What does it REALLY mean to be FREE? The flag of the United States of America has been for generations a symbol of freedom all over the world. Its vibrant colors signify a land where a small group of men realized their dream for a government that has protected freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press as sacrosanct ideals. Those men prized these human freedoms so much that many were bankrupted or died defending them. Oddly enough, in the long history of man, there is no record before their document that recorded them all as God-given rights before the one penned by them. No one thought, in the ions of the past, those simple but vital freedoms were worth enshrining in a document, until this group of gentlemen farmers, shop keepers and tradesmen sat together to form a government that offered a profound statement of man’s best intentions.
No sensible person would argue that these freedoms were not costly. At the same time, no thinking man or woman would deny these freedoms aren’t absolute – they have limits. I may have free speech, but I cannot yell, “Fire!” in a public place no fire exists. I will be arrested if I claim to possess a bomb on a plane (even if there is no such device). Why is my free speech curtailed? The simple answer is that it is reined in by well-placed and defined limits. True freedom provides civil society protections by limiting personal freedoms only when failure to do so will cause significant harm to others. I have the right to disagree with you, but not to cheat you and swindle you out of your money. I have the right to articulate a contentious position, but not to alter the facts before a court of law or the Congress of the United States. At the same time, it is worth noting that civil freedom isn’t the only realm in which freedom must be carefully defined.
Freedom has limits, and freedom has rules. Freedom is not a “free for all” in behavior, but rather a state or environment that is made safe by appropriate limits. In fact, I want to make an observation. I believe that no one can successfully navigate the tough circumstances of life if they don’t recognize that freedom has limits and rules, and we must learn to act within appropriate guidelines. We need to both learn the appropriate ground rules for interpersonal relationships, and regularly have a loving person hold us accountable for our actions. Today’s redefinition of LOVE as TOLERANCE OF ALL BEHAVIOR is as weak as yesterday’s definition of LOVE as LUST – so frequently stated on the radio of my youth. This fad will perhaps fade, but its thinking is enslaving the current generation into a kind of politically correct speech, while their uncivil behavior astoundingly increases but goes almost unabated. We need instruction, and we need correction. The Bible defines freedom, and it makes clear how people who are free should use their liberty – especially that spiritual liberty found in Christ!
Key Principle: True freedom is found in intimate attachment to God initiated by faith in Christ alone, and lived out by careful diligence in following God’s Spirit.
Because freedom in Christ isn’t a trip to Outback with their famous motto: “no rules” – we must challenge a spirit permeating the theology of the twenty-first century American church. There is a serious error that has been allowed to grow in our most hallowed halls, and some of it seems to stem from a misreading and misapplication of Galatians. It can be found in the misunderstanding of Paul’s words at the beginning of Galatians 5 – it “was for the sake of FREEDOM that Christ set us free!” Yet, what he meant by this claim may NOT be what people use the statement to justify!
Paul made clear that Christ offered justification and freedom from the atonement system’s bondage of continuous sacrifice – but it did not mean that believers were to devolve into undisciplined or loose living. To grasp his argument, we have to tear down some mythology, and then see what God really wanted us to become as a result of the truths about freedom He uncovered for us. Let’s start with a myth that keeps popping up, as we lay to rest for one last time what Paul was, and was NOT saying about keeping the Law.
Myth #10: The Law is worthless (circumcision, etc.) because no one can keep it! If you break one law, it is as though you broke them all – so Jesus made it all pointless.
