The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, Chapter 4: Liberty

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” – Luke iv. 18, 19.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” – 2 Cor. iii. 17.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” – John viii. 32.

“The perfect law of liberty” – Jas. i. 25.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” – Gal. v.1.

“My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” – Matt. xi. 30.

FREEDOM is an essential characteristic of that life of fellowship with Christ into which the redeemed are called. The essence of being is life. The essence of well-being is freedom in life. There may be life without liberty. The work of regeneration may have taken place. The new nature may be there, and heaven-born aspirations may be going forth from our quickened spirits, and yet our life may be anything but free.

Christ not only imparts life, He also provides that which is necessary for its emancipation – for its unfolding and growth.

Struggles may be true signs of vitality, but they are often the witness to a condition of bondage. Desperate efforts to set one’s self free may be taken as evidence that we are no longer “dead in trespasses and sins”; but such conflicts must not be confused with the “good fight of faith.” Freedom is not the end but rather the condition of Christian conflict – of true victorious warfare. To fight so as to “withstand,” and come off “more than conquerors,” we must know what it is to “stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (Gal. v. 1).

Liberty consists in the unrestrained activities of life. “Only that existence can be called really free that lives and moves in full agreement with its proper being, that can unfold its powers unhindered and undisturbed” (Martensen). For this it is necessary that life – whether it be vegetable, animal, or spiritual – should be in its true and appropriate element. It is there only that it finds both its sustenance and its freedom. Thus the plant must have, not only suitable soil, but air and moisture and sunshine. The surroundings do not originate the life, but they afford that which is essential for its expansion and development. In this unhindered activity its freedom consists.

And so in nature, we say a creature is free when it can move in its own native element. The bird is free in the air, and the fish in the water. Take either of them out of its element, and its liberty is gone. Change or modify the character of the element, and you limit or destroy the freedom of its life.

Through sin, we have lost the inner principle of life, and we have forfeited the sphere which is its true abode. Restoration consists in the quickening of the spirit, and its introduction into its appropriate environment. To be “born again” is to receive that quickening; and to be “in Christ” is to be in that environment. Spiritual liberty can be known, therefore, only by those who have life, and who are abiding in Him who is the true sphere of life. We cannot, then, take it for granted that every regenerate soul is of necessity in a state of spiritual liberty. Conversion is not all. Salvation means something far more than the possession of a Divine, inner vital principle.

There is a threefold emancipation we may notice in connection with our experience of true freedom – liberty for the mind, the conscience, and the will.

Liberty for the mind. In harmony with the foregoing definitions of freedom, we may observe that man’s intellect or understanding must have its proper environment. It must occupy its true sphere in order to be free. That sphere is the truth. As originally created, the mind of man was free because he dwelt in the truth. There was nothing in his moral or spiritual surroundings but what was in perfect agreement with his mental being. Since the Fall, however, everything is changed. His mind is in bondage, through darkness and ignorance and error. The apostle thus describes those who are in this state: – “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph. iv. 18). Man fell through receiving Satan’s lie. By this act he forfeited the truth; losing the truth, his mind lost its freedom.

Christ restores us to liberty by bringing us into the truth. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John viii. 32). Such is the freedom known and realized when we become spiritually enlightened. It is like the morning dawn – the light breaks into our inner being, and we become conscious that we have been brought into an illuminated atmosphere. We know and feel that our mental being has found its true element. What the air is to the bird, and what the water is to the fish, the truth of God is to our minds. As the bird spreads its wings, so our powers and faculties expand, and find in this new element a liberty, an enlargement, that fills our souls with peculiar gladness.

But when we speak of the truth, we must not understand by that term a mere abstraction. We must think of Him who declared, “I am – the truth.” We must think of that living embodiment of truth “in Whom we live and move and have our being.” Saving faith means “believing into” Christ. It implies an actual transition from one sphere into another – from darkness to light. It is in Him who is the truth, we realize, therefore, our mental emancipation.

