Ben Witherington III on true freedom (as understood from Galatians)

Surveys have shown that perhaps no value is more highly prized by those who live in the West than freedom. Usually what is meant by freedom is something very different from what Paul has in mind here. In the modern world freedom usually means freedom to do as one pleases, freedom to live as one pleases, freedom to be left alone, freedom to be an individual without having to worry about encumbering laws or requirements or stipulations. In other words, freedom is defined in very individualistic, indeed egocentric, ways in our culture. What underlies this is the fundamental assumption that individual identity is more primary and important than community identity, an assumption grounded in the pervasive myth of the rugged individual who accomplishes great things by sheer willpower and ingenuity.

Paul, however, paints a very different picture of freedom. In his view the only true freedom to be had is freedom in Christ, freedom that comes with the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. Freedom from sin, not for sin, is what Paul has in mind. Freedom to serve others, not freedom from others, is his point. Paul is suggesting that what the world calls freedom is just another form of slavery. Even submitting to the disciplined rigor of God’s good Mosaic Law doesn’t bring freedom. Perhaps the Galatians had assumed that if they could submit to the Mosaic Law, then they would not have to worry about what sort of moral choices they would need to make; they could simply follow the instructions in the Book. This sort of absence of the process of moral decision-making is what Paul says characterizes spiritual infancy. Instead of exhorting his converts ‘when all else fails follow the written instructions’, Paul is urging them to grow up in Christ and act in Christian character, following Christ’s pattern. Persuasion by means of arguments about a proper course to follow, not simply offering a series of imperatives, is the way Paul tries to guide his converts. His means of moral discourse entails treating his audience as adults, those who hopefully will listen to and heed reason and persuasion.

Maturity in Paul’s view means understanding whose you are, not just who you are; which is to say, understanding that true identity is established in relationship with God, not through radical individualism….

None of what I have just said, however, is meant to deny that an essential part of freedom is being free from the things that enslave us. The Gospel is indeed about freedom from sin and evil, and this in turn means freedom from oppressive situations and structures and customs in society….There is a social and communal dimension to Christian freedom which, if not realized, makes mere individual freedom in Christ inadequate and insufficient for any and all. When Martin Luther King Jr. ended his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ sermon with ‘free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last’, he was not merely speaking about individual liberation from sin, but the liberation of a whole people from the larger evil of a fallen society with its prejudicial structures. Individual freedom that does not result in a free people of God, free to be the community in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female, is a truncated sort of freedom that does not fully describe what Paul has in mind. This vision of freedom in Christ still challenges us today to learn more fully that true freedom comes in the perfect service of love to one another, a sort of love that is not narcissistic but creates the true community of God.

Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, 386-387.


O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer