Guarding Gospel Freedom

In the holidays in my first year at university a friend gave me a short little book that God used to change my life. It contained four talks on the book of Galatians, and through that little book I discovered something I had never realised before even though I had gone to church all my life. And that was that rules, and keeping rules could not save us and could not make us pure. Instead, we are saved as a gift of God’s grace. And holiness comes by living by the Spirit and is the fruit of his Spirit. The book summed it up like this: holiness has far more to do with the laugher of the redeemed than the fear of the slave. And I still remember the joy of realising that because Jesus died on the cross in my place and rose again, I could be adopted as a son of the God who created the whole universe instead of facing the punishment I deserved for rejecting the one who is worthy of all honour. That truth is so precious, and everyone needs to hear it: in every language, in every place, in every culture. And it is a truth that must be guarded at all costs from those who seek to change the good new of Jesus into dependence on rules – what we could call ‘legalism’.

In Galatians 5.1-12 (which is our focus tonight) the apostle Paul addresses this central theme of the Christian faith: the freedom we have in Jesus. Laid out for us is the contrast between true freedom found in Jesus and the bondage, the slavery of life lived under the demands of legalistic religion. It contains some strong words about those who were putting in danger the freedom of those set free by Jesus –which just underline just how precious that freedom is. So let’s dive in. You’ll want to be able to see it so please turn to it. If you’re using the church bibles you will find it on page 974-975. First we see that we have:

1. Freedom in Christ (Galatians 5.1)

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

We are all slaves. This language comes from the story of God’s people who were once slaves of Pharoah in the land of Egypt but it describe what is real for everyone. Sin oppresses us and makes us slaves. Our lives are utterly miserable and without hope. We cannot escape that reality. We need a saviour. And the only rescue from slavery comes from Jesus. He alone brings freedom. How? By his death on the cross. Through faith in Jesus, the punishment for sin that we deserve has been paid. The power of sin that held us captive has been broken. We have no reason to fear God’s judgement any more and we no longer belong to the spiritual Pharoah, Satan or the oppression of sin.

We have freedom. What does that mean? I guess the most common answer to that is we can do whatever we like, with no one telling us what to do. The grown-up equivalent of ‘no-rules’ day at school. The Bible defines freedom as being able to worship the God who created us. The Egyptian slaves cried out to Pharoah: Let us go, so that we may worship our God. Jesus set us free so we can relate to God as Father, and that is real freedom. And he sets us free so that we have the power and desire to serve and love others. And so, Paul warns, if we listen to those who tell us that we can be rescued by other way then the result is we let go of the only true source of freedom and go back to a life of slavery. And why would anyone who has been taken out of a prison cell and given a room in a Palace want to return to jail. But that is the situation of those Paul was writing to. There were those who were telling them that their acceptance by God is based on them keeping a list of rules and regulations, rather than the finished work of Christ on the cross. In this case the Old Testament laws given to Moses, called the Law. They had a good purpose, and still do, because they showed up our sin, and the revealed the heart of God who hates things like injustice and destroying the lives of others he has created. The mistake is to use them for a different purpose, to use them to earn brownie points from God and so saving ourselves.

A preacher once told this story to explain how often people’s idea of God gets so distorted by this sort of legalistic religion. He explains how a church minister went to the house of an old lady to give her the money for her rent as a gift from the church’s poor-relief fund. He knocked again and again but got no answer. He later discovered she was at home all along. When he asked her to explain why she hadn’t answered the door she said ‘Oh, I heard the knocking but I thought it was the rent man come to evict me for what I owed’. That is the difference between God’s coming in grace and what we can think God is like: he is not a ruthless rent man, demanding payment, but a generous God who comes to provide for us all we need and cannot afford. If you’re not yet a Christian then don’t be like the old lady pretending she’s not in and convinced that if she answered he door she would regret it. We would love to talk more with you and help you find out more about Jesus who came to bring true freedom.