No matter where I go, I find people that use the verses at the beginning of Galatians 5 to justify practices that have little or nothing to do with Paul’s argument. He wrote:
5:1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
Before we go any further, let me say it clearly. Paul NEVER made this statement to justify ANY behavior that was morally forbidden in Scripture. Jesus didn’t free us from the expectation before God that our walk of life would include immoral behavior, lying, cheating, stealing, disrespect of authority, immodesty, etc. For illustration purposes, you can see this kind of thinking in places like www.christianswingers.com, where you will be able to read:
“Christian Swingers – New Dating Site For Faithful Couples: For Christian Swingers things are not easy – often other religious people judge you, out of ignorance or envy, telling you that your lifestyle and love practices are wrong. But the Bible teaches us ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’ and there’s that verse about the first stone… but if you’re keen on keeping your privacy, well – yours, and don’t want your friends, coworkers, other PTA members or just about anyone else to know that you don’t have a problem with faith and enjoying free love with other couples, this site can help you! It’s designed to cater to the needs of those like you: devout Christian couples who still want to have an active love life and share it with another, in good faith! … Visit our club and discover other Christian couples with the same interests and desires who find you hot – Christian Swingers website will make your life easier and give you more access to potential dating partners!
Again, let me be clear. There is Christian, there is love and there is freedom – but what these folks are talking about is neither free, nor Christian (Jesus didn’t authorize a brothel nor visit one), nor is it love – it is spelled L-U-S-T. I know some of you may think this is a hoax, and that I am being extreme, but I assure you the changes that are happening are very real all around us, and the resistance of the church is growing extremely thin.
Let’s get back to Scripture in Galatians 5:
2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. 7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion [did] not [come] from Him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump [of dough]. 10 I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. 11 But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. 12 I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. 13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only [do] not [turn] your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
We have carefully explored the argument in the letter, whereby Paul reasoned that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross alone provided the means to satisfy God and the old atonement system was finished and replaced. The freedom Paul spoke of in that context was NOT from RULES OF THE BIBLE. But we do have to answer some questions:
What WAS the issue?
The entire argument of Galatians has been about the “formula of salvation”, not a manifesto to get Jews to quit doing things God told them to do perpetually. Paul said, on the basis of everything we have seen (in Galatians 1-4), you should throw out those who are trying to place you under the thumb of the old atonement system (as he said at the end of Galatians 4) and take a stand (stay’-ko – stand fast, persevere) in the cancellation of the obligation (the word “free” is eleutheróō – properly to be released from obligation or restriction) to the atonement law and those who run it in the Temple of Jerusalem. In short, Paul said, drop them, and don’t feel any obligation to their beckoning to become enslaved by them or their teachings.
Paul moved on from his “drop them” to one final and clear statement about the defunct atonement system, He said:
5:2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Obviously, Paul didn’t want Galatian Gentiles to start getting circumcised. Why would circumcision (something God commanded Jews to do as a prerequisite for a walk with Him) suddenly hinder the work of Christ in the Galatians? Essentially, there are two reasons. First, God didn’t tell GENTILES to do it, and second, if they started into the old and defunct system to please God, they would be drawn from the right way to satisfy God.
Imagine for a moment you are out west in a remote area. The last gas station you saw was more than an hour ago. You are on remote and winding mountain roads. The signs along the road are shot through with shotgun holes. The whitened skull of a bull is lying beside the road with the horns sticking out. As you drive, you pass over one old bridge after another – what appears to be the work of Roosevelt’s WPA. There have been only slight repairs for years. As you come upon a curve, you see a fork in the road. The left side of the fork is blocked with old and deteriorating barricades. The right side of the fork is open for “traffic”, but you are the only one you have seen along this road since you got on it. The closed side of the fork leads to the old main road, but was closed by the severing of a bridge that happened years before. The right side was the newer road, and it was open and safe to connect you to your destination… Now suppose you were being waved past the barriers into the broken road by someone who wanted to call you down the road to the broken highway, so that their gang could overtake you and get the benefit of your half tank of gas and the food items in your trunk. That was the argument Paul was making.
