To understand the intent of Paul’s words, it helped me to look at his journey of faith, specifically the fact that he was once a Pharisee, a zealous adherent and defender of the law:
- If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)
His faith was firmly founded in the law, but blind adherence to the law turned him into a tyrant and explained his involvement in the persecution of the early church:
- I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26: 9-11)
Though he considered himself righteous under the law (Phil 3:6), Paul did not recognize his hypocrisy in violating the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Later, after his conversion, when he was arrested and placed before members of the Jewish council, he would be quick to point out their hypocrisy:
- While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. At this Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:1-3)
Paul’s history explains the passion with which he argued against the law, and why he equated the law to enslavement. His experience gave Paul a unique perspective from which he argued that certain laws, like the requirement for circumcision, should not be applied everywhere or in every circumstance:
v. 1: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)
v. 6: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
Paul was quick to add that freedom from the law does not mean freedom to do whatever we please. Rather, the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself calls us to serve, not the law, but one another:
- v. 13: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In particular freedom from the law is not a license to sin. No longer subject to the law, the guidance of the Spirit is needed to check the desires of the flesh that lead to sin:
- v. 19-21: Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, … and things like these.
To be guided by the Spirit is to walk the way of virtue, because the fruits of the Spirit is virtue. The law works by prescribing behavior; it cannot instill virtue. Thus, “there is no law against such things:”
- vv. 22-25: By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Though the way of the Spirit is entirely different from the prescriptions of the law, the goal remains the same -- to fulfill the essence of the law:
v. 6: the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)
The phrase “you are not subject to the law” therefore does not mean that we are completely unbound from God’s commandments. Certain laws, however, clearly can be amended or nullified by the community, under the guidance of the Spirit. From the tone of this passage I infer that Paul’s arguments sparked intense debate in the early church. They represented a major shift away from complete subservience to the law while upholding the primacy of God's commandment to love one's neighbor. I think Paul would agree that this freedom from strict adherence to the law allows us to more perfectly follow God’s commandment of love. This lesson was not only conveyed by Paul’s teaching, it was woven into his life and journey of faith.