When we realise that Paul here is talking to people who were converted from a totally non-Jewish, non-religious background his command to not submit again (that’s the key word) to a yoke of slavery is rather startling. You see the rules they were depending on here were the laws given to Moses. And what he saying is that there is a parallel between their slavery before Jesus when they didn’t depend on him, and the slavery of depending on the Old Testament laws for salvation. So Mr New Christian, who was once a pagan unbeliever in God has been set free from slavery. And if he listens to those who tell him to depend on rules he ends up in the exact same place he was before – as slaves not free through Jesus. Slavery is a mentality of ‘I’ve GOT TO do this – otherwise my master will punish me.’ But that may mean doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Truly Christian freedom means I do the right things for the right reasons. The more we see about how much of backward step legalism is, the more we can ourselves resist the path of trying to earn our acceptance by God. And the more we can resist the danger of encouraging others to do that. And that leads us to Galatians 5.2-4 and:

2. The Trap of Legalism (Galatians 5.2-4)

Paul uses strong language here but that is because so much is at stake. He wants us to see what we risk losing if we fall into the trap of legalism. His first warning is against the danger of circumcision. Now we need to understand what that’s all about. Paul wrote Galatians because in the church were those who were pushing this who issues of keeping rules in order to please God. One rule that they focussed on was for men to be circumcised. The argument being that unless you went through with that, God would not accept you. They didn’t deny what Jesus did on the cross. They just taught that it wasn’t enough. You needed to do this as well.

So the issue here isn’t circumcision in itself. There may be medical reasons or cultural reasons why some may choose to do that, even today. And in fact Paul was ok with Timothy being circumcised for cultural reasons, but (as we saw in Galatians 2), he was dead against Titus being circumcised when it was being done as a requirement for belonging fully to God’s people. That is what Paul is talking about here: doing something in order that God would accept us. It represents every way we rely on our own efforts to save ourselves. When we say, I need to do X, Y, Z (whatever that may be) in order to save myself. And Paul says if you do that (Galatians 5.2):

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you

Those who push this line, are saying that what Jesus did on the cross was not enough. It can’t help us unless we add something by our own efforts to save ourselves. Paul says if you do that, you reject your savour. He may as well not have come at all. And he rightly says, that is to turn away from the grace of God and turn to a different gospel altogether. And that leads to slavery. That’s not all. He goes on to say if you pick this path, do you not realise that you will have to keep every single rule, all the time. Galatians 5.3:

I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law

They couldn’t just pick one part of the law. Once you commit to earning God’s approval by keeping the rules, you have to keep them all. Which in fact is a hopeless and impossible task, but that’s his point you see. Who of us could obey the whole law for even a day? The answer is no-one can. Except for Jesus – and that is why he came and that is why he can save us. Paul’s warning is very strong. Look at Galatians 5.4:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

If we go down the route of what you might call Do-It-Yourself religion. If you feel it’s safer taking matters into our own hands then you cut yourself off from Jesus. Just like Abraham did while struggling to wait for God’s promise of a son. He took matters into his own hands and had a child through Hagar as we saw in Galatians 4. The Galatians were being deceived into believing that they needed to add to their faith in Christ in order to be truly saved. That unless you were a member of Abraham’s family (and showed that by keeping the laws including circumcision) then you are severed from the family of God. That you had fallen away from the grace of God. Paul exposes this as false teaching and urges them to stand firm in the freedom that Christ has provided. He says- if you take even the laws of Moses and depend on those for your salvation, then you are the one who will be severed from Christ, who will have fallen away from grace. There’s a wonderful summary that Paul puts in for the Galatians in 3.14. It says this:

so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

These gentile, non-Jewish believers in Jesus were fully accepted. Faith in Jesus was more than enough! And then we come to some of the most beautiful verses in this section. They contrast legalism with living by faith. And so:

3. Walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5.5-6)

Legalism views God as someone who can never be pleased, who just demands that we work harder and longer and who comes down on us like a ton of bricks when we fail. Living by faith, means knowing that one day we will be made perfect when Jesus finishes the work he has begun. We still mess up – but we know that we can still go to him knowing he is full of grace and mercy to repent and ask for forgiveness because of Jesus. We long for the day when we will be totally pure and perfect in every way: no more pain or suffering or temptation or sins. But we know that that will be based on what Jesus did and on his work alone. We could never be righteous by our own efforts. So we wait patiently, hopefully, trusting in God's promise and relying on the work of the Spirit within us. Look at Galatians 5.5:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.

