For Freedom: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

July 4, 2013

“You see, then, brethren, that we are sons of the free woman, not of the slave; such is the freedom Christ has won for us.” Gal 4:31-5:1

Or the more familiar translation: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Gal 5:1

Understanding Paul takes a bit of patience and broad thinking because as quotable as he is it can be very easy to proof text his words especially if they are not situated in the context they are found. The meaning of these words have often suffered at the hands of narrow-minded Christians who fall into the very trap that Paul calls the churches of Galatia to avoid. The trap of thinking that our freedom is that of the flesh, that our freedom is such that we might do whatever we feel like doing. Some people would certainly interpret freedom to mean exactly that–to mean that because we are free to ride around on an ATV, waving a flag and popping off a series of bullets into the air whooping and screaming all the while–then it is precisely what we’ll do. This of course is a shallow meaning of the word freedom and truly pales in comparison to the kind of freedom that the founding fathers had in mind, the potential for freedom in us as human beings, but above all the freedom for which Christ has set us free.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which is quite readable in one sitting, does not speak of an absolute freedom to follow any and all of our inclinations. Paul in his recognition of Christ the paradox, writes, “Yes, brethren, freedom claimed you when you were called. Only, do not let this freedom give a foothold to corrupt nature; you must be servants still, serving one another in a Spirit of charity” (Gal 5:13). We are freed so that we might be slaves to each other in love! This is quite stunning if you think about it. Even before Christ we were free to do whatever the heck we wanted, be it living in drunkenness, debauchery or other forms of selfishness. However, the freedom Christ’s sacrifice opens for us is caritas–the divine love of God capable in us. This is the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

This is consistent with Paul’s thought particularly in this letter because the entire letter aims at explaining what justifies us. It is not the law nor its observance but Christ. To participate in Christ’s salvation requires faith in Him lived in the life of the Spirit. Unfortunately, here is where another misinterpretation frequently makes its way into Christian circles, namely the argument for faith alone as opposed to works. But again a careful and complete reading of the letter reveals he is not even arguing against works of faith. In fact he states, “Let us not be discouraged, then, over our acts of charity; we shall reap when the time comes, if we persevere in them” (Gal 6:9). Paul is speaking in opposition to those who argue for circumcision as necessary for salvation. He makes a general rule inclusive of the circumcision issue to observe the commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” reiterating with Jesus that this fulfills the whole of the law. Paul specifies that it is not works of the law that justifies us but what he in essence says it is walking in the Spirit, which entails works of charity and faith. The freedom for such work is the freedom won for us by Christ.

This might sound counter-intuitive; after all, the root word for service is the latin “servus” or slave. Christ has essentially freed us for another kind of slavery. This is deliberate in Paul who constantly tempers each of his teachings with paradox. Just as the wisdom of God is folly to the world (Cf. I Cor 1:21) and the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world (I Cor 1:25) the freedom of Christ’s victory is slavery in love. For slavery in divine love is more liberating than the freedom of the world. Again, Paul uses similar language in I Corinthians 7:22 in his efforts to describe what happens to a person entering into Christian discipleship that a slave becomes a free man in Christ just as a free person becomes a slave in Christ. The freedom then is not freedom from responsibility, consequences and rules. The real freedom we have can not be taken away even if we are imprisoned, tortured, persecuted, even killed. The freedom won for us is love beyond all contrary circumstances.

Writing his letters from the jail cell, Deitrich Bonhoffer was even asked by his captor guards to speak of and teach them about Christ. This is the radiant freedom of the Christian. Regardless of what may happen to the body and the desires one may have through them, there is a strength that comes from being led by the Spirit that is unshakable. It is not stubbornness, narrow-minded obstinacy or willful ignorance though some professed Christians will fall into these traps. Rather, one rooted in the freedom of the truth is indeed willing to suffer for it. Hence, Paul lists of the fruits of the Spirit in contrast to the fruits of a corrupt nature which helps one to know whether he is enjoying the true freedom of Christ (Gal 5:19-26). It is the freedom to be as Christ was and still is free–the freedom of the children of God–to do as He did ultimately to be as He is.

So, when we speak of freedom it is not so much a “freedom from” as much as a “freedom for;” a freedom for truth, caritas and discipleship in Christ. When we look to the people whom we might admire for the degree to which they enjoy being free. We must ask, are they enjoying it with peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, charity, generosity, modesty, chastity, courage, joy, perseverance and goodness or with drunkenness, orgies, provocation and other “freedoms” Americans are so apt to indulge on this day of celebration. I’d rather celebrate such a day in real unadulterated joy found only in love and faith in Christ. To him be the glory, honor and praise and let freedom ring to all corners of the earth but especially in America this day.

One Response to “For Freedom: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians”

  1. Anonymous said

    Amen!

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