July 4, 2019.
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
July 4th is a day that we as Americans typically hold in high regard as we reflect on who we are as a nation and the quintessential American value of freedom. However, freedom has come to mean different things to different people, and the idea has been co-opted for various different agendas and even opposing viewpoints. Even what was behind the idea of freedom seen by the founding fathers (which in and of itself is probably up for interpretation) is not necessarily what it has come to mean today. Further, it almost seems inevitable that our reflections on freedom and the meaning thereof get entangled with the idea of freedom in Christ that Paul discusses in his epistles. I’d like to take a few moments here to ask the question, what exactly did Paul mean when he said that Christ has set us free as Christians? And what implications does this have in our everyday lives?
What is the issue in Galatia?
To answer the question of what Paul means by freedom in Christ will take us on a whirlwind tour of the book of Galatians. Galatians is not the only letter in which Paul discusses freedom in Christ (far from it), but the epistle is almost wholly dedicated to the topic in some way, and I think we stand to glead much from it. We opened our discussion with Gal. 5:1, where Paul tells us that Jesus has set us free for the sake of freedom, which, taken at face value, does not seem to give us much information about what he means by freedom. But this is because we started towards the end of his argument, and by this time he has already developed what he means by freedom in some detail.
The book of Galatians deals with a common problem that the early church had as the good news spread out from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, where most converts to Christianity were Jews, into the wider Grecco-Roman world, were most converts would be Gentiles. It is hard for us to truly appreciate this difference today, especially in America. But from a first century Jewish perspective, the culture in which Christ and the apostles were embedded, the fact that Gentiles were allowed into the kingdom of God was a big deal- so much so that Paul often refers to this as the “mystery” of the gospel, only to be revealed through Christ. It will become apparent why this is important to our thinking about Paul’s discussion of freedom later, but this is the setting in which the epistle to the Galatians was written.From the first chapter, we get a glimpse into what the major issue in Galatia was:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
Paul does not waste time with a long salutary introduction, which is somewhat characteristic of his style in other letters (see the opening of Colossians), but cuts straight to the point: the Galatians are leaving the gospel of Christ! But even this does not tell us what Paul means since we are not in the situation to already know the problems going on in Galatia. But we do not have to wait long to figure out what is going on, and Paul uses a particularly poignant interaction with a well known Apostle to bring the discussion to a head:
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?””
Now we see that the issue at hand is the issue that seems to plague almost all of the churches in the first century: the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. The hostility has even reached the point where it has overtaken Peter and Barnabus, a shocking revelation after all that they have seen.
Freedom from what?
But what does this have to do with freedom? Paul’s first mention of freedom comes in his early defense of his apostleship and authority.
“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”
Now we see that Paul’s idea of freedom in the book of Galatians is in opposition to the teaching of circumcision. There was a group of Jewish Christians who were teaching that the Gentile converts needed to be circumcised in order to be true Christians. I think that Circumcision was likely only the physical referent that represented the full theology that these Jewish Christians were trying to teach, namely that to be a true Christian, one had to be a good Jew.
Again, it is hard for us to wrap our minds around this concept today, as most of us did not grow up in conservative orthodox Jewish homes, and none of us were raised in the environment that the first century Jews where, being taught from day one that the Jews were God’s chosen people, and that they were the ones that were given the law that brought them close to God. It is hard to shake years of teaching, even when spectacular events, such as the resurrection of Christ, teach you something different than you have been taught. To the Jews, the Old Law reigned supreme in access to God, and Jewish Christians often struggled with the idea that this was changed in Christ, who was now everyone’s access to God.
Paul goes on to make an allegory out of the story of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah that was sure to make any Jew shutter (Gal. 4:21-31). He says that the son of Hagar, not the son of Sarah, represented the Law given at Sinai! This is huge in the first century context, as Hagar would have been associated with many negative feelings and thoughts, which is made explicit evident in Paul’s discussion of Hagar being a bondservant. Paul has effectively equated the Law with slavery, which is his point in the entire epistle. Thus, when Paul says that Jesus has set us free, he is talking about Jesus setting us free from the Law.
The next question might seem to have an obvious answer, but we should ask it anyway. What does Paul mean when he tells us that Christ has set us free from the Law? The obvious response is that he is talking about the Torah, the Jewish Law laid out mainly in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, though the concept of the law seems to have expanded to other writings in the Hebrew Scriptures by the first century, such as the psalms and the prophets (see, for example, Matt. 7:12, Luke 24:44 and John 10:31-39). This is certainly backed up by the fact that the way Paul talks about the law, addressing specific points such as circumcision, certainly has the Old Law in mind as the referent. Further, the issue in Galatia, and most of the rest of the church for that matter, was that Jewish Christians were trying to teach this Law to Gentile converts, to the point that they were forcing the ritual customs on the Gentiles. Thus, it does seem that the Old Law is the direct reference of Paul’s argument against law.
