Of all the words used to describe the results the work of Jesus yields in the life of men and women, none is more powerful than the word “FREE!” In John 8:36 Jesus Himself said to His followers, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” In Romans 8:2 Paul echoes this incredible idea when he wrote, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”
It’s true that liberty is the fundamental results of God’s amazing grace. As famous preacher D.L. Moody once said, “If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ you are free!” Because of Jesus and His work on the cross, you have been freed from the burden of law, freed from expectation, freed from failure, freed from sin, free to simply enjoy God’s favor.
Grace yields freedom and the results are incredible. And yet, how this word “FREE” is so rarely used by the world to describe Christians! Sadly, “Legalistic” is how many perceive the followers of Christ. Many view Jesus and Christianity as being restrictive, a kill-joy, limiting as opposed to freeing, amazing, and liberating. But this ought not be so! Can anyone honestly look at the life and ministry of Jesus and reach such a conclusion?
In the first nine verses of Galatians 5 Paul addresses the very liberty and freedom grace affords by contrasting it with the bondage yielded by religious legalism.
Galatians 5:1-9, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love. You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”
In this section of his letter to the Galatian churches, Paul expounds on what it means to be a Child of Freedom (the result of the Gospel of Grace)! For context, it’s important you understand Paul closes out Galatians chapter 4 by making a bold declaration. He says, “So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free!”
Now in verse one of Galatians 5 Paul begins to apply this thought, “Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
In building upon the theology of grace, Paul transitions by referencing not just any type of freedom, but rather something very specific. He says, “Stand fast… In the liberty by which Christ has made us free!” Note: This definite article “the liberty” implies a distinctive liberty - a particular liberty. So what liberty is Paul referring too? Three Clues in our text:
Clue #1: Paul is referring to a liberty that originates not in country, a constitution, or for that matter you, but rather a liberty provided by Jesus. He writes, “The liberty by which Christ has made.” Keep in mind the freedom Paul is referencing is something that resides in Jesus and a particular work He initiated and accomplished that liberates us.
Clue #2: Paul is referring to a liberty that exists regardless of perspective. “Christ has made us free!” Paul describes this freedom as being sure and solid! It’s not up for debate. Every Christian has been set free through the work of Christ Jesus on Calvary.
Clue #3: By the very implication of Paul’s exhortation to “stand fast in the liberty” it’s clear that while this freedom exists for the believer there are forces seeking to snatch this liberty away. It’s why Paul says, “Do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage…”
The implications of this statement imply that it’s entirely possible for the person freed by grace to revert again to bondage - which explains why Paul invokes such a powerful image through his exhortation we choose to “standing fast!” In the Greek this word “stêkô” means “to keep one’s standing.” Today we’d say, “Grip onto the liberty…”
With these three clues in mind (that Paul is describing a liberty provided by Jesus, one that exists regardless of perspective, and one in which there are active forces seeking to snatch it away) we know that there are two things Jesus has liberated us from:
First, Jesus has freed us from the resulting bondage of moral-expectations. Whereas the law (all religious systems) bind us to a merit-based process that demands we earn and maintain God’s favor, it is grace alone, provided through Jesus, that frees us from this expectation by declaring us to be permanently right with God apart from our involvement.
While the law enslaves you to the pursuit of measuring up, it is grace that removes these shackles allowing you the opportunity to simply enjoy a relationship with God!
Secondly, Jesus has freed us from the resulting bondage of self-rule. Sadly, as Americans, it’s so easy for our political context and traditional understanding of freedom to warp our comprehension of what Paul is actually referring to when he mentions “liberty.” As a matter of fact, it is this misunderstanding that fosters so much legalism within the church.
For many liberty is defined as “the freedom to do what I want as long as it doesn’t harm someone else.” As Deist Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Consider the fundamental flaw in this notion… Does the “liberty” to live my “life” however I want in “the pursuit of happiness” actually make me free? The truth is it doesn’t!
Please understand, no one reading this letter to the Galatians in the first-century, Roman world would have processed “liberty” as living life void of authority. There was no such thing. They rightly understood what we’ve so easily forgotten… Everyone has a master!
