By Mark Scott
Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall in Philadelphia when the Constitutional Convention ended, and a certain Mrs. Powel asked Mr. Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Not hesitating, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The apostle Paul says something very similar in our text. Freedom has been given to us as a gift from God through Christ. Maybe the question is, “Can we keep it?”
Two telling verses that focus on the theme of Galatians are 2:16 and 5:1. They function like a thesis, proposition, or dominant thought to the epistle. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. The verb tense in the original language of the phrase has set us free indicates that Paul had in mind a particular moment in time when this happened (Calvary?). But the next phrase, Stand firm is in present tense indicating ongoing action. Freedom is a gift of God at a particular moment in time, but maintaining that freedom has to be worked out continually.
Freedom in Christ Can Be Compromised
Galatians 5:1-4, 7-10, 12
Freedom is such a slippery thing. Vigilance is necessary to retain it. It is too easy to slip back into slavery. The Judaizers wanted to add circumcision to the finished work of Christ. It was one thing to circumcise someone for expediency so as not to hinder the missionary enterprise of the church (Acts 16:3). But it was quite another thing to require circumcision as a term of salvation (Galatians 2:3). If people need Jesus plus circumcision then Christ will be of no value (“will profit them nothing”). In fact, embracing circumcision as a salvific requirement demanded obedience to the whole law, and that was an obligation that no one could bear (Acts 15:10). Attempting to be justified by the law ends in two horrible consequences: 1—being alienated (separated) from Christ and 2—having fallen from grace. The word translated fallen can mean “to fall but be able to recover oneself,” but it still means to fall away. It is amazing that so many people say that people cannot do this when Paul affirmed that it is a real possibility.
Paul was comfortable using athletic imagery to describe the Christian experience (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 4:6-8). He pictured the Galatians running a good race and then getting cut off by the Judaizers. God called them to freedom. The Judaizers were guilty of contaminating (like the influence that yeast has in dough) and confusing (“to stir up” like a storm) the believers. Paul said that those people’s penalty (sentence or condemnation) was just. Strong language—but not near as strong as verse 12. Paul graphically indicated that maybe they should let the knife slip a little further. Enough said.
Freedom in Christ Is Demonstrated in Love
Galatians 5:5, 6, 13-17
To maintain freedom takes internal transformation, not external constraints. When believers trust Christ for salvation, they receive the Holy Spirit on the inside, and the Spirit becomes God’s gift to live out the righteousness that has been given. Since we have the Spirit we are called to walk (live) by the Spirit. This means choosing daily not to gratify the desires of the flesh. The Holy Spirit works with our human spirit to make good choices in life. Paul does admit that the way of the world and the way of the Spirit are contrary. This means they stand opposite each other. So Christians end up being a walking civil war. But remember that God’s power is stronger than that of the flesh (1 John 4:4).
Christian freedom is actually measureable. Christian freedom has an objective outcome. In a word, it is love. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). But at the end of the day it counts for nothing. What matters is faith expressing itself (“working or energizing itself”) through love.
Love will never misuse freedom. Freedom is doing the right thing, and that right thing is always love. Christians do not use their freedom to indulge the flesh. Instead they serve one another in love. Circumcision does not fulfill the law, but love does. Rightly demonstrated love will never bite and devour. Rather it will demonstrate freedom in Christ.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.