The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia to address some very important issues which they had forgotten – Christian freedom chief among them. Along with that, he also laid out some obligations of the Christian life. As I considered the celebration of the birth of our nation and our freedom earlier this month I was reminded anew of the above letter, written in 49 AD, just prior to the Jerusalem Council. (Acts 15) The theme of the book was, in one word, FREEDOM! And in two words, CHRISTIAN FREEDOM specifically. The Apostle’s exasperation with the Galatian church is clear and unbridled. He was also furious at the false teachers who had come in and led them away from their grace and freedom. They had initially embraced the true gospel of grace, but later on, when he was not there with them, they allowed themselves to be, in the words of Paul, “bewitched” by these false teachers to go back under the law and leave their grace behind. In order to bring them back to the freedom of the gospel, he asked a few rhetorical questions:
Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:2)
The obvious answer is “by the hearing of faith.” He has been abundantly clear throughout his teaching that no one can be justified, made righteous before God, by the “works of the law.” His next question demonstrates the bankruptcy of the deception to which they had yielded:
Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3)
The balance of the chapter is spent reminding them that all the law can do is demonstrate to us our desperate condition, and that without the freeing gospel of Christ, it will leave us in despair. The law chains and imprisons us – no one could ever or would ever be able to keep it. But faith in Christ’s work – His keeping of the whole law perfectly throughout His life – sets us free. How were the Galatians deceived into giving up their freedom? The false teachers crept in and manipulated them through fear and guilt and made demands on them which sounded “right” to these Christian’s confused minds. They put the heavy weight of the law right back on these Christian’s shoulders. Paul spends chapter three and four on the history of faith and basis of freedom. He then reminds them of two very important things. The first is Freedom:
For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1a)
Why did Christ set us free? To enjoy freedom and to enjoy Him – to experience our spiritual walk with Him without the terrible guilt and shame that human attempts at law-keeping inevitably brings. All down through church history, beginning with the Galatians, many Christians have been deceived and persuaded to give up the freedom bought for them by the savior. It is certainly happening in our day as well. People are deceived into giving up their grace and returning to the black hole of law-keeping and law-keeping failure that blights the soul. We see it in groups like Gwen Shamblin’s Remnant Fellowship, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons – and even in quite a few evangelical churches – brought in by people bearing the false teachings of Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, for example, or with a whole host of other law-based killjoys that prey on the church. BTW, killjoy is an excellent moniker for these false teachers, because putting people back under the weight of the law kills joy for certain.
The second thing Paul reminded them of are obligations. At first that might sound contradictory but once we understand the obligations they make perfect sense. The first is commitment to or defense of freedom:
“…stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1b)
Do not permit others to take your freedom and joy away through guilt, fear and manipulation. Your freedom is an endowment or gift from your creator. It was very costly to our Savior, and freedom’s enormous inherent value gives us ample reason to stand firm and not submit to the dictates and demands of those who seek to deprive us of our freedom. The Apostle didn’t pull any punches on this and his response was not, shall we say, politically correct:
I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:12)
Ouch! He provides another obligation:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)
It’s interesting that Paul connects “biting and devouring one another” with a loss of personal freedom and being brought back under the law. Law-keeping sets up circular firing squads of judges and judgment, as people seek to feel better about their own law-keeping failures by judging and condemning others. We attended such a church for a short time when we were young marrieds, and believe me, it is not pretty to behold. It split up good friendships, and the false piety in that place was strewn around like rancid butter on an otherwise good waffle. It ruined the faith of some of the new Christians that attended with us. Some never went back to church as a result of that experience. It made us strong defenders of Christian freedom and the grace of God.
So, not only are we to defend and stand firm in our freedom, but that very freedom allows us to love, care for and serve others. We are free to live holy lives by the Spirit, and free to enjoy a relationship of peace with God. Christian freedom is not a license to sin, but a license to live abundant lives pleasing to God through the work of the Holy Spirit. Christians, who have been born of the Spirit, do not want to sin but to please God, even though we are not completely free from sin in this life.
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. Romans 7:6
Paul contrasts these two opposing ways of seeing the world in Galatians 5:16-24 and ends with an interesting recap:
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:25-26)
There is also another golden nugget to be mined from Galatians chapter 5. It concerns the concept of Christians “falling from grace.” The popular understanding of the phrase, “falling from grace,” is that it concerns Christians who have fallen into sin and “fallen away” from God or the faith as a result. But that it not what it means at all! No, to fall from grace is for a spirit-born person, saved by grace, to put oneself back under the law!
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:4-6)
Although God sees us as perfectly righteous right now through our identification with His Son, we still experience temptation and sin in this earthly body. So, what do we do about that? The truth is, wearing hair shirts, flagellating ourselves (and others!) or climbing Cathedral steps on our knees, as Martin Luther tried, will not make us righteous (sinless) in these bodies. We still have the sin nature in our body. Nor can we recommend living in misery and shame while hiding from God and others. What good is that? And putting ourselves back under the law certainly has no value either.
We will be redeemed from this body and our sinful nature when our present bodies are redeemed. Then we shall be gloriously changed. Praise God! As long as we are in this body of death, as Paul calls it, we await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. The only thing that counts, Paul says, is faith expressing itself though love. That’s what we do. While we await the transformation of our bodies, we love others with sincere hearts, and act according to that love.
There is an interesting thing about love, though. It has amazing tendency to improve behavior in many ways. For example, if we sincerely love someone, we will not envy them, nor covet their possessions. Nor would we wish to do them any harm. We won’t steal from them; therefore, it would be unthinkable to steal their spouse either. Certainly, we wouldn’t murder someone that we truly love, would we? So it is that genuine Godly love just happens to correspond with the goodness of God. So that explains how it is that as we walk according to the Spirit, in love, we will not fulfill the evil deeds of the flesh, as spelled out in the commandments of God. True love is transformative. No, we can’t love perfectly while here on this earth. But it will make a big difference in how we live our lives. Law-keeping is far inferior to walking in love. And that is why walking in God’s pure love while firmly maintaining our hold on grace, is our aim. And someday, we are completely confident, our bodies will be redeemed and “we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is.” Ω
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