Transformed by the Spirit

There is a great deal in scripture that we immediately recognize to be complex, mysterious or even foreign to our experience, but if there is one thing we as good 21st century Americans know, it’s freedom.

And so when we run across Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” it is tempting to relax and assume that Paul is finally speaking our language. But just when we think we are on solid ground, we make our way down to 5:13 and read something downright shocking to our American sensibilities: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love (TNIV, emphasis mine).

And just like that, Paul has lost us. Isn’t the whole point of freedom that we are free to indulge whatever impulse we want? Isn’t that what George Washington fought for? (It isn’t, but that’s for another article).

As it happens, Paul does have a different paradigm in mind. Paul, as he makes clear, is using freedom to denote a relase from slavery or captivity rather than the permission to do whatever we please whenever we please. In fact Paul argues that in Christ we have been freed from two kinds of bondage: we are freed on the one hand from slavery to sin and on the other from being held, “in custody under the law,” on the other (3:23).  Thus for Paul indulging the sinful nature isn’t an exercise in freedom, it is a rejection of freedom, a choice to return to our prior slavery.

How then do we live in and enjoy this double-freedom from the law and from sin? The key, Paul says, is to recognize that we are not only freed from something, but also for something. Specifically, he says, we were freed for love, freed to “serve one another humbly in love” (13), and freed to love your neighbor as yourself” (14). Or in other words, we have been set free from the power of sin so that we might finally live as God created us and called us to live in the first place. We are free to be fully human beings after the pattern of Jesus, the new and last Adam.

God in Christ has purchased for us the precious gift of freedom. We have been set free from the power of sin, and from the stewardship of the law. But as Paul reminds us, that freedom means the choice and responsibility is now ours. Will we use our freedom to live as free and full human people? Will we use our freedom to serve one another in love? Or will we choose to be “burdened again by our yoke of slavery?” (5:1). My hope is that as we walk together through the book of Galatians this Fall we will be reminded both what we have been freed from and what we have been freed for. And I hope that will encourage us to choose freedom, to choose to walk with the Spirit and so to fully enjoy the freedom purchased for us at so high a price.