What is the original context of this statement? St Paul is explaining to the Galatians that they do not need to become Jews first in order to be allowed to become or remain Christians, as some have told them. They have been told by others that they cannot follow Christ unless, if male, they are circumcised and thus come under the old covenant God made with the nation of Israel. The Apostle makes the point elsewhere in this letter [5:3] that if they do this, they are then obliging themselves to follow the whole law of Moses, including all its hundreds of ceremonial and ritual prescriptions. But, more than that, he says, they are entering a covenant which made “righteousness” depend on strict obedience to all these laws [5:4-5]. In other words, they are making their acceptance with God, their “being right with God”, which is what righteousness means here, dependent on themselves and their religious 'performance', so to speak. In fact, however, the only true righteousness that they can hope to possess is that given to them freely by God's forgiving and giving love, merely received by them through faith. As St Paul asks them: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? … 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.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”
So, the freedom St Paul speaks of is firstly freedom from having to save their souls by obeying the full written law of Moses. He also teaches that they cannot do this anyway, and that even the righteous men and women of the OT were in fact, like us, saved by faith in the gratuitous divine promise to accept and bless them. The passage I just quoted [“no one is ...”] and today's Epistle make just this point [vv. 28-31].
We are sinners who need God's mercy. We cannot earn God's love, we cannot make ourselves righteous in his sight. But he can make us so, if we will let him. And this is great freedom, great joy, once we truly admit it, trust it and really take it in.
But this liberation has other glorious parts to it. We are freed not only from the guilt of sin, but from its power to dominate us from within: [Read Romans 8:2-4]. (Note that flesh here means, not our bodies alone, but our earthly natures as infected by sinfulness, as spiritually fatally flawed.) So, we are no longer slaves to the dark elements of human nature. But we are not transferred from sin-slavery to being mere slaves of God either. St Paul says in another verse in Galatians that we are no longer slaves but children of God [4:7]. This means that, while we maintain a reverential “fear” of God in loving worship, we are freed from the servile fear of God as punishing judge, as St John also teaches in his First Epistle [4:18]. Unfortunately, this kind of cringing, terrified, joyless approach to God can be found among religious people. God is, without them realising it perhaps, seen as this frowning titan, just waiting for any excuse to smite, and smite hard. “Ha! Got ya!” The NT, on the other hand tells us we can approach God with “boldness”, even while worshipping with reverence [10:19, 12:28].
Our liberty is also liberty from bondage to the Devil and his power to tempt, deceive and thus manipulate us. Without God's grace, that power cannot be persistently resisted. With grace, the victory can be ours, because it was Christ's, and we are one with Him.
And our liberty is not only liberty from, but liberty into something. Into what? Into the new, abundant life of the Holy Spirit, a life of awe in adoration of God, a life of fulfillment as we serve others.
But what if I don't feel this freedom, a Christian might ask? What if I feel bound by circumstance, bound by my own flaws, bound by fear and guilt? Then you must recognise that the only slavery that can really bind our hearts is sin. External circumstances, no matter how restrictive, cannot destroy us spiritually if we are connected to Christ by faith and love. Recognition of this brings hope and a steady inner peace, a clam in the midst of the storm. But what if we feel disconnected, if it is our internal flaws and fears that are the problem? Then the answer is to repent if we need to, availing ourselves of the Sacrament of Penance as it is required, and then to have a full trust in God's mercy. If, instead, our fear and guilt are not due to unrepented sin, then we must fight fear with faith, abandon anxiety and return to relying wholly and unreservedly on Christ as our Righteousness. Know that God loves you, let that knowledge settle into your soul, and boldly stride forward into freedom. +