Christ has set us free, but not every impulse we have, if we act on it, leads us into greater freedom. Some enslave us again! So we must stand firm in the freedom we have in Christ.
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
Don’t you love when you have time to do whatever you want? Much of our time is claimed: Most of you have jobs, and your time at work is claimed by your employer: You must do what they want. Others of you have spouses, and that means you owe them time to build relationship with them and love them. If you have kids, you know how much of your time is claimed caring for them. If you’re a member of this church, this time on Sundays is claimed. Today we have a members’ meeting after church; that time is claimed. But I know I love the feeling when the kids are in bed, the dishwasher is loaded, the floor is vacuumed, the laundry is done, and there is nothing else on the calendar for the night. Yet I have learned over the years that there are things I can do with that time that help me live freer, and things I can do with that time the bring me back into a sort of slavery. To give maybe the most obvious example, if I spend that time every night eating junk food, because I simply can, eventually I’ll be decidedly less free, because I’ll develop a greater craving for more junk food, and I’ll probably have my time claimed by a doctor in a hospital to restore my health. Not every impulse, if we act on it, leads us into greater freedom. As we’ve been going through the book of Galatians, we’ve learned that Christ has set us free, but if we act on every impulse we’re now free to act on, we will end up living as slaves. To live free, then, you must stand firm in the freedom you have in Christ. To understand this, we’ll look at why he set you free, what severs you from him, how we stand firm in him, and what confidence we have in him.
Why he set you free
Verse 1 tells us that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Before we talk about why Christ set us free, notice first that he has in fact set us free. Because we are sinners, God’s good law had the effect of enslaving us. We’ve compared it in the past to a contractor working on a house, where to get paid, you must do your job. That’s reasonable, right? God’s law is reasonable, but here’s our problem: We hate our job. So we haven’t done it, and therefore we cannot receive our wages. Not only that, but just as a contractor would be in legal trouble if he simply refused to do a job for which he was contracted, there is a penalty for our refusal to do our job, a penalty we cannot escape for two reasons: 1.) We’ve already refused to do our job, and 2.) We don’t have the power within us to stop hating our job. And God’s law doesn’t even allow you to go on hating your job, but to grit your teeth and say “Ok I’ll do it anyway.” God’s law most fundamentally requires love, love for God and love for your neighbor. So under the law, we were stuck: We couldn’t receive the reward of eternal life apart from obeying God’s law, we couldn’t atone for our past refusal to obey, and we couldn’t start obeying simply by trying harder.
But Christ has set us free! He was born under the law, only he loved his job! He obeyed every jot and tittle of it, then he atoned for our past refusal to obey when he died on the cross in our place, bearing the curse our sins deserved, and then he received the reward of eternal life when he rose from the dead, so that the moment we believe in him, our sins are forgiven, we receive eternal life as a gift, and the same Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead comes to live in us to empower us to obey. We are no longer waiting to see if we will inherit eternal life; it has begun in us by the Holy Spirit. We are no longer waiting for an atonement for our sins; the atonement has been accomplished by Christ’s death on the cross! And now we can start obeying, not as slaves, but as sons, by the Spirit living in us. Christ has set us free!
That’s really a summary of the first four chapters of Galatians: Christ has set us free. But now in chapter 5, verse 1, Paul tells us why Christ set us free: for freedom. Seems redundant at first, right? But he wants to emphasize this: Christ set us free so that we might live as free people! Verse 1 tells us, then, to stand firm in this freedom, and to not submit again to a yoke of slavery. The churches of Galatia were being told by the false teachers who had infiltrated their churches that in addition to believing in Christ, they must obey the law of Moses. Paul says no! Christ set you free specifically so that you would not live under the law of Moses. That’s a yoke of slavery, while Christ set you free to live as free people!
We learn from this that while we are free in Christ, living as free people requires that we stand firm. It requires a certain courage, a certain boldness, a refusal to submit again to a yoke of slavery. If you think of freedom simply as the freedom to follow whatever impulses you feel at any given moment, you really can’t do this. Because let’s say you’re the Galatians, and false teachers come to tell you you need to be circumcised. It was required in the law God gave to Moses, you would probably feel more righteous if you did it, and some part of you would probably feel pressure to please these false teachers. If freedom just means following whatever impulses you feel at a given moment, you might find a strong impulse to follow these false teachers. But Paul says no! There are some impulses, that if you follow them, lead you back into the very slavery from which Christ died to set you free! Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
That particular group of false teachers is less prominent today, but if you really stop to think about how much of your life is influenced by a pressure you feel, that you can’t quite name, to do things God has not required, it’s staggering. C.S. Lewis once gave a lecture called the “inner ring” about our desire to fit in with a certain group, a certain “inner ring.” He says this in the lecture: “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” That’s the pressure, and while you think you’re simply doing what you want, living as a free person, what you’re actually doing is doing what the inner ring wants, submitting again to a yoke of slavery. For freedom Christ died to set you free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to that yoke of slavery! When you feel pressure to do things God has not required, stand firm, and do not submit to that yoke of slavery.
