Freedom [part 1]
For those of us who are American this has been a rather historic election week that I imagine history books will be noting for many years to come. As a nation of people who place such a high premium upon essential qualities such as freedom and liberty, it seems ideal that this week in our study of Galatians we come to a passage that is all about freedom. It is certainly controversial and unwise for me to comment on the specific differences and disagreements between the different understandings of freedom and liberty taking place among the two opposing political parties in our democracy right now. I won’t comment on that because we have probably all heard or read enough comments on that at this point.
But I will say that this is in no way the first time there has been sharp division about the meaning of freedom and liberty taking place at the highest levels of our democracy in this country. In fact, we see examples of it in American history right from the very beginning between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. My college undergraduate degree is in history; that makes me a bit of a history nerd. And so several months ago during one of my vacation weeks I read a book that chronicled and traced the letters written back and forth between Adams and Jefferson—because, unlike normal people, I find stuff like that interesting to read.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were close allies in the American colonies before the revolution, during the fight for independence, and in the first years of the new American nation. They worked together in the continental congress on important documents such as the declaration of independence and the first writings of the United States constitution. They were both appointed as ambassadors to Europe during the very first presidential administration of George Washington. John Adams would go on to become the second president of the United States with Jefferson serving as his vice-president. And then Jefferson would become the third president of the United States.
Both Adams and Jefferson were classically educated men who read ancient philosophers such as Plato, but also more contemporary enlightenment philosophers like Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Thomas Paine. Yet even with their close work together and similar experiences, Adams and Jefferson were very different people. Adams came from a New England puritan tradition, represented the Federalist party, and was heavily influenced by his close friend Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson came from a southern aristocratic family, represented the Democratic-Republican party, and was a bitter enemy of Alexander Hamilton.
In the decades-worth of letters and writings back and forth between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson there is vigorous debate and challenging of ideas. They had such vastly different ideas of what it meant to be a nation of people who live in freedom and liberty. In some ways, the letters back and forth between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson can give us a snapshot that might appear somewhat similar to what we are looking at on our American democracy right now. This is perhaps a good place then for us to realize that when we talk about what it means to be free, we may have different ideas in mind about what that word freedom means.
That gets us to our passage for today from Galatians. In chapter 5 the apostle Paul turns his discussion to the topic of freedom. Before we read that and consider this piece of scripture, let’s remember that what Paul writes about and understands as freedom may not be the same thing that we think is meant by freedom.
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. 2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. 11 Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
Here in chapter 5 is where Paul starts turning the corner in this letter to the Galatians. Remember that everything up to this point has been about identity as children of God by grace alone through faith alone. This has been Paul’s way of refuting the false claims of legalists who have been trying to add rules on top of faith in Jesus in order to assure salvation. Now in chapter 5 we start to see a bit of a picture of what that life of faith in Jesus looks like. And to be certain that the line of distinction is clear between the life of faith in Jesus and the life of slavery in Jewish cultural legalism, Paul launches his description of a life of faith in Jesus with a connection to freedom.
In fact, the chapter begins with a repetition of words which makes this theme of freedom clear. That first sentence of the passage is only four words long in Greek. It literally reads, “freedom us Christ free.” It begins with the word freedom (as a noun) and ends with the word freedom (as a verb). Scripture wants us to be clear about this. If life under the Old Testament law of Moses is characterized as slavery, then the new life we have been given by grace through faith in Jesus is a life that is characterized by freedom.
But the real question for today is not whether or not the life of faith is a life of freedom. The real question is what this freedom we have in faith looks like. What does it mean to be free in Christ? So the real point of this passage and this sermon today is not to convince you that in Christ we have freedom—that part is assumed already. The point of Galatians from chapter 5 forward is to define and describe what freedom looks like; what does it mean that we are free? Because as we have already noted just by looking at a tiny slice of American history, freedom can mean different things to different people. We need to go a step further in this passage and talk about what freedom means.
Set free FROM obligation to perfect obedience
Set free FROM obligation to perfect obedience
The first stop on the freedom bus is this: to talk about what it is that we have been set free from. In order to have a clear understanding of what it means to be free, it is helpful to have a clear picture of what it means to not be free. It seems pretty obvious that we think of freedom as being escape from some kind of bondage or slavery. This is the kind of language that the Bible uses as well when talking about freedom.
The immediate example and application of this in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about the Jewish custom of circumcision. Paul is telling the Greek Christians in the churches of Galatia, you are free from the requirement of circumcision. But of course, the example back in the first century Greek churches do not necessarily hold with the same meaning and force in our world today as it did in their world back then. The question, then, must look deeper. What is freedom from circumcision for first century Greek Christians really freedom from?
verse 3 - “Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.”
