Do we have a hard time wrapping our head around Christian freedom? It seems so, as some will say that we Christians need to follow laws and rituals in order to do our part in our own salvation. Others will go to the opposite end of the spectrum, saying that Christians can do whatever they want because they are “free in Christ.” Neither assertion is valid. The first denies the work of Christ, which does not come with an “also” list for salvation; we only need to believe in Him and surrender ourselves to Him (in other words, have faith in Him). The second denies the indwelling of Christ in the believer and the work of The Spirit; God with us and in us will not allow for a life of sin.
But then, what is Christian freedom? In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is upset that those whom he helped lead to Christ and who learned the gospel, were now being lead astray by legalists who were teaching that works of the flesh were also necessary for salvation.
“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (2:15-16). “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (2:21).
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? I guess Paul thought so too, since he next exclaims, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1). Paul believed that the Galatians received God’s Spirit, as he goes on to ask them if they received that Spirit by observing the law, and if they were going to reach their goal of salvation by the law after having received the Spirit. Abraham and others, prior to the giving of the law, were righteous because of their faith (see also Romans 4). So why was the law given?
“The law was given to a nation of sinners. They could never obtain righteousness by keeping it because they did not have the power to obey it. The law was meant to show men what hopeless sinners they were, so they would cry out to God to save them by His grace. God’s covenant with Abraham was an unconditional promise of blessing; the law resulted only in cursing. The law demonstrated the unworthiness of man to receive free and unconditional blessing. If man is to be blessed, it must be by the grace of God” (MacDonald p 1885).
The law was like a guardian for God’s child. Israel was seen as God’s immature child, and the child had to follow the rules set forth by the Father until the child reached the right age. In practical terms, the child was a slave to the law. The child was an heir of God, but could not come into his inheritance until the right time. The child could not come into his inheritance if he did not obey all the laws, either, since the consequence of disobedience was death (now that’s one tough guardian!). At the right time, however, God sent Messiah so that the heir might come into his inheritance. “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).* Believers receive God’s Spirit, are redeemed from the law, and are no longer slaves to the law. Because they are in Christ, they cannot suffer death due to legal disobedience.
What the Galatians were doing, then, was making themselves slaves to the law all over again! They were making the law an idol. Were they the children of Hagar the slave woman (representative of the Law), or children of Sarah the free woman, whose offspring are children of God’s promise?
“These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent the two covenants” (4:24a; emphasis mine). “But what does the Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’ Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman” (4:30-31).
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (5:1a). Legalism is of no value – “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6b). “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (5:13). Since we have the Spirit and are not under the law, we are to live by the Spirit. The Spirit is contrary to sin, so those with the Spirit will not live a life that is enslaved to the sinful nature. Contrary to the “easy believism” types, a person who has God in them is not going to abuse Christian “freedom” by living life “in the flesh.” In fact, we are free from being under the control of sin and are slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:15-23). Although we all sin at times–since we are still physical beings in a corrupt world–we are awakened spiritual beings who have the Spirit of God to give us guidance and strength. Our lives will not be characterized by sin but will exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:19-24)
Therefore don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah (Colossians 2:16-17).
* Interestingly, Paul was not alone in his thoughts regarding the change of status or make-up of the law relating to the Messiah. Many rabbis thought that the Torah was for the age prior to Messiah, and that a new Messianic age would mean changes of some sort to the law (Kaiser et al, pp 564-565).
Cabal, Ted, General Editor. The Apologetics Study Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.
Garrett, Duane A, General Editor. NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Kaiser Jr, Walter, et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995 (1989).