“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 NIV)
Common Translation: At first glance, without any context, it looks like Paul is saying that freedom in Christ means a lack of bondage to things that enslaves. For a long time, I interpreted this verse as a stand alone that meant Christ has set us free from enslaving behavior, such as not doing x,y, or z. And I have heard enough messages about this passage that make the same reference of freedom for it to make the Closer Look list. I really don’t think that is what Paul is talking about, freedom from enslaving behavior.
What’s Going On?: Paul is writing to the church at Galatia because a sect of the Pharisees (possibly believers in Christ) indicated that in order for the Gentile believers to fully be accepted by God they had to comply with the law and be circumcised. Their perspective made sense to them since compliance with the law was imposed upon Israel as God’s chosen people as a means for obedience to God. While they accepted that Gentiles could now be granted the same promises too, their perspective was that Gentiles had to comply with the law, meaning outward prescriptions of the Mosaic regulations.
While the law was good, it was only to serve as a tutor until Christ came (Gal 3:19-4:7) because he fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:18). Paul’s premise is that the gospel is purely based on grace through faith in Jesus Christ (2:16-21). If you burden faith with extras needed for acceptance it is a distorted gospel (1:8). His anger with the Galatians is that they allowed the Judiazers to persuade them to place a yoke of bondage upon them by compliance with the law since trusting in the law put one under a curse (3:10-12) He contrasts the law with the promise, indicating that the promise had always been by faith (3:10-16). Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law so that the promises of Abraham would come by faith in Christ through the Holy Spirit of promise. His analogy in 4:19-31 explains why the faith in Christ and compliance to the law as acceptance before God cannot exist side by side. He uses Genesis 21:10, a reference to Hagar the slave, to say “caste out the bondwoman”, meaning that compliance to outward prescriptions of the law (i.e. circumcision and becoming Jewish) has no place with the promise because “you are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.” (4:31).
A Closer Look: So what Paul is saying is that freedom in Christ means freedom from compliance to the Mosaic regulations applicable under the old covenant. Otherwise, you’re burdening your faith with extras to be accepted by God, which is a distorted gospel. If you go back and trust in the compliance, then you are placing yourself under a yoke of slavery. So to use this verse to mean freedom from behavior actually is more compatible with what Paul is refuting. In fact, it actually enforces what the Judaizers were doing with extras to assert that one is not really a Christian unless they are doing x,y and z.
It’s easy for us to trust in behavioral compliance. Good behavior tells us we’re right with God and makes us feel like better Christians. Not so good behavior communicates to us that God does not accept us. But our acceptance is based on faith in Christ because of what he did not what we do. Freedom in Christ is trusting in Him and not our compliance.
The Judiazers problem is our problem too. We need to feel like we are measuring up according to a standard to be accepted. But Christ is the standard and we have to continually trust in the gospel based on what he did not what we do. Their concern was that without such standards all types of ungodly behavior would ensue. But maybe the problem was control…and that is our problem too.
Note also how Paul continues to reference the Spirit. Faith in Christ ensures baptism by and enablement of the Holy Spirit. Freedom comes through life in the Spirit who restrains us from deeds of the flesh (5:16-21). That is freedom that is really free. Faith in Christ through life in the Spirit.