Friday, August 12, 2022
Every year on the 4th of July people in the United States come together to celebrate our freedom. If you are living in another country you might have different ways of celebrating freedom or you may not be particularly focused on freedom. Freedom means different things to different people. For the person who has been in prison, freedom means being able to go where you want to go and do what you want to do. For a student who is on vacation, freedom means not having to go to class and turn in homework. For a person who is single, freedom means being able to date. For the people who originally established the United States freedom meant being able to choose whatever religion or church that your conscience told you was the way to know God. It was also about the freedom to self-govern rather than be governed by a dictator.
Freedom can be a very good thing when it is rightly understood and practiced, but wrongly understood and practiced, freedom can be very dangerous. America is about freedom in some ways, but not every way. I’m not free to drive as fast as I want or in whatever direction I want on the highway. I have to obey traffic laws or else I could cause injury or death to myself and others, or I can be criminally punished and lose the privilege of driving. Freedom has to be rightly understood. What am I free from and what am I free to do?
When Paul talks about freedom here he has a couple of things in mind. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are not saved by following some law or other legalistic ritual practice. In the Church of Galatia, those who heard Paul preach the Gospel and were baptized into Jesus Christ were set free from the power of sin and death. They were free to allow the spirit of God to transform their lives so that they could do what is most important, love.
Paul is obviously very angry in chapter 5 because he sees that they have chosen to reject the freedom given by the Gospel and have chosen to place themselves under the yoke of slavery to the Jewish Law. Circumcision was the physical act of mutilating part of your body as a way of marking you as different. Jewish boys were circumcised to distinguish them as children of Abraham and followers of the Mosaic Law. One under the Law was required to obey all 611 laws ranging from what foods to eat, to how and where and when to worship, how to properly dispose of human waste, and ceremonially clean mildew. Paul had been raised under that Law and it didn’t make him any closer to God. It made him an enemy of Jesus Christ, and it certainly didn’t make him a more loving person. He found faith in Christ and receiving the Spirit of God to be truly freeing and life-transforming. He could not imagine going back to the slavery of the law. So he cannot understand why the Galatian Christians were choosing to trade their freedom in Christ for enslavement to the law.
Paul’s main emphasis is the Spirit and Love. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6) “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ’Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (5:14) “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (5:22). This is what’s most important for Paul, not the practices that separate Jews from Gentiles (circumcision, food, and observing The Law.)
But Paul also doesn’t want followers of Christ to get the wrong idea about their freedom in Christ. It is the Freedom from the power of sin, not the freedom to do whatever your flesh desires. Some believers take grace and freedom to a place where Paul and God never intended for it to go. The acts of the flesh that Paul lists: “sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” He is clear that a life that is given over to the flesh is not the life that results in life in the kingdom of God in the age to come. It’s a freedom from the power of sin, not the freedom to do whatever you want that opposes the life of God.
Receive God’s spirit through faith in Jesus Christ and live a life of love, that is what a life of fruitful and flourishing discipleship to Jesus Christ looks like. Legalism is one extreme to avoid, lawlessness is the opposite extreme to avoid. The goal is faith expressing itself through love.
Questions for Discussion:
- Which extreme do you find more challenging in your discipleship- legalism or lawlessness?
- Why is our freedom in Christ so easily misunderstood?