For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.
The text begins with a clear and refreshing statement of Christ's will for our lives. Sometimes we get bogged down in a quandary about God's will. And often we worry about decisions which are simply not a great issue with God (where to go to school, what job to take, where to live, etc.). We need to orient our lives on the clear statements of Scripture regarding God's will. And here is one: "For freedom Christ has set us free." Christ's will for you is that you enjoy freedom. Where you go to school, what job you do, where you live, etc., are not nearly so crucial as whether you stand fast in freedom. If they were, the Bible would have commanded those things as clearly as it here commands freedom. But it doesn't.
So your enjoyment of freedom is much more important to God than many of the day-to-day decisions that fill us with so much concern. A good test of your priorities in life would be whether you are just as concerned about the command to enjoy your freedom as you are about other pressing decisions in your life. Do you exercise as much diligence in prayer and study to stand fast in freedom as you do to decide about home, job, school, marriage partner? It is a clear and unqualified command: "Stand fast and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." This is the will of God for you: your freedom. Uncompromising, unrelenting, indomitable freedom. For this Christ died. For this he rose. For this he sent his Spirit. There is nothing he wills with more intensity under the glory of his own name than this: your freedom. That's my message today. All else is explanation and incentive.
Playtime at the Piper's
I have a playtime with my sons after supper each evening until about 7:00 p.m. It is not easy to please a 10, 7, and 3 year old with one game. Recently we've hit on a new idea: Karsten reads The Tower of Geburah to all of us while I build towers out of blocks with Abraham on the floor. When 7 p.m. comes, I usually say, "OK, Abraham, pick up the blocks and put them in the cart." And he usually says, "Will you help me please, Daddy?" Now I have two possibilities. I can say, "No, you pick them up, and get it done in two minutes or there will be trouble!" He may pout and fuss, but generally the job gets done. Or I can say, "Sure I will. Let's see how fast we can do it together." So he hurries and works much faster and more efficiently with my help and we even have fun doing what needs to be done.
Abraham's experience is very different in those two cases. In the first case, he is not free. He goes about his work as though a yoke of slavery were on his back and a big heavy frog were on his bottom lip. He is not acting in freedom because the task is an oppressive weight that irritates and discourages. But in the second case he is free. He does better work with no irritation. He has the freedom of joy and feels no oppressive burden on his back. He still knows that Daddy punishes for disobedience, but that is no heavy yoke because he is quite happy to pick up the blocks. What's the difference? Daddy was on the floor helping—even making it enjoyable. The same work to do: but in one case under the yoke of slavery, in the other case in freedom. There is a clue here for how we can live in freedom and obey Galatians 5:1. The key to freedom is whether we have to do the work ourselves to escape punishment, or whether our Father comes down to be with us and help us. I think this will be evident from Galatians 5:2–5.
Verses 2, 3, and 4 each portray a way to stay under a yoke of slavery. So these verses function as warnings against slavery. Then verse 5 gives a positive description of how to stand in freedom. Let's look at each of these verses in turn.
Don't Bribe God for Blessing
We'll take verses 2 and 3 together: "Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you (or: Christ will profit you nothing). I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law (literally: that he is a debtor to do the whole law)." A reader who is totally insensitive to all that has gone before in Galatians might say, "O, that's easy. Paul says circumcision is wrong and displeases God and non-circumcision is right and pleases God. So the point is: do what pleases God—avoid circumcision at all costs." But do you see what that superficial reading does: it makes non-circumcision into something just as dangerous as circumcision, namely, a work that you can use to earn things from God.
The point of verses 2 and 3 is not that circumcision in itself is wrong, but that any act is wrong that we do to bribe God for blessings. Circumcision happened to be the foremost requirement of the Judaizers who were teaching the Galatians to work their way into God's favor. Galatians 2:3–5 reminds us how circumcision relates to freedom and slavery. Paul went up to Jerusalem, "but even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek, but because of false brethren (probably the Judaizers), secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage—to them we did not yield submission even for a moment, that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you." That's what Paul means in 5:1 by "stand fast and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." That is, do not let the Judaizers bewitch you into thinking that circumcision or any other outward act of obedience can be offered to God as a benefit to him, which he must then reward with some payment.
