There is a great deal of confusion about the essence of true freedom. Is it possible that freedom is both a goal of and the means for spiritual renewal? Karl Rahner has written, “How often I have found that we grow to maturity not by doing what we like, but by doing what we should. How true it is that not every ‘should’ is a compulsion, and not every ‘like’ is a high morality and true freedom.” Yes, freedom is both a goal and the means for spiritual renewal.
In terms of the goal, Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…” He very quickly points out, however, that freedom can be used or abused. Freedom becomes an opportunity/means: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:1, 13-14, ESV)
Freedom redefined as ‘slavery’
Legalism is not dead; it raises its ugly head in many different ways. Paul’s warnings regarding the dangers involved in legalism must be heard. Many will determine for you just what ‘being a Christian’ will look like. In addition to choices regarding entertainment, they will gladly tell you when and where you should worship. Dress codes are clearly specified.
That being said, we also need to listen as Paul urges his readers not to go to the opposite extreme of wanton self-indulgence. That seems to be the greatest temptation of our day, since so many people (even some Christians) define liberty as the license to do whatever they want.
The opposition of freedom with love on the one hand and self-indulgence on the other is remarkably similar to the contrast drawn by the Historian Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee writes, “In human life as we know it from experience there is a perpetual struggle between love and conscience on the one side and self-centeredness and sin on the other side.” He then locates freedom on the side of “love and conscience,” rather than of “self-centeredness and sin.” (E. W. F. Tomlin, ed., Arnold Toynbee: A Selection of His Works (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 261.)
Freedom as the Goal and Means for Renewal
Where do we find freedom for renewal? In John 8:31-38, Jesus clearly states that ‘true freedom‘ comes by means knowing ‘the truth‘. But this is not just conceptual knowledge! We demonstrate our knowledge of the truth by actively abiding in Jesus’ word. On the other hand, Jesus says that when you ‘practice sin’ (self-indulgence) you become a ‘slave to sin.’ Returning to Galatians, Paul will give us a description of what it means to practice sin. He refers to it as doing that which will ‘gratify the desires of the flesh.’ These, he writes, “are evident” (Gal. 5:19-21). Paul then adds a warning, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
We obtain and express our spiritual renewal by means of knowing and abiding in the truth. The evidence is seen in the fruit that we are producing. Freedom in Christ brings with it the ‘fruit of the Spirit‘: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:21–23, ESV)
So what is it that is really important for spiritual renewal? I like the way Peterson translates verse 6: “For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.” (Gal. 5:6, The Message) The freedom for renewal is both found and cultivated by actively express our faith by loving others.