In a famous work written nearly 497 years ago, called “The Freedom of a Christian,” Protestant Reformer Martin Luther wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to no one. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all.” What does freedom mean for the Christian? Are we indeed subject to none, to all, or to One, that is, God? The apostle Paul discusses Christian freedom, the subject of this week’s Sabbath school lesson in Galatians 5:1-15. Boldly, he writes to the Galatians, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). Taken at face value, it appears that Paul is throwing open the door to anything goes. His argument, however, is succinctly tied to his previous discussion. By his use of the word, therefore, Paul reaches a turning point in what he discussed in chapter 4, regarding the comparison of the two covenants. The lesson this week continues to build upon Paul’s themes of bondage, slavery, and legalism contrasted with freedom, Christ’s righteousness, and hope. Paul is now charging the Galatians to live out what they have learned regarding the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
Stand Fast in Liberty
When Paul tells the Galatians not to get entangled again in a yoke of bondage, he is explicitly referring to the covenant he described in Galatians 4:23-26. “For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage…” (Gal. 4:24ff.) The second covenant, he describes as corresponding to Jerusalem in heaven, “but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). Paul explains to the Galatians that they are children of the freewoman, children of promise. He goes on to spell out the nature of freedom in Christ calling the Galatians to “stand fast” in the freedom in which Christ has set them free (Gal. 5:1).
How does this relate to the two covenants mentioned in chapter 4? Paul’s teaching about the two covenants helps to explain what he means when he talks about freedom from bondage. He is referring to their condition in a negative sense in terms of being “under the law.” Galatians chapter 5 is an expansion of the ideas he presented in chapter 4. He is calling them to stand fast in the freedom by which Jesus Christ has set them free. They no longer have to be slaves. Paul’s statement to “stand fast” is a challenge to the Galatians to stand firm upon the gospel teaching that Paul is delivering to them. It also provides an important lesson to all Christians, and Seventh-day Adventists, to not get swept away by any false gospel. In other words don’t drift away from the truth, but be firm about your freedom in Christ! This freedom is not a self-seeking or self-satisfying freedom it is something that Christ gives to His followers.
Is Circumcision Part of the Gospel?
The problem for the Galatians was they were taught that they needed to be circumcised in order to be justified before God and to follow Christ. Such an act placed them “under the law.” Paul regarded this as bondage and a form of slavery with no benefit at all to their relationship with Christ. In Galatians 5:2 Paul explains: “Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.” Circumcision had signified the entry into the covenant God made with Abraham by faith. The Jews came to view circumcision as the entry into Judaism and the keeping of the law. This included the whole of the Old Testament law in addition to what they added to God’s commandments. Paul therefore contrasts the differences between the legalism of the Judaizers, who had convinced them that they needed to be circumcised. Paul explains that by getting circumcised, they are now under the obligation to keep the whole law. “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3).
Paul is telling the Gentile believers an emphatic “No!” on becoming circumcised. Being circumcised as an adult, or at any age is not a sign of faith commitment to Jesus Christ. In fact, if they get circumcised, there is no benefit to their relationship with Christ at all. On the contrary, Paul describes them as having become “estranged from Christ” (Gal. 5:4) by doing so. If the Galatian’s relationship with God is defined by their keeping of the law, including the requirement of circumcision as the entry point, they have lost their relationship with Christ. This is why Paul declares, “you who attempt to be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4b). The Christian cannot live in two worlds, either they live by faith in God’s grace, accepting His righteousness and salvation; or they attempt to be justified by their own efforts, being obligated to keep the entire law.
If all of this sounds frightening to Seventh-day Adventists, then we might need to sit down and listen to what the apostle Paul is saying. How much do we depend on the law, or the Ten Commandments to define our righteousness or lack of it? Do we rather need to depend on Christ for our righteousness? If we have been set free from the bondage represented by Mount Sinai according to Paul, how do we live the Christian life? If Christians are free, what is the nature of this freedom? As I mentioned in the quote by Luther at the outset of this article, defining freedom can be tricky. Freedom has proper boundaries, because freedom comes at a price. We need to understand two different ways, at least, of processing this. The concept of “freedom from” and “freedom to” may help here. Freedom can refer to freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom from legalistic ways of thinking, etc. Freedom to may include such things as freedom to act, freedom to believe, freedom to become all that Christ has created us to be. According to the Bible, all people are born in sin, and are slaves to sin. How do we get freedom?
Let’s see what the Bible says about freedom. Other texts of Scripture that support the biblical idea of freedom is that it comes from being in a relationship with Christ. John wrote, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). In this verse Jesus contrasts being a slave of sin, with the freedom that comes from being set free by God. “Therefore,” Jesus said, “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). True freedom only comes from knowing the truth, from knowing and being set free by Christ. Nothing or no one else can offer us freedom from sin, or from what the lesson refers to as “law-driven Christianity” (p. 90). What counts according to Paul is not circumcision or any other kind of work, rather it is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6b). True freedom comes as a result of exercising faith in Jesus Christ.
Constraints to Freedom
What is the nature of this freedom? Freedom doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want. This would only end up hurting ourselves, others, and God. Paul defines what he means by liberty by adding the following vital constraint: “For you brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Liberty is not given so that Christians may indulge in sinful behavior. It is not given so that we may gratify sinful desires that are opposed to God, His law of love, and His kingdom. The point Paul is making is that freed Christians are to serve one another in love. What does this look like? He goes on to explain: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). The golden rule is this: loving and serving one another means sacrificing my own wants and desires and putting those around me first. We have recently witnessed acts of self-sacrificing love from those who came to help people affected by Hurricane Harvey. Love in action best sums up the character God’s true servants and followers.
God’s love toward us is boundless. And if we remember that love sums up the law, then acting in love is fulfilling God’s law of love. Cutting the flesh, as a sign of obedience is not the sign of entry into God’s kingdom. Paul makes a vehement response to those who teach salvation by law-keeping, signified by circumcision: “I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!” (Gal. 5:12). If we think about it, Jesus was cut off for us so that we no longer have to cut our own flesh to signal that we are in a relationship with God. He paid the way by becoming sin for us in hanging on a tree. His death and post-resurrection life brings about freedom for the Christian. It includes freedom from the dominion of sin, the power of Satan, from bondage, slavery, freedom to accept and live the righteousness of Christ. As Luther stated, Christians are perfectly free in Christ. They are given everything required for salvation, however, they are subject to Christ. In Christ, they are also called to be servants. Not only are they servants of God, but of each other. These two seemingly opposed parallel truths is summed up in Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more” (1 Cor. 9:19).
What is your attitude toward being a Christ follower, a servant? Do you view yourself as free? Do you see yourself as bound to the law, to obey God’s commandments in order that He might love and save you? Perhaps Paul’s words apply to your situation. His message “Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” may be important for you and me. If we look to Mt. Sinai, to the law as the set of rules by which we are justified, we lose Christ, according to Paul. We have fallen from grace. As Paul implored the Galatians, we are the children of the free woman, Jerusalem, which is from above. Let’s not be swept away by a false teaching that places us under an obligation to keep the whole law signified by the act of circumcision, but stand fast in the truth that we are free in Christ Jesus. We must never abuse this amazing truth through selfishness, indulgence or indifference, nor through the adoption of legalism. May we be motivated to show our love for Christ not by cutting the flesh but by serving one another in love.