Without a doubt, Galatians 5:1 is the key to the entire letter that Paul writes to his Christian friends in the Roman province of Galatia: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Not only do these words provide an apt summary of the preceding four chapters, but they properly serve up the remaining thoughts regarding the manner in which Christ-followers may live holy and valiant lives. From these words and those which follow four things should be considered.
First, the Apostle Paul strongly affirms the power of liberty for the redeemed soul. The freedom of which Paul writes is not so much a freedom from sin as much as it is a freedom from shame and law. It relates to being liberated from the ravages of guilt and the drive to assuage guilt through self-effort. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (see Romans 8:1). It should be noted that in the ancient language with which he is writing Paul uses the definite article with the word “freedom.” This suggests that the freedom of which Paul writes is a concept that far exceeds a surface liberty. It is the manner of existence for a follower of Jesus; and the word itself speaks to a slave who has been released from his slavery and is now completely and utterly free to live a life that is the antithesis of anything he has ever known.
Secondly, Paul cautions against a life of license. Of course, this touches on one of the most common perceptions about the general message of the book of Galatians, and that is that Paul (and those preaching through Paul’s letter) is proclaiming a license to sin. The logic goes this way: if followers of Christ are not to be governed by rules and law then followers of Christ must be able to do whatever it is they please without any consequences. The growing weight of Paul’s argument against legalism as outlined in chapters one through four sure seem to imply this logic, but just about the time we wonder if this is really so Paul presents to us the strong statement that we not use the freedom we have as an opportunity “for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). In other words, we are not to use our freedom to justify sinful thinking or behavior.
Ultimately there are two extremes to which Christians go in the journey of the redeemed life. One extreme is legalism, that horrid attempt to measure spiritual success not by the atonement of Jesus Christ but by self-effort and self-expectation. The other extreme is licentiousness, that equally horrid willingness to cater to selfish interests regardless of the cost and under the perception that God does not care. Both extremes are a clear departure from God’s best for his followers, and utterly mock the work of Christ. Paul powerfully challenges licentiousness in Romans 6:15 where he offers these words: What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! He goes on in Romans 6:18 to declare that in Christ, having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness.
Thirdly, Paul offers love as the standard by which we bring balance between a life of rules and life of raw sin. Galatians 5:13 finds Paul declaring that through love we must serve one another. Then Paul goes straight to the heart of the ancient Hebrew legal code with this important quote: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (see Leviticus 19:18).
Of course, Jesus also highlights this important feature of the Christian’s existence. Matthew 22:37-40 provide the following: And [Jesus] said to [someone questioning him about the greatest commandment], “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” The Apostle James amplifies this in his New Testament letter, declaring, If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well (James 2:8).
In what way is loving our neighbor the “royal law according to the Scripture”? To love our neighbor well presumes we are already loving God supremely. To love God supremely is a response of gratitude to his grace, and is the standard that shapes how we live and why. We avoid legalism because we have deep gratitude for God and his provision of salvation. We avoid license because we respect God’s character and the cost of our redemption. We choose to live not by the law of ancient rules or the law of the flesh, but the law of love which causes us to be other-centered rather than self-centered and prompts us to reflect God’s heart in our world.
The means by which we love well is deference to the Holy Spirit’s leadership. Paul commands us in Galatians 5:16 to “walk by the Spirit.” Doing so empowers us to enjoy our freedom or liberty, forego a life of fleshly license, and rightly love God and neighbor as the standard by which we live. We will talk more about this, however, when we proceed to the rest of chapter five.
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“Write This Down” is a summary of select teaching moments offered by Pastor Matthew. The preceding summary is from the message “Christ Has Set Us Free!”, part of the sermon series “Galatians: No Other Gospel,” presented on the weekend of June 17, 2012, at Bethel Church.