrong is an innate aspect of our humanity. Indeed, key elements of God’s moral law are inscribed on every human heart by the Creator Himself, and every unseared human conscience testifies to that fact. That’s why Cain was afraid to face God, and Joseph’s brothers were afraid to face him. In Paul’s words “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14-15).

That is why people who have never heard the gospel are nevertheless guilty. They have an innate understanding of enough moral law to condemn them, an inborn awareness of God, evidence of His attributes, which can be seen in nature, and enough spiritual sense to know that their Creator is a righteous Judge to whom they are accountable (Romans 1:18-20), but they sin anyway and deliberately suppress what they do know of God. “So they are without excuse” (v. 20).

How unchanging is the moral aspect of God’s law? Consider this: God’s perfect standard of righteousness will still govern our conduct and thinking even in heaven, where we will finally be able to obey God’s righteous standard perfectly, with no inclination or desire to do otherwise. That, by the way, will be the truest liberty of all, when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

Conversely, Scripture consistently teaches that freedom from righteousness is no freedom at all. The apostle Paul says in Romans 6:20 that to be free from righteousness is to be enslaved to sin. Jesus said in John 8:34, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

So this is the essential starting point for understanding what Christian liberty is all about: it is first of all freedom from the bondage of sin, and therefore it cannot be the kind of freedom that nullifies our obligation to the eternal principles of God’s moral law.

When Paul writes, “You are not under law but under grace” in Romans 6:14, that is the culminating point in a long argument he has made against antinomianism. That chapter starts with Paul anticipating the antinomian argument: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (vv. 1-2). He goes on to say our union with Christ makes us participants in His death, “so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (vv. 6-7). We’re also participants in His resurrection (vv. 5, 8), raised to “walk in newness of life” (v. 4). Finally, the whole argument in Romans 6 is summarized with these words in Romans 6:17-18: “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

The true sense of Romans 6:14 cannot be correctly understood apart from that context. In fact, when set in its proper context it powerfully refutes antinomianism: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

That verse is a perfect statement of the two aspects of Christian liberty. The first phrase declares that believers are free from the bondage of sin. Far from declaring the law’s moral principles null and void, it is a triumphant celebration of victory over sin, because “the righteous requirement of the law [is] fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1).

The second half of Romans 6:14 is talking about our deliverance from the curse and the condemnation of the law. Here is the second vital feature of our liberty in Christ.

Freedom from the yoke of the law. Paul’s focus in Galatians 5 homes in mainly on this second aspect of Christian liberty. The point, again, is not that the law’s moral demands have been eliminated, but that the curse and condemnation of the law have been lifted. The law is not a burden to believers the way it is to unbelievers—because Christ has born the law’s condemnation on behalf of His people. All the onerous aspects of the law have thus been removed.

Paul therefore reminds the Galatians that they are no longer under the law’s yoke. Verse 18 echoes the point he made in Romans 6: “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Here we see yet again, that the phrase “not under the law” cannot mean that the moral principles of the law have been overturned or nullified, because Paul goes on (starting in the very next verse) to compare the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit, making it clear that those who “walk by the Spirit . . . will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v. 16).

The phrase “not under the law” is best explained by how Paul uses it elsewhere in this epistle. Just one chapter earlier, in Galatians 4:4-5, Paul wrote, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.” In that context, Paul is comparing the law to a tutor (v. 2). He goes on to say that because Christ has redeemed us, we have been adopted as God’s sons, given the full privileges of adult sons, and released from the tutor’s reproaches and severity.

That is a fitting picture of the kind of liberty Paul is describing. It is like the freedom of a son who comes of age. The law’s threats, its harsh discipline, and some of its rigid measures (in particular, the dietary laws and ceremonial features) were temporary training measures—designed to point Israel toward Christ. But now that Christ has come, He has redeemed us from the tutelage of the law and given us the status of full-grown sons. We enjoy a freedom no one who lived under yoke of the law ever had.

What kind of freedom does this give us? Chiefly two benefits, one whose advantages are mainly temporal, the other whose value is vast and eternal.

First of all, we‘re free from the law’s complex ceremonies. (This is the temporal benefit.) All the ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law were prophetic types and pictures that pointed to Christ. In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul writes, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” He identifies all the dietary laws, as well as the Sabbaths and feast days, as mere shadows of Christ—wispy, temporary features of the law that have been superseded by the reality they pointed to.

That includes all the rituals of Old Testament worship. They were illustrations that pointed to Christ—foreshadowed Him. They all symbolized aspects of His person and work. The whole sacrificial system, for example, was an elaborate picture that foretold the atoning work of Christ in the most graphic, bloody imagery. But it was just imagery. Hebrews 10:4 says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Constant, daily, ritual sacrifices were the main substance Old Testament liturgy and the primary activity of the priesthood. It was grueling, never-ending work, yet such things “can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11).

Those sacrifices vividly pictured the cost of redemption, but at the end of the day they were only shadows—utterly ineffectual in and of themselves to accomplish the work they pictured. Scripture is emphatic about this: “Since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1).

