Two Concepts of Freedom in Galatians

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. – Paul in his Letter to the Galatians

At Soma (the college group I lead) we are currently in a series on Relationships – Where’s Your Heart. It’s a relationship series based upon the conviction that where your treasure is there your heart will also be. This series has led us to examine the purity of our hearts and the motives of our hearts in relationships. This weekend we turn to Paul’s thoughts on freedom.

The passage above is pretty straightforward – we have been called to be free. We are not under the law – we really are free! But what does that mean? What is freedom? I won’t get into this in this upcoming weekend’s sermon, however having some philosophical background for the concept of freedom really helps us understand this passage.

Two Concepts of Freedom

In 1958, Isaiah Berlin, delivered what is now considered a classic paper on the philosophy of freedom. The paper, titled: “Two Concepts of Freedom” lays out (quite obviously) two different concepts of freedom. The first is what he calls “negative freedom.” This type of freedom is concerned with the question “What is the area within which the subject- a person or group of persons – is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” The second, which he calls positive freedom is concerned with the question “Who or who is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do or be this rather than that.” He says that these two versions of freedom are clearly different, yet at times they certainly overlap. Berlin is absolutely right – at times it is hard to determine which sort of freedom we are talking about.

So there you have it – at the most basic level there are two types of freedom: Negative and Positive. Just to reiterate – Negative freedom has to do with freedom from coercion – it could be considered “freedom from.” Positive freedom has to with powers and abilities – it could be considered “freedom too.” As an analytic political philosopher Berlin is actually concerned with issues revolving around citizens freedom in regards to governmental structures. He wants to know whether when we talk about citizens being free and the government encouraging freedom whether we are talking about negative or positive freedom. Should the government merely not interfere with citizens (negative freedom) or should the government enable citizens to express and live out their desires (positive freedom). I have thoughts about that – but this isn’t the place or time to address those issues – I want to turn my attention to Paul and his view on freedom in this Galatians passage.

Freedom in Galatians

Paul says

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

It seems to me that Paul has two versions of freedom that he is working with – yet its sort of tricky because he moves with ease between these two versions of freedom even within one verse! Paul certainly has negative freedom in mind when he talks about Christians being called to be free – we are free from the coercive powers of sin, death, and the law. But he also seems to imply that freedom is more than just being free from these things – freedom is being free to do other things as well: freedom to serve, freedom to love, freedom not to indulge in the flesh. In this other sense freedom is not simply the lack of coercion, its the power or ability to do what one actually wants. Freedom is a positive power – which is to be used in service and love. I believe that this is the primary mode of freedom within Paul’s thought. Paul (almost) always talks about freedom in a positive sense. Freedom in Christ isn’t primarily a freedom from other sorts of things which bind us (though it is that at times) – Freedom in Christ is the power to be what Christ has created us to be. It is a positive freedom which says that our new natures given to us by Christ actually determine our actions. This version of freedom takes seriously the fact of new creation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Or to put things more simply and in the type of language Paul is using here:

As a believer you aren’t simply free from the obligations of law – you are free to actually carry the law to its fulfillment.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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