However, is this the only law Paul is referring to? Or should this be the only Law that we should avoid binding on others? I do not believe so, because of what Paul says about the Gentiles in chapter 4:
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”
Here Paul is talking directly to the Galatians, as is evident by the fact that he says that they formerly did not know God, a statement he would not make about former Jews, who did in fact know God, though perhaps in a veiled way. These are Gentiles that have turned back to a system of law to be enslaved once again. THrough the system of law that they have turned to is likely the Old Law, to say that they have “become slaves once more” implies that they were indeed formerly slaves, even before they knew anything about the Jewish law. In fact, Paul says that they have turned back to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, hardly a description that Paul would make of Torah (see Rom. 7:12). Note here that he says they observe days and months and seasons, apparently as a binding custom rather than a personal conviction (see Rom. 14:5). This seems to indicate that Paul has in mind not just a specific law code, such as the Torah, but a broader “system of law”. This is what Paul takes issue with.
Why is law bad?
As mentioned above, I do not believe that Paul thinks that the law is bad in and of itself. In fact, he calls the law holy, righteous and good in Romans 7:12 (see also I Tim. 1:8 and even more relevantly, Gal. 3:21). So, we need to ask the question, what is wrong with systems of law? To begin to answer that question, we need to understand why the law was given in the first place:
“Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary… Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”
(Galatians 3:19, 23-24)
Why was the law given? Because of transgressions! … What? This takes some fleshing out, and I think keeping the broader teaching of the New Testament is key to understanding what Paul means here. Paul calls the law good in many places (see references above), and in this very context he explicitly says that the law is not “contrary to the promises of God.” The Law was given to teach the people of God about God and His will for humanity and creation in general. This is why Paul calls the Law a “guardian”, or in some versions, a “tutor”. The Law certainly teaches about righteousness, but it cannot make one righteous. What do I mean by this? What the law did was point out the flaws of mankind, and teach us what we have done wrong. The Law could tell us that murder is contrary to the will of God, but it could not do anything for the one who murdered except condemn them. It could tell you that stealing is sinful, but it did not offer redemption for the one who stole. A system of Law can only condemn, though it is not the law in and of itself that brings forth sin (see Rom. 7:13-20). It cannot bring life (Gal. 3:21).
How has Jesus set us free?
If the problem with the Law is that it only brings condemnation, then the solution must bring redemption. This is precisely the point that Paul makes about Jesus.
“In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Jesus has done what the law could not do, namely offer redemption from the condemnation that was brought through the law, as we have all transgressed against God and faltered in living in accordance with what we were designed to be. It is through Jesus, who did uphold the entirety of the law in a way that we have proven to not be able to do, that we have redemption and salvation, not through a system of law. Paul makes the argument that this has always been the case, not just now that Jesus has come, for the Law itself had said “the righteous shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:11), and that these promises were made to Abraham long before the Law was ever given to the children of Israel (Gal. 3:15-18). Paul sets up the dichotomy between a system of law and righteousness by faith, the former bringing only a curse, but the latter bringing true life. Thus, salvation comes through faith, and has never by works of law, “just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Gal. 3:6).
Paul is very blunt with the gentiles in Galatia because they should know this acutely, as they had not followed the Law even before they heard the good news about Jesus (Gal. 3:1-6). They of all people should know that salvation comes through faith, as they had received the Spirit without any hint of following the Old Law. Their salvation came definitely through Christ, which immediately did away with any former ritual laws that they had practiced in times past contrary even to the Law given to the children of Israel. Yet they were being led astray by the Jewish Christians teaching them that they had to return to a system of law in order to please God and gain salvation.
Why would anyone return to slavery?
Paul is obviously very frustrated with the Galatians, and it would benefit us to see where his frustration comes from. After all, who in their right might would want to return to slavery after being released? Why was this teaching of circumcision and, by extension, keeping the law so enticing to the Galatians?
This is where the discussion might get a bit speculative, but I think we can gain some insight simply from our human nature. I believe that we inherently like law. Law brings order and offers a tangible yardstick to how we are doing and what we should do. We seem to like the shackles because they are comforting in a way. Law is often much easier than living by faith, simply because its tangible and it only asks specific things of us. There are fewer grey areas, and our morality can be put into a checklist form. I think we like that. It’s simple and comprehensible.
What’s more, law gives us an authority to appeal to to keep others in check. We like to have power over other people, and a system of law provides a wonderful opportunity to do this very thing. I see this clearly in the American culture, especially outside of a Christian context. Our political leaders and lawyers try to gain power and enforce their ideas through our law system. Sometimes the law is elevated to the place of God, a concept that is in no way new, as some sects in first century Judaism had done this very thing with the Torah. I would not be surprised if this was one of the core motives for the Judaizing Christians that Paul is directly dealing with in Galatians.