But Christ completely fulfilled the promise represented by the Temple sacrifices when He offered Himself once for all and shed His own blood on the cross. To retreat to those shadows and put oneself under obligation to the ceremonies of Old Testament religion would be like turning one’s back on the living person of Christ and worshiping His shadow instead.

That’s exactly the kind of threat those false teachers in Galatia represented. They wanted to preserve the ceremonial elements of Old Covenant, starting with circumcision. (In effect they were teaching that it is impossible to be justified through faith in Christ without first being circumcised.) Their doctrine was a de facto denial of the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice.

Paul has them in mind in Galatians 5:2-3, when he says, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” In other words, if you want to ignore Christ and retreat to the shadows of Old Covenant ceremony, then you have made yourself a slave to the whole law.

Incidentally, Paul wasn’t ruling out the salvation of already-circumcised Jews in verse 2. He was writing to Gentiles who were tempted to undergo circumcision as a prerequisite to justification. He was telling them that if any point of law is a prerequisite to justification, then the whole law is also binding.

See, if our justification hinges in any degree on a righteousness we gain from our own obedience, then that obedience must be perfect in every respect, because the law demands perfect obedience and pronounces a full and final condemnation on anyone who violates any point of it. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). Partial obedience to the law does not result in a partial righteousness. Partial obedience is disobedience, and that is unrighteousness, so it is of no value for our justification.

Are Christians free to observe Old Testament ceremonies—say, the feast days and festivals—as long as we don’t regard such things as necessary, meritorious, or instruments of justification? Certainly (Romans 14:5-6; Colossians 2:16-17). Timothy (whose father was Greek) was circumcised after becoming a Christian in order to avoid controversy when he ministered in a Jewish community. Paul himself took a Nazirite vow (Acts 18:18), and on another occasion participated in a purification ceremony (Acts 21:26). But when ministering among Gentiles he made no effort to keep kosher. Paul thus used his freedom to avoid unnecessary offense to either Jews or Gentiles. He expressly spelled out his philosophy in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.

But note that Paul is talking about something that is optional and totally voluntary. The rigid, obligatory observance of the law’s dietary laws, feast days, and cleansing ceremonies has been done away with the institution of a new and better covenant. Furthermore, the sacrificial system has been completely eliminated—or rather perfectly fulfilled. We are no longer under the yoke of Old Covenant ceremonies.

The second benefit of being “not under law” is even more important: We are free from the Law’s fatal curse. This is the vast, eternal benefit of Christian liberty.

The law is a killer. It could never justify sinners. It can only condemn; it cannot save. It is full of threats and judgments for those who fail to keep it perfectly. That is the curse of the law. There is not a single word of encouragement anywhere in the entire law for sinners who hope to earn enough merit through their own legal obedience to eliminate their guilt and gain the righteousness they need for a right standing with God. As we have seen, the law demands perfect obedience. Even the sacrifices prescribed in the law were symbolic only, offering no real atonement. Everyone under the law who sins is condemned, full stop.

Even in the Old Testament the only hope sinners had for being justified was by the imputation of a righteousness that was not their own. Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” (Romans 4:6). Even in the Old Covenant era, people were not saved by their legal obedience. The only way any sinner has ever been redeemed is by grace through faith. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Galatians 3:10-11).

The Jewish legalists who had sowed confusion among the Galatians didn’t even understand their own Old Testament. They believed obedience to the law could gain them a righteousness that would become the ground of their justification before God. Paul says that is a damning lie. To those tempted to follow such an error, the apostle writes, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4).

This was the gist of the Judaizers’ error: They thought they could be justified by law. They had missed the whole point of the law, which is to condemn sinners and leave them with no hope but the grace of God.

But “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” (Galatians 3:13). He took the guilt of our sin and was punished in our place. Best of all, His perfect righteousness—exactly what the law demands—is imputed to us. We are credited with His flawless obedience. So the curse of the law is totally and eternally eliminated for all who believe.

It should be clear by now that Christian liberty is not a one-dimensional concept. It is a glorious liberty from the bondage of sin, and it’s also a welcome deliverance from the yoke of the law. The apostle Paul has both aspects of liberty in view when he says (v. 1) “be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage”—neither bondage to sin nor bondage to the law. To go back under the yoke of the law again is the error of legalism, and to go back under the yoke of sin is the error of licentiousness. Before we close this chapter, we need to take note of what Galatians 5 says about those two kinds of bondage.


Legalism, of course, was the central error of the Galatian Judaizers. Theirs was a deadly brand of legalism, because it destroyed the doctrine of justification by faith. They made circumcision an essential instrument of justification rather than faith alone.

Roman Catholicism makes a very similar error. According to Rome, the imputed righteousness of Christ is not a sufficient ground for justification. Catholic Popes and councils have devised a multitude of rituals, sacraments, and superstitions through which they claim people can earn merit for themselves and thereby supplement the atoning work of Christ—as if Christ’s work were deficient. In the Roman system, therefore, the believer’s own works, starting with baptism, are necessary instruments of justification. That is exactly the same kind of legalism Paul condemned in his epistle to the Galatians.

