The National Catholic Review
"Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (5:3-4). Again, Paul makes a charged statement about the role of the law -"You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ" - but the operative phrase for me is "want to be justified by the law" not "have cut yourselves off from Christ." Paul’s argument is that nothing is necessary for salvation, justification, than what has been gained through Jesus Christ."The only thing that counts is "faith working through love" (5:6). And yet, even though Paul has argued that the law was active for a limited period of time and with a limited function and ability (3:19-4:7), the law is eternally a gift of God. Paul does not hesitate to speak in sharp, polemical terms to those who preached the need for circumcision to the Galatians - "I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!"(5:12) is so crude that Paul must be seeking shock value here - and yet he still speaks of the law as being "fulfilled" (plêroô) through Christ by those who follow him (5:14). Paul notes that freedom in Christ cannot be an "opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another" (5:13). It is at this point that Paul draws the practical implications of living in the Spirit as opposed to living according to the flesh. The fruits of the Spirit issue in love, joy, peace, patience and those things which point to a "crucified flesh"; the works of the flesh are licentiousness, factions, envy and those things which point to a self-centered life (5:16-26). Paul warns that those who participate in the works of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 for a similar list and statement, without the fruits of the Spirit listed). "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law" (5:18). It still sounds jarring, even after reading Galatians many times. This "freedom from the law" clearly comes in the context of Jesus Christ having fulfilled the law and the Christian walking in and guided by the Spirit. Yet, the implications for Christian life are profound, at a number of levels. The Christian must experience the Christian life in some real way as freedom to do what is right, to love God, to love neighbor, not a series of obligations and rules, unclear to all but the most learned canon lawyers. What I find today with the most devout of young Catholics is that they experience the Christian walk as one potential heretical minefield after another, afraid to think or talk without first consulting the Catechism for fear of placing themselves beyond the bounds of the Church’s teaching. These are people desperate to love Jesus Christ and the Church, but I have never seen freedom appear as such a tight straightjacket. The second implication, for me as an historian and Christian, is to be aware of the potential to use Paul’s teaching as a hammer against the Jews, even today. Paul writes as a Jew in the first century, an apostle of a small, insignificant (in numbers) "Way," who proclaim the Messiah in Jesus Christ in opposition to the vast majority of their countrymen and women. We must never use Galatians to define the Jewish understanding of Torah, which was not and is not experienced as a burden, but as God’s love poured out graciously. It is for this reason the Jewish people celebrate "Simchah Torah," translated literally by a Jewish friend as "Happy Torah." On the basis of Paul’s teachings, many Christians through the centuries have accused the Jews of practicing a "legalistic" religion. This is not Paul’s claim; he claims that the law given by God has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and that freedom has been gained through Jesus to follow that which God desires as a transformed disciple of the Messiah. Claiming first century Judaism as "legalistic" is particularly ironic for me in light of some of my experiences of twenty-first century Christianity, as I explained above. We need to capture what Paul will describe in Galatians 6:1 as a "spirit of gentleness." More on that later. John W. Martens