Paul the Apostle

Paul's New Understanding of Freedom

John Hemer, 08/08/2016

I once heard a lapsed Catholic say that one thing he admired about the Catholic Church was that it allowed people “freedom of conscience”—presumably the freedom to judge for themselves what was right or wrong, good or bad. Is that the “freedom” Paul taught, or is it an example of what Augustine said about freedom without Christ being merely the freedom of a runaway slave?


When Paul says For Christ is the end of the Law, that every one who has faith may be justified. (Rms. 10:4) he means that not only has Christ brought the Law to its conclusion and removed the need for it, but that he is its goal and purpose. The Law was there to lead people to Christ. When they come to him, they don’t completely jettison the way of living the Law trained them in: they do largely the same things, less from constraint than from love. Consider the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, who represents the last cry of the Law. Clearly the gospels indicate that Jesus is “greater” than John, but at the same time Jesus has the highest respect for him. To be disciples of Jesus it is necessary in a sense to be disciples of John, to desire to avoid evil and to do good. John leads or points to Christ, but to go back to following John having known Jesus would indeed be a backward step. Like John, the Law was there to help people realize how much they needed Christ.


When Law is abolished, there is always the risk that the result may not be freedom, but chaos. Paul is very aware of this. If someone stops living under the Law, but fails to live under Christ, they end up worse than ever; when a society does this the result is chaos. So having berated the Galatians for four chapters on how the Law is now useless, Paul has then to say: After all, brothers, you were called to be free; do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love (Gal. 5:13).


Somewhat surprisingly, one of the “cutting edges” for this issue in Paul's day was the question of food that had been offered to idols. If people live under the Law, it is very clear what they can and cannot eat. Once freed from the Law, they find that the rule about what is edible or not is no longer what Moses laid down, but what will make for the good and edification of the people around me. Paul says: Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured [i.e. scandalized] by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died (Rmns. 14:13-15).


Formerly the Law provided detailed answers to questions and was the arbiter in disputes. Now, the stability that came from the Law must be replaced by life in Christ. Paul puts the tension very eloquently: For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ (1 Cor. 7:22). Freedom from the Law does not put people into a moral vacuum: it is freedom for a relationship with Christ or it isn’t freedom.


Read and reflect on the parable of the Return of the Unclean Spirit which is a perfect summary of the above (Lk. 11: 24-26).



© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.

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