This longish post was written after a painful argument with a loved one. Hurting, I went searching for what love meant in my context. I felt the need to take care of myself, which may mean ultimately closing myself off to this person. My soul searching came through this reflection and reminded me about what love is, and what being free to love really means. That’s true freedom. And, without God, for me it’d be impossible.
If you want to understand the freedom Christ offers, turn to Galatians 5.
Of course, there is more to a Christian understanding of freedom than one chapter of Paul’s writings. Paul expounds on freedom in relation to the law much more in Romans. More importantly, you can’t really understand freedom in Christianity without, first, spending time with the importance of freedom in Judaism. The Exodus and the prophets’ word to the Jews in exile provide a much-needed backdrop to understand the depth of freedom as a central theme of Old Testament and New Testament theology. But, taken in one sitting, Galatians 5 provides quite a bit on its own for what freedom in Christ means. That’s what I write about.
Of course, for Paul, real freedom begins in Christ. It begins in Christ’s relationship to the law.
Paul’s understanding of the law and Christ is among the most important themes in Christian theology, especially Protestant theology. Paul first talks about this in Galatians 5. Paul is writing to a group of early Christian converts who apparently adopted or began teaching that you need circumcision to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. To know Paul is to know that Paul vehemently opposes this. Moreover, his opposition to it is central to understanding Christianity for Paul.
Understanding the tension between Christ and the law is necessary to rightly interpret Paul’s opposition of flesh and spirit which follow. From these tensions rise life in the Spirit and Christian freedom. What makes Paul’s message so enduring and relevant today is that he knows “the flesh” can not only enslave us by consuming our heart’s desires. The selfishness of “the flesh,” for Paul, can also consume religion.
For Paul, freedom begins in liberating us from the requirements of any outward law. Paul’s point comes together in verses 1, 3, and 5.
For freedom Christ has set us free… I testify to every person who lets themselves be circumcised that they are obliged to obey the entire law…[but] in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
Here is the kernel of the whole chapter. Paul is writing to a community of the earliest Christian converts. Unlike Paul, many early evangelists of Christ’s message taught that to accept the good news and follow Christ, one first be circumcised. After all, Jesus was a Jew.
For Paul, circumcision entwines someone in the whole of the law and its requirements. Circumcision is the outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant, from which everything follows. This meant Gentiles had to submit to circumcision and observe the law in order to receive and follow Christ. Paul is a Pharisee, a devout Jew. Ironically, he sees this as completely backwards. It’s even opposed to Christ and the good news he brings. For Paul, Christ liberates us to something else – life in love for others and the Spirit. This is what Paul seeks to single out and life high above all else.
Freedom in Christ does not point to ourselves, whether it’s our own justification, selfish wants, or self-righteousness. This is where Paul’s judgment on the fruits of the law is so total and profound. The 613 laws of the Torah were never intended to self-aggrandize the Jews or the individuals who followed them. Quite the opposite: The law pointed to honoring and remembering God in all things. The Law taught to a life of disciplined devotion and humility, self-restraint and sacrifice (literally and otherwise), hospitality to the stranger and love of neighbor. It is these fruits of following the law that Paul wants to recover. However, the logic and purpose of the law had become something else.
What Paul could not allow was any self-justification or self-righteousness before God and neighbor. Nothing could be more antithetical to Christ and what Christ had done. But, this is precisely what the law had become, especially by separating the righteous and sinner. If separation and self-righteousness had become the essence of the law, Christ had totally overcome it for Paul. For Paul, in Christ, Love of God and neighbor became the one overarching gospel that relegated and overcame all others requirements. This Spirit testified to it.
Verses 4 and 5 make Paul’s judgment of the law clear. He writes,
“You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.”
Clearly, righteousness no longer comes from the law for Paul. It comes from grace, through Christ, and by the Spirit.
Faith, therefore, points someone’s trust beyond the law, beyond any justification or self-righteousness that can be outwardly judged or self-expressed. Faith is required because in Christ, there is freedom. Love is the eternal law. Paul reminds us of the original purpose of the law in verses 13 and 14. He says,
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servant to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Any selfish use of the law for justification or self-righteousness is a perversion. Love is the whole law, its requirement and commandment. Outward fulfillment of the law can lead to self-righteousness. The separation of self-righteousness does not justify.
By distinguishing the law and Christ, Paul theologizes the opposition of flesh and the Spirit. The opposition of flesh and Spirit is the next step to understanding the freedom Christ offers. But, it is easily misunderstood and misconstrued.
The Spirit opposes the flesh in the same way Christ frees us to move beyond justification of the law. If God’s law can become a tool of separation, self-justification and self-righteousness, then it is no better than any other selfish work or way of life. In such a community, the love between self and neighbor is distorted and grace-less. This is what happens with religion becomes self-righteous or a religion of separation and justification. Only life in the Spirit frees us from this kind of life to love God, self, and neighbor. God in Christ reveals to us what love and self and neighbor really is. This was the intention of the law and the message of the prophets. It is now fulfilled in Christ.
As a matter of illustration, Paul goes on to provide a list of works of the flesh. It’s a list of rather negative stuff. What qualifies everything on the list is not that they are all sensuous, bodily, or break some religious moral rule. Rather, every work of the flesh Paul lists is selfish or self-indulgent. Works of the flesh serve immediate desires, our selfish reactions, and outward judgments of ourselves and others. Paul suggests that these are not where the Kingdom of God is at.
In contrast, Paul also provides a list of fruits of the Spirit. They include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What is obvious about this list is that everything on it moves us beyond our immediate wants, reactions, and outward judgments. Moreover, these fruits are cultivated by loving ourselves and others.
What’s most profound about this list – from a religious standpoint – is these things are good beyond any law or requirement. These fruits are good in and of themselves. Paul is explicit: “There’s no law against these things.” This is life in Spirit. We are free from any need for self-justification, religious requirement or constraint. Life in the Spirit is possible because of God’s grace. This is what we see in Christ.
This life is the freedom Christ offers.