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Christian freedom - Galatians 5:1-13 Print E-mail

STUDIES IN GALATIANS

Copyright© Rosemary Bardsley 2003

STUDY SIX: FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM [5:1-13A]

Having in Chapter Four used the symbols of Hagar and Sarah and their children to teach that Christian believers are free not slaves, Paul takes up this concept of freedom in Chapter Five and presents his strongest plea to the Galatians and his strongest statement about the implications of believing the false teaching.

This is summarised in verse 1:

'It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.' (NIV)

'Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.' (KJV)

'Christ set us free, to be free men. Stand firm, then, and refuse to be tied to the yoke of slavery again.' (NEB)

'Freedom is what we have - Christ has set us free! Stand, then, as free people, and do not allow yourselves to become slaves again.' (GNB)

'So Christ has made us free. Now make sure that you stay free and don't get tied up again in the chains of slavery to Jewish laws and ceremonies.' (Living Bible)

'In [this] freedom Christ has made us free - completely liberated us; stand fast then, and do not be hampered and held ensnared and submit again to a yoke of slavery - which you have once put off.' (Amplified)

'In the freedom, therefore, with which Christ set us free, stand firm, and never once more a yoke of slavery be held or ensnared in/by' (literal translation).

A. A STATEMENT OF FREEDOM [5:1]

A.1 Christ set us free.

In a one-off, once-for-all, decisive and definitive action (the tense is Aorist) Christ set us free.

What does this mean?

· It means that before the action of Christ, we were not free - we were slaves, we were in bondage.

· It means that we did not, indeed, could not, set ourselves free from this slavery.

· It means that the ensuing liberty is not the result of our action.

· Because Jesus Christ did it, it has been done effectively, completely and permanently.

· It means that when we reject this freedom we are rejecting the work of Christ for us.

A.2 Christ set us free for freedom

The action of Jesus Christ did not set us free from one bondage only to dump us into another. He set us free for freedom. To view the state in which we find ourselves as Christians as one in which certain actions/performance are necessary/mandatory to continue in that state, is to completely misunderstand the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Any 'Christianity' that teaches any human action/performance as necessary/mandatory for gaining or maintaining 'salvation', has not grasped what that 'salvation' is; it has not understood what the Bible teaches about salvation in Christ, and is still viewing the Christian from a legalistic perspective.

A.3 Other Scriptures speaking of this Christian freedom

Study Task: Check out the teaching on freedom in these texts:

John 8:32

John 8:36

[Read 8:31-47]

Romans 7:6

Romans 8:1

These references in context teach:

  • The truth sets people free
  • The Son sets people free
  • Those who are set free by the Son are really free
  • The freedom of 'Abraham's descendants' is contrasted with the bondage of slavery.
  • 'Abraham's descendants' are contrasted with children of the devil, who do not know the truth, and who, by inference, are enslaved to him.
  • Those who believe in Jesus Christ have been released from the law by their union with the death of Jesus Christ their substitute.
  • Those who believe in Christ have been set free from the domination of the law of sin and death: this law, which says the soul that sins shall die, which holds the sinners personally accountable for their sins, is the ruling principle under which the whole of mankind exists apart from the Gospel.
  • This liberation has been effected by the law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ.
  • The result is 'no condemnation' - all the condemnation that was due under the law of sin and death has been removed. It no longer stands. The believer has been liberated from it for ever.

B. A COMMAND TO STAND FIRM IN THIS FREEDOM [5:1]

B.1 'Therefore ... '

Paul connects his command to stand firm to what he has just explained: the great contrasts between a law-based relationship with God and a faith-based relationship with God. He has presented this contrast in terms of

  • Law versus faith
  • Law versus promise
  • Slaves versus sons
  • Sinai covenant versus new covenant
  • Slavery versus freedom.

Because all of this is fact for those who have been embraced by Jesus Christ - because they have been rescued from the arena of law/performance/bondage and brought into the arena of faith/promise/sonship/freedom, Paul says 'therefore ... ' and he is about to point out the inappropriateness of reverting to the mentality of the former.

B.2 'Stand firm in the freedom'

In Colossians 1:13 we read: ' ... he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves'. The word translated 'brought' is methistemi from meta (a preposition indicating change) and histemi (to stand). Paul is here teaching that when God saved us through Jesus Christ he changed our standing: once we were under the 'dominion of darkness': now we are in the kingdom of Jesus.

