Human Freedom

Saint Paul by El Greco

Many scholars believe that Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans has influenced the development of Christian theology more than any other book of the New Testament.

When reading Romans, one gets a sense that Paul desires to lay out the beauty of life when experienced through a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Paul often uses contrasts to illustrate the difference Jesus makes in one’s life.  With respect to those from a Jewish background, he will contrast life under the Mosaic law with life in the Risen Christ. For the Gentiles, many of whom were influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy, he often contrasts a way of life guided only by one’s self-will or individual code of conduct with a life guided by the power of the Holy Spirit. One example of this contrast is Paul’s teaching on freedom.

In chapters four through seven of Romans, Paul describes how our new life found in Jesus Christ brings a three-fold liberation: (1) freedom from sin and death, (2) freedom from self, meaning the effects of original sin without the grace of Christ in our lives, and (3) freedom from the Law. Here Paul speaks directly to the Jews and outlines the way in which Jesus has transformed the Mosiac law, that salvation is not gained simply by performing the deeds proscribed by the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ.

Freedom is a gift from God and one of the aspects that makes us in the image of God. We mirror God in our intelligence, our concern for good and evil, our freedom and our immortal destiny (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 15-17). Our freedom, too, makes us like God, who is supremely free. Human nature is not driven simply by blind forces or instincts. We have responsibility and freedom. “If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice” (Sirach 15:15).

Because of sin, our freedom is impaired.  Yet, even in our sinful fallen state we retain the freedom to make our own choices, to act or not to act, to do this or to do that (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, prologue).

As finite creatures in a sinful world, our human freedom is not full and perfect as God’s is. The pressures of circumstances can limit greatly a person’s freedom and responsibility. Yet, as long as a person has the power to live in a human way, one retains a measure of this freedom.

In creating the first human persons, God also gave them another freedom, one which is restored to us by Christ and in Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, drawing from Saint Paul’s writings explains, “By his glorious Cross, Christ has won salvation for all men, He redeemed them from the sin that held them in bondage. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5:1).  In him we have communion with the ‘truth that makes us free’ (cf. John 8:32). The Holy Spirit has been given to us and, as the Apostle teaches, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3:17)” (CCC 1741).

What Paul is alluding to is the freedom that comes from grace, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).  This brings the freedom to live in God’s friendship, to do the good things that one’s heart longs for and fulfill one’s divinely implanted longings.

This is the second installment in a series on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans.