Heavenly Father, thank you for your living Word. Give us grace to hear and believe. In Jesus' name. Amen.
We're back to Paul's powerful Letter to the Galatians today. The section we've reached is Galatians 5.1-12. Please have that open in front of you – you'll find it on p974 in the Bibles. As you'll see from my simple outline on the back of the service sheet, my title is 'Called to Freedom'.
There's a great cry for freedom in our culture and indeed across the world. Freedom from poverty. Freedom from tyranny and oppression. Freedom from disease. These are fine ambitions, and it's right that great efforts should be made to work towards them.
Other freedoms for which our culture often calls have a far darker side. Freedom to put my needs before those of others. Freedom from the constraints of marriage and the traditional family. Freedom even from the constraints of gender. Freedom to define my own moral code. Freedom from God. When Freddie Mercury and Queen sang 'I want to break free', they had their musical finger on the pulse of our society.
But the trouble with all Godless freedom is that it turns out to be a form of slavery. In part, that's because those kinds of freedoms are in the end hollow, empty and unsatisfying – as well as often deeply destructive. In part, it's because such attempts to find freedom miss the fact that they simply do not and cannot address the greatest need for freedom that we all have. That is the need for freedom from the grip of sin, Satan, death and just condemnation at the coming day of judgement.
"Truly, truly, I say to you," [said Jesus] "everyone who practises sin is a slave to sin."
Apart from God, we are disastrously and catastrophically enslaved. What is more, at our worst, we're blind to it. And at our best, there is nothing we can do ourselves to escape it.
If we are to escape, we need to be rescued. And that, of course, is where the gospel, the good news of Jesus, comes in. And that is what Paul in this Letter to the Galatians is trying to hammer into the heads of those Galatian Christians. Which brings us to the beginning of this morning's section, 5.1-12, and the first of my two simple headings. So:
First, Christ Has Set Us Free
Take a look at the first phrase of the first verse of this chapter:
For freedom Christ has set us free…
Who has set us free? Jesus. Christ has set us free. It wasn't us. It wasn't anyone or anything else. It is pointless looking anywhere else. Christ alone is the one who is our hope. No one else can give us true and eternal freedom.
When did we gain our freedom? In the past. "Christ has set us free…" And that was in two stages. First, Christ set us free when he died on the cross and was raised from the dead. But secondly, what Jesus did then has to be applied to us now so that it becomes our experience. And that happened when we put our trust in him. In other words it was through faith in Jesus that we took hold of all that he's done for us. That was when we entered into the freedom that Christ had already bought for us with his blood.
Vivienne and I have been given a voucher for a meal at a nice restaurant. In fact, a wonderful restaurant, I'm told! We pay nothing. It's all paid for. But we haven't had the meal yet. We've got to go, and hand over that voucher. That's when we'll enter into the experience of the benefit of what's already been paid for us. So it is with our freedom. Jesus has paid for it. We enter into it by faith. If you haven't yet put your trust in Jesus, then you can't expect to experience the freedom he's won for us. If you have, then you can, and you do.
How has Jesus set us free? As I've said, Jesus set us free by his death and resurrection. That is the great act of rescue and liberation to which we must look. That means all other pretended sources of true and eternal freedom are excluded. All our own attempts to free ourselves are cut from under us. That is humbling. We don't like being humbled. So people find the message that the cross of Christ is the only possible source of true freedom unacceptable. That's why Paul talks here in v11 of "the offence of the cross".
What has Jesus set us free from? He has freed us from the curse under which mankind languishes as a result of our collective rejection of God's loving rule. Because of that curse we are enslaved to sin, Satan, death and judgement. But, as Paul says earlier in the letter, in 3.13:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us …
Christ is the one "who delivers us from the wrath to come," Paul says elsewhere. We are free from the guilt of sin. Forgiven. Washed clean. For ever.
And we are free from the power of sin. 1 Corinthians 10.13:
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability…
We are no longer trapped and enslaved by sin. We are free from slavery to Satan. "Resist the devil," says James, "and he will flee from you."