Liberty for the conscience. Bondage may arise from sin as well as from ignorance. Guilt on the conscience will rob the soul of all liberty. There can be no freedom of utterance, no holy boldness, no liberty in the presence of God, if sin, in its guilt and defilement, lies on the conscience. “Having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience” (Heb. x. 22) is essential in order to enter into the “holiest of all.” An emancipated conscience is a purged conscience. When this is realized, the soul is in an atmosphere of peace. It is in that peace the conscience finds its freedom. But it is only through “the blood of His cross” that this can be known. When we see the meaning of Christ’s death, when we accept it as that which brings us into a relation of reconciliation with God, we know what peace means. We see then, not only that we stand on the work of peace, but have been brought into Him who is our peace.

The conscience finds its freedom in the atmosphere of Divine peace.

Liberty for the will. It is the remark of a thoughtful preacher, “that the weakness of human actions may be traced to the supremacy of passion, – that the passions are too strong, and carry away the will with them, – that the will as a regulative force in man is crippled” (Canon Boyd Carpenter’s Hulsean Lectures).

Man’s will, by nature, is not free. It is the slave of fear or of desire. If the passions are evil, his will is the victim of a sinful tyranny. There may be light and knowledge without liberty. A man may see and know the right, and yet shrink from doing it, because of the fear of suffering or reproach. This is to be in a state of bondage. He may see the evil and know that it is his duty to avoid it, and yet he may be drawn to yield to it, because of the pleasure that is more or less blended with it. How is liberty from such a condition to be brought about?

Suppose that the will is strengthened, and that by dint of a high sense of duty the man is enabled to rise superior to the power of his passions; shall we have in such a one an example of true liberty? Surely not.

As an able and vigorous writer observes: “We can make ourselves perform certain acts by an effort of the will, but this is a very different thing from making our inclinations go along with them” (Canon Mozley’s University Sermons). What the will needs, in the first place, is not strengthening, but liberating. It must first be brought into its proper environment; there it finds its freedom. It may be weak, but it is no small matter that it is free. And being liberated, it is now prepared to be strengthened.

The element in which the will finds its freedom is the love of God.

The popular definition of liberty – namely, “to do as you like” – is, after all, not far from the truth. The glorified spirits are free, and they do as they like; but being holy in their desires, they do what God likes. And so, just in proportion as man’s affections are purified, and he delights in the things that God delights in, he finds his freedom in doing as he likes. Whatever, therefore, purifies his desires also liberates his will. To set the will free, it follows it must be brought into the atmosphere of Divine love. As the mind finds its liberty in Him who is the truth, and the conscience in Him who is our peace, so the will finds its freedom in Him who is the embodiment of perfect love.

“The criterion of the highest and perfect moral state of mind is pleasure, – when good acts are not only done, but when we take pleasure in doing them. We are certainly bound to do them, whether we like it or not; and obedience for conscience sake, which is carried out against inclination, is deserving of all praise, and is constantly urged upon us in Scripture; but it is still an inferior moral state compared with that in which the inclinations themselves are on the side of good. For, looking into the real nature of the case, we cannot but call it a state of servitude when a man’s affections do not go along with his work, but he submits to duty as a yoke which a superior power or law imposes on him, even though that law be revealed to him through his own conscience” (Mozley, University Sermons).

We have, then, two stages of experience, both included in the life of the Christian – the one being animated chiefly by a sense of right, the other by the power of love. We may illustrate the two stages by two concentric circles – the outer circle representing the duty-life, and the inner circle the love-life. We may be within the first, and yet not within the second; but it is impossible to be within the inner circle, and not be within the outer circle also. So, if we are “dwelling in love,” we shall know what it is to do the right for its own sake as well as from inclination. But it is not difficult to see which of the two conditions is the true life of liberty.

“The truth must be admitted, that many who belong visibly to the dispensation of the Spirit are still inwardly under the law in this sense, that their inclinations are not yet on the side of God’s service, and that, if they perform their duty in any degree, it is only in obedience to a law, of the penalties of which they stand in just and proper fear, but not on the spiritual principles of love” (Mozley, University Sermons).

Hence, while faith makes all things possible, it is love that makes all things easy.

But if love is the secret of the highest kind of freedom, what love is it? Where are we to seek for it? Whence does it come? And how may we be brought to know it, and live in it?

