St. Paul clearly and forcefully affirms that Christian life is a life of perfect freedom: “For you were called to freedom, brethren . . .. If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law” (Gal 5.13, 18). Some Jewish Christians wished everyone to adhere to the law of Moses. Paul passionately rejects this imposition: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5.1).
The prophets and holy men of Israel had praised God’s law as a wonderful gift which helped one to walk with him. Paul rejoices that Christians are at last rid of the law: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6.14). Indeed, the law was a gift from God, but a very limited one. It did make clear what is right, but to make this clear to sinful people only aggravates their sinfulness. Not only is evil more serious when committed contrary to an express command of God, but sinful people given commands are stirred to rebellion (see Rom 7.7–12). As chapter twenty-one explained, the stages of redemption prior to Jesus involved inner tensions which rendered them unsatisfactory and required that they be surpassed.
The old law had a role. It was a monitor which boxed people in and forced them to learn their sinfulness (see Gal 3.23–24). Like a treatment which brings a disease to the point of crisis, the law was imposed to bring out all the bitter consequences of sin (see Gal 3.10). Christians naturally were glad to be free of all the detailed regulations and observances of the Mosaic law. But Paul is not primarily interested in such details. The example of the law he gives is from the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet” (Rom 7.7). It is this sort of law which was more a burden than a blessing, and it is from this sort of law that Christians are gloriously liberated.
Paul was not the first to recognize the limitations of the law. Unless one has been inwardly renewed, it is a curse to know precisely what is right and wrong. So the psalmist prays: “Create in me a clean heart” (Ps 51.10). “I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my understanding” (Ps 119.32). The prophets look forward to the time when God will give the people a heart to know who he is and who they are, a heart able to live as they should (see Jer 24.7; Bar 2.30–31). “And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Ez 11.19–20). The law, even the Ten Commandments, is no help at all unless one has the heart to love God. Nothing imposed from without can make a person holy (see S.t., 1–2, q. 98, a. 1, ad 2; q. 107, a. 1, ad 2).
Jesus teaches that God will give what we need; we must pray persistently, and the heavenly Father will answer (see Mt 7.7–11). One can ask the Father for anything in Jesus’ name and be confident of receiving what one asks so that one’s joy may be full (see Jn 16.23–24). God knows how to give his children good things; he will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Lk 11.13). One who has faith in Jesus will be able to live as he did and even to do greater works than his, for Jesus will ask the Father, and the Father will send the Spirit to those who wish to walk with Jesus (see Jn 14.12–16).
Accordingly, St. Paul teaches that Christians are freed from the condemnation of the law. They enjoy a new law. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8.2). The prophetic promise was that the new law would be placed within God’s people, written upon their hearts (see Jer 31.33). The dead, dry bones of God’s people would be re-created: “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ez 37.14). By his gift of the Spirit, made at the request of Jesus, the Father fulfills this promise.
The new law of Jesus is not simply a higher and more perfect ideal, one which makes no compromises with human hardheartedness. It is not a code, not an external imposition. Instead, it is an interior transformation. The Spirit pours forth the love of God in our hearts (see Rom 5.5). We are changed from subjects under a law to members of the divine family, with all the rights and privileges pertaining to this status (see Gal 4.6–7). Children of God do not have to take orders from anybody; they enjoy absolute liberty and can do just as they please (see Rom 8.14–21).
“No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God” (1 Jn 3.9). Love of neighbor fulfills the entire law (see Gal 5.14). One who loves fulfills not only the Ten Commandments but any other commandment there might be (see Rom 13.8–10). Charity is not simply a matter of doing a little something extra now and then. It unifies all the virtues and excludes all the vices; one who receives this gift needs nothing else for perfection (see 1 Cor 13). One who has the Spirit is free of inclination to do wrong; life in the Spirit bears fruit in every virtue and good work (see Gal 5.16–23).
St. Paul teaches that the new covenant is one “not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3.6). St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that this saying holds true even of the precepts of the gospel and the law of the Church. Any exterior requirement imposed upon a person is deadly (see S.t., 1–2, q. 106, a. 2).17
If all this is so, do Christians still need moral teaching? Obviously, there is moral teaching, throughout the New Testament and the whole tradition of the Church. Nor does it consist merely of optional guidelines. Paul lists sins and then says: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5.21). The First Epistle of John no sooner asserts that a child of God cannot sin than it warns against committing murder (see 1 Jn 3.12). Jesus explicitly insists that the commandments are to be kept and taught (see Mt 5.17–20). Why are Christians still confronted with moral law?
The unhappy fact is that Christians can sin, can evict the Spirit from their hearts. When we are lawless and unruly, then the law still serves its purpose: It makes clear to us what we are (see 1 Tm 1.8–11). Moreover, the human personality is complex. Even if we do not evict the Spirit, sin remains in the recesses of our selves (see Rom 8.23). We have our treasure in earthen vessels, and death is still at its work in us (see 2 Cor 4.7, 12). One’s unredeemed part fights the Spirit (see Gal 5.16–17). Christian moral teaching marks out the way we must walk to conform to the perfect image of God which is given us in Jesus.
The liberty we receive as Christians is not liberty to do good and evil indiscriminately. Freedom from the law is not a permit for fuzzy thinking in morals, nor for slackness and laxity. The liberty we receive is the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God’s own love. Using this power with faith, we can do anything whatsoever. Therefore, we can fulfill perfectly every requirement of perfect fulfillment (see S.t., 2–2, q. 183, a. 4). We can love enemies, die as martyrs, even live without orgasms.
Good parents need no law against murdering children. Faithful spouses need no law against committing adultery. Fair-minded people need no laws against injustice. One who lives by the Spirit finds out what is right and willingly does it; for such a person, law might as well not exist. One who perfectly loved God above all things would necessarily love every creature just as it should be loved, and so would necessarily love every human good properly. For such a person, any act which would violate a human good would be out of the question. Insofar as, but only insofar as, they approach this ideal, children of God may do just as they please because nothing pleases them which would displease the Father by mutilating the good he wills in them and creation as a whole.
Christians who live by the Spirit are freed from sin, death, the law, and Satan. But they are not robbed of their humanity. The Spirit does not take away human judgment and choice; if he were to do this, grace would destroy nature rather than heal and perfect it. God redeems us in a way which respects our dignity as responsible persons. Therefore, the Christian who lives by the Spirit and without the law still needs to learn what is right and still must choose it. Even Jesus had to know the Father’s will and commit himself to it.