The Scope of Freedom in Galatians

Galatians 5:13-25

I love the scene at the end of the movie Braveheart. Mel Gibson is playing the William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter. Just before he is cut to pieces, he cries out one word long and loud: freedom. The scene, of course, is not historical, but it captures the imagination nonetheless.

As I watch the scene, I imagine that it could be Christ on the cross, his arms spread wide, crying “freedom,” not as a defiant hope but as an accomplished gift. In Galatians 5:1, Paul puts it this way:

For freedom, Christ has set us free.

Next week, the United States will celebrate its national birthday. For most Americans, Independence Day is a celebration of more than our national existence. The Fourth of July is a celebration of the idea of freedom as it is about the birth of a nation.

While Christians can give thanks for political freedoms, Paul reminds us of another type of freedom in his letter to the church in Galatia.

  • Freedom from the present evil age (1:4)
  • Freedom from bondage to spiritual powers (4:8-9)
  • Freedom from bondage to corrupted human desires (5:17-18)
  • Freedom from bondage to sin (3:22)
  • Freedom from bondage to the Mosaic covenant (“law”) (3:23)

In Galatia

Within the Galatian churches, some Christians were teaching that non-circumcised believers must also receive the ritual of circumcision – the sign given to be representative of God’s covenant with Abraham and reinforced in the Law of Moses. Paul replied that circumcision wasn’t simply a nice religious ritual signifying one’s dedication to God; rather, it was a sign of one’s connection to God and God’s people through the Mosaic covenant. Circumcision represented an entire system of relating to God and God’s people; receiving circumcision indicated one’s willingness to live under that system which Paul described as “Law.”

Paul never told those who lived under the covenant of Moses to abandon that way of life (indeed, he told them to maintain it). Paul does think, however, that it is misguided and wrong-headed for those who don’t already live under the covenant of Moses to adopt it in addition to faith in Christ. The consistent New Testament perspective is that the faith of Abraham, Moses and the prophets came to full growth in Jesus.

Paul believed that the Galatian Christians had already been connected to God and God’s people by their faith in Christ. In Romans 11, Paul compares the people of God to a grape vine (a symbol found repeatedly in the Old Testament). It is by faith in Christ, Paul asserts, that people are now grafted into that vine. Demanding the mark of circumcision when you were already part of the family of God would be like demanding to marry a person to whom you are already married. Demanding such a ceremony would not only be unnecessary, it would be insulting to your spouse – as if the relationship you already had didn’t count.

Paul also considered living under the Law to be terribly burdensome. The Galatian Christians should have been glad that they were free from the burden of living under the difficult demands of the Law of Moses and its hundreds of directions. Christian freedom does not mean, however, that believers are free to do just anything they want with their lives.

The Use of Freedom

Christian freedom isn’t just freedom from the Law of Moses, it is

  • Freedom FOR love
  • Freedom FOR life filled with fruit of the spirit

Paul says that the Law of Moses, with its detailed instructions, was like a person teaching a very young child. The law treated the people of God like children who needed very specific guidance. Now, under Christ, God trusts his people to be more mature, more “grown up” if you will, with more responsibility for life’s decisions.

Military forces have found that it is generally more effective to issue “mission orders” rather than “detailed orders.” That is, commanders are best served by telling subordinates what they want accomplished and leaving their subordinates as much freedom as possible to execute the mission. It is best to focus on what, not how. A clearly stated “commander’s intent,” rather than a long list of detailed instructions, gives subordinates flexibility in achieving the mission’s goals in any situation.

In Christ, God has moved from issuing detailed orders to mission orders (or in Paul’s words, we’ve moved from being slaves bound to specific instructions to sons entrusted with the Father’s purposes).

In Galatians 5:14, Paul gives what he understands to be the “commander’s intent.”

For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Christ sets us free – truly free – from every form of bondage. But that doesn’t mean that we are free to do whatever we want; we are free in Christ to love our neighbors.

The Power to Love

But where do we find the strength to love? Those who lived under the children’s rules couldn’t do it. The Old Testament is witness to their repeated failures. Do we think we are wiser, stronger, or purer? Do we think it is easier to live as responsible adults than it is to live as a child with all of life’s requirements laid out?

The power, of course, is not in us alone. The God in whom we have faith also lives in us and among us.

Paul uses an interesting set of words: work of the flesh, fruit of the spirit. What is the difference between a work and a fruit?

And what is the “fruit of the spirit”? Is it a mystical experience? Is it some sort of invisible, supernatural power that “zaps” you?

The Gospel of John quotes Jesus this way (I know that it is risky to use John to expound on Paul, but I think they have similar views here).

Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. (5) I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me. John 15:4-5 CEV

At the Lord’s Table

Bearing fruit comes from remaining connected to Christ and his church. It is through baptism (and not circumcision) that non-believers are grafted into the vine, and it is through communion (and all that it represents) that believers remain in Christ.

Where the story of Jesus is lifted up, where brothers and sisters are living together in love, where they are reaching out into the world with the message of Christ: these believers are remaining connected to the vine, and they will bear the fruit of the spirit.

That’s what this table represents. This bread and this fruit of the vine represent our abiding in Christ, our remaining in Christ, our participating in Christ.

It is Christ who gives us our freedom.

And it is Christ who leads us and empowers us to use our freedom appopriately.