In America you might be free to pursue whatever makes you happy, but that in and of itself isn’t liberty! The founding father’s specifically sought limited-government not with the aim of no-government, but in the pursuit of self-governance. Instead of a king ruling over every man, our founders wanted a system where each man could rule over himself.
Jefferson should have instead written, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, the freedom to govern oneself, and pursue what makes him happy.”
Sure, while living in America with a Constitution and Bill of Rights we are free from a tyrannical government seeking to imposes its will on our lives (or at least at one point it did), in the end, the freedom to do whatever we want in the pursuit of whatever makes us happy doesn’t yield liberty, but instead yields servitude to these very pursuits!
What many fail to recognize is that “liberty” as Jefferson described doesn’t guarantee the “freedom” of the masses when all it accomplishes is the enthronement of each man so that he can “pursue his own happiness.” Instead, the only thing “liberty” in this context actually accomplishes is the enslavement of all men to that simple pursuit.
Here’s why this is the case… Man is not conditioned to rule himself, but to be ruled! Back in Genesis we noted that while Adam was given dominion over all of creation, he was not given dominion over himself. God was over man and man was over creation.
And yet, while Satan’s original lie in the garden was that man could be his own god, do you remember what actually happened when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit? According to Romans 1:25 Paul says that in that moment man “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator.”
While true you have complete control over who or what sits on the throne in your life, don’t be mistaken - You cannot sit there! This is what makes “liberty” in our American context so misleading. Though you’ve been given the freedom to self-govern, the irony is you’ll always advocate the throne to someone or something other than yourself.
It’s why the idea of true liberty is nothing more than a mirage. Just look around at our culture… Though it’s true we’re free to generally do what we want, would you say the majority of Americans are walking in liberty or mired in some form of bondage?
Honestly, the majority of people living the “America Dream” of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” are not free nor are they happy. In actuality they’re empty and miserable.
Which is not a surprise when you realize whatever it is you’re pursuing to provide happiness you’ll in turn enthrone and bound yourself to serve! This is why pursuing happiness in money (Materialism), fame (Egotism), sex (Hedonism), body (Selfism), charity (Altruism), and vice (Sensationalism) not only proves to be vain, but in the end binds you only to further and deeper pursuits. These things prove to be wicked masters.
Let me give you an example… If you need to shed a few pounds for health reasons that’s one thing, but if your motivation for loosing weight is based in deeper insecurities about the way you look (thus loosing weight is about being happy, not healthy) you will find yourself enslaved to the pursuit (gym or diet). It’s a trap, because even if you do achieve the look you want (and feel happy) you can’t stop working because you now have to maintain it.
This explains why Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 2:17, “I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.”
Understand, the liberty described in Scripture isn’t freedom from governance or servitude (authority). God made humanity to be ruled! Instead, the liberty grace affords and what Paul is addressing describes life under the enthronement of the worthy King!
You see, the “liberty” you’ve been given by Jesus through His grace is not the freedom to do whatever you want (which ironically only leads back into the bondage of self-rule and therefore the servitude of these pursuits), but is instead the opportunity to finally live according to the way you’ve been designed. Man back under the rule of his Creator.
This means real “liberty” and lasting freedom is only found in absolute surrender to Jesus. This is why Paul pleads that we “stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
In the end Paul is making the argument that because legalism heralds things to do and refrain from doing as the basis for earning and maintaining God’s favor it in actuality enthrones the rule of self over Jesus leading to bondage as opposed to freedom.
Paul continues upon this thought by explain why it is that legalism fundamentally runs counter to the freedom we find in grace. In verses 2-3 he writes, “Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.”
Before we unpack these verses it’s important we first define and discuss circumcision. According to Urban Dictionary, “Circumcision is a surgical procedure that removes a male’s foreskin.” (Not what you expected was it?) If you need a better illustrative picture… “Circumcision is a surgery that turns a man’s turtleneck into a crew cut.”
While circumcision is found in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12:2-3) it’s important to keep in mind that circumcision predated the Law. In Genesis 17 God appeared to Abraham and said, “This is My covenant between Me and you and your descendants: Every male child among you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, as a sign of the covenant between Me and you… And My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.”