What the issue WAS NOT (but people try to say it is!):
It is clear that Paul was speaking about “salvation” or “justification” and not lifestyle issues after salvation (what theologians call “sanctification” issues). In 5:3, Paul makes a reference of circumcision as the “entry point” of the system of laws found in the Torah. Was he saying that circumcision was not appropriate for any believer because it forced the circumcised one into the keeping of the Law, be he Jew or Gentile? If that verse stood alone, or if it gets quoted alone in an article or theological statement it could easily seem that way – but I would argue that is NOT what he is saying at all. In fact, if you keep reading, it becomes clear that Paul was concerned NOT about the practice of circumcision (something he has done to Timothy AFTER he led him to Christ for salvation (Acts 16:1-3), but about the ISSUE OF JUSTIFICATION, as he makes clear in 5:4.
Let me be exacting in this: Paul wasn’t destroying the value of a symbol of circumcision that God told Jews to do for “all their generations” (Genesis 17:12) at all. He was making clear that circumcision has ABSOLUTELY NO VALUE in the cause of satisfying God concerning a man’s fallen condition, nor did the entire atonement system to which it belonged. In other words, Paul said circumcision had NO EFFECT on anyone’s acceptance before God because of the full cleansing through faith in Jesus that replaced the former atonement system. I DON’T NEED circumcision to be saved, and nor does my Jewish neighbor. At the same time, if my Jewish neighbor trusts Christ and stands in that alone for salvation, he is not exempted from doing those things God called on his people to do “for all their generations” if he cares about being obedient to God’s Holy Word. He doesn’t keep Sabbath or get circumcised to be saved – he does those things God told his people to do BECAUSE he is saved and wants to honor the unique place God gave His people for all their generations, looking to a future time when God will turn His eyes back to that nation. Along with that, he doesn’t try to get those (i.e. Gentiles) who WEREN’T born under those commands of obedience to START keeping them.
Paul’s distinction is clear: Jesus alone saves. After salvation, it matters WHAT YOUR IDENTITY WAS WHEN you were saved as to HOW YOU SHOULD WALK. Sanctification is dependent upon God’s assignment to you in your birth identity. How do I know? Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians 7:
1 Corinthians 7:17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. 18 Was any man called [when he was already] circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but [what matters is] the keeping of the commandments of God. 20 Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.
The distinction between those who were called to salvation in Christ as Gentiles and those who were called to salvation in Christ as Jews was to be maintained after salvation in daily life. Jews and Gentiles became ONE in Messiah’s salvation, but they were as distinct in lifestyle as bondmen and free men, as men and women. Each had restrictions and parameters of service, and these were determined by where God placed them in society when they came to Christ. In a unique distinction from the others on the list, bondmen (slaves) were encouraged to take advantage of any legal way to change their estate if an opportunity was presented (1 Corinthians 7:21).
As a result of all this detail, what we know is that Paul was arguing that circumcision has no effect on salvation whatsoever, regardless of WHO you are, where you come from, or what your background has been. At the same time, Paul wasn’t trying to get Jews to STOP following these commands of God to the Jewish people. The book of Acts makes clear that Paul was concerned that people who thought such things about him be corrected by a public display. Do you recall the scene? Paul returned from his third mission journey. He arrived in Jerusalem, and the believers were EXCITED, but there was a murmur in the room. Let me remind you of the story from Acts 21, as Dr. Luke, the writer, reminds us:
Acts 21:17 After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After he had greeted them, he [began] to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it they [began] glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 “What, then, is [to be done]? They will certainly hear that you have come.
Paul didn’t defend that he was doing any such teaching – to get Jews to stop keeping the things God told them to do forever, but took a public vow to show THAT HE WAS NOT teaching Jews to stop circumcising. He was not saying “Jews are OUT and church is IN”. He was not exclaiming “Law BAD, grace GOOD.” He was NOT just placating Jewish sentiment for the sake of making them happy. If that is true, Paul was a political animal, not to be trusted because he wrote one thing to the Galatians, and lived the opposite before the Judeans. That isn’t Dr. Luke’s view, and that isn’t a true retelling of the story – but it IS the popular mythology in a great many church circles.
