“For freedom Christ has set you free.” (Gal 5:1) It’s a curious line from Saint Paul. What does it mean to be freed for freedom? Is that a tautology? Circular reasoning? As always, some context is in order.
Saint Paul writes to remind the Galatians that the Gospel had freed them from the Law of Moses and to warn them against lapsing back into the slavery of legalism. At the same time, he admonishes them not to use their freedom “as an opportunity for the flesh.” Their freedom was for charity, to “serve one another through love.” They were freed from slavery so that they could live freely for Christ. For freedom Christ had set them free.
True freedom is both from and for. Our mistakes about freedom deny one of those prepositions or the other. On one extreme is the fear of being freed from what we know. It is the preference for legalism which, although burdensome, only requires slavish obedience and no personal investment. It’s not as glorious as divine sonship, but we at least know it and it requires less of us. On the other extreme is the violation of freedom by excess – that is, to think that it’s not for anything other than whatever we want.
Only Jesus Christ confers true freedom, that “glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21) This freedom is first and foremost interior, from sin and for holiness. By his truth he frees us from error and from the lies of the evil one. By his grace he breaks the bonds of death and sin that enslave us interiorly.
Again, by his truth he gives structure, meaning, and purpose to our freedom. It has a destination and telos. It is for something: “This is the will of God, your holiness.” (1 Thess 4:3) By his grace he strengthens us to live such freedom. It’s not too much for us because he himself lives his filial freedom within us.
In Christ, we are freed from sin so that we can freely – that is, fully, joyfully, generously – pursue holiness. Without him, freedom becomes first license and then fear. If we don’t live the freedom that he gives us by his grace and truth, then we will draw back in fear from living as free persons. That is what the Apostle is warning against. And that is what we’re observing today.
Our culture offers a “freedom” that enslaves. It’s only freedom from any perceived restriction, including any creaturely limitation. For this freedom to be preserved it must be extended. So it always searches for more restrictions to tear down. Women must be liberated from motherhood. Adolescents must be freed from their sex “assigned at birth.” Transhumanists promise that we can be freed from our own bodies.
There’s no purpose to such freedom. It’s not for anything, only from everything. This is attractive at first because then we get to be in charge. We get to set our own course and decide our own rules. We have, as Planned Parenthood v. Casey infamously put it, “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Defining your own reality sounds like fun, until you realize what an enormous responsibility it is to define your own reality. Who can endure that?
Every revolution eats its own. This false freedom ultimately becomes unbearable and leads back to slavery. Without Christ’s grace and truth to integrate and direct our passions, they become our fetters. This spiritual slavery leads inevitably to political slavery. When our interior weakness means we cannot rule ourselves, then we cry out for someone else to do so.
Further, the extraordinary nature of this false freedom makes us retreat, back into slavery. Who can bear the burden of defining existence, the meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life? Who is equal to that task? No wonder that we see a doubt about self-governance and an increasing willingness to be controlled, especially among the young.
We’ve imposed on them the burden of defining reality but denied them any truth and direction. Should we be surprised that they scamper towards socialism, which at least promises some certainty and security?
Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor was right. People cannot bear the freedom extended to them. Only, it’s not the Catholic inquisitor but the high priests of progressivism who enslave. They tear down every limitation to set people “free” and then bid them come and find security in the state’s control. The words of the Grand Inquisitor are rightly theirs: “People are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.”
In Braveheart Mel Gibson’s William Wallace asks the Scottish rebels, “What will you do with that freedom?” Now, he probably didn’t have Saint Paul in mind. But his question provides another (and a fun) way of understanding the Apostle’s words.
Christ has set us free. What will we do with that freedom? This has both personal and political implications. If we don’t use our interior freedom for its intended purpose – to pursue Christian perfection, to serve in love – then we will either be ruled by our passions or lapse back into legalism. If we don’t use our religious freedom to live and proclaim the Gospel, then we allow the state to take it away.
*Image: Salvator Mundi by Andrea Previtali, 1519 [National Gallery, London]