by Barry Newton
Inscribed upon what we know as the Liberty Bell are the words, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This bell with its words provides a wonderful example of how an intended message can be appropriated for other functions.
Originally, this bell was intended to commemorate William Penn’s 50th anniversary and his values of religious freedom, native American rights, and citizens’ participation in enacting laws. What could be more appropriate than borrowing the words from the 50-year Jubilee celebration in Leviticus 25:10?
Yet this massive cast bell has come to carry far different meanings. Most Americans will probably associate it with our independence from England in 1776 and the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Additionally, abolitionists coined the phrase “Liberty Bell” when they adopted it as their iconic symbol.
There is another message about freedom, one found in the Bible, that has also been appropriated to promote causes other than what was originally intended.
When Paul wrote “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1), he affirmed that a Christian’s standing before God is not derived from the Law. Christ set us free from the need to obey the Law in order to ensure our status with God. Throughout Galatians, Paul argues that Christ is the basis of our right standing before God, not the Law.
By redefining Paul’s terms, some have hijacked the apostle’s message. This seems to be an attempt to proclaim their own impassioned agenda of freedom under the guise of biblical phraseology.
Although every indication throughout Galatians is that Paul had in mind the Law given at Mt. Sinai, their expanded connotation of law envisions Paul asserting that Christians are free from the necessity to obey commands. Effectively, this severs Christian responsibility from complying with or conforming to any of God’s commands.
To complete their argument, they emphasize how Paul juxtaposes “faith” against “works” but employ their own definitions of faith and works. Faith is presumed to be identical to just believing, while works is redefined as doing something.
Unfortunately, these meanings ignore Paul’s consistent usage of faith and works throughout Galatians and his other letters. For Paul, faith entailed reacting with the appropriate trust-response to a specific person or situation. In some situations, where, for example, a promise was offered, mere belief constitutes trust (Romans 4:3-4; Galatians 3:6-8). In such contexts, we find Paul defending the principle of faith, not providing us with a definition of faith as mere belief.
In other circumstances, however, such as describing how someone responds with faith to the gospel, thereby enabling someone to enter into Christ’s body and to receive forgiveness, Paul frames faith as an active obedience doing something (Romans 1:5; 6:17-18; Galatians 3:26-27).
Similarly, to redefine works by expanding it to embrace “doing something,” also misrepresents Paul’s negative usage of works. Paul decried the demands of the Law as being foreign to the way of reliance upon Christ. These were two different paths toward justification. Nowhere did he enlarge his definition of works to incorporate all obedient activity.
While perhaps there is no harm in amplifying iconic symbols to embrace new meanings, when it comes to scripture, there is only one message which can accurately be called the word of God. God’s word is the Bible’s original message.