Shall we say, as some maintain, that there is “a root of love at the bottom of the human heart, which it has received from God, and which only requires the removal of the pressure of other matter upon it to bring it out as the true part of man”? Surely not.

The love which casts out fear and sets us free is not human love, inherent in man, lying dormant within, and only waiting to be wakened and brought forth. “The air only weighs heavily on such bodies as are void of air; so God’s law, and so far God Himself, who reveals Himself by means of the law, rests like a heavy, oppressive burden on souls who have not God within them” (Martensen). In that sense of oppression we have the evidence that no kindred affection exists within them.

It is Divine love that the soul needs. “The love of God” must be “shed abroad in our hearts” (Rom. v. 5. Strictly, throughout, not into our hearts – , µÍ not µ¯Â, denoting the rich diffusion of God’s love within our hearts – µÍ indicating the locality where the shedding abroad takes place).

“The love of God – this means, not our love to God, nor exactly the sense of God’s love for us, but God’s love itself for us” (Neil).

As Dr. Forbes observes: “The love here spoken of (Rom. v. 5) is not God’s love, as merely outwardly shown to us, but as shed abroad in our hearts as a gift, and is placed in connection with other Christian graces – patience and hope” (Analytical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans).

This Divine love “becomes our love to God” (Lange). The medium of this transfusion of the Divine love in the heart is the Holy Spirit. He himself first enters into the soul, and then from within makes known to us God’s love, and communicates it as a power moulding our emotions, purposes and actions (Beet).

The expression “shed abroad” denotes plenitude of communication (Tholuck). As Philippi observes on the same text: “The love of God did not descend upon us as dew in drops, but as a stream which spreads itself through the whole soul filling it with a consciousness of His presence and favour.”

In the same connection we have another and still more wonderful passage in the seventeenth of St. John’s Gospel. At the close of our Lord’s intercessory prayer we read: “And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (John xvii. 26). Here again the love referred to is nothing short of God’s own love. The truth declared is the indwelling of Divine love. “When God’s love to us comes to be in us, it is like the virtue which the loadstone gives the needle, inclining it to move towards the pole” (Lange). As Dr. Westcott remarks: “The possibility of such a consummation lies in the fact of the presence of the Son Himself in them.” The love of God in lighting on believers will not attach itself to aught that is defiled. For it will in truth light only on Jesus Himself, on Jesus living in them, and upon them as identified with Him and reflecting His holy image” (Godet).

In the same way that passage in St. John’s Epistle is to be understood: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us” (1 John iii. 1). How many read these words as if the meaning were, Behold what manner of love the Father hath manifested towards us. But here we have something more “than a mere demonstration of love; the full power of Divine love has imparted itself to us as our own, is a free gift to us; not only specific manifestations of the love of God, but that love itself it given to us” (Haupt). Or, as another puts it, “God has made His love our property” (Meyer). “God has not only given in love, but He has given love itself, made it our own, absolutely given it to us, so that His love is now ours” (Lange). Dr. Westcott remarks on this text, in his Commentary on the Epistles of St. John: “The love is not simply exhibited towards believers, but imparted to them. The Divine love is, as it were, infused into them, so that it is their own, and becomes in them the source of a Divine life (Rom. xiii. 10). In virtue of this gift, therefore, they are inspired with a love which is like the love of God, and by this they truly claim the title of children of God, as par-takers in His nature.”

Then we have that marvelous statement in the fourth chapter of this same Epistle (1 John iv. 16), on which Dr. Westcott observes: “The nature of the believer must be conformed to the nature of God. . . . From the very nature of God, it follows as a necessary consequence that the life of self-devotion is a life in fellowship with Him. . . . ‘He that abides in love,’ as the sphere in which his life is fulfilled, ‘abides in God, and God [abides] in him. He that so abides in love hath risen to the heavenly order (Col. iii. 3), and found the power of Divine fellowship for the accomplishment of earthly work.'”