In Galatians 5:1 Paul says 'stand firm' in this freedom. God has rescued you; God has delivered you; God has brought you out from under the dominion - the authority, the jurisdiction, the power and the bondage - of darkness; God, through Christ, has set you free and made you stand in a totally different realm with a totally different operating principle and a totally different king. Don't move. Be immoveable. Be stationary. Stay there, and keep on staying there. God stood you there: you keep on standing there. This is the meaning of the word translated 'stand firm'.

This word is used by Paul in:

Reference
Phrase/verse
Context

1 Cor 16:13

'Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong.'

Final requests/exhortations. Note the other commands in this verse: they infer that there is a battle going on that requires alertness and commitment.

Phil 1:27

'Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. ... I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.'

Read 1:12-30 and 3:1-2 - these verses indicate that a similar struggle with legalistic false teaching was present in Philippi.

Again, note the 'battle' imagery used by Paul in this verse

Phil 4:1

' ... you should stand firm in the Lord'

3:12- 4:1 encourages the believers to endure present difficulties by keeping the ultimate goal in mind.

1 Thess 3:8

' ... we really live since you are standing firm in the Lord.'

Paul had been afraid that the Thessalonians might have caved in under the pressure of religious persecutions. Read 2:13-3:10.

2Thess 2:15

'stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you ... '

Persecutions and apostasy.

The overall impact of these verses is the urgency of standing firm in the presence of false teaching and of opposition arising because of stark contrast between the false teaching and the gospel. The pressure in the presence of human opinion and persecution is to disassociate oneself from the gospel - from 'the faith' and from 'the Lord'. Identification with the true 'faith' makes one stick out like a sore toe; it differentiates one from all the 'religions' of men.

C. THE COMMAND TO STAND FIRM IN FREEDOM EXPRESSED NEGATIVELY [5:1]

' ... and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery'

C.1 ... and never again, never once more ...

The liberty we have in Christ is a permanent, once-for-all liberation from a performance-based relationship with God. Of necessity it rules out any present or future subjection to mandatory obligations, liberating the conscience for all time from the guilt and condemnation that comes from failure to keep the law. For this reason Paul says 'never again ... '

C.2 ... let yourselves be burdened by, let yourselves be ensnared, entangled or held by or in ...

The perspective of the false teaching is here represented as something which:

  • Burdens people
  • Ensnares people
  • Entangles people
  • Holds people in.

It actively does this. Those whom it entangles are the passive objects of its effect. If anyone embraces the false teaching this is its effect on them.

C.3 ... a yoke of slavery ...

This is what the false teaching is: a 'yoke of slavery'. This is what one is accepting when one accepts the perspective of the false teaching; to accept it is to submit to, to subject oneself to, a life of control by a hard and enslaving taskmaster. It is to be bound to the law which is constantly saying 'keep me and live'.

D. THE HORRIFIC IMPLICATIONS OF ACCEPTING THE FALSE TEACHING [5:2-4]

D.1 ' ... if you let yourselves be circumcised ... '

A significant point at issue in the Galatian heresy was the Judaistic teaching that the Gentile believers must submit to the Jewish rite of circumcision as conditional for salvation.

Study Task: Look up the following passages where Paul teaches about circumcision, and make a note of the significant points:

Romans 2:25-29

Romans 3:30

Romans 4:9-12

1 Cor 7:17-19

Gal 2:1-10

Ephes 2:11-3:6

Phil 3:2-3

Col 2:11-14

Col 3:11

Titus 1:10,11

The question of circumcision was the focal point of the tension between Christians who had formerly been Jews and Christians who had formerly been Gentiles. There were those among the Jewish Christians who steadfastly maintained the necessity of circumcision and insisted that the Gentile Christians be circumcised.

[We must be sure not to understand here circumcision performed for medical reasons; Paul is speaking of ritual/ceremonial circumcision which, in the Jewish mind, identified one as belonging to God, and by which one was incorporated into God's people.]

Paul points out a four-fold flow-on from giving in to this demand:

D.2 ... Christ will be of no use to you at all ...

This is an extremely bold statement, similar to 2:21. Paul is saying that all that Christ did on the cross is useless - redundant, ineffective, powerless - for the person who allows him/herself to be circumcised. He is affirming that all the forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, justification, removal of condemnation and so on that Christ gained, that the believer has in Christ, is of no use to the person who turns around and, instead of placing their confidence in the presence of God in Christ alone places it in their circumcision.

