Teaching series from Galatians

Two Key Aspects of Biblical Freedom

Galatians 5:1-4, 13-16, 22

Teaching t12629


Brief recap of setting (MAP). Gal. 5 is the “hinge” of this letter. Here Paul concludes his argument for God’s grace and begins to apply God’s grace. And the key word in both is “freedom” (read 5:1a,13a).

“Freedom” is a universally popular word – especially in America: political freedom, free-market economy, sexual freedom, etc.

But the Bible focuses on a different and more profound form of freedom. You could have all of the above freedoms, and yet still not be free without this freedom. And you could none of the above freedoms, and yet still be profoundly free with this freedom.

What is this biblical freedom? Paul describes two key aspects of this freedom. It is both a freedom from something and a freedom for something...

Freedom from earning God’s acceptance by our performance of His law

“Freedom from” – freedom always has a negative aspect, being released or delivered from some form of tyranny or oppression (e.g., freedom from governmental tyranny, freedom from ignorance, freedom from racial discrimination, etc.).

Read 5:1-4. The “yoke of slavery” is “seeking to be justified by law.” “Justified” is a legal term; it means acquitted, approved, declared in right standing. “Justification” here refers to receiving this status from God. So the bondage from which God sets us free is trying to get or keep His acceptance by our performance of His law.

This is what the Judaizers were doing by telling the Galatians to get circumcised and observe the Jewish calendar: “You have to do these things for God to accept you.”

This is humanity’s intuitive way of seeking God’s acceptance. Our society teaches us that “there is no free lunch.” Human religions teach that we must attain salvation by our own moral self-reform or ritual observances or spiritual disciplines (EXAMPLES). Tragically, much of the church has taught this same message (EXAMPLES).

Over against this is the radical message of New Testament Christianity – read Gal.2:16. Paul makes two obvious points:

God will accept nobody on the basis of their law-keeping. This is why Paul calls this approach a “yoke of slavery” – because His law only exposes our guilt and brings us under His condemnation (Rom.3:19,20).

But God will accept everybody on the basis of their faith in Christ. “Faith in Christ” means trusting Christ’s death on the cross to take God’s condemnation for all of your sins, and receiving God’s complete acceptance as a permanent gift. This one decision sets you free forever from trying to earn God’s acceptance by your performance! This freedom can bring great security and stability into your life. Do you want this freedom? Will you put your faith in Christ?

But the truth is that you can have this freedom without enjoying much security and stability in your life. You can have received God’s acceptance by putting your faith in Christ – yet still live your Christian life “seeking to be justified by law.”

That’s what the Galatians were doing. They had believed in Christ and received God’s acceptance – but now they were following the Judaizers’ rules just to be sure they were OK with God. But Paul says this mentality will pull the plug on their enjoyment of this freedom. They will be back to relating to God with an “acceptance by performance” mentality.

That’s what happens to many true Christians today when they are under teaching that says they have to get baptized, or avoid certain sins, or keep asking for God’s forgiveness daily in order to “be sure they are OK with God.” They are still accepted by God, but this “acceptance by performance” mentality deprives them of living securely and stably before God.

Even without this kind of legalistic teaching, in this church, you can live without experiencing much of this freedom that God wants you to have. “Who - me? I’m a Xenoid! I memorized Gal.2:16! I know all about justification by grace through faith! I can smell legalism a mile away!” Yes, but you may still live by subtle forms of the “acceptance by performance” mentality. Consider these questions:

“Do I talk to God with confidence regardless of my recent disobedience—or do I avoid Him until I’m ‘doing better?’” Doesn’t this mean that you believe that your acceptance by God hinges on your performance?

“Am I increasingly grateful just for being God’s child—or do I derive much of my value from how I compare to certain other people?” Doesn’t this mean that your primary sense of acceptance comes from your superiority to other people?

“Can I laugh easily at my own foibles in front of others—or do I use humor more as a way of putting others down?” Doesn’t this mean that your real sense of acceptance comes primarily from your own righteousness?

“Do I normally hide my sins from other people and put my best foot forward—or am I increasingly comfortable confessing them?” Doesn’t this mean that you are taking your security from being right, not from God’s acceptance?

“Can I consider others’ criticism even when it is delivered imperfectly—or do I normally react with defensiveness, anxiety or anger?” Doesn’t this mean that you believe your acceptability is based on your performance?

“Do I increasingly view painful circumstances as God’s loving training—or as His punishment for my sins and/or lack of devotion?” Doesn’t this mean that you believe that God accepts or rejects you based on your performance?

You see, there is a big difference between understanding and believing this doctrine superficially, or understanding and believing it more deeply so that it sets us free more extensively. This involves letting God unearth deeper levels of our “acceptance by performance” mentality, and asking Him new give us deeper application of His justifying grace in these areas. We have lots of room for more freedom in this area!

