This is an excellent text to deploy the device of reflexive questioning. For example, shall I use my new-found freedom to go and live like I am incarcerated? This rhetorical inquiry sums up the question permeating the text.
You might use your freedom in Christ to live like you are shackled to the past. But that kind of so-called freedom is nothing but bondage to something broken (Romans 6:1). Freedom from restraint, if it is to be of any use, must be matched by a sense of freedom for a particular purpose. Once set free, what is freedom for? Paul tells us.
In 5:1, Paul insists we are set free in Christ to be a renewed humanity, free from the things we have allowed to identify us as our primary person: a subculture, a talent, an addiction, a reputation. In any freedom we gain, it is a freedom from our former state (or indeed our present state) which restrains our baptismal identity. You were freed from something, for something, to be someone — and it has little to do with your choice of vocation, college, or talent. You were not called and regenerated in baptism and sanctified by the Word of God and the Sacraments of Christ to be, occupationally, an artist or welder, singer or physician, a subcultural gamer, an alcoholic or Libertarian. For many of you, your truly-freed self, emerged out of the waters of Holy Baptism, may have taken a back seat to pursuits which contribute little or nothing to your holiness, virtue, righteousness, wisdom, prudence, valor, loveliness or even your likability. Free, though you may be, from the consequences of sin and divine judgement and death, your baptismal identity remains cloistered.
Paul has argued, all those who believe in Jesus Christ are free – free from their pagan pasts, free from ignorance about reality, free from divine judgment, free from bondage to sin, free from the bonds of a hopeless death, free from the dark kingdoms of this world with all their ideologies and “isms” which name us and claim us. But he also argues they are free from the claims the Jewish Law makes on its adherents as the defining marker of who is and is not the renewed, released people of God. Paul has made plain to them how freedom is a given for the baptized. Indeed, freedom is the result of a divine deed when Christ exchanged places with people in bondage to selfish sinfulness and received the just recompense of the Cross for our treason. This same Messiah liberates through a new life, lived out in the fruit of the Holy Spirit, free from the burden and blame of the Law. As in the deliverance from Egypt, God put behind His people the bondage of the past. But then—and this is the point of the passage—He draws them into the future and the future is about living free from what condemned and enslaved them and for Christ and His kingdom people in love (vv. 13-14). Preachers cannot miss the implications of Pentecost and exploited use of the Law, the comfort of the Gospel, and good works resulting from faith and regeneration.
To a Jew it was precisely the Law which prevented them from behaving like, well, gentiles. Paul says there is a third way for both Jew and gentile. It is a double freedom, into which you are released by the new exodus God has accomplished in Jesus the Messiah. You are free from asinine self-defined religion, but also the legalism of every religious, political, socio-economic and ideological agenda the world has to offer. This point can be pressed on the preacher’s auditors saying: “Take inventory. What fundamentally defines you?” If any of us were to ask a person to offer a sentence or two about you, they would undoubtedly define you by what you imitate. They would recount what it is that holds you: sport, performance, business, identity politics, progressivism. Could it be said baptism and cultivating your redeemed-self defines you? Thomas á Kempis called it the Imitation of Christ. Living it is called imitating Christ.
In verses 13-14, the first point Paul makes is how freedom is for love. You are free to love. You have passed through the Red Sea of the baptismal font to exit the matrix of this world. You are unshackled from selfish, self-loving human nature, that the world of politics, economics, technology, media, academia, and entertainment manipulate, and into a kingdom defined by love for God and love for the neighbor.
We are free from posturing about who and what we are based on what we do and what we have — including looks and intelligence and talent (all gifts, incidentally; this is why we say such people are “gifted”). It is not about the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ or the ‘has it’ and the ‘have-beens’. It is about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit making people who are all equally sinful and selfish individuals His sons and daughters because of His great love. This puts all of us on equal footing… so be humble.
In the Church, you are free to love. You are not compelled by the dictates of political correctness or coerced to do so because of fashionable tolerance ethics. Rather, the baptized do it because we have been given a different Spirit from the world.