Chrysostom wrote: "He who is circumcised is circumcised as fearing the law: but he who fears the law distrusts the power of grace: and he who distrusts gains nothing from that which he distrusts."

Simply put: if a person takes on circumcision as a requirement for salvation then that person obviously has ceased to trust in Christ. He has put his confidence in his performance of the law; he will gain nothing from Christ for he is no longer trusting Christ. And, having ceased to trust Christ ...

D.3 ... he is obliged to keep the whole law ...

If a person relates to God according to his performance of law, then that person is obligated to keep the whole of the law. So if he gives circumcision saving significance, then he must also keep all the other requirements of the law, and he must keep all of them perfectly, all the time.

Study Task: Check out these references and fill in the comprehensive and total demands the law makes of those who seek acceptance by keeping it:

Romans 2:25

Galatians 3:10

James 2:10

D.4 ... you ... have been alienated from Christ ...

Paul has rephrased the reference to circumcision to a broader statement: 'you who are trying to be justified by law'. Here he takes the issue away from the immediate question of circumcision and includes all human effort to be justified - legally acquitted - by personal legal rightness. To anyone who is trying to gain or maintain acceptance in the presence of God by their own efforts at keeping law Paul says 'you have been alienated from Christ.

This is another extremely bold statement. It pulls us all up short. It forces us to take a look at ourselves and to scrutinize and analyze our relationship with God: do we trust Christ alone for that relationship? Or are we giving some justifying significance to our own works? Are we robbing ourselves of our salvation by granting significance to our own actions?

To be alienated from Christ ... what does this mean? It means to be severed from all that he achieved for us on the cross. It means to stand in the presence of God on our own two feet with our own paltry handful of 'righteousness'. It means to stand outside of Christ.

D.5 ... you have fallen away from grace.

Another bold and terrifying statement. To be no longer in the arena of grace means to have to work to gain and maintain salvation, to have to earn, merit and deserve a place in God's family, to earn, merit and deserve forgiveness, acquittal, reconciliation, redemption, justification, sonship, and the Holy Spirit.

These are the horrific ramifications of relating to God on the basis of law, even one law. When we do this we are turning our noses up at the cross, treating the death of Christ with scorn. We are reverting to the original and foundational sin in which we seek to live independently of the action of God.

Discussion Topic # 10: Discuss ways in which Christians today are guilty of this repudiation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
  • What human actions are given significance in either gaining or maintaining our salvation/our relationship with God?
  • If you find it difficult to identify any, think again: what makes you feel guilty or cut off from God?
  • What makes you fear you might miss out on heaven? What sends you into a pit of condemnation?
Discussion Topic #11: Discuss ways in which your expectations and perceptions of 'Christian' cause you to relate to yourself and other Christians as if your/their salvation was conditional upon your/their living up to those expectations and perceptions.

E. BY FAITH ... AND IN CHRIST [5:5,6]

Here Paul briefly states a contrast between the bondage and uncertainty of the false teaching and the liberty and assurance of the true gospel. Whereas the false teaching separates people from Christ and from grace and traps them in a constant need to perform and to justify themselves by their performance, under the Gospel:

  1. 'we' - emphatic, as opposed to 'them',
  2. 'by the Spirit' - that is, by the action and operation of the Holy Spirit - not by ourselves,
  3. 'through faith' - that is, not by our works, performance, merit,
  4. 'eagerly wait for' - that is, wait with sure, eager and confident expectation for
  5. 'the hope of righteousness' - that is, the pleasurable anticipation/confident certainty of 'righteousness' - of legal acquittal and acceptance in the presence of God.
  6. 'For in Christ Jesus' - that is, because when we relate to God always, ever and only 'in Christ' and not in ourselves, standing on our own two feet, - united to and identified with the death and resurrection of Christ,
  7. 'neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value' - that is, no human action, no human observation of the law or failure to observe the law, has any significance - neither merit or demerit; they are irrelevant;
  8. 'the only thing that counts is' [in the Greek text the only word here is 'but' - and it is a strong but] -
  9. 'faith' - that is, faith is the point of distinction and separation between those who have this confident assurance and those who don't; between those who are 'righteous' - acquitted in the presence of God - and those who are not; [from the New Testament generally we understand that this faith that makes all the difference is faith in the person of Jesus Christ: faith that really believes that he is who he claimed to be];
  10. 'expressing itself through love' - genuine Biblical faith expresses itself in action, it does not, it cannot, exist only in a verbal expression; the absence of this practical expression indicates the absence of true faith. Indeed, it is only true faith that can truly love, for only true faith in Christ and his finished work on our behalf can act without thought of self-justification and self-preservation and the gaining of merit.

