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The Perfect Law of Liberty
I wrote several week ago about the salvific and life-giving nature of the Gospel commandments. I argued that those who would dispense with them out of a misguided sense of compassion for modern man are in fact dispensing with the very medicine by which modern man can and must be healed.
So often we view the commandments as burdensome rather than as therapeutic, as obligations rather than as divine gifts. In our fragmented way of thinking, we conceptualize the commandments as a set of prerequisites for attaining the real goal of salvation. Such a conceptualization leads naturally to the attitude that the commandments are imposed by God more or less artificially; that is, we believe that salvation can be attained totally without reference to the commandments, so long as we have made some kind of alternate arrangement with God.
Most Protestants believe this quite explicitly, and many of us who have been raised in a Protestant religious milieu continue to hold this belief subconsciously, even if we reject it intellectually. It is quite easy for us to simply substitute the Protestant “alternate arrangement” (saying the Sinner’s Prayer, for example) with an Orthodox equivalent — for instance, being baptized, confessing, and receiving Holy Communion regularly. In either case, we are merely substituting one set of religious tasks which we think we must perform in order to be saved with another.
That is to say, in either case we are totally missing the point. With or without the commandments, we have become legalists.
And though we thereby fail to properly understand the commandments, at the root of our error is a profound and fundamental misunderstanding of salvation itself. Salvation is not some sort of disembodied pleasure paradise in the sky, with God as the gatekeeper who only lets in the people who have properly kept up their end of some kind of religious bargain.
Christ did not come to get rid of all the rules, nor did He come to give us an easier version of a contract by which we can bargain our way into heaven.
Christ came to make us into gods.
Salvation is theosis, deification, union with God Himself. Salvation is to become by grace everything which God is by nature. As St. Basil the Great said, “Man is a creature who has received a command to become God.”
And it is this commandment which undergirds all the other commandments. The Gospel commandments teach us how and what it means to become God.
When viewed in this light, the idea that any of these commandments are somehow unnecessary, or that they can in some way be dispensed with, becomes absolutely absurd. How is it possible to become God without becoming like Him?
Without any doubt, this is a great mystery. St. John, the Apostle of Love, said: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him.”
“We shall be like Him.” This is the only purpose of our life on earth, the only goal which has any lasting worth or meaning. How easily we forget this, in the hustle and bustle and cares and distractions of this vain and transitory life. How quickly do we agree to trade our heavenly birthright for a mess of pottage!
To become like God. It is for precisely this reason that we have been given the Gospel commandments. It is for precisely this reason that we have been given repentance, and it is precisely for this reason that we have been given the Holy Mysteries. Not because the doing of any of these things will convince God to allow us into Heaven, but because these things are in themselves the Kingdom of Heaven being made manifest in our lives.
We cannot become God without becoming God. We cannot enter Heaven in any other way than by entering it.
It is difficult for us to conceive of such things, and it is far more difficult to speak about them. These are mysteries which must be lived, and which can only be taught by being shown rather than described. As St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) once said: “Every commandment of God is a holy mystery; it is fully revealed only by following it and by how much one fulfills it.”
We would do well to remember this saying when we make our witness before the unbelieving world. Politics and legislation and Supreme Court nominations may be able in some measure to protect us, but that protection means absolutely nothing if we are not manifesting the holy mystery of the very commandments which we seek to protect. No unbelieving soul was ever saved from perdition by legislation, executive order, or ruling from the bench.
And if we do not first make the holy mystery of the commandments manifest in our own lives, then we will be wholly unable to convince others of the truth that these commandments are not oppressive, but rather are filled with the love and the life of God. Elder Barsanuphius of Optina constantly quoted the Apostle John: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” But this is a truth that can only be learned in the doing. As G. K. Chesterton once said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Modern man is in love with freedom. And though nearly every moral stricture and restraint on human desire has now been abolished from our society, still modern man chafes at his unseen bonds and cries out constantly that he is oppressed. Meanwhile he looks with scorn on the Law of God, and smirks with derision when he hears the Apostle James speak of “the perfect law of liberty” — after all, only simpletons and morons could ever be duped into believing in something as foolish and self-contradictory as that.
So modern man has abolished nearly every law, and yet thirsts ever the more for the freedom which constantly recedes before his eyes. Having emancipated himself from his Father’s house, he finds himself penniless and hires himself out to others in the far country of this life, feeding the swine of his passions and himself perishing from hunger.
But he does not need to make any kind of religious bargain in order to be allowed to return his Father’s house. All along he has had the very freedom which he longs for so profoundly. It is the inheritance which he demanded from his Father, and then squandered on his passions. It is the only freedom that can ever possibly mean anything: it is the freedom to choose whether or not to go home.
The Gospel commandments are the signposts that show him the way back to his Father’s house. Repentance is the desire and the willingness to set out on the path, and the sacraments are the medicine and the provisions which will sustain him on his long journey home.