One deeply taught in the spiritual life observes: “We must remember carefully to discriminate that it is not the way of our salvation that St. John is here speaking of. He assumes that those whom he is addressing are saved; for notice, what comes immediately before is: ‘whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God’ – that is salvation, that confession of faith is salvation – ‘God dwells in him, and he in God’ – that is the union, consequent upon the faith, in the salvation, with the Son, and through the Son with the Father. . . . It is a very strong and eloquent term ‘to dwell in love,’ a home of love. And the promise of that home of love is more wonderful still – that God shall be our home. And then more stupendous beyond it – and we shall be God’s home. He that has made his home in love, has his home in God, and God has His home in him” (Rev. James Vaughan, Brighton).

It is in this home of Divine love the will is free. It is then that “God is the element of human volition” (Delitzsch). Finding our home is God, the bondage of external restraint is at an end. This is not a mere ideal. It is a possible experience. It is that “fullness of the blessing of Christ” we may know even here in this life. Truth, peace, and love are no less realities than are the mind, the conscience, and the will.

It is by bringing each part of our being into its true environment that the Spirit accomplishes His work of emancipation. A life of mere duty is thus transformed into a life of liberty and delight. Let us suppose the case of one whose desires are only partially purified. Peace with God has been known and realized. But, owing to a want of liberty, this peace has become sadly marred. Incessant struggles and repeated failures have robbed the life of all joy. Such a one is told that conflict is one of the characteristics of the Christian life. He learns, moreover, from the word of God that he is called to “fight the good fight of faith,” and that being a soldier of the Cross he has to “put on the whole armour of God.” Conflict, therefore, he sees clearly from Scripture there must be.

But how often such a one concludes too hastily that the struggles he experiences constitute the Christian warfare! He does not distinguish between conflict and rebellion. The will may not be wholly yielded. It may be under the influence of some evil desire.

There can be no real peace or liberty for a soul in that condition. We can conceive of a case in which the will is strong, and the passions are held well under control. And what have you? You have a life of outward abstinence from the evil and of conformity to the good, but not a life of joy and liberty. You have a man who walks conscientiously, it is true; but he knows nothing of real delight and freedom in the service of God.

The force of conscience and the power of will may be sufficient in many instances to keep the passions under restraint, so that in the main there is an absence of outward transgression, and, it may be a good deal of zeal and activity in working for God. But, oh, what a sense of strain and perpetual bondage within! Christ’s yoke is felt to be constantly pressing. It is not found to be easy, nor His burden to be light.

Now let us suppose such a one is brought under the power of a fuller and deeper work of the Holy Spirit. Let us suppose that Divine love sanctifies his desires to the same degree that Divine truth has emancipated his mind and Divine peace his conscience – what then? A complete change takes place in his whole life. Because he begins to love, and delights in the right, as well as recognizes its excellence, he now finds it easy to do it. He begins to like what God commands; and it is never hard to do what one likes. Then he finds the truth, in his own experience, of those words, “His commandments are not grievous.”

Here, then, lies the secret of liberty and delight in the service of the Lord.

Seek to grasp the glorious fact that you may have Christ as Divine love filling your soul. Just as the alabaster box was in the house, and its presence may not have been known, so Christ has been a long time with many of His disciples, and they have not known Him; that is, they have been comparatively ignorant of His glorious fullness. But no sooner was the box broken, and the ointment shed abroad, than the odour filled the house. So when the love of God is poured forth by the Holy Spirit – when the infinite treasures of Divine love stored up in Christ are disclosed, revealed in us, shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit – their subduing, liberating, and transforming influences begin at once to be seen and felt. Their cleansing and purifying effect on our thoughts and desires are realized. We begin to learn then what our blessed Lord meant when He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. v. 8).

But do you ask, How am I to get this love? “Love,” one has said, “cannot be produced by a direct action of the soul upon itself. A man in a boat cannot move it by pressing it from within.”

It is not by straining and struggling that this blessed condition is brought about; it comes by a very real dedication of ourselves to God for this very purpose, and with this as the special end and aim in view. Just lie quietly before Him. Open all the avenues of your being, and let Him come in and take possession of every chamber. Especially give Him your heart – the very seat of your desires, the throne of your affections. Yield all up to Him, and the Lord will enter, bringing with Him all the riches of His grace and glory, turning your life of duty into a life of liberty and love. >

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