Look more closely at verse 2. "If you get circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing." The problem with the Judaizers was that they wanted to cash in on Christ's profit, but only by making investments with him from their own moral assets. And Paul says that if you try to earn dividends from Christ from your own investment of circumcision or dietary rules or feast days, Christ will profit you nothing. Why? Because all the spiritual and physical benefits Christ gives are dividends paid from his own investment at Calvary. When the Son of God died for our sins, the moral assets which he invested in the bank of God's glory were so great that the dividends are infinite, endless, and available to all who . . . who what? Verse 2 says: Christ's profits are not yours if you try to earn them with your own investments. Why? Because that dishonors Christ, nullifies grace (2:21), and removes the stumbling block of the cross (5:11). We exalt the cross and grace and Christ when we admit we have no assets to invest, and that Christ's investment at Calvary was totally sufficient to win free dividends of righteousness and life for all who trust him. So verse 2 teaches that slavery is when you reject Christ as the merciful benefactor who gives us freely a share in his endless profit. Slavery is when you choose to deal with him as a banker who needs your investment to produce dividends for his customers.
Verse 3 says the same thing a bit differently. "I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is a debtor to do the whole law." This verse teaches that the mindset of slavery is the mindset of a debtor—one who is under pressure to pay back what he has borrowed or needs to borrow. All the works of the law (including circumcision) are the currency with which the Judaizers aim to satisfy their debts to God. And the surprising point of the verse for us is that God does not want to deal with us as debtors in this way.
The Error of the Gratitude Ethic
I say this is surprising because there is a very common view of Christian behavior which this verse contradicts. It is called the "Gratitude Ethic." It says that God has done so much for me that I will devote my life to paying back my debt, even though I know I will never be able to completely. And even though most Christians who work out of this gratitude ethic would say that they are not trying to earn their salvation, nevertheless, when they start working for God because he has given them so much, it is very easy to begin to think of God's free gift as a loan to be repaid or as advance wages to be earned. So the gratitude ethic tends to put you in the position of a debtor instead of a son. And that is slavery. None of us feels completely free while we are burdened with a debt to be repaid. Christ does not want you to relate to him as a debtor who uses the law to make installment payments on an unending loan.
There are at least three reasons why this gratitude ethic is wrong. First, true gratitude is, indeed, a sense of joyful indebtedness. But as soon as this delight in another person's generosity turns into a feeling that we must pay something back, what once was a free gift starts to become a business transaction. Genuine gratitude is not the feeling of having to pay back.
The second reason the gratitude ethic is wrong is that it diminishes the cross of Christ. When Christ died for our sins to repair the injury we had done to God's honor, our debt was totally covered! Any effort to increase, from our account, the deposit made for us by Christ at Calvary is an insult to its infinite value. Yes, all the good things that come to us sinners now and in eternity must be paid for. But the gospel is that they have already been paid for by someone else. Therefore, we must never try to relate to God as a debtor trying to pay back a debt, no matter how thankfully.
The third reason why the gratitude ethic is wrong is that it tends to think of God's work for us as only in the past. It says, God has done so much for me, now I will do for him. But this overlooks the fact that God's work for us is past, present, and future, and it is not only work for us but in us. The gratitude ethic tends to forget that apart from Christ's present indwelling power we can do nothing valuable (John 15:5). The gratitude ethic forgets that any patience, kindness, goodness, worship, etc., which we may offer to God is the fruit of his Spirit (Galatians 5:22; Philippians 3:3). It is God now working in us that which is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21). Therefore, even our gifts to God are gifts from God. The gratitude ethic overlooks this never-ending work of grace in our lives. We can't even begin to pay God back because the slightest movement toward him is a new gift from him.