What happens when the opposite is the case in the Church? Exhibit A: Galatia. The controversies raging there led to serious disturbances in their church — “biting” and “devouring” each other, just like they do in a dog-eat-dog world. It was essential that, in learning how to be truly free, the baptized in Galatia came to realize squabbling among themselves was a sign they were still enslaved and on the path to destruction.
In stressing this, Paul quotes one of Jesus’ central commandments: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is how you keep the Law, but now comes the point. The way to keep this all-embracing commandment is not by emphasizing who you are, “according to the flesh,” that is, by getting circumcised and identifying yourself with some exclusive group – the haves, the insiders, the elite. If you emphasize the flesh, flesh is what you will get. We have all seen it in church splits, in-fighting, and divisions. Run a church like the world – pander to demographics and peddle an agenda other than Christ’s own – and you had better get ready for some fist-fighting.
If the gentile Christians emphasize “the flesh” by getting circumcised, then they go right back to the standards of the world of demographics which divide them. It is a suck-up society with a pecking order based on bank accounts, bigotry, and boasting. They are just not seeing what the full implication of, “loving others as yourself,” might mean now their identity is, “hid in God in Christ” (Colossians 3:3).
So, what is Christian freedom? It is a battlefield, with flesh and Spirit opposing one another, so be diligent. What freedom entails, though, is your identity of a true child of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, without needing the Jewish Law (particularly circumcision) as your badge of membership. If you are free of that, the Holy Spirit’s motivation and power mean you will also remain free from the snares of paganism, consumerism, secularism, individualism, exclusive humanism and the behaviors which go with them. Free from the Law, free from all that other stuff, one is then free for God and free to love one’s neighbor. This is done in Christian communion.
Luther put it this way: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” We are free from sin and the Law (subject to none) but slaves to Christ in love (and therefore subject to all). So, if this is the case, we must answer only one question: What am I doing with my freedom and does it make any difference in and for the Kingdom of Christ?
* Paul has been contrasting “flesh” and “spirit” throughout this letter. Here he uses a pair of phrases highlighting the disparity. He speaks of the “works of the flesh” in v.24 and contrasts them with the “fruit of the Spirit” in verse 25.
* Underneath the two lists—the works of the flesh (vv. 19-21) and the other list, the fruit of the Holy Spirit (vv. 22-23)—lies Paul’s vision of what happens to someone when they come, through the faith given in the preaching of the Gospel and through the Word of God present in holy baptism, into the Church. These people, Paul insists in verse 25, are the ones indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Even though the word of justification may have been declared about them at baptism and even though God may have adopted them into His family through the same divine act, it does not necessarily mean they have passed through the various stages to be observed going about their new life in Christ. Being possessed by the Holy Spirit does not mean you need an exorcism, it means you need to exercise the fruit of the new spirit within you. What possesses you – the flesh or God’s Spirit? We live out that which drives us from within. Those, “born of the flesh are flesh but those born of the Spirit are spirit.”
* The Church, by definition, is not the place where the flesh rules, but rather the Spirit (hence the warning of v. 21). Romans 6:1-14 offers a wonderful parallel to his argument here.
* This word “fruit” in verse 22 is in the singular (καρπὸς), giving a cohesive and unified character to what the Spirit produces – the deeds of God. The fruit of the Spirit is one—just as the works of Christ are one—and, therefore, the Fruit of the Spirit is indivisible, yet all flowing from the first virtue mentioned–love. Love is not one characteristic of the Christian life which can be numbered alongside many others. Love is inherent in what it means to be led by the Spirit and thus the quintessence of life “in Christ.”
* Verse 25: “get in line with the Spirit” (πνεύματι καὶ στοιχῶμεν) or start walking by the Spirit. That is, line up the thoughts, words and deeds of your life to see the effect the Spirit can produce. And now, by your own moral reflection and effort, let the motivation and power of the Holy Spirit have its complete way.
This passage provides an excellent picture of what true Christian life looks like. It looks like the Kingdom of God, where the Lord reigns within His people through the Holy Spirit bringing about the realities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – right here, right now.