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Galatians 5:1, 13-25

In our North American context, we tend to think of freedom primarily in two kinds of ways. First, it is individualistic. Freedom is my personal freedom. It belongs to me; it’s a right granted to me by the constitution, and to every other individual citizen of the US. It may not be precise to call freedom a possession, but it is something that we believe we possess, that can be taken away and has to be guarded. Second, it is freedom from others. My individual freedom is a freedom from being constrained by others, it’s my own solitary freedom to do my own thing despite what others may want me to do, or what others may try to get me to do. The isolated cabin in the woods or Thoreau’s Walden Pond are the dominant images of freedom. Independence—I can do this by myself.

Both of these understandings of freedom work against us making sense of what Paul is saying to the Galatians here in their own context. The kind of freedom that Paul is elucidating here is not individualistic and primarily imaged as freedom from others. Rather, it is communal and imaged as freedom for others. It is this primarily because freedom for Paul is Christological, and Christ’s body brings people together into community and transforms them by the Spirit into a community that seeks out not selfish, isolated desires, but the good of each other.

Behind this usage of the concept of freedom or liberation stands a complex discussion that has run through the letter to this point. Sylvia Keesmaat has convincingly shown that the Exodus narrative hangs in the background of Paul’s discussion of freedom, so that the gentiles, according to Paul, can experience the same kind of liberating work of the covenanting God that has created Israel.[1] Through the crucified Messiah’s work, the gentiles have now been freed from enslavement to Sin and Death and the curse of the law on those who transgress God’s design for life. They’ve also been free from slavery to the elements of the cosmos and to idols (“things that are by nature not gods”). Paul’s extended discussion of Abraham in chapters 3 and 4 also plays into the discussion of freedom, where Paul makes a contrast between law and promise and between children of the enslaved Hagar and the free Sarah.

Freedom, or liberation, in Galatians, then, is clearly not an inherent human right, but a result of the dramatic rescue mission of God in sending the Son to liberate humanity from the grip of Sin and Death and the curse of the law. Liberation is a being set free, out into the liberated life of the new humanity in Christ. It is a gift and a gift to be shared. This is why Paul can say virtually in the next breath that those who have been set free are to be enslaved to one another. This communal practice of mutual service is to be done in love. English translations often neglect to translate the definite article in the Greek. It may be that Paul is making a reference not to a generalized “feeling” of love, but to a concrete practice of “the love”, pointing more specifically to “the love feast.” (See also Romans 13:10 and 1 Thessalonians 3:12.)[2] The potential reference to the love feast here is shored up by Paul’s employment of an eating metaphor in verse 15: the Galatians can either share a meal together at which all are welcomed and built up, or they can bite and devour and consume one another to their mutual destruction.

This leads Paul to set before the Galatians contrasting lists of practices that define not only the community, but the animating power at work among the community. The first list are the works of the flesh. The elements of the list can be grouped into categories of sexual misconduct (immorality and sexual predation), idolatry (including alternative religious practices like witchcraft), communal discord (like factionalisms and raging arguments), and drunkenness (drunkenness and lewd raves and the like). One doesn’t have to look far in Paul’s culture or in ours to find many examples of this. These are the kinds of things that characterize a humanity left to its own devices, or more precisely, enslaved under the rule of Sin and Death.

Contrasting with this list is the fruit of the Spirit. These are the things that are produced when humans are rescued out from the power of the present evil age and brought into the new humanity in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Rather than things that debase the person and degrade human flourishing in community, the fruit of the Spirit builds up genuine human life. A community characterized by this fruit should look attractive to outsiders and image a vision of the good life. Who would not wish to live among a people where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control define life together?

A final word should be said about how Paul sees the issue of the law and sees how the gentile Galatians fit alongside other Christians who are Jewish, as this seems to be a big point of anxiety amongst the Galatians. Ever since the disturbers have come among them peddling “another gospel” related to the law, the Galatians have needed to know where their place is in the story. This is indeed a good story to ask of ourselves as readers of Galatians today: What part of the story are we in? Galatians is not Anti-Jewish, and any reading that trends that way is a distortion of Paul’s articulation of the faith. According to Paul, we all are in the part of the story where God’s faithfulness to Israel has been embodied in the sending of the Messiah, the sending of God’s Son, to bear the curse of sin and death under the law, and to be raised to new life, raised from among the dead ones, as Paul says, as the full flowering of the promise given to Abraham that all the gentile nations would be blessed by his descendant (3:8). Jesus is the one in whom the promises of Abraham come to bear for both Israel and the nations. If we’re in that part of the story, then simply following the law does not rescue us from the power of sin and death. Only the Messiah does that. For gentiles to follow the law would be to go backwards in the story, to get back before Christ in the story. But in him both Israel—who follows the law—and gentiles—who do not—are brought together as one new humanity, knitted together by the Spirit and empowered to live in ways that promote genuine human flourishing: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. There is no law against such things because these are the very things of human flourishing, the very things the Spirit of God desires to weave into our lives and into our life together.

[1] Sylvia C. Keesmaat, “Paul and His Story,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 18.2 (1996): 133-168.

[2] See Robert Jewett, Romans, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 813-815.