The passage answers this in verse 3. “Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.” The life of faith that we have been given in Christ is a life that is set free from obligation to obey the whole law. So, it is not just about circumcision. It is about the whole law—every rule, every command, every moral.
key word is obligation
But don’t miss the point here. Scripture is not saying there is freedom from the law. The key word in verse 3 is obligation. We are set free from obligation to the law. The Greek word here has a monetary nuance. It means debt. By faith in Christ we are set free from our indebtedness to the law. Not just one law or part of the law, but the whole law. It is as though the Bible is telling us there is not just one bill to pay under the law; your credit card is maxed out and the entire balance is due. But Paul is saying that we are now debt-free in Christ because he has fully paid the balance that we could never afford on our own. In Christ, your ledger is wiped clean. And the moment you take back any one of those rules onto your balance sheet of righteousness before God, you take back the entire load of all that debt before God. It is an all-or-nothing deal. And since it is an all-or-nothing deal, the debt of all our guilt for all of our sin is more than any one of us can ever bear on our own.
Freedom means that the guilt of my sin is wiped away because I have been set free from my obligation to perfectly obey every rule and command of the law
Freedom means that the guilt of your sin is completely wiped away because you have been set free from your obligation to perfectly obey every rule and command of the law. But the passage does not leave it there. Not only have we been set free from something; we have also been set free for something.
Set free FOR faith expressed through love
Set free FOR faith expressed through love
Verses 5-6 lay this out for us. A few of the commentaries I have been reading on Galatians make the claim that these verses are the center point of Paul’s message and theme in Galatians and summarize the entire letter in these two verses.
5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
verse 6 - “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”
This is what Christian freedom is all about. This is what the freedom we have in Christ is pointing towards. We have been set free for faith expressing itself in love.
this means that Christian freedom has many implications
There is a whole lot of truth packed into that phrase which ends verse 6. In fact, it is going to take us quite a while to unpack everything this verse means. But that’s okay because we are not going to do all of that right here in this message. The apostle Paul takes the entire rest of the letter of Galatians to explain what this freedom means and how it works. So, we will keep working our way through this freedom in the next two weeks as we finish our study of Galatians.
all of Galatians 5-6 explain how Christian freedom applies to our lives
But maybe it is a good idea that we slow down over the next few weeks and really consider what freedom means. There is so much talk in our country right now about freedom. It is an idea and a value that is coming up in many conversations and articles and news stories. And as we have already noted, many people have different ideas of what freedom means. Even among the founding fathers of this nation, there was disagreement about the meaning of freedom.
But I would say there is one notable difference. In all the many ways that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson disagreed about politics and democracy, their letters back and forth show one essential quality upon which they both strongly agreed. There was one value that stood out above all the rest, and both of these American founding fathers agreed that this one value was so important that democracy could never survive and never work without it. What do you think this one thing is that these two politically opposite leaders agreed was the most important ingredient of democracy? Here’s a hint: it’s not freedom, and it’s not liberty. In fact, it’s a word we hardly ever use anymore when we talk about American democracy. Yet both Adams and Jefferson agreed that it is the most essential ingredient for democracy to work.
Virtue. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were political opposites who found their commonality in the belief that a nation of free people could only hold together and work if it is also a nation of virtuous people. Because without virtue, there can never truly be freedom.
Freedom is a virtue
Freedom is a virtue
This is a characteristic of freedom that we also see in scripture. We have been given freedom in Christ so that our faith can express itself through love. Freedom points us into a faith that shows up in this world as actions of love for one another. What we see, in other words, is that freedom is a virtue.
Virtue - a goodness directed for the benefit of someone or something else
Virtue is defined as a goodness directed for the benefit of someone or something else. For example, many people say that patience is a virtue. And the quality that makes patience virtuous is that by being patient, you are providing a goodness that benefits others. In moments when you might be angry and explode into an argument in which you might say things you would later regret, virtuous patience keeps you from saying those things you might regret. The result is a goodness towards someone else instead of harm towards someone else.
more than just moral behavior or being an admirable person
Virtue, then, is more than just moral behavior or being an admirable person. Virtue has a tangible result in that produces a goodness that benefits others. Perhaps we need to look no further than the words of Paul himself to find an explanation of how virtue is an important quality of Christian life. Consider the apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 3.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
the freedom we have been given in Christ is meant to be a virtue
Christian love is what brings together and binds together the virtues which flow from the life of faith we have been given in Christ. We see in this passage from Galatians 5 today that we have been given freedom in Christ. And this freedom is meant to be a virtue. It is meant to be—as we see in verse 6—faith expressing itself through love. That is what you have been set free for.
May we be people who embrace the virtue of freedom, knowing that we are no longer held under the debt of our sin with an obligation we could never pay. May we be people who embrace the virtue of freedom, knowing that we have been given a faith that propels us to expressions of love towards others. May we be people who embrace the virtue of freedom, knowing that this freedom is a gift of God that comes through Jesus.