Look back at Galatians 5. Paul talked about JUSTIFICATION in 5:4, and connected it with CIRCUMCISION. Since circumcision started long before the atonement system was defined in the Torah, why did Paul connect circumcision with the sacrificial system?
To a Jew, circumcision was part of the sacrificial system.
It didn’t START there, but it eventually became indelibly linked to it. Some Bible students struggle to reconcile how the issue of circumcision has ANYTHING TO DO WITH the issue of sin satisfaction or atonement. They may have trouble making the connection in their mind that would not have been troubling for Paul, or any educated Jew. The reason is simple: In the sacrificial system, only circumcised people could fully participate. In places like Exodus 12 – the famous passage on the Passover, God said:
Exodus 12:48 “But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it.
During the days of the atonement system, the “ticket in” to be able to be a part of the Israelite system of sacrifice under the First Temple system was circumcision. By the time of the Second Temple (what many call the NT Period), there were two kinds of “proselytes” to Judaism – a proselyte of “righteousness” and a “proselytes of the gate”. The term “proselyte” is from an ancient Greek term for “stranger” or “newcomer”. Rabbinic Judaism separated them into two types; ger tzedek (proselytes of righteousness) and ger toshav (resident proselyte, proselytes of the gate, limited proselyte, half-proselyte).
• A ger tsedek was a gentile who came under the covenant God had with the Jewish people in the atonement system and was bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Torah, considered a full member of the Jewish people. They were circumcised as adults and immersed in a mikvah in order to participate in the system of sacrifice.
• A ger toshav was a resident alien who lived among the Jews in Judea and was learning to follow the Torah, but were not required to be circumcised nor keep all the Torah commands. They were bound to the Noahide Laws (do not idolatry, worship idols, blaspheme, murder, commit Biblically immoral sexual acts, steal, etc.) to be assured of a place in the world to come. One NT ger toshav was likely the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:22) who was referred to as a “God fearing man”. Another was likely the “Ethiopian Eunuch” (Acts 8) who could not be fully embraced in the Temple because of his deformity (Dt. 23:1).
Paul made clear the entry to a defunct system was no help for salvation, and allowing the people who are offering this confusion to stay would only hurt them:
Galatians 5:5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. 7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion [did] not [come] from Him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump [of dough].
Paul was SO DISTURBED by the people pulling them off track, he spoke rather graphically and said: Galatians 5:12 I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. If they are SO BENT on getting you to do this, let them cut themselves!
Jesus didn’t make the Law pointless – he made the sacrifices pointless. He didn’t strip the symbol of circumcision from the Jewish people. He put it back in the category of unique identity commands and cut it away from anything that was required by God for justification of ANYONE and for practice of Gentiles under any circumstances. Jews can do it to show they are Jews, but not to get to Heaven. Gentiles shouldn’t feel pressured to do it at all – since it is meaningless in their direct access to God.
I have poured out, in exacting detail, a passage that is used to open the door to countless permissions of bad behavior among believers. The “liberty in Jesus” is cited often in debates where people decide that rules of behavior of any type have been eliminated in the “destruction of the law” by Paul – a wholly misunderstood approach to God’s Word.
Let’s be clear: God’s limits aren’t bondage – the sacrificial system’s incompletion was. Liberty isn’t a release to engage in moral filth that which God forbade people of the past to do – it was the freedom to directly access an intimate and personal relationship with God through belief in Christ and His saving blood. Practicing a symbol God gave people to do for their unique and enduring identity wasn’t a description of some “cultural practice” – it was a description of God’s command to Abraham repeated over and over as a measurable symbol of identity. Paul wasn’t arguing to chop out parts of the Bible or become complacent in following God completely – he was making a distinction between the formula of salvation and the distinctive forms of sanctification.
Paul never argued that the life of a follower of God was marked by never denying any physical desire. He never meant by “yoke” that the Law was the problem – only that it couldn’t provide, even in the scores of animal sacrifices – a permanent and complete solution to sin.