Perhaps one of the fundamental reasons return to law, however, is because we know that it can be useful. It is what we know and what we have been raised with because law is necessary in our own maturity (and thus, like both the Galaitians and the Jewish Christians, it is easy to fall back on what we know and have been taught from an early age). What parent would be called good if he or she let their child do anything and never disciplined them? This is certainly not a biblical principle. Further, law serves a good purpose in our society and culture, a concept that Paul explicitly upholds in Romans 13. Thus, we know that law is not inherently sinful and useless. However, so much of the evil we do today and the sin we fall into does not involve situations or things that are inherently sinful, or actions that are always negative. Sex is in no way inheriantly sinful, but rather a glorisous gift from God. Yet we take sex and corrupt it by our sinful motives and actions. We use it for purposes and in ways that it is not intended to be used, and thus what was a gift has become tainted with evil, to the point that we are often uncomfortable by the very mention of it. This not only holds true for sex, but so many other things in life. Law, too, is corrupted when it is elevated to a position it was never meant to serve, and when it is used to oppress. Again, Paul makes it clear that it is not law that is inherently evil, but rather our response to the law and the sin that is within us (Rom. 7:7-12). Thus, we sometimes are coaxed into returning to slavery because we are tricked into thinking that its not really that bad, and can even be good.
However, Paul makes it clear that returning to a system of law is in no way a good; in fact, not only is returning to a system of law undesirable, but it will actually cut one off from the salvation that comes from Christ. This is gravely important:
“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
It is a bit ironic that I hear this verse discussed in the context of the possibility of losing ones salvation (though I do believe it has value in this discussion, please do not misunderstand me), as the very thing that Paul is explicitly saying will cut one off from the salvation of Christ is a system of law, which is what many people are trying to uphold when they quote this verse. Paul is indeed saying that one can be cup off from the salvation of Christ, but remember the context in which he makes this statement. How does one sever themselves from Christ? Reject the salvation that comes through faith and return to a system of law! Why does this cut us off? Because a system of law only brings condemnation, and cannot bring salvation! This point is emphasized again and again, but we still seem to miss it. We cut ourselves off because we cling to that which inherently cannot save us, instead of clinging to He who can. If we willingly return to the bondage of a system of law, we are forfeiting our righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus.
Freedom to sin?
I think it is necessary at this point to address a question that will surely come from this discussion, a question that indeed Paul himself often anticipates when he is discussing law and faith. Does rejecting a system of law mean that we have a license to sin?
The answer to this question is of course, no, but so many people fear this is precisely what is being taught when a system of law is condemned. This fear is not new, and it is one that Paul had to address often (see Acts 21:17-26, Romans 6:1-19, 7:7-12). Similarly, Paul seems to anticipate the question from the Galatians in this context as well:
“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.”
Though I think it goes without saying, I’m probably wrong in this assumption, so I will say it explicitly. Rejecting a system of law for a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ does not mean that those who are in Christ can continue in sin, or in the flesh, to use Paul’s terminology here. Paul does not excuse sin just because he says we are not to live under law. In fact, remember the very reason that Paul said the law was given- because of our transgression! Sin is condemning with or without the law, and it is because of our sin that we even need redemption. The point is not that sin doesn’t matter, but rather quite the opposite- sin extremely matters. And a system of law cannot fix the problem of sin. But Jesus can.
Perhaps where we get mixed up in this discussion today is our concept of faith. Faith has come to mean different things to different people, but I would say that one of the dominant threads in our culture is that faith is a simple belief in Jesus. Often even what this “belief” means is not clearly articulated. Is it just belief that Jesus was a historical figure? Do you have to believe he was resurrected? That he was the son of God? Savior? What does Savior even mean? There are so many questions that are gloss over when the term faith is used. However, this is not how faith was viewed in the first century.
Faith involves a simple belief, but in the first century is was so much more than a simple belief. Faith was a trust in someone or something, a commitment to or covenant with. Faith is discipleship, and following the one in whom we have fatih. A system of law attempts to put our salvation in our own hands, as we think that our own ability to keep the law will gain us salvation. Righteousness by faith admits that we cannot do it by our own merit, but rather we will trust in the One who can give us salvation. This is why our commitment to Jesus in baptism is so important (Gal. 3:25-29), for through baptism we are immersed into the body of Christ, becoming “sons of God, through faith”, putting on Christ, that he might uplift us and work salvation in us, not on our own merit. We thus are led by the Spirit to this salvation that unites all who have put him on, and we have freedom from the bondage of law that drags us down by our own failures. However, we cannot allow this freedom to give and excuse to the flesh, “for the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit” (Gal. 5:17). Paul will go on to say in chapter 6 that if we see a fellow Christian caught up in transgression, we are to go to them and restore them. This would hardly be necessary if sin was no big deal. So how do we parse sin and works of the law?
