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Ephesians tackles age-old question of law vs. freedom
Paul calls for living by the Spirit rather than adopting a rulebook
Plenty of churches like to preach about the freedom that comes with following Christ — while at the same time preaching a list of rules that Christians need to follow if they’re going to be “true” Christians.
This tension between legalism (rules-based living) and antinomianism (living without moral standards), is nearly as old as Christianity itself. In fact, this conflict is one of the main themes of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
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Galatians is one of Paul’s earliest epistles that we have today. It was probably written in the late 40s CE or 50 CE, around the time of the Jerusalem Council1, a gathering of the early church’s leaders that debated and tentatively settled the issue of the extent to which Gentile converts to Christianity were required to follow the Mosaic law. In a move that made widespread expansion of Christianity tenable, the council decided that Gentile Christians were not required to follow Mosaic law with very few exceptions, such as the prohibitions against idolatry.2
Paul, although during his pre-conversion days someone who zealously defended Mosaic law, was clearly on the side of those who didn’t see the need to impose Jewish law on Gentile converts. His explanation was that the Mosaic law didn’t have the power to bring salvation: “A man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,3” he wrote.
Instead, he said, salvation comes through faith, making Mosaic law worthless:
For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. That life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me. I don’t reject the grace of God. For if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nothing!4
In fact, Paul makes as complete of a break with Jewish thought as is possible, concluding that all people can take part in the blessings that were once available only by being descendants of Abraham:
For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to promise.5
Ultimately, he concludes that not only do Gentiles not have to follow Jewish law once they accept the grace of Christ, they shouldn’t. To do so, he suggests, would be accepting a yoke of bondage; in contrast, Paul tells the Ephesians, “stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.6”
For Paul, faith in Christ is all about freedom. Perhaps he saw what his zealotry for Mosaic law had done to him earlier in life, putting him in a position where he would stand by during the stoning of Stephen. It’s difficult to imagine him wanting to replace Mosaic law with any kind of system that imposes rules seen as necessary for salvation.
But that doesn’t mean Paul doesn’t see a danger in discarding all moral restraint. But for him, what is required of the believer echoes of the words of Christ:
For you, brothers and sisters, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants to one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”7
And how is that done? Living by the Spirit, which Paul sees as contrasting with the desires of the flesh.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, that you may not do the things that you desire. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the deeds of the flesh are obvious, which are: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, orgies and things like these; of which I forewarn you, even as I also forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit God’s Kingdom. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.8
At first glance, it may seem that Paul is replacing one set of rules with another. But Paul isn’t presenting those traits as rules to be followed, but as the outgrowth of what comes through faith in Christ and following the Spirit.
For Paul, patience and kindness aren’t items on a checklist, but the result of freedom to do what Christ has called those who believe in him to do. To truly love one’s neighbor doesn’t mean to take advantage of that person, but to seek the best for that person. And for Paul, that isn’t something we need a rulebook for.
This commentary on Ephesians is a part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
Scholars have long debated whether Galatians 2:1-10 is Paul’s account of the Council of Jerusalem or whether it was written before the gathering.
Notably, male converts were not required to get circumcised.
Ephesians 5:13-14, quoting Leviticus 19:18. Compare with Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31 and Luke 10:27.