The concept of freedom was a common Greco-Roman concept, routinely contrasted with having a status of a slave. In its prevailing usage, freedom was a social freedom that has much in common with our modern political conception of rights; there are certain choices only I as an individual have a right to make and no one else may abridge those rights.1. In modern language, this is a negative liberty. However, a positive liberty is one where one has the ability to act to accomplish one’s goals. This type of liberty will often times entail social and economic liberties, but it tends to become more psychological, where we overcome the various temptations, drives, and compulsive actions that work against our goals. Thus, positive freedom is much more concern with the interior of a person.
This positive form of freedom happens to be the type of freedom that the Apostle Paul visions as coming from the Spirit. For Paul, freedom in this positive is a common motif to explain the nature of the Christian way of life. Romans 6-8, Galatians 5-6, and 2 Corinthians 3 are significant passage pertaining to Paul’s understanding of freedom. Probably the most insightful summary of Paul’s understanding of freedom occurs in Romans 8:1-8. I offer here my own translation of Romans 8:1-8, although for the sake of brevity I will not justify each translation decision other than I tend to favor a more dynamic equivalence:
(1) Therefore, at this present time there is no longer any condemnation for those who are located within Christ Jesus. (2) For the instruction coming from the life-giving Spirit that is located within Christ Jesus freed me from the instruction coming from death-dealing sin (3) because the instruction’s powerlessness is weak through the flesh. God Himself sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and because of sin he condemned sin located within the flesh (4) so that the just actions of the instruction can be completed within us who are not walking toward flesh but toward the Spirit. (5) For those going towards the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those going towards the Spirit think about the things of the Spirit. (6) For the thoughts of the flesh are death, but the thoughts of the Spirit are life and peace. (7) For this reason, the flesh’s way of thinking is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s instruction since it is not able to. (8) So those who are located in flesh are not able to please God.
There are two general interpretation difficulties with this passage: 1) what does Paul mean by his repeated uses of νόμος? 2) what is the purpose of the cognitive language in vs. 5-7 of φρονέω and φρόνημα?
The answer to the first question can be understood by understanding that Paul does not mean our concept of “law” as a set of regulative rules when he refers to νόμος. Nor does he simply mean Torah as the particular set of regulative rules that comes from God through Moses. While the Torah is the source of commandments he thinks about, for Paul, νόμος is used with a pedagogical emphasis. Romans 7:7 shows the role that the commandments of the Torah has in instructing a person. It is something that guides a person. However, in Rom. 8-11, sin makes instrumental use of the commandments to produce death instead of life. So, νόμος is not a mere reference to the Torah commandments, but entails a pedagogical usage of the commandments, much in line with the meaning of “Torah” as instruction So, when Paul contrasts the νόμος/instruction that comes from the Spirit and from sin, he isn’t contrasting a separate set of commandments. Rather, his concern is more an issue of how the Torah is being used pedagogically. The nature of the pedagogy is determined by two different modes of life: σάρχ/flesh and πνεῦμα/the Spirit. Vs. 8:2-3 refers to the different pedagogical effects of the Torah’s instruction of these two different modes of life.
What is a significant difference between the two pedagogical modes beyond the ontological difference between the flesh and the Spirit? The contents of thinking. The cognitive language of vs. 5-7 highlight the cognitive role and the specific contents of thinking that occur in the modes of flesh and the Spirit. The flesh has death as its focal point. Death is not understood simply as the cessation of biological life, but it includes all the ways of living and act that lead us to the ending of biological life as in Romans 7:5. We might tempted to refer to this as a “spiritual death,” but Paul is not trying to describe the status of the soul in a way that is like a dead body. Rather, “death” is used to encompass the ways of life that lead to “death.” But, Paul’s emphasis here in Romans 8 is on the contents of the phenomenon of thinking and not per se the consequences of thinking. In other words, the flesh leads to thinking about the things that lead to death. But Romans 7:14-25 suggest this isn’t referring to the intentions to act in ways that lead to death, but more a cognitive attention to such actions, whether they are our intended actions or the actions we commit that we wish we didn’t. By contrast, then, the Spirit leads to conscious thinking about things that lead to life and peace. In short, Paul is describing what today can be talking about as a psychology of attention: what is it that you are focusing on. Elsewhere, Paul uses orientational metaphors that refer to a changing of attention, such as in 2 Co 3:16.