Freedom for loving others by the power of God’s Spirit

“Freedom for – freedom is never merely negative. We are set free from some tyranny or unhealthy restriction in order that we may live full and meaningful lives. A nation is set free from foreign oppression so that it may develop its true national identity. A child is set free from an abusive environment so that she may develop her true personality. Likewise, we are set free from earning God’s acceptance for a positive purpose. “True (biblical) freedom is freedom to be our true selves, as God made and meant us to be.” This is what Paul emphasizes in 5:13-22. Biblical freedom is freedom for loving others by the power of God’s Spirit. Let’s break this second insight into freedom into two parts – “freedom for loving others” and “by the power of God’s Spirit.”

“Freedom for loving others.” Paul affirms in 5:13 (read) that we are now free forever from God’s condemnation; we can literally do anything we want and still be accepted by God. But to use our freedom to live selfishly (“flesh” does not refer to mere physicality, but to sinful, selfish living) is to misunderstand and forfeit the positive purpose of our freedom – to love God and other people by serving them.

A fish is not free outside of water. A bird is not free inside of water. A gasoline engine is not free when it is fueled by diesel. A screwdriver is not free when it is used as a hammer. All of these uses violate their design, and so result in restriction, damage, and (direct or indirect) problems for others connected to them.

In the same way, we are not free when we live selfishly – to get what we want. Although our culture tells us that this is the key to our freedom (more on this later), and though our fallen natures resonate with this message, it is a lie. Like a fish out of water, the more selfishly we live, the more restriction and damage we will eventually incur, and the more we will injure those connected to us (read 5:15). Don’t read this as just applying to people who blatantly use others. If you expect people to meet your need for security or significance or identity, if you relate to people with a demanding spirit, if you drop relationships when they become difficult, you are selfishly using people (“biting and devouring”), and you will damage yourself and injure others.

We are free only to the extent that we give ourselves away to God and others in love. Why? Because we were designed by God for this high purpose. And since God made us for this purpose, we will truly be ourselves and flourish only when we live to love. This is why Paul says 5:14 (read). God’s law was never to be the means of earning His acceptance by its performance; it was always meant to be a description of this purpose. Consider these two important insights:

“Love is the supreme priority of God’s law.” God’s command is primarily to love. Its other ethical teaching becomes perverted without love. This was Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees – they were obsessed with ethics, but not loving. As a result, they were actually ethically perverse and selfish (Lk.10), and they profoundly misrepresented God as a self-righteous sin-Police. Many of us got turned off to Christianity through this selfish, loveless moralism.

But it is also true that “God’s law gives ethical content to love.” Love can also be mis-defined in ways that pervert it into selfishness. It is not true, therefore, that “all you need is love.” Just as a river needs banks to flow between (a flood is destructive), love needs ethical “banks” to guide its expression. Just as a body needs eyes to guide it (a blind person will be injured), love needs ethical “eyes” to guide it.

Love needs sexual ethics, or we may exploit and damage ourselves and others through our sexuality.

Love needs economic ethics, or we may or spoil our children, or deprive our neighbors of what they need.

Love needs authority ethics, or we may over-use our authority and control our children rather than to serve them and help them develop into mature adults. (Or we may under-use our authority sufficiently and deprive our children of the moral guidance they desperately need.)

Where can we find this ethical guidance for love? Not from nature – because nature is fallen, so we cannot derive “ought” from what is. “Living naturally” experiments always end in disaster. Not from our feelings – because our feelings are fallen and can deceive us. Feelings-guided love affairs have destroyed countless families. Not from our culture – because American culture defines freedom selfishly, as maximum individual choice: “What I want, what I feel – this is what is right and loving for me, and you are taking away my freedom unless you affirm this.” The result is growing moral confusion, social chaos, and deepening personal fragmentation and relational injury.

Where can we find this ethical guidance for love? In God’s Word, the Bible (quote Prov.3:4,5). God will not repress you; He will guide you toward freedom by teaching you what true love looks like! And He will also give you something else...

“By the power of God’s Spirit.” Someone said that “freedom is not license to do what you want; it is the power to do what you ought.” If we want to be free, we need to do what we ought – pursue a life of loving God and others. But in order to be free, we also need a Power in our lives that is greater than our selfish nature. Simply focusing on God’s commands to love and exerting our moral will-power will not work. This is why God gives us His Holy Spirit when we believe in Jesus – so that we might “walk by the Spirit,” that we may live by His power and bear His fruit of love (5:16,23a).

How do we walk by the Spirit? That is what Paul explains in 5:16-6:10, which we will be studying over the next few weeks...

John R. W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian (InterVarsity Press, 1992), p.53.