So when verse 3 says that the person who gets circumcised is putting himself in the place of a debtor to God, we learn that God does not want to relate to us as debtors who try to pay him back. His will for us is that we be free—that we recognize that the whole debt is paid. We are not slaves who have to work to stay out of the poorhouse.
Freedom Depends on Grace
Now verse 4 says the same thing as verses 2 and 3, warning us to stand fast in freedom and not submit to a yoke of slavery: "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by law; you have fallen away from grace." If you take upon yourself the yoke of the law and aim to use it to achieve your own righteousness before God, you have submitted to a yoke of slavery and are not standing in the freedom for which Christ freed you. Or to use the words of the verse: your relation to Christ is nullified and you no longer benefit from grace. What this verse teaches, then, is that the experience of freedom, including the freedom of eternal life, can only be enjoyed as we depend on the grace of Christ. Slavery is what happens when you fall away from the power of grace. The key to freedom is to keep depending on grace.
But what is grace? Grace is the powerful work of God which he exerts freely for you in your present life. You've heard the acronym: G.R.A.C.E.—God's Riches At Christ's Expense. That is excellent. But to remind us that grace is also God's action for now, here is another acronym: G.R.A.C.E.—God's Rescuing And Caring Exertion. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul says, "I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which was with me." Grace is God's exertion in our lives to help us. Another example is Romans 5:21, "As sin reigned in death, grace also will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Grace is like a powerful king who exerts his reign in the lives of Christians.
So when Galatians 5:4 implies that the key to freedom is depending on grace, it means that the key to freedom is God's rescuing and caring exertion in our lives here and now. We are free when God freely comes to help us and we joyfully trust his help instead of turning to the yoke of law.
And this brings us back to playtime at the Pipers. When I say, "OK, Abraham, pick up the blocks and put them in the cart," there are two possibilities: 1) I can leave him to his own and threaten punishment if he does not get the job done. 2) Or I can get down on the floor and help him and turn the job into fun. One way begets children into slavery (like Ishmael, Galatians 4:24). The other begets children of freedom (like Isaac, Galatians 4:26, 31). The key to freedom is whether God comes down to help us do what he requires and whether we live by faith in that work of grace.
How Free People Wait for the Last Day
I close by simply pointing out how verse 5 describes the life of freedom. "For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness." Even though there is a sense in which we are already justified by faith in Christ and clothed with his righteousness (Romans 5:1; 1 Corinthians 1:30), the final judgment lies before us at which the final verdict will be spoken and we will be made fully and ethically righteous. This is the hope we wait for and long for. But so do the Judaizers! The question is how are we waiting: as free or as slaves?
Two phrases in verse 5 sum up how free people wait for the last day. First, "through the Spirit." Our lives began by a work of the Spirit (like Isaac's began with a divine intervention, Genesis 21:1). And our lives go on by the work of the Spirit. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me." We are free because God has sent the Spirit of his Son to come help us put the blocks away. He does not stand aloof and make demands. He offers his fellowship and help, and even makes the life of obedience a life of joy. The Christian life is a life of freedom because it is lived in the power of the Spirit.
The second phrase that shows how free people wait for the hope of righteousness is "by faith." "Through the Spirit by faith we wait for the hope of righteousness." It is conceivable that little Abraham would pout and say, "I don't want your help. I'll pick up the blocks myself. I'll show you what I can do. I'll show I don't need your charity." If he continued in that proud way, he would fall from grace and I would be of no advantage to him. He would opt for legalism over grace and slavery over freedom. The human side of freedom is faith. And Galatians 3:5 reminds us how it connects with God's side: "Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" If we really rely on our Father to help us, he helps us.
And note well in Galatians 5:5 that faith is not merely a past decision. It is an ongoing way of waiting for the hope of righteousness. So the currency of freedom has two sides. One side is the sovereign, gracious work of God in us and for us day by day—Daddy coming down onto the floor and turning obedience into fun. The other side is our faith—a life of joyful reliance on what God does for us, not what we can do for God—a life that is distinctively different from the world because, as we will see next week, it is freed to love. "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."