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Is Paul consistent when he tells us that we have been “called for freedom,” but then he instructs us to “serve one another through love” (Gal 5:13)? In what sense are we free if we serve others?

St. Thomas Aquinas notes that “the state of faith in Christ… pertains to liberty and is liberty itself…” Paul insisted: “You have been called by God into the liberty of grace: ‘You have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons’ (Rom 8:15).

Does “freedom” mean that anything that we would like to do is permissible? Paul told the Galatians that freedom from the Mosaic Law is not a license to sin. St. Thomas explains: “Now the Galatians were free of the Law; but lest they suppose this to be a license to commit sins forbidden by the Law, the Apostle touches on abuse of liberty, saying ‘Only make not liberty an occasion to the flesh.’ As if to say: You are free, but not so as to misuse your liberty by supposing that you may sin with impunity…”

St. Thomas points out:

… the mode of standing is through charity; hence he says, ‘serve one another by love.’ In fact, the whole state consists in charity, without which a man is nothing (1 Cor 13:1ff.)… The state of grace does not exist in virtue of a desire of the flesh but by charity of the spirit, i.e., a charity which proceeds from the Holy Spirit through Whom we should be subject to and serve one another: ‘Bear one another’s burdens’ (Gal 6:2); ‘anticipate one another in showing honor’ (Rom 12:10).

St. Thomas recognizes the serving one another appears to clash with being free. Aristotle said that a free person does things for his or her own sake while a slave is not self-moved but acts for the benefit of someone else. On the contrary, charity is free: “Charity has liberty as to its moving cause because it works of itself: ‘The love of Christ impels us’ spontaneously to work (2 Cor 5:14). But it is a servant when, putting one’s own interests aside, it devotes itself to things beneficial to the neighbor.”

St. Thomas affirms that we ourselves benefit by charity to others:

Now the benefit we obtain in fulfilling charity is of the highest order, because in it we fulfill the whole law; hence Paul says ‘For all the law is fulfilled in one word.’ Charity must be maintained, because the whole law is fulfilled in one word, namely, in the one precept of charity: ‘He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law’ (Rom 13:8) and ‘Love is the fulfillment of the law’ (Rom 13:10) … ‘the aim of this instruction is love’ (1 Tim 1:5).

Can we really say that loving our neighbors fulfills the whole law? Isn’t this setting aside love of God? Thomas responds: “In the love of God is included love of neighbor: ‘This commandment we have from God, that he, who loves God, loves also his brother’ (1 Jn 4:21). Consequently, the whole law is fulfilled in one precept of charity. For the precepts of the law are reduced to that one precept.” Thomas attests that the first three commandments of the Decalogue concern love of God, and the other seven relate to love of neighbor.

According to Thomas, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lv 19:18) means: “… just as we will a good for our own sake, we will good for our neighbors as well: ‘I love my neighbor as myself in the same way that I love myself, when I will him a good for his sake, and not because it is useful or pleasant to me.’”

Thomas explains that each of us wants understanding and reason for ourselves and each of us desires to attain God: “You love your neighbor as yourself when you will him the good of understanding and reason… Just as you love yourself for the sake of God, so you love your neighbor for the sake of God, namely that he may attain to God.”

St. Paul cautions the Galatians that, if they go on biting and devouring each other, they will be consumed by each other (Gal 5:15). For Thomas, “biting one another” means giving partial hurt by slandering another’s good name whereas devouring the other is destroying another’s good name entirely.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

The quotations from Thomas Aquinas are from Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, translated by F. R. Larcher, O.P., (Albany, NY: Magi Books Inc., 1965), pp. 162-166.