We Americans love our freedom. Much of the political conversation going on these days focuses on individual autonomy and personal freedom. We emphasize individuality and independence at every turn. Sadly, however, what we often think of as freedom is really just a different form of slavery. True freedom can be found only in Christ.
The book of Galatians has often been divided up into three sections. Chapters 1-2 focus on biography, as Paul recounts his own conversion and ministry. Chapters 3-4 emphasize theology, as he unpacks the grounds of justification with God. Chapter 5 begins the third division of ethics, as Paul begins to apply this gospel message to daily living. This gospel will necessarily impact the way the Galatians live.
Paul emphasizes here that true freedom is found in Christ, in fact it is an essential component of the gospel. Yet, he also states that this freedom is fragile, it can be lost. He insists that because freedom is the key result of the gospel the Galatians should strive hard to maintain it. “Stand firm,” he says, and “do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1). Freedom is theirs, and yet maintenance of that freedom requires commitment and effort on their part. There are those who, over the years, have struggled with this theology of freedom. They, understandably, fear that complete freedom in Christ will provide an avenue to passivity. “I am free and therefore no one can impose responsibility on me.” Paul denies this attitude by pointing to the need to be diligent in the preservation of freedom. As Tim Keller says:
To “stand firm” is essentially a military word, mixing together the ideas of keeping alert, being strong, resisting attack and sticking together. In short, despite the fact that we have already been saved by Christ, we must be continually diligent to remember, preserve, rejoice in and live in accord with our salvation. We cannot lose our salvation, but we can lose our freedom from enslavement to fear. (Galatians For You, 132)
Paul indicates this same point elsewhere, when he speaks to the Romans about not becoming enslaved again to another master (Rom. 6:12-14). He emphasizes the same point here by insisting that the Galatians should not return again to a “yoke of slavery.” Paul is insistent that they must live in light of the gospel freedom they have.
He notes here too that both religion and a-religion can become their forms of slavery. Verses 2-4 indicate that to return to a salvation rooted in religion will be a return to bondage and slavery. It is to be “severed from Christ,” it is to “fall away from grace.” The point of these verses is not to suggest that Christians can lose their salvation. Paul is repeating himself, referring back to arguments he made especially in chapter 1. If you depend on the law for salvation you will have to keep the whole law, and no one can do that. You need grace, but a salvation by works has no room for grace. In other words, Paul is saying, as he has said throughout the letter, law and grace cannot mix and mingle. Salvation is not Jesus +, it is Jesus alone. So, Paul is not speaking about the subjective experience of salvation; he is not suggesting that a person can become “unjustified.” Rather, he is speaking more objectively about the understanding of salvation. To suggest that one must depend on works is to undermine the grace that actually saved you. It’s inconsistent.
In verse 5, Paul asserts, however, that the issue is not simply slavery to religion, for a-religious commitments are just as enslaving. Neither “circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything,” he says. This is not about “religious freedom” nor “freedom from religion,” it is about freedom in Christ! The legalist and the atheist are both in bondage, for both are striving for freedom apart from the true source.
There is true freedom found in Christ, but our experience of that freedom requires us to work hard at maintaining it. It is far too easy for us to lose our sense of assurance, our confidence of freedom, our awareness of salvation because we look to a million other things to give it to us. There is only confidence in Christ. Keep your eyes fixed on Him and Him alone. All other pursuits will lead to a return to slavery. Your church attendance, your tithing, your morality, your prayers, your obedience, each effort you make, while good and right in its place, will not grant you confidence of freedom. They will become a form of bondage that keeps you constantly guessing: did I tithe enough? Did I miss to many church events? Have I been sincere in prayer? Have obeyed perfectly? These are futile efforts to find freedom. Christ is freedom, fix your mind and heart on Him. Live according to the freedom you have in Christ by refusing every “yoke of slavery.”