Galatians 5:13, Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
As American patriots, freedom is our highest value, and the bald eagle is our icon for freedom. Yet what does it mean to be free? Lack of slavery, that is, forced subjugation and labour to a tyrannical authority? The ability to do whatever we want when we want? The ability to do as our conscience allows without the hindrance of an opposing force? America is arguably the freest nation in the world, yet there are some who question whether we’re truly free. We still have to obey laws, some of which we don’t like, so some argue we’re not totally free in this sense and thus argue for an anarchical society.
So, what does Paul’s “freedom” mean here? For this, we need context. Earlier, he wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1). Christ set us free from what? Is he talking of a political freedom from slavery or a spiritual freedom from slavery? For this, we need to go back even further. The theme of Galatians is Paul’s contrast between works and faith, so it is one of spiritual slavery. Before faith came, Paul says, “we were held captive under the law” of God (3:23). In other words, we were enslaved to it. Previously, we were enslaved to the law to do the works of the law in order to earn a reconciled status with God.
But no more. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [the law], for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (3:25-26). And this faith is for everyone regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or gender (3:29). By faith in Christ, we have been set free from the works of the law and are now free to live as holy creatures.
As Paul continues his argument, he comes to say we should not use this freedom from the law as an excuse to sin, or “an opportunity for the flesh.” That is, licentiousness—the licence to sin—is not justified. Christian freedom does not mean we have freedom to sin, but freedom from sin; therefore, we are free to love and serve one another. If our liberation in Christ meant we have freedom to sin, would that not render His death and resurrection meaningless? For Christ died to set us free from sin, not free to live in sin without conscience and regret.
Even with freedom there are still boundaries. And there must be—at least on this side of the eschaton—for as sinners we are bound to hurt one another, and lawful boundaries help to prevent that and punish those who do hurt others (cf. Romans 13:1-7). In America, we are free to live to our heart’s desires—or as the Constitution says, the right to the pursuit of happiness—but even this right comes with boundaries.
In America, we have the right to pursue happiness—whatever this may mean for someone—without prevention from the government, but not to the extent that we prohibit good living for others and neither does it promise the government needs to make it happen. (Government is not supposed to be involved in any way, excluding harm of human life and well-being.) It is the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the legislation of happiness (hence why gay marriage legislation is not truly sanctioned under this right). What this right does not mean is some high, emotional state of perpetuity, but rather the right to seek “prosperity” or “well-being in the broader sense. It include[s] the right to meet physical needs, [and] it also include[s] a significant moral and religious dimension” (Rogers, para. 2).
In the same way, freedom from sin does not mean we are free to live in it (for sin injures our spiritual and even physical well-being as well as that of others). Although we are free from sin, as Christians we still live with boundaries—that is, not to sin. In other words, being free from the law does not mean we no longer have to obey it; being free from the law means we are free from obeying it for the purpose of becoming right with God. We are made right with God (reconciled, justified) by faith in Christ, whose death and resurrection has set us free from the law. Now that we are free from the law, we are free to do its works not to become right with God since Christ has done that for us, but for the love of our neighbour in service to our neighbour.
Rogers, James R. “The Meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness.'” First Things. June 19, 2012. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2012/06/the-meaning-of-the-pursuit-of-happiness