I think it is important to note here what Paul calls the works of the flesh:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Do you notice what is not on this list? Disregarding ritual acts of the law. There is debate on whether the Old Law differentiates between ritual law and moral law (this debate is important in the context of how the Christian views the Old Testament). Regardless of where we come out in that debate, I think it is clear that Paul is indeed setting up some kind of contrast between certain moral actions as works of the flesh and other actions, such as circumcision and binding certain dates for observation, which certainly would be seen by some people as sinful if they were not done, but in reality had no binding on the gentile Christians. I think what is most important to see here is that the “works of the flesh” are “evident”, meaning they are clear and undisputed. You do not “accidentally” commit a work of the flesh, though you might be at a point where you have deceived yourself into thinking they aren’t sinful. This stands in contrast to the fruits of the Spirit that Paul lays out in verses 22-23. They also stand in contrast to the works of the law that people are trying to bind on the Galatians. No one is telling the Galatians, “you must commit sexual immorality to be a Christian!” Rather, they are telling them they need to be circumcised, a work of the law that was believed to make God happy. This is an important difference, and one that speaks to the fundamental issue that was raised at the beginning of the epistle.
What does freedom have to do with unity?
We opened with noting the context of Paul discussion in Galatians and the greater New Testament as a whole, namely that there was hostility between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. We also noted that Paul often calls the good news of Jesus a “mystery”, in the context that it brought both Jew and Gentile together. And in perhaps what is one of the climatic points of the epistle, Paul makes know the fundamental issue that is addressed by rejecting a system of law for righteousness through faith in Christ Jesus:
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 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 no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
So what does law keeping have to do with unity? Much in every way, especially for the early Christians. The very thing that had divided the Jews and the Gentiles was the Law of Moses. It was the Law that (rightly) taught the children of Israel that they had been chosen by God to be a light to the world. It was the Law that taught them they had a special place in God’s redemptive history. But it was their view of the law that also made them feel superior to the other nations, and brought forth a “wall of hostility” between them and the Gentiles (see Eph. 2:11-22). The law separated the Jews from the Gentiles.
More specifically, it was the ritual works of the law, such as circumcision and the Jewish feast days, that truly drove home the division between Jew and Gentile. Everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, seems to have always been expected to not commit the “works of the flesh” (see Lev. 18 and Rom. 2:12-16). It was the other laws, ritual laws specifically given to the children of Israel, that set them apart. And it seems that it is this system of law that Jesus removes in order to both provide true redemption and to break down the barrier of separation, so that there be no longer male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave or free. This was an extremely big deal in the first century. And it is still a big deal for us today.
So, what does this mean for us?
So, we come to the end of our discussion, and we must ask the question, “that’s fine and all, but what does this really have to do with me today?” It’s easy to see this as a first century issue that we have passed today. But I believe that this is a human issue that we must struggle with in every generation, and find our way through Christ. So, I will simply end with some closing points to take home and think on, for I fear that I have droned on too long as it is. I will leave it to you to think on these things (and others not listed here that certainly follow from Paul’s teaching on freedom) and see where they find application in your life.
- We should not return to a system of law to find our salvation. I think we need to carefully examine not only our theology, but our practice on this one, because systems of law so easily creep into our lives and our practice. Do you believe, in practice, that you must complete certain actions to be good with God? Do you feel like your good deeds give you more favor in the eyes of God? Do your actions seem as though you think you can earn your spot in glory?
- Systems of law continue to divide us. One of the most prevalent dangers in subscribing to systems of law is their divisive nature. I do not know of many groups of Christians who will not fellowship with one another because one group practices sexual immorality, or some other “work of the flesh.” Instead, our major divisions are over differences ritual (or worship, if you do not like the term ritual) practices. This is not to say that differences should be ignored or glossed over. I believe we should each have our own convictions, and be ready to discuss said convictions and know why we do what we do. However, this does mean that these convictions cannot sacrifice our unity because they do not allow us to be in fellowship with one other. Difference churches may choose to worship differently, just as the Jewish Christian churches were certainly different from the Gentile Christian churches. But they were all expected to love one another. They were all part of the family of God. This is also not to say that there aren’t some fundamental issues we need to be united on in theory and practice (such as our faith in Jesus and baptism into his body). But I think those issues are fewer than we believe.
- Our salvation is through the power of Christ and the working of the Spirit. We should recognize our inability to save ourselves, and give all the more praise and glory to Him how has set us free. Give thanks and remember what He has done for us.
It is a wonderful thing to experience the freedom that comes in Christ. Let us share it with the world.
Have you experienced true freedom?
In Christ, from whom all blessings flow,