We are free from the fear of death now, because of our sure hope of bodily resurrection. And we will be free of the fact of death in the future, when we experience that resurrection. In eternity, in the new heaven and the new earth, we will be free from the experience or the threat of poverty, tyranny, oppression and disease. But not yet. The freedom that we have in Christ is what you might call internal freedom. Not external freedom.
But the great and wonderful thing about this internal freedom is that nothing and nobody can take it away from us. Even if we were dirt poor, imprisoned and riddled with disease, we can know this freedom that Jesus gives, in all its fullness. When you are free inside, you are really free. As Jesus says:
"if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
What are we free for? True freedom is to be a slave of Christ – to trust and obey him completely. That is the way to the joy of real liberation. The great reformer Martin Luther in his powerful little book called 'The Freedom of a Christian' famously put it like this:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
That's the life that Paul describes here at the end of v6 as "faith working through love". So we are free to serve. More on that next week. Such is the amazing freedom of the believer. Nothing and nobody can take it from us. And yet. And yet there is a terrible danger that we will lose our freedom. Which brings me to my second and final heading. So:
Secondly, Do Not Give Up Your Freedom
This is what Paul is so worried about on behalf of the Galatians, and through them on our behalf. Take a look at the rest of v1, which really sums up this whole section, not to say the whole of the letter:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
The great danger is not that our freedom in Christ will be taken away from us. No power in heaven or earth is able to do that. The great danger is that we will give up our freedom ourselves. We will start listening to other voices and stop listening to Jesus. That's what's beginning to happen among the Galatians. So Paul says in v 7:
You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?
It reminds me of the year when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. At one point in that gruelling race, as the riders were sweating their way over another demanding mountain, tyres started bursting. Someone had thrown tacks in their path, with the intention of disrupting the race. But for all the difficulties, the race carried on to the end. There will be obstacles thrown into our path as we run the race of faith, but we must not allow ourselves to be thrown off course. We must not turn back.
By grace through faith we have been set free, for a life of freedom in Christ. The constant struggle of the Christian life is to take hold of that freedom, whatever the circumstances of our lives, and to hang to what we have. It's a continual struggle because there are always forces that are working to enslave us again. But they can only make that happen if we allow ourselves to be persuaded by them. So it is of supreme importance that we don't allow that. What's so striking about what Paul says here is that he makes it quite clear that our very salvation is at stake. This is no less than a matter of spiritual life and death.
The presenting issue for the Galatians is this issue of circumcision that we've encountered as we've worked our way through the letter. There are teachers who've got involved with the church who are telling them that alongside their faith in Christ, they must also be circumcised as a sign that they'll live in conformity with the Law of Moses – the Old Covenant Law – like the Jews. You can see the same thing explained very clearly in Acts 15.1, which says this:
But some men came down fom Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
In other words, they were saying circumcision was absolutely necessary. Without it – no salvation. To their faith in Christ had to be added obedience to the law. And the apostle is crystal clear in Galatians that if we go down that road of adding obedience to faith as the ground of our salvation, then we are lost. We are undermining the redeeming work that Jesus finished on the cross to such an extent that we lose it altogether – as if Jesus had never died for us at all.
We are either saved by grace from beginning to end, or by our own works of obedience. It can never be both. And once we attempt to rely on our own works of obedience, we are utterly lost, because are incapable of the perfect obedience that's required of us. So, do you see the force of what Paul is saying? Verses 2-6:
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Lose sight of the fact that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ and, says the apostle, "Christ will be of no advantage to you… You are severed from Christ… you have fallen away from grace." And then he drives that message home further in other ways in verses 7-12. We mustn't misunderstand this. It's not that when we have faith we don't work and obey. We do. Paul talks in v6 of "faith working through love". But our obedience is in thankful response to the fact that we have already been saved by Jesus. It is not in order that we might be saved. It is not the ground of our salvation. Our salvation is a gift of grace. It is not earned by obedience.
So we must stand firm. For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Be on your guard.
Let's bow our heads to pray:
Lord, teach us never to lose sight of the grace that you have given us in Jesus. We praise you that he has bought us with his blood, once for all. It is finished. By grace alone we have been saved, through faith. Strengthen us, Lord, in our minds and hearts, that we might stand firm on this great and wonderful truth, and never let it go, that we might live in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. In his name we ask it. Amen.