In Galatians 5:6, the apostle expressly points to faith as the sole instrument of justification: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith [sola fide] working through love.” Whether someone is circumcised or not is immaterial to the question of whether he is justified. We lay hold of justification by faith alone—specifically, faith that works by love. In other words, the true faith through which God justifies is not a notional faith that obeys mechanically because of laws and rituals and external motives. It is a hearty faith that inevitably expresses itself in genuine love—earnest love for God first of all, and active love for others as well (cf. 1 John 4:7-8).

Works—even works that are the fruit of genuine love—can never be the ground of our justification. Our very best works are still imperfect and impure and tinged with mixed motives. The only righteousness that God receives is a perfect righteousness, and the only way to be credited with a perfect righteousness is to have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by faith.

Paul had high hopes that the Galatians had truly received the gospel by faith, despite their confusion on this issue. He writes in verses 7-10: “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.” In other words, while Paul was optimistic about the faith of the Galatian believers, he believed that those who were teaching this legalistic gospel would be judged by God—which is to say he did not even regard the Judaizers as authentic Christians. That’s why he pronounced such a harsh anathema on them in Galatians 1:8-9. Clearly, the apostle Paul regarded legalism as the very worst kind of apostasy.

Even harsher words for the heretics were yet to come. Verse 11 implies that the Judaizers had falsely assured the Galatians that Paul agreed with their teaching. He is emphatic in his denial: “If I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” (v. 11). Not only did he not agree with their teaching, he regarded it as a fatal compromise and a denial of the gospel’s core truth.

Then he adds this: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (v. 12). If the legalists thought circumcision was something meritorious, why not go even further, like some of the pagan cults did, and turn themselves into eunuchs? There’s no delicate way of paraphrasing Paul’s point; because he was not trying to be delicate. If the Judaizers believed removal of a Gentile’s foreskin earned favor with God, then they ought to take their doctrine to its logical end and castrate themselves!

That is some of the harshest language Paul uses anywhere in the New Testament. It shows what a serious error legalism is.


Still, legalism is by no means the only danger to Christian liberty. There’s another kind of bondage that destroys true liberty in Christ: bondage to sin. If legalism is the error of abandoning our liberty in Christ in order to return to the yoke of the law, licentiousness is the error of abandoning our liberty in Christ in order to return to the bondage of sin.

Both errors are equally grave. Both are utterly destructive to authentic Christian liberty. And yet it is quite common to hear professing Christians justify the practice of some favorite sin by an appeal to the principle of Christian liberty. “I’m free in Christ,” they say, as if Christ bought us freedom to indulge in fleshly activities rather than deliverance from such things.

Paul condemns that very error in the very same context where he is arguing against legalism: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:13). Three verses later he adds, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

In between those two statements, Paul highlights a simple principle that is the key to understanding this whole issue. Here’s what Paul says is the antidote to licentiousness: “Through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (vv. 13-14). He says virtually the same thing in Romans 13:8: “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law”; and again in Romans 13:10: “Love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Notice that love fulfills the law; it does not nullify it. We’ve already stressed the truth that the moral demands of the law are eternal and can never be nullified. But let’s revisit that point one more time, because a lot of people seem to have the mistaken impression that the teaching of Christ and the apostles nullified the moral precepts of Old Testament law and replaced them with the principle of love. I frequently encounter people who want to justify a casual attitude toward God’s moral law by claiming that all the moral precepts of the Old Testament have all been eliminated and replaced with a single, much simpler, New Commandment: love.

After all, Jesus did say, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (John 13:34).

But that does not nullify the righteous standard of the law. It simply comprehends and encompasses the whole moral content of the law in a single commandment. That’s why in 1 John 2:7-8, the apostle John says, “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment.” It is a New Commandment only in the sense that it was renewed and magnified and given its proper place of prominence by Christ. It is certainly not new with respect to the duties it commits us to. It is actually an old commandment and was included in Moses’ law all along: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). But love is a perfect summary statement of the whole moral law.

Moreover, the principle of love gets to the heart of our motivation for obeying the law. If we isolate the specific statements of the moral law and take the surface meaning of the commandments only (don’t steal; don’t kill; don’t commit adultery) it’s relatively easy to obey the law in its external, superficial mandate. The Pharisees were highly skilled at doing that while indulging in all kinds of evil imaginations in their hearts. What really fulfills the moral law is not a mere wooden adherence to the external commandments, but sincere love for God and for one another. When we get to the heart of the moral law, that is precisely what every commandment demands of us: love. The specific moral precepts simply define in detail what true love will do.

So the core and the anchor of all the moral precepts of God’s law boils down to one simple commandment: love. That’s not something that can ever be turned into an empty ritual or a mere external show. That one commandment goes straight to the heart.

And here’s the key: The Holy Spirit is the only source of the love that fulfills the law. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v. 16).

That truth is the very foundation of our liberty in Christ. The Holy Spirit enables us to love, and that liberates us to fulfill the righteousness of God’s moral law.

That is the purest kind of liberty. It is a freedom to love God, to please Him, and to obey Him from a pure heart.

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