Understand (and this is what many people get wrong), circumcision was not given as the sign of the Mosaic Law, but was rather a physical reminder of the covenant God had made with Abraham - namely that God would provide a Savior through his lineage! Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
In Romans 4:11 Paul would later write that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision (14 years after being declared righteous by God), a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also…”
While the Jews had come to see circumcision as an external act that brought with it God’s acceptance and entry into the lineage of Abraham (which is why they wanted Gentile Christians to become circumcised) the reality is that circumcision represented the opposite reality. As David Guzik remarked, “Circumcision is a cutting away of the flesh and an appropriate sign of the covenant for those who should put no trust in the flesh.”
Circumcision did not represent the Law of Moses, but was instead an act that physically represented ones spiritual faith in the coming promise… Faith in a coming Savior as illustrated in the life of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc (men of faith before the law).
Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that the procedure of circumcision was specifically to occur on the 8th day following a child’s birth. According to Biblical numerology the number 8 represents a new beginning, order or creation, and can signify being born again.
And it’s with this understanding that we can begin to realize why Paul would now say to a group of uncircumcised Gentiles, “If you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing” because “every man who becomes circumcised is a debtor to keep the whole law.”
Paul’s point is that since the Savior had already come in the person of Jesus, partaking in a physical act (“circumcision”) that represented faith in a coming Savior would now signify unbelief (a failure to recognize Jesus as your Savior). This explains why he then says, “Christ will profit you nothing” or literally “Christ will not be able to assist you.” It’s like Paul is saying, “Who cares about faith in a coming Savior when the Savior has already come.”
Continuing his logic Paul reasons that if Jesus is rejected as the Savior (making everything He did no practical effect), all the act of circumcision accomplishes is placing that person back under the righteous demands of the law (which accentuated your need for a Savior).
He then adds in verse 4, “You have become estranged from Christ (Christ has become of no effect unto you), you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”
The flow of Paul’s argument is rather simple… Rejecting Christ as your Savior defaults your justification away from being a manifestation of grace as demonstrate in Jesus’ death and back onto your efforts and attempts to earn God’s favor using the law. Sadly, instead of righteousness, such a development only yields bondage.
In using this dramatic phrase “you have fallen from grace” Paul is not speaking of a moral failure, but is instead describing the person who is no longer trusting in Jesus for their justification. Instead of the freedom provided by grace, this person is now back under the burden of the law - enslaved to their vain pursuit to prove their worthiness to God!
Paul then explains why this is such a tragedy and should be avoided in verses 5-6, “For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.”
What is “the hope of righteousness?” This word “hope” can be better translated as “expectation.” So better posed… What is “the” (definite article) expectation of our righteousness? Is it heaven? No - Heaven is the result of our righteousness. Is it a relationship with Jesus? No - Christ is the reason for our righteousness. Is it justification? No - Justification is the mechanism behind our righteousness.
Understand… The expectation of our right-position before God provided through His grace and not our merit is that this standing will yield in our lives righteous-living! Which appears in line with everything else Paul’s said… This expectation is not something we’re to be pursing, working for, or for that matter focused upon, but is instead something the believer is to be patiently waiting to see accomplished “through the Spirit.”
Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither (better translated - “and not”) circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything.” This word “avails” in a Greek meaning “to be strong” or “to have power.” In regards to the manifestation of righteous-living (“the hope of righteousness”) Paul is affirming the power (the “availing”) comes “in Christ Jesus” (not in “circumcision nor uncircumcision (what I do or don’t do)” by “faith working through love.”
This is radical for Paul is saying the power for righteous-living manifests in your life by “faith in Jesus… working through” your “love” for Jesus! (Note: Which also is a reciprocation of His love for you… 1 John 4:19, “We love Him because He first loved us.”) Love by the very fact it is a verb is never content to remain static and always determined to be active.
This is what Paul is saying… While Grace indeed frees me to do whatever I want, it also floods my heart with a love for Jesus that actively wants to please Him. Because grace changes my heart and transforms my motivations it naturally changes my behaviors. I serve Jesus not out of compulsion or requirement, but out of freedom and love!