Abraham struggled to do that – he was tempted to take matters into his own hand. And we too will feel the pull to do that. We will fall into the times when we think of act like we can save ourselves. That needs forgiveness. But we need to keep putting our confidence not in whether or not we keep the rules, but in what Jesus has done for us. That’s what this verse is about and it gives us assurance. It depends on not on how good my faith is, but on putting faith in the one who is faithful to do what he promised to do. And not only is that the only way we can be saved. It is also the only way we can be transformed and use our freedom to love and serve God and one another. And that further strengthens our assurance. Galatians 5.6:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

It is through faith that we are united with Jesus and the Holy Spirit helps us to live a life of love and obedience. We’ll come back to this in more detail next week. Not only does God work for us, he works in us by his spirit. And so the mark of a true believer is whether or not you are circumcised nor by keeping any rules or religious practices (even if they are good ones) but a transformed heart which produces love for God and others. And that is why this matters so much.

4. Persevering in the Gospel (Galatians 5.7-12)

We go to great lengths to protect the things that are precious to us, locking them away in the safest place we can. Our spiritual freedom is far more valuable. Do we guard it carefully? Or do we in effect show how little we value it by letting legalistic religion slip back in and into slavery again. Paul says this is precious – guard it with your life! Paul confronts the false teachers who were seeking to lead the Galatians astray with their legalistic message. He reminds them that his message of the cross is offensive to those who trust in their own righteousness.Paul refuses to compromise the truth of the gospel, even in the face of persecution and opposition. Ultimately, Paul's desire is for the Galatians to experience the true freedom that comes from knowing Christ. He warns them against being deceived by those who would lead them back into bondage and calls them to stand firm in the truth of the gospel. So he asks a series of questions:

i) Who tripped you up? (Galatians 5.7):

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?

They had started out well, understood the gospel of grace and their freedom in Jesus. But then they stumbled. They met people who seemed to be offering a way to grow in faith, to improve on what they had, to advance to a deeper faith. But instead, this was a serious misstep. The joyful and hopeful freedom was exchanged by the dangerous dependence on themselves. We need to ask ourselves here are we in danger of making the same mistake? And are we encouraging others to persevere in the gospel or putting an obstacle in their run of faith?

ii) What effect is legalism having on you? (Galatians 5.8-9):

This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

He calls this out – God calls by grace. And this is not from God. So reject it and be aware that this thinking can spread like leaven which is just another name for yeast spreads rapidly through a batch of dough. Galatians 5.10:

I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.

He is confident they will realise what he is saying is the truth and turn back to trusting only in Jesus. But in case they are still unconvinced he points out that those who depend on keeping the law can end up being judged – because it is not possible to keep the law, and the only way to avid judgement is to cling to Christ. Galatians 5.11:

But if I, brothers and sisters, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed.

Those who were leading the Galatians astray seemed to be suggesting that Paul also preached a dependence on rules. That despite telling them it wasn’t necessary, he believed and practised it. We’ll see at the end of the letter, Paul preached Christ. Not Circumcision. That was just not true. In fact the truth was that they were persecuting him. And that is because to trust in Jesus and his work on the cross means saying you are so far gone you cannot save yourself. That hurts – in my pride I want to fix my own mess myself. So those who preach grace will always offend those who preach a dependence on rules. We would do well to expect that so we are not knocked off course from persevering in the gospel. And so we come to Galatians 5.12:

I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

He basically says: look if they’re so keen on circumcision why stop there! They may as well keep chopping! He hasn’t lost his temper. He isn’t after revenge. He may be using ‘shock tactics’ being a touch sarcastic and crude – but that’s how serious the issue is. So, believe it or not he is showing them love. He wants them to see the danger they are in. He is a pastor who loves the gospel and loves his friends enough to say tough things so they persevere in the gospel. Remember: holiness has far more to do with the laugher of the redeemed than the fear of the slave. He does not want anyone stealing from me the joy of realising that because Jesus died on the cross in my place and rose again, I could be adopted as a son of the God who created the whole universe, instead of facing the punishment of death for rejecting the one who is worthy of all honour. This is a truth that must be guarded at all costs from those who seek to change the good news of Jesus into dependence on rules.

And we reflect on Paul's words in Galatians 5.1-12, remember the incredible freedom we have in Jesus. You have everything you need in Jesus. Hold firmly to him, the most valuable thing you could know or have. Don’t listen to anyone who tried to take you back to bondage of legalism and persevere in the grace that has been freely given to you. Stand firm in the truth of the gospel, regardless of any opposition you may face. Use your freedom to walk in the Spirit, bearing the fruit of love – which we will hear more about next week. So join us them.

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