Law and Conscience (1)
So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. James 2.12
Saved for good works
Martin Luther, the great 16th century apologist for the doctrine of justification by faith, had some trouble with the Epistle of James, especially chapter 2. Here James labors to point out that true faith – saving faith – must be validated in good works. Luther scratched his head over this and concluded that James was a “right strawy epistle.” He didn’t reject it; he simply struggled to put together James’ insistence on good works with Paul’s explanation that justification is by grace through faith alone.
But the apostle Paul reconciled the two ideas in Ephesians 2.10, where he explained that those who have been saved by grace through faith are saved unto good works, specifically, those good works which God has before ordained for us to walk in.
Well, which good works might those be?
Back to James, and to his straightforward explanation: “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.” There is a standard for Christian conduct, a rule book to guide the conscience as it brings heart and mind together for good words and good works. And that standard has very little to do with what we think is right for us. The standard by which God will judge our behavior is the “law of liberty”, or, as James calls it in verse 8, “the royal law.” Thus, Christians should make sure that all our speaking and living are in line with this divine standard.
But which law is the “royal law”, the “law of liberty”?
In the context of his statement – James 2 – the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ quotes from the Ten Commandments (v. 11) and a supporting statute (v. 8, cf. Lev. 19.18). In that same chapter, he warns Christians against acting like “judges with evil thoughts” (v. 4) by showing partiality to rich people over the poor – a precept he appears to have derived from Leviticus 19.15. In chapter 5 of his epistle, James condemns those who do not pay wages in a timely manner – a standard of justice based on the eighth commandment and drawn from the civil law of Israel in Deuteronomy 24.14, 15.
James undoubtedly means by the law of liberty the Law of God as expressed in the Ten Commandments, elaborated, illustrated, and explained by the civil laws of ancient Israel. Can this possibly be? Does James mean to say that the good works God has redeemed us for, those which should be the default values and priorities of our consciences, are the very ones set forth in the Law of God, and that this Law is the standard for divine well-doing?
I see no other alternative. The Law of God, contrary to the views of the many contemporary Christians, including a good many preachers, is the law of liberty and the standard of goodness by which we are to live unto the Lord. We have no hope of establishing a good conscience in our soul without the Law of God being established there (Rom. 3.31).
Mind, heart, conscience
This only makes sense. Our heavenly Father has sent His Spirit into our hearts, where He has opened a school of instruction which has as its core curriculum the Law of God (Ezek. 36.26, 27). God intends that we should delight in the Law in our hearts, and desire to know and live within its guidelines and teaching, for the Law of God shows us the path of love and leads to greatness in the Kingdom of God (1 Jn. 5.1-3; Matt. 5.17-19).
Further, the Law of God represents the mind of the Spirit (Rom. 8.5-9). If we would think like Jesus, as well as desire what He desires, we must be rooted and grounded in the Law of God, and in all the Scriptures for which that Law is the acorn to the oak.
In the soul, the conscience houses our values, priorities, and default choices. It is the locus of the will, that final impulse of the soul that moves us to action. The conscience reads the rule book of God’s Law, the works of which the Spirit writes on our hearts (Rom. 2.14, 15), and then commends action in line with the Law of liberty, the royal Law, the holy and righteous and good Law of God (Rom. 7.12).
To reiterate, we cannot expect to have a good or clean conscience unless that referee, that deciding component of our soul, has regular and deep access to the Law of God, embedded in our minds and written on our hearts. This is no doubt why the psalmist insisted that the truly happy person, the one who is living in the righteousness of God’s Kingdom, meditates on the Law of God continuously, so as to avoid the ways of sin and pursue with gladness his daily journey in the Lord (Ps. 1).
But in what sense can this Law, which many of us have been taught is a burden from which Jesus freed us, serve to liberate us? As we shall see in this part of our study on Strong Souls, in many wondrous and glorious ways, indeed.
1. What has been your understanding of the role of God’s Law in the life of faith?
2. What place does the Law of God have in your walk with and work for the Lord?
3. What would you suggest as a starting-point for beginning to become better acquainted with the Law of God?
Next steps – Preparation: Review the Ten Commandments, as these are revealed in Exodus 20.1-17 and Deuteronomy 5.6-21. Set aside some time each day to read through these, and to wait in silence as the Lord begins to settle them in your soul.
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.