F. PAUL PRESENTS FURTHER ARGUMENTS [5:7-13]

[1] 'you were running a good race'

Study Task: Paul uses the imagery of a race several times in his letters. Read the following texts and fill in these images:

1 Cor 9:24-27

Galatians 2:2

Phil 2:16

Heb 12:1

The use of this imagery indicates that being a follower of Jesus Christ is far from easy - it involves commitment, dedication, perseverance, keeping one's eye on the goal, struggle, and strain: not the effort of having to merit one's own salvation, but the effort of continuing to believe in the face of direct opposition to faith and in the context of a whole world that does not believe and cannot possibly understand and appreciate the mindset of faith.

Paul tells these Galatians: 'you were running well' - implying that there had been a continuity of perseverance in the faith for some time. From the records in Acts we see that right from the start the Galatian churches had been born in the context of opposition to the truth and persecution - they had become believers with their eyes open to the difficulties they would face, including harsh antagonism from the Jews. Despite all of this they had been 'running a good race'.

[2] 'Who cut in on you ... ?'

With the imagery of the race still in focus Paul likens the false teachers to someone cutting in in front of a competitor. The Galatians had been running well, but now someone has cut in, blocking, impeding, hindering their progress in the race of faith, interrupting their progress towards the goal, and tripping them up in their stride.

[3] 'who ... kept you from obeying the truth?'

The effect of this 'cutting in' has been that the Galatians are no longer persuaded by the truth. The Greek words translated 'kept you from obeying' in the NIV literally mean 'not to be persuaded' and indicate the result/purpose of this 'cutting in'. They are no longer convinced by, they no longer believe in, they are no longer listening to, they are no longer believing, the truth.

To translate this as 'obeying' is not an inaccurate representation of the meaning: those who 'obey' the gospel stop giving significance to their own performance; in giving significance circumcision the Galatians were indeed disobeying the truth. Thus any reception of false teaching, and the associated reversion to a works-based relationship with God, is not only unbelief, it is also disobedience.

[4] 'That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.'

Rather than holding on to their conviction (persuasion) concerning the truth of the gospel the Galatians have been persuaded by the false teachers, a persuasion, Paul says, that did not come from 'the one who calls you', that is, it does not come from Christ. In fact, it is entirely contrary to his calling.

[5] 'a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.'

It only takes one false teacher, or one element of false teaching, to effect the whole of the truth. This indicates the completeness, inner cohesion and integrity of the truth in itself - it cannot be tampered with even a little bit without the whole of it being compromised and corrupted. One element of error will insidiously pervade the whole.

[6] 'I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view.'

Paul is confident that the Galatians will take notice of his warnings and return to the truth, joining him in his exposure and condemnation of the false teaching.

[7] 'The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty ... '

The one stirring you up/troubling you will bare the judgement due to him.

[8] 'Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted ... .'

This is Paul's way of distancing himself from the false teaching, and from any accusation that he himself preached the necessity of circumcision. If he was preaching circumcision he would not be experiencing persecution at the hands of the circumcision party. If he included circumcision in his preaching the message of the cross would not be offensive to those who were intent on enforcing circumcision as necessary for justification. The offence of the cross is that is makes the law (as a means of justification) redundant by fulfilling the law.

[Perhaps the accusation that Paul preached circumcision came because he had circumcised Timothy in conformity with ceremonial law (Acts 16:3). Paul sees no contradiction in his action: he did not circumcise Timothy in order that Timothy could be justified¸ but in order not to give offence to the Jews who were living in the area, and hence minimize the possibility of reaching them with the gospel.]

[9] 'As for those agitators ... '

Paul expresses his impatience with the false teachers ... whom he here calls 'agitators' - those who are 'turning you upside down', those who are 'causing a riot' in your hearts.

[10] 'you, my brothers, were called to be free'

Freedom, liberty, is the result for which Christ called them. The bondage to which they are reverting has no part in this calling.

 


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