There are different ways to understand freedom. There is childhood freedom, which remains linked to the carefree days of summer, peddling furiously to the playground to join friends in a game of baseball or to go swimming. The summer idyll reflects freedom from responsibility. Others view freedom as the choice to live your life however you choose, unencumbered by religious morality or authority figures. This is freedom as license. There is also the liberty to choose among a series of candidates for office in elections, some of whom might even inspire some hope in you, so that there is a freedom to establish how we are governed. This is the nobility of political freedom.
None of these, though, are what Paul has in mind when he claims that it is “for freedom (eleutheria) Christ has set us free.” Ancient Greek thought comes closer to what Paul had in mind since, especially among the Stoics, freedom was not grounded in external circumstances but in how an individual responded to these circumstances. To be apatheia, for a Stoic, was not to be swayed by outside events but to retain control over one’s emotions and thus one’s soul. But for Paul, this would ignore the power of sin.
The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria approaches Paul’s thought in his treatise Every Good Man Is Free. Philo’s positive point of view is expressed in the contrasting statement: “Every bad man is a slave” (No. 1). Philo states that “in very truth he who has God alone for his leader, he alone is free” (No. 20). For Philo, sin enslaves us; it is the soul following the dictates of God’s law that sets us free.
While this is not far from Paul’s view of freedom, what sets Paul apart from Philo is that Paul believes that freedom has been gained through the salvific actions of Jesus Christ, not simply by following the Law of Moses. Paul writes, “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” In some sense, Paul’s freedom is freedom from law—not, like Philo, freedom that comes from following the law.
This is the hardest part of Paul’s thought, though, since he also says Christ does not lead us away from the law but to its fulfillment. How is this done? As the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (No. 11) states, Christ “bore witness to the truth, but he refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it.” Christ offers us freedom through his example, which draws us to fulfill the law not out of obligation but out of love of neighbor and God. Paul says that the whole law is fulfilled in love.
Freedom is not “an opportunity for self-indulgence” but an opportunity to “through love become slaves to one another.” In the Greek text, the word (sarx) translated “self-indulgence” means literally “flesh,” which intends not just “sins of the flesh” but the behaviors of the whole person turned away from God, which can include greed, gossip and any other weakness to which humanity is prone. Our freedom through Christ is to be an opportunity to go beyond the demands of the law in order to love in the same way Christ loved us. Christ gives us the
The contrast, therefore, is not really between freedom and law, but between flesh and Spirit. It is the license of the “flesh” that Paul warns against, which can only be combated by the Spirit. Paul says, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” Yet when you are led by the Spirit—and this is the conundrum here of true freedom—you do not pursue moral license, or attempt to skirt the limits of the law, or seek even the carefree life of a child, free of responsibility. Instead you attempt to be guided by the Spirit. For when you live in the Spirit, you find freedom in pursuing the good of the neighbor and the truth of God.