Martin Luther wrote, “This grace of God is a very great, strong, mighty and active thing. It does not lie asleep in the soul. Grace hears, leads, drives, draws, changes, works all in man, and lets itself be distinctly felt and experienced. It is hidden, but its works are evident.”
This now explains what Paul says to finish out his thought… In verses 7-9 he says to these Galatian believers, “You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”
“You ran well” is in the past tense. When Paul left these believers they were fine, but something had clearly stopped their progress. He asks, “Who hindered you (literally “cut into your lane” - tripped you up) from obeying the truth?” Someone had infiltrated these churches in Galatia and were teaching a “persuasion” or more specifically a “treacherous or deceptive persuasion” that ran contrary to the person and work of Jesus - “Him who calls you.”
What was the persuasion? It was the Gospel-distortions of “Grace, And” do these things, “Grace, But” don’t do these things, or “Grace, So” I can do anything. Most amazingly Paul is saying legalism was hindering them from obedience! Here’s why legalism ultimately hinders spiritual growth… It robs you from the power of God’s transforming grace because it promotes the enthronement of self over Jesus!
You see when your motivation for righteous-living becomes anything other than a reciprocating love for God your spiritual life will be stifled! Legalism (things self does or refrains from doing) robs a person of the freedom to enjoy their relationship with God and instead re-enslaves them to the bondage of religion or self-rule.
The warning within this passage and the underlying reason Paul commands you and I to “stand firm in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” is that it doesn’t take much to knock us off course… It doesn’t take much to “entangled us again with a yoke of bondage…” It doesn’t take much for you to be “hindered from obeying the truth.” Paul says, “A little leaven” is all that’s needed to “leaven the whole lump.” His point is that a little corruption or warping in our thinking has the uncanny ability to corrupt everything.
Understand… Legalism must be resisted at all costs for it will rob you of liberty and return you to bondage. Legalism will make what Jesus did of no profit by placing you again under the obligation of the law. Legalism will violate and limit the work of the Spirit in your life by removing love as the primary driver of Godliness. And how does it do this? Legalism vacates Jesus from the only proper role He wants in your life… Your Savior!
As your pastor I need to make a little confession… I watch HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones and I really enjoy it! If you don’t for moral reasons - more power to you, as long as your abstinence from watching the best show on television doesn’t cause you to think you’re now more spiritual than the Christian brothers and sisters who do.
The reason I bring this up is because this past Sunday there was a scene that perfectly illustrates the freedom grace affords and the larger point Paul is seeking to make through this particular passage. In a fascinating scene one of the heroes of the show John Snow has a conversation with the chief adviser of Queen Daenerys (Play the Clip).
Did you catch that? Here we have a woman who’d been formally in bondage (taken at a young age by slavers) yet now is completely free to do whatever she wants. She’s under no obligations, no expectations. Her freedom came with zero strings attached. As a matter of fact, at any moment she could take a ship and sail back to her home country. And yet, she willingly chooses, in an act of genuine freedom, to serve the very Queen who liberated her.
Since it’s a fact of life that everyone serves someone, this is why grace yields freedom! On the cross of Calvary Jesus died to set you free from the enslavement of sin. And he did this with no strings attached. Your freedom is based on a work He did for you and one you could never have done for yourself. His grace was demonstrated to you without expectation or future obligation - your service wasn’t required. And yet, this is the kicker… Because of this freedom you can do something you could never have done before - freely serve Jesus.
In light of grace your service can now be a free response to His love as opposed to being a way for you to earn His love. Your service flows from the favor He secured for you and not a way for you to earn His favor. You don’t have to serve to demonstrate how good you are - You serve because it’s a natural response to how good He’s been. While the law demands your service, it is His grace that enables you to serve out of freedom!
Though John Snow remains skeptical as to whether or not such a freedom could really exist, I love how his counselor Sir Davos responds to all that he’s just heard… He says to John, “Would you forgive me if I switched sides?” Friend, there is no greater King than Jesus! His grace is free for you and He expects nothing in return. That said… In the presence of such love and kindness, is there really anyone you’d rather choose to serve than He?
No Additional Links.