When a man finishes his obligation to society and is released from jail. He walks out a free man. Arguably he was living within the bounds of the law when he was in jail. He may have lived a very moral life, more moral than many people on the outside – free from drugs, alcohol; free from the ability to harm others or be harmed. But was he free? No, external constraints upon a person don’t make him free, living with walls and bars and external rule pushed upon him is the opposite of freedom, it is coercion. But if that man, walks out of jail changed on the inside and never again acts poorly, not because of fear of returning to jail, not because the law says it is wrong, but because he is truly a new person who loves his neighbor as himself (Luke 10:27c). Would you consider him to be free? Absolutely. In fact, he is probably more free than many of the people who have never been to jail, but who obey the law out of fear of reprisal and not out of a love of others.
When Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1), what is he saying? What are we free from and what are we freed to?
If we remember back to Gal 1:4, the openings words of the book say that Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. The gospel promises freedom from sin and the present evil age. In fact this is echoed in Romans 6:18, You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness and Hebrews 2:14 “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil —”. Freed from sin and Satan and his schemes in this world, that is a gift, but it is not all. We are also freed from obedience to the law as a means of relationship with God according to Galatians 2:16 “know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
And if that isn’t enough, we are freed from death as well. Romans 8:2 “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” We have been freed from sin, the evil age, death, the devil and right standing with God based on our works. We have been freed by the only person who has the ability to truly set men and women free. For John 8:36 tells us “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Those words were spoken by Jesus to Jews who thought they were free already but who were mistaken in their evaluation of freedom. We now know what Christ freed us from, but what has Christ freed us to? If he has taken us out of 5 distinctly horrific places: death, satan, sin, present evil age and works righteousness, where has he put us? Simply put, we are freed into life, the Spirit, holiness and grace and the Kingdom of God. That is a wonderful place to be and so Paul gives some instructions to the Galatians saying: Stand Firm
We are called to stand firm in this freedom. The Word of God tells us to Stand firm a number of times. In 1 Cor 15:58 we are called to stand firm in the victory of Christ, 2Cor. 1:21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. 2Cor. 1:24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm. Ephesians 6:14 calls us to stand firm against evil and 2Th. 2:15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. But here in Galatians, Paul is urging, no, he is commanding his fellow believers to stand firm in the freedom of the Gospel. Stand firm in the new way of living you have been given. Stand firm in the grace of God and don’t walk back to human effort. Stand firm in God’s acceptance based upon Christ’s merit. Stand firm there, and no where else. Stay put he is saying.
It’s like a parent looking at his child in a store and saying stay put, don’t move while I walk over there and get something. Don’t leave or you may get lost or something worse. Stay in grace. Stand on this little island and don’t move from it. Don’t walk away and be burdened again. Keep Jesus’ yoke on, don’t trade it for a yoke of slavery for Jesus has promised “…all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
Human effort is enslaving, but Jesus’ effort is liberating. Hear these words from Peter in Acts 15:10 “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” The law and the demand to obey in order to be accepted is more than anyone can bear. The constant pressure and self-reflection, the wonder if we are now okay or not is crippling and not enjoyable. Stand firm Paul says and don’t go near that kind of life again. Stay away from human effort; you don’t need it. Rather, remain in grace; it is enough.
But if you do go near human works and effort, if you decide that you can do it, if you like self-work in exchange for God’s acceptance, then here is what will happen. You must obey every bit of the law and in exchange you will have lost Christ. You will have traded Jesus and his mercy for God and his justice. You will be a debtor to the law, much like an 18th century company man was a debtor to the company store. Do you remember the song 16 tons by Merle Travis? The chorus of “Sixteen Tons” is:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.
If you go for law, Paul says, you have traded you freedom and your life for bondage and slavery. There won’t be a good thing left and the law will demand everything you have. It will demand all your strength, all your motivation, all your thought, and when you think you have given it all, it will beat you and whip you and make you give even more. And it will never stop doing it.
Now that we understand the basic argument Paul is making, let’s look at one particular phrase that Paul uses which has caused much confusion and worry over the centuries. He says, “you who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). These words have been used by some to argue for the ability to lose one’s salvation. They say, see, Paul clearly teaches that these Galatian believers have been cut off from Christ, they are having nothing more to do with Jesus and have fallen from grace like one falls from a ship in the ocean. There is no way back on.
