Free in Christ
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13, 14
With chapter 5 we come to one of the great turning points of Galatians. The first two chapters focused on history as Paul defended both is apostleship and his gospel of liberty from the attacks of those who had come from Jerusalem and had challenged both. Then the next two chapters built upon the historical as Paul presented his theological understanding of the gospel of Christian liberty. Now in chapters 5 and 6 Paul turn to the ethical outworking’s of the gospel of freedom in the lives of believers.
The Legalistic Threat to Freedom
According to James Dunn, “Paul reaches the climax of his exposition and appeal” in Galatians 5:1. “The whole reason for his writing to the Galatians is summed up in the passionate cry of Verse 1., “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Paul is pulling out all the stops as he pours out his heart and emotions. “He must have seen this as the critical moment. If he could not convince his Galatian audiences now he might never have another change; his work with them, and their freedom in Christ might be lost irretrievably. Thus his passionate intensity.
Freedom is the obvious theme of verses 1-12, as it is of the entire epistle. The problem he was facing was that some of his Galatian converts had been led to see acceptance of circumcision and Jewish laws as an advance on what Paul had taught them about getting right with God through faith. This was the reason for his urgent call for them to stand fast in the freedom that Christ had died on the cross. Why had he died on the cross? Because Christ had died on the cross to provide them that freedom. He died to free us from the conscience, freedom from the tyranny of the law, the dreadful struggle to keep the law, with a view to winning the favor of God. It is the freedom of acceptance with God and of access to God through Christ.
The focal point of the crisis was circumcision, a point made crystal clear in verses 2-4. The false teachers declared that unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved (Acts 15:1). Now Paul knew that circumcision in itself was a trivial matter, and he didn’t always oppose it (see, for example, Acts 16:3). But in the way it was being urged in the Galatian context, he saw it as the leading teaching of a way of religion that nullified the gospel of Christ. It was the entering wedge of a theology that taught salvation by good works in obedience to the law. That perspective regarded faith in Christ as insufficient for getting right with God. The Judaizers held that justification consisted of faith plus circumcision and obedience to the law, a position equivalent to saying that the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary was not enough, that believers must add something that sacrifice behaviorally.
Paul refused to give an inch to such theology. Against it he makes four points in Galatians 5:2-4
- If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to your (Verse 2)
- Every man who receives circumcision . . . is under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Verse 3, NASB)
- “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ” (Verse 4, NRSV)
- Such ones “have fallen away from grace” (Verse 4)
It was no trivial matter for him. He argues that the two ways (faith versus faith + works) are not two varieties of Christianity but two entirely different religions. Paul asserts an alternative where the Judaism does not have one. For the Jew, submitting to the yoke of the law means the realization of freedom,” but for Paul it is enslavement. He himself had spent his early life trying to please God by observance of the law (Philippians 3:4-6). But he failed. It was only after his salvation by grace that he saw that the function of the law was to pint out sin rather than to save people from it (Galatians 3:21; Romans 3:20-24). He had come to realize that if people were to please God by obedience to the law, they would have to keep every aspect of it flawlessly (Galatians 3:10; Galatians 5:3). The apostle recognized that trying to please God through keeping the law was the way of slavery (Galatians 5:1) and failure (Romans 3:9-24). No one had ever observed it perfectly except Christ. And Paul had come to understand that Christ’s dying on the cross redeemed men and women from the curse of the broken law (Galatians 3:10, 13). For him the gospel of the law-keeping was a Satanic deception. It led only to enslavement and death. Thus, his passion on the topic in Galatians 5:1-12.
On the positive side, Paul asserts two things about those who accept the gospel. First, that it is by faith that they “wait for the hope of righteousness,” evidently a reference to the Second advent (verse 5). Second, a saved person’s faith will work through love (verse 6). With that thought Paul opens a line of argument that will dominate Galatians 5:13-6:10). We are not to think that the fact that we receive salvation by faith in Christ, not by any good deeds of our own, means that the Christian life is a life of blessed idleness. The way this faith is put into practice is by working through love (expressing itself through love, REB).