Freedom in the Gospel
Scripture: Galatians 5:1-15
Galatians is a powerful defense of the Gospel message – the good news that we have received Jesus – that we don’t need anything to be a Christian except faith in the work of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul is defending this message against false teachers who were claiming that new Christians must also adopt the rituals and practices of the Jewish believers in order to be saved.
This morning, in chapter 5, Paul begins talking about the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. But freedom is easily misunderstood, especially the way we think about freedom today. Our modern American concept of the word freedom is going to cloud our understanding of this text, so I will do my best to explain when the time comes.
We are also going to read one of the most shocking verses in the Bible this morning, so mentally prepare yourself for that.
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; (in other words, Jesus set us free in order to experience our freedom) stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.
Pay close attention, Paul says, if you do this you can’t have Jesus. That is the most direct way of saying it. Works righteousness and justification by faith cannot coexist. It’s one or the other.
3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.
4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
That is a hard verse. Some take this to mean that the Galatian Christians can lose their salvation. But that would ignore the greater context of chapter 4.
Paul’s talking about two covenants – a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. The Jews understood that disobedience would result in being cut off from the covenant community. Paul borrows that idea here. He’s saying that to resubmit to the law, now that Christ has been revealed, would result in being cut off from the covenant of grace.
The visible church is the covenant community. It includes professing believers and their children. But we understand that not everyone in the covenant community is a true, born-again believer.
Scripture interprets Scripture and so I’m confident that Paul’s meaning in this verse is that professing believers who embrace works righteousness will be severed from the covenant of grace. In reality, it means that they were never in Christ.
His challenge then is that these professing Christians must choose. Will they submit to a religion of works or a religion of grace?
5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
We are not working for our hope. We are waiting for our hope. Our work counts for nothing. Only faith counts. But… true faith expresses itself in love. We respond to God’s grace with good works.
7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?
Notice again, Paul is not dismissing the need for obedience or effort in the Christian life. It’s the order that matters. Grace comes before effort. Obedience follows grace.
8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you.
In other words, Jesus isn’t the one pushing you to be circumcised.
9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump.
Jesus referred to the teaching of the Pharisees as leaven and Paul borrows that idea. A small amount of yeast completely changes the recipe.
10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.
11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.
Apparently, the false teachers were spreading a lie that Paul was now on their team. But he had some strong words for that.
12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
Brother Paul! Did he really say that? Yes, he did! Go all the way, the man said! Cut it all off! Wow…
The Galatians would have been familiar with some of the pagan religions in the region that required their priests to do this. Paul knows how foolish it sounds, and that was probably the point.
Paul loves the Gospel. He loves Jesus. This debate was obviously very serious to the Lord. Why?
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. (Remember how I said earlier, our modern American concept of the word freedom is going to cloud our understanding of this text? Pay close attention to these last two verses) Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
What then is freedom, the way Paul uses it here? Freedom is having the power to do the right thing. Let me say that again. Freedom is having the power to do the right thing.
That is not how the average American thinks about freedom. In a few weeks we will celebrate Independence Day, a day when we appreciate our freedom as Americans. Historically, that meant freedom from the tyranny of a king. But to most Americans now, we think of freedom as having the opportunity, or the right, to do whatever we want to do.
It’s my life. It’s my body. It’s my choice. I can do what I want. That’s how we define “freedom”.
But that is NOT what the Bible means by freedom. In fact, the Bible calls that bondage. Doing whatever we want to do is slavery to sin, not freedom.
In Christ, we are free from the obligation to try and earn God’s favor by keeping the law, something we could never do. But we are also freed from thinking that we know what is best for us. We are free to trust Jesus and His way instead of our own way.
In verse 13, Paul says “you are called to freedom… but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” In other words, don’t think of your freedom as an excuse to do whatever you feel like doing.
Instead, you have been empowered, in Christ, to live freely as someone who has been made new. You now have the license to be a better person and the power to change by His Spirit.
I think it was Frederick Douglas who said, “There is no freedom without a struggle. You can’t have crops without plowing the ground.”
The good news for the Christian is that we are not struggling to be free anymore. In Christ, we have freedom already. But that means we are now free to struggle – against sin, against the flesh. Freedom is not an opportunity or a right to do what we want, but the power to do the right thing.
And how should we spend that opportunity? How should we use that power? The answer is love. Not a love that rejoices in sin, but a love that rejoices in the truth.
One last verse:
15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
He’s still talking here about the misuse of freedom, or a misunderstanding of freedom. The language suggests maybe a pack of dogs attacking one another, but there is also an element here of cannibalism.
I think it’s safe to say that cannibalism is the opposite of love, right? But think about this again in terms of freedom.
We’re all familiar with zombies from movies and video games?
Zombies appear to be free. They just kind of wander around wherever they want to go. But they are not free, are they? They are completely controlled by one desire – they want to eat people. That’s not freedom is it, when everything in your world is controlled by a single desire?
But that gets at the point the Bible is making about us. We have the power to destroy other people. We become like zombies in the way we interact with people, and we will stop at nothing until we get what we want. The desires in our heart control us!
Jesus said it this way in Luke 6:45: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
He’s not telling us to “be good”. He’s telling us that our communication reveals our heart. Each of us has a commitment in our heart that we will defend at all costs. We will slam and manipulate and gossip and discourage and yell and curse and ignore and pout. We will do whatever it takes to get what we want. Even if it means I have to hurt other people in the process.
But for the Christian, we are called into a new reality. We are called into a new kingdom, a kingdom where none of us is the king. Jesus is the king.
If you belong to Christ, then you understand that Jesus used His freedom and power as the true King, not to condemn you and cast you aside. His anger did not burn against you, though he had every right to bury you. But instead, Christ used His power to restore you.
On the cross, he spoke words of forgiveness. That’s who we now represent! We do not have the freedom to manipulate and hurt other people. We have the right and the freedom to represent a King who loves and forgives people who don’t deserve it.
And it is His grace that sets us free. He becomes the desire of our heart and we experience true freedom – not to indulge our selfish desires and hurt other people – but freedom to love, freedom to serve, freedom to forgive, freedom to be the people God created us to be.