Freedom from the Law

By: Christopher West

cross and light

How many people do you know — maybe it’s even true of yourself — who consider Christianity nothing but a long list of oppressive rules to follow, especially when it comes to sex? I never tire of proclaiming that Jesus Christ did not die on a cross and rise from the dead to give us a long list of rules to follow. Christ came, in fact, to set us free from the rules.

Freedom to  Fulfill the Law

What? Yes, it’s true. As St. Paul tells us, if we are lead by Christ, we are free from the law (see Gal 5). But this doesn’t mean we are free to break the law. Christ sets us free to fulfill the law. “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). Christ fulfills the law, as the word implies, by living it to the full. This means not only meeting the laws demands externally, but living them to the full internally — from the depths of the heart.

We all know that it’s possible to follow the rules without ever attaining holiness. It’s called “legalism” or “moralism.” It’s also called hypocrisy. “You blind Pharisee! First cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Mt 23:26). This is what the grace of the Gospel affords: it presents us not only with a law to follow, but with the power (God’s grace) to fulfill it.

Christ didn’t come into the world to shove laws down our rebellious throats. He came into the world to change our hearts so we would no longer need the laws. As the Catechism says, “The Law of the Gospel …does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure” (CCC, n. 1968).

The Purpose of the Law for Christians

This doesn’t mean laws serve no purpose for us. To the degree that our hearts are still rebelling against God’s will, we need his law to tell us where our hearts need to change. But if we welcome God’s grace in our lives and allow it to work in us, we come to find that the desires of our hearts conform more and more to God’s will for us. To this extent we are “free from the law.” Again, this doesn’t mean we are free to break the law. We are free to fulfill the law because we no longer desire to break it.

To demonstrate this point in my lectures, I usually call on a married man and ask him if he has any desire to murder his wife. Most often the husband says no (thank God). Then I’ll ask him, “Do you need the commandment ‘Thou shalt not murder thy wife’?”   He realizes, of course, that he does not. To this extent, the husband is free from the law: not free to break it, but free to fulfill it because he does not desire to break it.  To draw the point out further, I’ll then call on his wife and ask her if she has ever seen her husband slamming his fists exclaiming, “Why do those old celibate men in Rome tell me I can’t murder my wife? What do they know about marriage any way?” My point is this: we are only bitter towards the law when we desire to break it.

Pick any teaching of the Church that you are bitter about. Chances are it has something to do with sex (we’re not usually bitter about the fact that the Church calls us to feed the hungry). Here’s a proposal for us to chew on. Maybe the problem is not with the teaching of the Church. Maybe, just maybe, the problem is precisely what Jesus said it was: our own hardness of heart (see Mt 19:8). And maybe the solution is not to throw the Church’s teaching out the window. Maybe the solution, instead, is to get on our knees and humbly pray, “Lord, please change my heart.”  If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

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