But it is important to note Paul’s logic here. He is not saying “if you think these certain things, you are in the Spirit.” Rather, it is something more specific: “if you think these certain things, you are WALKING towards the Spirit.” Paul does not outline a self-help program of positive thinking or a Pollyanna-ish attitude of positivity. He is not describing how people can become Spirit-led followers of Christ; Romans 7:14-25 has more to say to the “how” of that than Romans 8. What is being set up is a pedagogy of Christian experience. If one is located in Christ and one has the Spirit, then you direct your intentions towards the ways of living that bring life and peace, as these are the thoughts of the Spirit, and it is through this act of intentionality that one realized the freedom to do the just actions that God wants, which He expressed through Torah.
What this means is this: two people can attempt the follow the same commandments, but A) the ontological change in one person being located in Christ and give the Spirit joined together with B) an intentionality to pursue that which brings life and peace will make all the difference between the two people. But if either A or B are not true for a person, Paul would consider them acting out of the mode of the flesh, whether as one who has the Spirit but is misdirecting themselves or one who does not have the Spirit at all and is constrained to the flesh. As it pertains to the failure of intentionality, often times, our actions are done with attention to the things that bring about death, such as the fear of negative consequences happening to us, the selfish desires that would harm others, etc. etc. While there is a diversity of ways we can direct such attention to those things that lead to death, they all have the same ultimate focus. In Christian circles, we often see this is as behavioral maintenance, where we do the right things to stave off negative consequences from God, the church we belong to, etc. At the end of the day, however, our actions have death as the focus in such a mindset.
But what is significant here is to note the role of actions in this form of freedom. Walking towards the Spirit entails this rightly intentioned behavior. Christians are not changed by a failure to do what is good but simply waiting upon some change from God; transformation is not a passive process. Rather it is an active process for Christians, who are changed by the rightly God-centered direction of those actions. What the problem with the works of the Torah, or works in general, isn’t the futility of doing good to try to earn God’s favor as is a stereotyped version of Protestant theology. Rather trying to please God apart from the gracious action of God in sending Jesus and in giving the Holy Spirit is the problem. Grace for Paul is about’s God provision of the ontological condition A that enables the right intentionality of action in condition B. Failure to act rightly or to act with the wrong intentions will impede this transformation.
In 1 Corinthians 3:1-5, Paul chides the Corinthians for their conflict behaviors that is guided with an intentionality of focusing on people of status within the Christian community, suggesting this is the reason the Corinthians have a spiritual childishness to them; while the Corinthians have experienced the ontological change of condition A, they are not doing the actions coming from the right intentionality of condition B. Later in 1 Co. 8, Paul criticizes those that eat meat sacrificed from idols simply because they know idols don’t really exist, while they fail to consider the impact their actions will have on others who do not have such knowledge. There, they have actions could be considered “right” as the idols do not impact meat itself, but because their intentionality and focus behind it excludes what would give life and peace to others, their actions are still wrongly directed, thus cutting against Christ to whom they are related to.2
The point is this: Paul’s paradigm of transformation is synergistic. The new reality of Christians who are located in Christ by the Holy Spirit by God’s sending, which Paul refers to as justification, sets up the conditions for transformational action to take place. This new ontological reality is what enables Christian freedom by impacting how we relate to God’s instruction, doing the actions God desires for with the right focus that the Spirit leads into. Thus, for Paul pedagogy takes on a different direction when one is walking by the Spirit. In this way, Paul outlines a positive form of freedom, that takes the glory of God made known in Jesus Christ, as expressed in 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6, as the goal that can be realized. It highlights the necessary act of God to make this goal possible, which then makes right behaviors with the right focus to be conditionally sufficent3 for accomplishing this goal of transformation.
In conclusion, Paul’s notion of freedom still bears some resemblance to the Protestant idea of justification by faith, but for very different reasons that traditional Protestant explanations. For Paul, the concern isn’t the futility of doing works. For Paul, the futility is trying to do works apart from the reality of new creation in Christ and Spirit that Christians are placed into by God’s action, which can change the very way one can do those very same behaviors. Christian freedom to be transformed entails the Holy Spirit as the pedagogical medium who directs people to rightly focus their actions to the life-giving, peace-building purposes of God as is made manifestly clear in the revelation of God’s faithfulness through Jesus Christ,
- While modern notions of rights have begun to shift from a concern simply about social rights, where others may not infringe on my choices, to economic and resource rights, where people should receive certain minimum level of resources, finances, and services, these forms of rights still work on the notion that something external is an obstacle to me living my life.
- 1 Co. 8:12
- Conditionally sufficient in that human behavior is not sufficient apart from the necessary condition of God’s action.