Listen to the the subtle way this is confused: David Guzik, a commentator of enduringword.com wrote: “If you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing: When we embrace the law as our rule of walking with God, we must let go of Jesus. He is no longer our righteousness, we attempt to earn it ourselves.”
That is dangerous speech in its implications, and it wasn’t Paul’s argument. If it were he needed to apologize for the confusion he made to that very point in Jerusalem in Acts 21. Paul didn’t want people to strip an allegiance to living life according to the standards of the many books of the Bible that preceded his writing career. What he wanted to do was clarify that the atonement system was broke and replaced. That is about justification, not about whether “doing the things God’s Word teaches in the first half are cancelled in the second half.”
• I want deliberately to defend Jewish believers who keep Sabbath and are improperly called LEGALISTS – Paul called them JEWISH BELIEVERS. If that isn’t true – he should have corrected the people in Jerusalem who knew Christ and yet were “zealous to keep the Law – but he didn’t correct them, he joined with them (Acts 21). They were saved by the cross and lived as believers by the standards God gave to their fathers.
• Legalists aren’t people who DO what God told them to do – they are people who try to gain control of others by taking standards God DID NOT SET ON THOSE PEOPLE. Legalism isn’t having rules – it is misapplying them for the purpose of gaining control of another’s actions.
• Paul closed the section with an admonition: Galatians 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only [do] not [turn] your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. The freedom from the continual sacrifices of the atonement and all the labor that goes along with it was not given to us so that we may release ourselves to inattention to our walk with God, nor waste our stewardship on personal extravagance – it was a unique opportunity to allow us through our walk with Jesus to SERVE ONE ANOTHER.
The point of the Law was NOT to destroy one another by consuming each other in the arguments over the Law. When we do, we are adopting standards without the objective they were ever intended to produce – a community! When those who were never given the Law try to make it the standard in their lives (to become a new version of the Jewish people) they corrupt the binding influence the Spirit of God should have on their lives – to bind them to each other and to help them consistently be pleasing to God. If you allow the Spirit to lead you in your relationships, you will follow all that Jesus is concerned about for your building a community as Gentile believers. You will see the flesh without learning every careful distinction of the Law. There are many who live godly lives without a thorough knowledge of the Law – a with little desire to keep it. The following of the Spirit should produce bonds that will not come with angry disputing and boasting!
We will need to revisit this passage to look more closely, now that the atonement argument is finished. You have been patient through all of this. I wonder if, in all the words of Galatians 5, you see the clear point of the end of the chapter.. God had a goal with the Law, and it is the SAME GOAL that He has with His Spirit’s leading – to produce a loving, active, vibrant corps of people that live joyfully for Him!
I want to close this lesson with a plea. It comes in the form of a story, but it really IS a plea. Harry Houdini, the famed escape artist issued a challenge wherever he went. He could be locked in any jail cell in the country, he claimed, and set himself free quickly and easily. Always he kept his promise, but one time something went wrong. Houdini entered the jail in his street clothes; the heavy, metal doors clanged shut behind him. He took from his belt a concealed piece of metal, strong and flexible. He set to work immediately, but something seemed to be unusual about this lock. For 30 minutes he worked and got nowhere. An hour passed, and still he had not opened the door. By now he was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation, but he still could not pick the lock. Finally, after laboring for 2 hours, Harry Houdini collapsed in frustration and failure against the door he could not unlock. But when he fell against the door, it swung open! It had never been locked at all! But in his mind it was locked and that was all it took to keep him from opening the door and walking out of the jail cell.
I plead with you to stop struggling with ANY LIST that you think keeps you from God. Open the cage. Jesus unlocked it. There is no longer condemnation for those who trust His completed work. If you think you need to earn God’s love, you haven’t checked the cage door. It is now unlocked. Come on out!!! True freedom is found in intimate attachment to God initiated by faith in Christ alone, and lived out by careful diligence in following God’s Spirit.