The freedom of the children of God under grace. This is infinitely more than the independence and the power of the will to do as it pleases. It includes the real capacity of the will to do good and avoid evil, but in the higher perspective of the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free (Gal 4.31). Sin, on the other hand, by which a human being created to the image and likeness of God refuses to share in God's freedom, must be seen as the loss of that freedom for which God has created man and Christ has redeemed him.
Freedom and Law. The Epistle to the Romans ch. 7 deplores the miserable situation of the man whose concept of freedom is self-centered and who is externally submitted to the written law. Such a man cannot understand that God's law is a law of freedom: "The Law indeed is holy and the commandment holy and just and good" (v. 12). With this unspiritual attitude a man is a slave of sin and as such cannot really be subject to God's law. True subjection to God's law, the gift of God's loving will, can be understood and embraced only when a man opens his heart, humbly and gratefully, to God's love and the needs of his neighbor. Man, who by his self-centeredness is a prisoner under the law (v. 23), still remains to some extent the image of God and therefore feels that the law is something good. He gives a limited approval to it. But he does not really and sincerely identify himself with God's law, or see that it is written in his inmost being, or find in it a call to his deepest and best possibilities. But he still desires full freedom and cries out: "Unhappy man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?" (v. 24). The response is St. Paul's hymn on the spiritual freedom conferred by the law of the Spirit: "For the law of the Spirit of the life in Christ Jesus has delivered me from the law of sin and of death" (Rom 8.2).
The external law alone could not generate true freedom. It found man a slave, selfish and closed in his attitude toward God, toward his neighbor, and therefore also toward the law. This attitude robbed the law of its strength (Rom 8.3). True freedom—a sharing in God's own blessed freedom—for which God had created man, was lost on earth through Adam's sin. It was lost through the attitude that sees freedom not as coming from God and returning to God, but as man's independence of God.
Through Christ and in Christ full freedom, a total sharing in God's love and liberty, returned again to earth. Christ in His human nature was anointed by the fullness of the Holy Spirit, who is the "gift of Himself." Before Christ could baptize the believers in the Holy Spirit, thus giving them a spiritual understanding of His own law that is "spirit and life" (Jn 6.3), the Spirit had to descend visibly upon Him and rest upon Him. In the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit Christ fulfilled the loving will of the Father and made Himself a sacrifice for man's redemption. The power of the same Spirit raised Him again to life. Thus the glorified Lord "is the spirit" (2 Cor3.17)—He who gave Himself in holocaust and was visibly accepted. It is He who through his Spirit writes the new law in man's heart (Heb 8.10)—He who fulfilled it in the Easter mystery. Through a living faith He gives man a spiritual understanding of the law. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3.17).
Freedom in Grace. The freedom of the children of God presupposes, therefore, a living faith in the paschal mystery (cf. Jn 7.39). It presupposes Baptism in the fire of the Holy Spirit, trust in Him, the state of grace, and the supernatural virtue of charity. The loss of the life of grace means also the loss of spiritual freedom; and growth in grace, faith, hope, and charity brings growth in spiritual freedom.
Negatively, the liberty of the children of God presupposes a liberating death: death to the deadly "freedom" of selfishness, to the glorification of self and of one's own will. Consequently, there is no possibility of spiritual freedom without a constant struggle against the works of the flesh listed in some detail by St. Paul: "immorality, uncleanliness, licentiousness, idolatry, etc." (Gal 5.19–20).
This must be kept in mind when it is said that spiritual freedom means being "not under the law but under grace" (Rom 6.14). Renewed in mind by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the free Christian not only does not slavishly submit himself to those laws that impose a minimum of external duty; he accepts wholeheartedly and gratefully the law of faith. He tries constantly to live ever more in accordance with the liberating truth of the gospel. He follows the law of grace. He is really free because he allows himself "to be led by the Spirit of God" (Rom 8.14).
Positively, spiritual freedom coincides with this total and grateful dependence on the grace of God. "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law …. If welive by the Spirit let us also walk" (Gal 5.18, 25).
Spiritual freedom is a life in accordance with the"talents," the gifts of God. Those who are led by the Spirit follow in all things the supreme rule: "How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?" [Ps 115 (116B).12 (3)]. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit and in perfect obedience to this grace, the Christian accepts everything as a gift of God and glorifies God by making everything a means of unselfish love for God and for neighbor.
Spiritual freedom, then, has as its condition and result the crucifixion of one's lower nature with its passions and desires (Gal 5.24). But in uniting the Christian with the paschal mystery it means essentially joy and peace (Gal 5.22). This joy and the other fruits of the Spirit give one the strength to be victorious in the struggle against the behavior natural to his lower selfishness, in order to fulfill the law of Christ. Spiritual freedom manifests itself in a thinking and a behavior that correspond to the evangelical law expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and the Farewell Discourse. Only those who let themselves be led by the Spirit of Christ can love one another as Christ has loved them. The demands of fraternal love do not diminish one's spiritual freedom; rather, they fulfill it. It is precisely this spiritual freedom that makes the disciple of Christ renounce some actions not forbidden by a general law, when such self-denial strengthens the bonds of unity and contributes to the salvation of one's neighbor. "For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself" (Rom 14.7). This constant openness to others and care for them purifies man, making him more spiritual, more like Christ, and hence more free.
Both a useless multiplication of external precepts and a slavish and mechanical obedience are opposed to spiritual freedom, since both suffocate spiritual energy and hinder constant watchfulness for the real needs of one's neighbor and the community. But spiritual freedom by no means involves lawlessness. It unites one with Christ and so causes one to bear the burdens of another in the spirit of Christ. It helps one to submit himself in the right way to the laws of Church and society, integrating everything in the spirit of solidarity.
Bibliography: b. hÄring, The Life of Christ, v.1, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961) 99–122.