But are they not in error. Doesn’t the Scripture clearly teach that Salvation cannot be lost. Doesn’t the Word assure us in Romans 8:38–39 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Aren’t the words of Ephesians 1:13–14 at odds with the thought that one can lose their salvation, or fall from grace? “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory.” Don’t these passages and many others like Col 2:13-14, 1 Thes 5:10, 2 Tim 2:13 assure us that God’s grace is not dependent on human works, achievements or assent? Yes, they do.
So what is Paul talking about? I believe he is talking about the present experience of God’s grace and not the eternal reality of their salvation. What I mean is this. Paul is saying, If you start basing your relationship with God on works and effort, then you are going to be devoid of the assurance of your salvation. You are going to question it, you are going to struggle with whether or not it is real, but that doesn’t mean your questioning it makes it a reality. IF you are saved, the Holy Spirit has already assured that, for he is “a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph 1:14).
Have you ever known a brother or sister who was assured of their salvation at one point in life, but who slowly slips into legalism and with the slip comes a lack of assurance. The old ways of life slip in and their assurance slowly moves from Christ to comparing themselves to others and then, from comparing themselves to others to comparing themselves to the law and slowly they are robbed of the freedom to be God’s child, but live in bondage to what they must do, have to do or need to do in order to be a “good child of God.” I believe this is what Paul is talking about, for he calls it what it is, and walks away assured saying, “I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view” (Gal 5:10a)
He is confident that the Holy spirit will convict them and teach them and lead them back to Christ when the truth of the gospel is clearly proclaimed again. They aren’t lost believers, just confused, for if they were lost, if they had truly fallen from grace, then what sacrifice could remain. Could they return to God or would they be under eternal judgment. They would be under eternal judgment, for if Christ isn’t enough, then where would they turn, but if they turn back to Christ then, they were never really lost, just confused. Their experience of God and his merciful grace had been interrupted but not eternally lost.
Our salvation depends on Christ, he is the one who sets us free, not anyone, anything, or any other thought we might have. Christ and Christ alone. So, since we know that Christ saves us, since we know that we can’t loose that which he accomplished for us, namely our freedom and redemption, but we can interrupt our presesnt experience of that freedom and grace, how should we live?
To that Paul says “…by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:5-6). As Christians our call is to look forward to the gifts God is bringing to us. The future promise of sinlessness. The future promise of seeing God face to face. The future promise of unhindered worship of God and the Lamb. As Christians we are called to recognize the truth that our actions mean nothing in relation to our righteous standing before God. Circumcised or not, Law-keeper or libertine, Gay or straight, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, this means nothing in regards to our relationship with God. That is what Paul is saying. So I ask again, if that is the case, then why not live how I want to live. Why not do what I want to do? Why not pursue my own plans and purposes, if they don’t mean anything in my relationship with God.
That is what those words in Gal 5:6 address. They say “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” We don’t live how we want because that is not loving. We don’t do or refrain from doing things because of law, that has been clearly set aside by the Gospel, but we refrain from doing things because there is no love in it for God and others. The two great commands from Scripture are Love God and love your neighbor Luke 10. We live out our faith that Jesus saves us by being convicts released from prison who have been internally changed and who seek out the best interest of others.
As I was contemplating these words, I kept asking myself, what is faith expressing itself through love? And these passages kept coming to mind:
1 Corinthians 13:4–8; 14:1 “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres… Love never fails.”
James 1:25; 2:22 “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it — he will be blessed in what he does. You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” This is faith that sees the love of God and goes out loving others because they have been love. It is forgiving others because they have been forgiven. It is sharing with others because they have been shared with. It is the sermon on the mount becomgin reality because the sermon on the mount became reality to them.
2 Corinthians 3:17 “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom to love, we rae not forced to love. Freedom and Faith expressing itself in love is not the story of the Older brother in the prodigal son who says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29). No it is the story of Dorcas “…who was always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36).
Faith expressing itself in love doesn’t [do not] use your freedom as a cover up for evil; live as servants of God” 1Pet 2:16.
And I am confident that just as a little legalism works through the whole Christian life and corrupts it, the opposite is also true, a little faith expressing itself in love, even faith the size of a mustard seed, will work through our whole life and bring Glory to God.
Go out in faith and love others freely, serve them, give yourselves to the and find the grace of God in the freedom he has promised.