Freedom, in Paul

The Jewish Liturgy of Life (Works of the Law) and Paul’s “Freedom” in Christ


Countless words have been spilled analyzing and debating Paul’s intended meaning of the phrase “works of the Law”, and his theological treatment of the Law itself.  In contrast, far fewer words have been spilled analyzing and exploring Paul’s concept of the “freedom” he ascribes to those “in Christ”.  Our intention here is to show the relationship between these two concepts and, in so doing, dispel some pervasive misunderstandings, at least among evangelicals.

Context of Paul’s Arguments Where “Works of the Law” Appears

There are three chapters of Paul’s epistles where the literal phrase “works of the law” appear: Rom 3, Gal 2, and Gal 3.  So let’s look at each of those contexts to see what arguments Paul was making to his churches.

Romans 3

This is one of Paul’s most powerful, theological chapters.  In it he’s making one, overarching point: “None is righteous, no not one”, citing David from Psalms 14:1-3 and 53:1-3, which he cites in Rom 3:10.

[9] What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, [10] as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;

[11] no one understands;

no one seeks for God.

[12] All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good,

not even one.”

This point is in one way contextless: it’s global and unequivocal.  It isn’t restricted to some classification of people that are not righteous or some pattern of behavior that makes them unrighteous.  It’s simply everybody all the time.  It, we could say, is the universal state of humanity.

However, as verse 9 indicates, Paul is taking pains to make sure that Jewish readers of his words (of which there were many who had converted to Christian belief in the Roman Church – e.g. Priscilla and Aquilla, etc.) are being specifically addressed.  He goes on to his “punchline” of the chapter in verses 28&29:

[28] For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. [29] Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,

Galatians 2, 3

In Gal 2 we see Paul reprising the same message he would later present to his Roman church:

[15] We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; [16] yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

In Gal 3, Paul extends his argument that works of the law (what I am calling the “Jewish Liturgy of Life” – the pattern of living all Jews followed, more or less, for 1400 years) had now been overtaken by faith in Christ by specifically challenging them on the source of the Spirit that they had been given:

[3:1] O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. [2] Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? [3] Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? [4] Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? [5] Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— [6] just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

[7] Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. [8] And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” [9] So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

[10] For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.

Paul’s Meaning of “Works of the Law”

This gets us to the first of the two major conclusions we will take from Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Christ’s advent.  Quite clearly, Paul in these epistles is at least making the point that the Jew’s previous “Liturgy of Living” has been overtaken and subsumed in God’s eyes by Christ and our trust in Him.

Believe it or not (I still find it difficult), this position is controversial in modern evangelical congregations.  Why?  Because starting with Luther in the 16th century Christians have been taught that Paul in these verses was chastising people in general for trying to attain standing with God through their own efforts – so-called “works righteousness”. Luther and his later followers abstracted the Jews out of the text to leave humanity in general.  This was Luther’s apocalypse, interpreting the verses as he did as being directed to him, that acceptance by God was not dependent on his efforts to live piously and rightly (as was the culture and tradition of the Catholic Church).  He was, he now understood, “right” before God because of his faith in God.

But once we spend just a minute understanding the context of Paul’s words here, it becomes plain that he’s talking to his Jewish converts.  And why?  Because some of them were insisting to their brothers that they had to maintain the practice of circumcision, and no doubt hygiene and Kosher food laws, etc.  These were the so-called “Judaizers”.  The arguments of these people to the converted Jews in these churches are those that Paul is countering here.

Paul’s broader message to his Jewish brethren is this: “The Liturgy of Your Life – the life of religious observance — that you have practiced for millennia is now, after the advent of the Son of God, the Christ, no longer effective to keep you in God’s covenant family.  Where once all you needed to do to remain in God’s covenant family was follow His prescriptions for living by the Torah, now you need to place your faith in Him for your life (as, actually, you always had to do, but didn’t).  And in so doing, you will attain His righteousness.

Freedom, or Freedom “in Christ”

So what does Paul mean by “freedom” or freedom in Christ?

Gal 5 is essentially Paul’s “freedom” chapter, primarily directed at his Jewish brethren.  Here is what it says:

[5:1] For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

[2] Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. [3] I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. [4] You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. [5] For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. [6] For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

[7] You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? [8] This persuasion is not from him who calls you. [9] A little leaven leavens the whole lump. [10] I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. [11] But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. [12] I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

[13] 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. [14] For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [15] But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

[16] But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. [17] For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. [18] But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. [19] Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, [20] idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [21] envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. [22] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, [23] gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [24] And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

[25] If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. [26] Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Here, while primarily expounding to his Jewish brethren the freedom from the practice of the Torah that they have had made available to them by Jesus, he also introduces (v22 and following) a second dimension of freedom that inures to every Christ-follower, Jew or Gentile.

In this second dimension, Paul sets about to inform all believers that trusting Christ for your life, and as a result, experiencing the indwelling of His Spirit, results in your freedom from the demand of your “flesh” to sin – that the Spirit has the power to overcome your natural desires to act sinfully.

This point is drawn out elsewhere by Paul.  In Romans 6 he further develops the role of the Spirit in freeing Christ-followers from sin:

[20] For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. [21] But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. [22] But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. [23] For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The opening of Romans 8 further develops the point:

[8:1] There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. [2] For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. [3] For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, [4] in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. [5] For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. [6] For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

What Paul is saying is that when you place your trust in Jesus for your life, He gives you His Spirit to indwell and guide/lead you.  And the effect of this indwelt Spirit is to overcome (if you let Him) your natural desires to sin.  And, of course, you are then freed from death and assured of eternal life with God in His Christ.


Much of Paul’s message in Galatians and Romans (at least) was a polemic against continuing to practice the Judaic lifestyle – their Liturgy of Life – and expecting just that practice to put them in right relation to God.  But the freedom of those in Christ was to Paul two things.  The second was by far the more profound: the freedom granted by the indwelt Spirit to overcome one’s natural penchant to sin, but rather not just not to sin, but to express love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

%d bloggers like this: