Tuesday, November 7, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Exposition of Galatians 5:1-12

Address 11
Liberty and Law

This past week in November 2000 the eyes of the world have been turned to my home country, the United States. First, there was interest in our quadrennial election of a president, which promised to be a close contest. Then interest shifted to the entire mechanism of how we elect a president, which is a mixture of a democracy – the votes of the people – and a constitutional republic which filters that vote through the subsidiary entities of the states, with the focus being on the state of Florida. Our parties are well named – the Democrats and the Republicans – and we are witnessing the testing of our national fabric by the forces of liberty and law.

Far be it from me to say that my country is a uniquely Christian nation. However, it was founded by men who had been deeply influenced by the principles of the Bible. These principles included a reverence for law as found in the Old Testament covenant but also a belief in the priority of liberty over law, as found in the New Covenant. More than two centuries ago, we Americans, like you Ugandans later on, were subjects of the British Crown. In 1776, matters came to a crisis when the American colonists found themselves subjected to laws from England which they had not assented to. In response they formulated the Declaration of Independence, in which they claimed that legitimate government is based on a principle which predates and preempts any law code. The principle is that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Declaration of Independence was the intellectual and moral basis for the rebellion against King George, and it has been widely accepted by other democracies in the centuries since.

After we had gained our independence, however, the Americans were obliged to devise their own Constitution or framework of law and government. By all counts, the United States Constitution has been one of the most outstanding political documents of all time, and it recently withstood a century-long challenge from Communism. It is because of the Constitution and the system of laws based upon it, that Americans go so calmly to the voting booths every four years. People in other countries could well remind us what a precious gift we have!

It is not simply the Constitution, i.e., the framework of laws, but the spirit of the Declaration of Independence that truly motivates my nation to carry out justice. I use the word “spirit of the Declaration” advisedly, because it is not a law written in any law code. It is a perspective, a worldview, which must be maintained not simply by the government or the lawyers, but by the cultural institutions, including the churches, what we call civil society. It is the common conviction about the right to life and liberty that allows Americans to disagree with each other without resorting to civil war or falling back into tyranny. It is this common conviction, I fear, that is in danger of being stretched to the breaking point at this moment in our history. May God grant us forgiveness and grace to redeem this time.

Now with this introduction, let us turn to the Letter to the Galatians. It is not accidental that Martin Luther called this letter the “charter of Christian liberty.” The letters of Paul, and this letter in particular, function within the canon of Scripture to focus on this fundamental truth of the Gospel – justification by faith. It is this truth, this article, Luther claimed, on which the Church stands or falls. And the corollary of justification by faith, Paul and Luther, argued is freedom.

Let us consider what freedom is. First, freedom is liberating. It is deliverance from bondage. For freedom Christ has set us free, Paul says (verse 1a). This is the first time in the letter Paul highlights the theme of spiritual freedom. He has prepared us, however, by his reference to the young child accompanied by his slave bodyguard, his pedagogue. You are neither a child nor a slave, Paul says. You are a free man. There was in the Greco-Roman world, as in many cultures, a coming-of-age when the son came into his inheritance. In so doing he became a “free man,” a person with full civic rights (the status of women was not so fully acknowledged, although Roman matrons wielded great authority). Paul uses “free” here as a term of status. It is not something you earn but something that is conferred upon you. Hence freedom, like justification, is something reckoned, reckoned by the father and by the social order.

When Paul speaks of being set free, he is alluding to the Exodus event when the Lord redeemed the people of Israel from Egypt who had been slaves. We are not free by some natural right, Paul says. (Here, I might note, he is at odds with the American founders.) Just the opposite, by rights we are sentenced to death because of sin, but Christ has set us free, He has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse in our place. The problem with the people who came out with Moses was that they continued to think and act like slaves. There is a little saying: “You can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people.” In fact, they were continually grumbling and asking to go back to the flesh pots there. They did not like the freedom entailed in following the mysterious pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.

There is a second aspect of freedom: freedom is vigilant. Stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (verse 1b). Standing fast is a military image, of a guard staying awake and alert to the dangers of enemy attack. Even though our justification is secure in the once-for-all death of Christ, we are on a battlefield where Satan constantly tempts us to drop our guard and return to the old ways. The Christian, Paul argues, who receives circumcision or starts to follow the Jewish Law is like a soldier who lays down his arms and walks across to enemy lines. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (verse 4).

Martin Luther understood that the justified and free man could never simply rest on the laurels of faith, because we live by faith in a world still ruled by the Evil One. “It is not in vain.” Luther comments, “that Paul commands us to be vigilant and to stand, because he knows that the devil is busy engaged in trying to rob us of this freedom that cost Christ so much, and to tie us up again in the yoke of slavery through his agents”.

Thirdly, Christian freedom is hopeful. It does not provide some foolproof guarantee of protection. Nevertheless, it provides powerful assurance for the person who trusts Christ. Paul describes the dynamic of freedom in the next verse: For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness (verse 5). Here we see the cooperation of God’s Spirit and our faith, God’s initiative and our response. We also see how faith has a present and future dimension. Faith is exercised in the present but directed to the future (cf. Hebrews 11:1).

Fourthly, freedom is loving and obedient. Paul restates the essence of Christian liberty when he speaks of faith working through love (verse 6). Faith working through love sounds a lot like faith working through law. But Paul knows from his own experience there is a world of difference. Faith working through law – and there is a kind of faith that works this way, just not evangelical faith – is always focused on the merit that accrues from a particular act. “Chalk that good work up in the record book,” it says. Faith working through love is always looking to the merit of Christ credited to us and seeking to love others because He first loved us.

There is spontaneity, an openness to creativity and risk in mature love that is not available to the child who is still under the guardianship of the Law. However, this does not mean that Christians are free to do whatever they like. Paul speaks in the next verse of obeying the truth (verse 7). Liberty and law have this in common: both require obedience. But there is a fundamental difference between the obedience of a son and the obedience of a servant. The son rejoices to do his Father’s will, whereas the servant does so because “that’s his job.” The fundamental insight of Martin Luther is that a free Christian is subject to none. But Luther then goes on to say that the Christian is a servant, subject to all. That is the paradox of the Cross. Just as Jesus freely humbled himself to death, so we freely obey Him and serve others.

The fifth aspect of freedom involves the way the Gospel is presented: freedom is persuasive. Paul demonstrates this mode of free persuasion in verses 8-10, as he goes back and forth between encouragement and threat, between carrot and stick, as we say. Let’s note:

  • This persuasion is not from him who calls you. (verse 8, encouragement)
  • A little leaven leavens the whole lump. (verse 9, threat)
  • I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine. (verse 10a, encouragement); and
  • He who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. (verse10b, threat)

It has always amazed me on reading Paul’s letters how seldom, if ever, he commands anything. In this he is quite different from Moses, whose primary words were: “Thou shalt not.” It fits Paul’s understanding of Christian freedom that he wants to persuade them to turn back to Christ. His letters therefore are full of positive encouragement and, when necessary, rebuke. But nowhere can one really say Paul is laying down the Law. This approach of calling people to voluntarily fulfill their calling is at the heart of Christian pastoral care. As someone once commented: Jesus said Feed my sheep, not beat my sheep, or experiment on my guinea pigs.

Finally, Christian freedom is consistent. It does not pander, it does not vary where it variation finds. Apparently some of Paul’s opponents accused him of just such inconsistency. “He preaches circumcision when it suits him, and denies it when it suits him,” they said. To which he replies: “Then why am I still persecuted. Look at my record: wherever I go I get thrown out of synagogues and am persecuted by the Jewish leaders.” This accusation of changing his Gospel to fit the audience is nonsense, he says. The only mark Paul has consistently called for is the mark of the Cross, never the mark of circumcision. If ever he had been inconsistent, he says, the stumbling block of the cross has been removed (verse 11).

If there is a consistency based on the truth, there is also a stubborn consistency based on false principles. So, Paul argues, the Judaizers are burdening the Gentiles with the demand for circumcision, which God had never intended. Adult circumcision is no pleasant thing. Let them try it on themselves, he suggests, thus bringing his argument to a witty conclusion.

Now let me conclude. One of our famous American patriots named Patrick Henry challenged the revolutionaries against King George, saying, “Give me liberty or give me death.” While there is a distinction between political liberty and spiritual liberty, they have this in common: they are precious and they cannot be compromised or they, and we, will die. Let me urge you to recommit yourself to Christ this day. Don’t fall back, don’t get seduced by Satan into accepting anything short of the real thing, the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21).

These eleven expositions were addressed to students at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, in the Fall of 2000.


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