Life in the Spirit Based on True Freedom

Author: Pope John Paul II

Life in the Spirit Based on True Freedom

Pope John Paul II


Continuing his weekly catechesis, the Holy Father addressed the following message to the numerous pilgrims gathered in the Paul VI Hall.

1. St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians: "For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal 5:13-14). We have already dwelled on this enunciation. However, we are taking it up again today, in connection with the main argument of our reflections.

Although the passage quoted refers above all to the subject of justification, here, however, the Apostle aims explicitly at driving home the ethical dimension of the "body-Spirit" opposition, that is, the opposition between life according to the flesh and life according to the Spirit. Here he touches the essential point, revealing the anthropological roots of the Gospel ethos. If the whole law (the moral law of the Old Testament) is fulfilled in the commandment of charity, the dimension of the new Gospel ethos is nothing but an appeal to human freedom. It is an appeal to its fuller implementation and, in a way, to fuller "utilization" of the potential of the human spirit.

Freedom linked with command to love

2. It might seem that Paul was only contrasting freedom with the law and the law with freedom. However, a deeper analysis of the text shows that in Galatians St. Paul emphasizes above all the ethical subordination of freedom to that element in which the whole law is fulfilled, that is, to love, which is the content of the greatest commandment of the Gospel. "Christ set us free in order that we might remain free," precisely in the sense that he manifested to us the ethical (and theological) subordination of freedom to charity, and that he linked freedom with the commandment of love. To understand the vocation to freedom in this way ("You were called to freedom, brethren": Gal 5:13), means giving a form to the ethos in which life "according to the Spirit" is realized. The danger of wrongly understanding freedom also exists. Paul clearly points this out, writing in the same context: "Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another" (ibid.).

Bad use of freedom

3. In other words: Paul warns us of the possibility of making a bad use of freedom. Such a use is in opposition to the liberation of the human spirit carried out by Christ and contradicts that freedom with which "Christ set us free." Christ realized and manifested the freedom that finds its fullness in charity, the freedom thanks to which we are servants of one another. In other words, that freedom becomes a source of new works and life according to the Spirit. The antithesis and, in a way, the negation of this use of freedom takes place when it becomes a pretext to live according to the flesh. Freedom then becomes a source of works and of life according to the flesh. It stops being the true freedom for which "Christ set us free," and becomes "an opportunity for the flesh," a source (or instrument) of a specific yoke on the part of pride of life, the lust of the eyes, and the lust of the flesh. Anyone who lives in this way according to the flesh, that is, submits—although in a way that is not quite conscious, but nevertheless actual—to the three forms of lust, especially to the lust of the flesh, ceases to be capable of that freedom for which "Christ set us free." He also ceases to be suitable for the real gift of himself, which is the fruit and expression of this freedom. Moreover, he ceases to be capable of that gift which is organically connected with the nuptial meaning of the human body, with which we dealt in the preceding analyses of Genesis (cf. Gn 2:23-25).

The law fulfilled

4. In this way, the Pauline doctrine on purity, a doctrine in which we find the faithful and true echo of the Sermon on the Mount, permits us to see evangelical and Christian purity of heart in a wider perspective, and above all permits us to link it with the charity in which the law is fulfilled. Paul, in a way similar to Christ, knows a double meaning of purity (and of impurity): a generic meaning and a specific meaning. In the first case, everything that is morally good is pure, and on the contrary, everything that is morally bad is impure. Christ's words according to Matthew 15:18-20, quoted previously, clearly affirm this. In Paul's enunciations about the works of the flesh, which he contrasts with the fruit of the Spirit, we find the basis for a similar way of understanding this problem. Among the works of the flesh Paul puts what is morally bad, while every moral good is linked with life according to the Spirit. In this way, one of the manifestations of life according to the Spirit is behavior in conformity with that virtue which Paul in the Letter to the Galatians seems to define rather indirectly, but which he speaks directly of in the First Letter to the Thessalonians.

Virtue of self-control

5. In the passages of the Letter to the Galatians, which we have previously already submitted to detailed analysis, the Apostle lists in the first place among the works of the flesh: fornication, impurity and licentiousness. Subsequently, however, when he contrasts these works with the fruit of the Spirit, he does not speak directly of purity, but names only self-control, enkrateia. This control can be recognized as a virtue which concerns continence in the area of all the desires of the senses, especially in the sexual sphere. It is in opposition to fornication, impurity and licentiousness, and also to drunkenness and carousing. It could be admitted that Pauline self-control contains what is expressed in the term "continence" or "temperance," which corresponds to the Latin term temperantia. In this case, we would find ourselves in the presence of the well-known system of virtues which later theology, especially Scholasticism, will borrow from the ethics of Aristotle. However, Paul certainly does not use this system in his text. Since purity must be understood as the correct way of treating the sexual sphere according to one's personal state (and not necessarily absolute abstention from sexual life), then undoubtedly this purity is included in the Pauline concept of self-control or enkrateia. Therefore, within the Pauline text we find only a generic and indirect mention of purity. Now and again the author contrasts these works of the flesh, such as fornication, impurity and licentiousness, with the fruit of the Spirit—that is, new works, in which life according to the Spirit is manifested. It can be deduced that one of these new works is precisely purity, that is the one that is opposed to impurity and also to fornication and licentiousness.

Called to holiness

6. But already in First Thessalonians, Paul writes on this subject in an explicit and unambiguous way. We read: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to control his own body(1) in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathens who do not know God" (1 Th 4:3-5). Then: "God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you" (1 Th 4:7-8). In this text we also have before us the generic meaning of purity, identified in this case with holiness (since uncleanness is named as the antithesis of holiness). Nevertheless, the whole context indicates clearly what purity or impurity it is a question of, that is, the content of what Paul calls here uncleanness, and in what way purity contributes to the holiness of man.

And therefore, in the following reflections, it will be useful to take up again the text of the First Letter to the Thessalonians, which has just been quoted.


1) Without going into the detailed discussions of the exegetes, it should, however, be pointed out that the Greek expression to heautou skeuos can refer also to the wife (cf. 1 Pt 3:7).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 January 1981, page 19

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