By Christopher VanDusen
All believers in the Lord Jesus Christ know that He lived a perfect, sinless, life, but what does that mean? We know this means that He obeyed God the Father at every single moment with perfect love for Him, but how did He do this? Many Christians would say that He did this by perfectly obeying the Law that God gave to Israel through Moses. But is this what Scripture teaches? In the ground-breaking new book, Jesus, Son of Liberty: A New Covenant Theology Reply to the Doctrine of the Active Obedience of Christ, Bible scholar J. Angus Harley, who self-published it this year, and wrote A New Covenant Theology Critique of the Adamic Covenant, clearly and powerfully answers this question.
Jesus is the Liberator from the Law
In his introduction, Harley lays out in broad strokes the central themes of his book. Near the beginning, he presents his central argument — Jesus replaced the Old Covenant made with Israel with the New Covenant during His earthly ministry, so He couldn’t have offered two different types of obedience to God — one called “active” because it was to the Law, and one called “passive” because it was through His death.
After explaining his central argument, Harley summarizes the background and details of this argument. First, the righteousness that believers receive at salvation doesn’t come from Jesus’s obedience to the Law, but from Jesus Himself. Second, Jesus’s obedience is cross-centered, rather than Law-centered. Third, the Gospels are narratives that describe the transition from the Old Covenant (OC) to the New Covenant (NC). Fourth, Jesus was born under the Law’s bondage, rather than under its authority. As such, He obeyed the Father, and not the Law. By doing so, He fulfilled both the Law and the Prophets.
In order to fulfill the Law, Harley explains, Christ replaced it with His own law. In addition, He revealed what Harley calls the “heart virtues” of love, compassion, and so on, that God requires of all people. This required Him to disobey the Law, but allowed Him to introduce the New Covenant during His ministry. This meant that He brought salvation through God’s curse on mankind, which was magnified through the Law.
The Doctrines of the Protestant Reformation and the Gospels
Harley divides his book up into three main sections. The first section explains the theological underpinnings of Harley’s refutation of the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience. In the first chapter of this section, he argues that most of the central doctrines of the Protestant Reformation can be used to show that Christ didn’t perfectly keep the Law of Moses. These doctrines are “Scripture alone”, “always reforming”, “grace alone”, “Christ alone”, and “faith alone”. He demonstrates that, rather than using these doctrines to accurately understand Christ’s obedience to the Father, people have held on to some of the Roman Catholicism that Protestants endeavored to leave. He then teaches that the implications of these doctrines demand that Christ’s obedience be to the Father’s will, rather than to the Law.
In the second chapter, Harley surveys the Gospels to show their main themes about Christ and the NC. He calls these themes “solas”, since they focus on one aspect of Christ and the NC, rather than them and some facet of the OC or the Law. These solas are “NC alone”, “Christ’s kingdom alone”, “the Spirit alone”, “fulfiller of Scripture alone”, “God’s Son alone”, and “the Lord alone”. Harley proves that these themes of the Gospels leave no room for Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law.
Harley ends this section by answering many possible objections to his teaching.
Jesus’s Relationships with the Pharisees, the Unclean, and the Sabbath
In the second section of the book, Harley discusses three background concepts that need to be understood in order to properly interpret the major Gospel passages that speak to Jesus’s relationship with the Law. He begins with Jesus’s relationship with the Pharisees. In his chapter on this issue, he refutes a recently popularized teaching in evangelical scholarship that the Pharisees were sympathetic to Jesus’s treatment of the Law. This teaching is called The New Perspective on the Jews. Harley clearly demonstrates that, far from having common understandings of the Law, Jesus and the Pharisees were largely in total disagreement over its purpose and value. As such, they were mostly bitter enemies, rather than friendly with each other.
Secondly, Harley demonstrates that Jesus mixed with unclean people, while at the same time replacing the “cleanliness rules” of the Law. In so doing, He fought against the uncleanness of sin by absorbing it, and completely removing it.
Finally, Harley argues that Jesus’s relationship to the Sabbath was one of fulfillment, rather than observance. He does this by defining what the Sabbath was during Jesus’s life, what the Pharisees’ view of the Sabbath was, and by describing Jesus’s work on the Sabbath.
Jesus Declared All Foods Clean and Broke the Sabbath
In the final section of the book, Harley explains three passages of Scripture that clearly show that Jesus violated the Law, rather than kept it. The first passage is Mark 7:19c, which teaches that Jesus made all foods clean, in contradiction to the Law, which distinguished between clean and unclean foods. The second passage is Matthew 12:1-8, which recounts the disciples breaking the Sabbath by plucking grain, and Jesus defending their violation to the Pharisees with Scripture. The third passage is John 5:18, which describes the Jews as seeking to kill Jesus because He broke the Sabbath.
Writing Quality and Value
Harley’s writing is a mix of casual conversation and academic teaching. This makes it easy to understand, and easy to believe. Harley makes the same point in different ways numerous times, so the most thick-headed people can grasp at what he’s getting at. Also, he’s done extensive research on virtually all the topics that he discusses, and cites numerous credible sources of information. Most important, he proves nearly all of his main points from the Bible, upholding the biblical doctrine of “Scripture alone”.
If you don’t understand the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience, or just want to understand the nature of Christ’s earthly ministry, then this book will help you. I’d say that this is one of the most important books on the active obedience of Christ in print, and needs to be read by all those who hold to New Covenant Theology, and yet still believe that Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law. If you believe that, I whole-heartedly recommend this book to you.
This book is available in print at $14.99 (US) and on Kindle at $9.49 here:
Harley’s other book is A New Covenant T’heology Critique of the Adamic Covenant: A Response to Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, which can be bought here: