In what sense does the moral law remain God’s will for the Christian who has been called to freedom in Christ? (Gal 5: 1, 13) To answer this important question, especially now when winds of antinomianism and confusing claims about conscience are blowing through the Church, we can look to Aquinas’ distinction between the obliging and compelling forces of the moral law. (Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians)
Aquinas reflects on two key texts: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17); “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal 5:18)
Paul is talking about the interior freedom of those who are moved by the Spirit. But those moved by the Spirit would not act against the moral laws expressed in the second table of the Decalogue, for these laws have an obliging force: “All the faithful are under the Law, because it was given to all – hence it is said: ‘I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it’ [Matt 5:17-19].”
Pace the antinomians, moral laws do tell us what one is allowed or not allowed to do, permitted or forbidden. Yes, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Gal 5:1) But our freedom in Christ does not mean that we are no longer obliged to be faithful in marriage (not commit adultery), to protect human life (not commit murder), to honor our parents, keep our promises, tell the truth (not bear false witness against our neighbor), and the like.
Being free in Christ does not mean that we’re above the law. Christians are not antinomians. This is evident from St. Paul’s description of those who “walk by the Spirit.” He writes:
Walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out [the] desires of the flesh. . . .If you are being led by the Spirit you are not under [the jurisdiction] of the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: Sexual immorality [porneia], [sexual] impurity [akatharsia; a term used of same-sex intercourse in Rom 1:24-27], [sexual] licentiousness [aselgeia]. . . I warn you, just as I warned you beforehand, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. . . .And those who belong to Christ [have] crucified the flesh with its passions and its desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Gal 5:16-25)
Regarding the compelling force of the moral law, Aquinas is clear that those who are moved by the Spirit are not under the law – and thus are not constrained or compelled by the law. But this means that they have the interior freedom to choose the good out of love for God, the dynamism of the Holy Spirit being their inspiration: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
Aquinas comments, “For charity inclines to the very things that the Law prescribes. Therefore, because the just have an inward law, they willingly do what the Law commands and are not constrained by it.” Indeed, the Psalmist speaks of the man of God as one who delights in the law, which is true and life-giving.
In this light, we see why Aquinas holds that he who would do evil but is held back by a sense of shame or by fear of the law is externally compelled to keep the law. He thus experiences the moral law as a form of bondage, which imposes moral precepts unrelated to his good. This man is still under the law, and hence not free in a Pauline sense:
A person is free when he belongs to himself; a slave, on the contrary, belongs to his master. In the same way, he acts freely who acts spontaneously, while he who receives his impulse from another does not act freely. Therefore, he who avoids evil not because it is evil but because of a commandment of God is not free. But he who avoids evil because it is evil is free.
Therefore, about Pauline freedom, Aquinas writes: “Now it is precisely this that the Holy Spirit brings about, for he perfects our spirit interiorly, giving it a new dynamism, and thus the person refrains from evil out of love, as if the divine law commanded it of him. He is free, therefore, not in the sense that the divine law no longer holds for him, but in the sense that his interior dynamism moves him to do what the divine law prescribes.” (Commentary on Saint Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 3, Lesson 3)
Aquinas’ concluding point – that the divine law still holds for the man of Pauline freedom – is clear because both Jesus and the Apostles appeal to the Decalogue (Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9; Eph 6:2; James 2:11). The moral law retains its meaning as, “holy law” and as “holy and just and good.” (Rom 7:12) Thus, on the one hand, that Jesus “fulfills the law” cannot mean that Christians can break with the moral law.
On the other hand, as the law’s fulfiller, Jesus takes up the Law into His death and brings it to its deepest meaning, not only by perfecting and transforming it but also by interiorizing its demands. (see Matt 5:17-20) This fulfillment radicalizes the law’s demands by going to its heart and center, which is that we love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 22:40) This is the central commandment of Love.
Because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us through faith in Christ (Rom 5:5), not only does His love now indwell in, and act through us, but we act freely because God’s law is placed within our hearts. (Jer 31:33f.; Heb. 10:16).
*Image: Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne (attributed), c. 1620 [Museum of Fine Arts, Houston]