We feel that pressure from the world, but we can also feel that pressure from other Christians. They share the gospel a certain way, and now we feel we must do it that way. They send their kids to a certain school, and now we feel we must send our kids to that school. They serve their neighbors in a certain way, and now we feel we must serve our neighbors in that same way. Sometimes Christians even go so far as to tell other Christians they must do those things. But again, remember our test from last week: Has God required it in scripture? If the answer is no, stand firm, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now, what’s interesting about that test and this situation in the churches of Galatia, is that circumcision was required in an earlier part of scripture. You can perhaps see why, then, the churches of Galatia would think it was at least not a big deal if they were to add it to their faith in Christ, right? That’s why what Paul says next is so important. He wants them to see that their acceptance of the false teaching of these false teachers it not a permissible add-on to Christianity. Rather, to accept it would sever them from Christ. So let’s look next at what severs you from him.
What severs you from him
Paul states this point in 3 different ways in verses 2-4. First, he says that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. Then he says in verse 3 that any man who accepts circumcision is obligated to keep the whole law. Then, finally, in verse 4, he gives the verdict: You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. Circumcision itself doesn’t sever you from Christ; Paul was circumcised, and Paul even had Timothy, one of his fellow ministers, circumcised. We see in verse 6 of this passage that in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything in any absolute sense. However, for the members of the churches of Galatia to now get circumcised would have been to put in their lot with the false teachers. These false teachers were not just suggesting circumcision; they were telling them that they must get circumcised out of obedience to the law of Moses, in order to receive the inheritance of eternal life. Thus far the Galatians have been very tempted by this teaching, but what would mark their acceptance of this teaching? Getting circumcised. At that point, Paul says, when you sever your foreskin, you would be severed from Christ. You cannot simply add the law of Moses on to faith in Christ.
Verse 3 gives us the reason: If you get circumcised out of obedience to the law of Moses, you are signing up to keep the whole law of Moses. You are opting to attain your own righteousness by what you do in obedience to the law of Moses, rather than receiving and resting on Christ’s righteousness. In that case, Christ will be of no advantage to you, as verse 2 says, because Christ didn’t come to make you a good law keeper. He came to keep the law in your place, and suffer its curse, so that you could be free from it! He didn’t come to enable you to do the work of your salvation; he came to finish the work! So if you then turn and say, “I’m going to do the work,” you are no longer resting upon Christ for salvation. As Paul says it in verse 4, to try to be justified by the law is to be severed from Christ and to fall from grace.
Let’s return to the example of a contractor. The message of the gospel is that Christ already finished the work and received the wage as his due, so that we might receive it as a gift. Let’s say you hear that another contractor already finished the job, received the wage as his due, and offers it to you as a gift. Let’s say you then profess to believe it, but go start taking the windows out, hammering some nails, and moving things around. What does that prove? It proves you don’t really believe that the other contractor finished the job. And that’s what getting circumcised would have proven in the case of the Galatians: It would have proven that they weren’t really receiving and resting on Christ alone for salvation all along, and so they would be severed from Christ.
In chapter 1 Paul pronounced a curse on the false teachers who had infiltrated the churches of Galatia, and on any who preach a gospel contrary to the gospel Jesus commissioned the apostles to preach, which is now laid down for us in scripture. Here, however, we see that he also declares any who officially accept such a false gospel to be accursed as well. The members of the churches of Galatia would not have been teaching a false gospel by getting circumcised, but they would have been officially accepting one.
At various times in your life, you may feel tempted to believe a false gospel. We’ve already talked about various impulses that are actually impulses to slavery. Simply feeling those does not mean you are severed from Christ. The Galatians were certainly feeling that impulse, but Christ is not yet of no advantage to them from Paul’s perspective. He only will be if they go through with it and get circumcised. It is acting on that impulse, to submit again to a yoke of slavery, and officially committing yourself to believe a false gospel, that severs you from Christ.
And we can make similar distinctions to the distinctions we made in chapter 1. Not every theological error is a different gospel. If you accept the teaching that infants should be baptized, for example, I think you are wrong based on scripture, but we as a church should not say to someone who does that they are severed from Christ. However, if you accept that you must keep the law in addition to believing in Christ in order to be justified, which is what the Galatians would have been accepting by getting circumcised, then we must say, with scripture, that you are severed from Christ. The way we do that as a church is by pronouncing the sentence of excommunication, and so removing you from the membership of the church. We wouldn’t do that simply with someone who is struggling as the Galatians were. But if you make it official, as Paul warns the Galatians, then we have to make it official as well, as Paul does in verse 4.
Obviously, then, if you were to join a Jewish synagogue, you would be severed from Christ, even if you maintained your profession of faith in Christ. That’s one of the interesting features of this passage. Typically when Christians speak of apostasy, we think of someone renouncing their faith in Christ entirely, but there is no evidence that is what the members of the churches of Galatia were considering doing. They were simply considering adding circumcision to their profession of faith, and Paul says if they do that, he can no longer affirm their profession of faith in Christ. So also, even if you maintain your profession of faith in Christ, if you officially accept a false gospel, you are severed from Christ. Again, returning to Judaism is the obvious way you might do that, but there are other ways this happens today.
The denomination officially known as the Churches of Christ teach that baptism is necessary for one to receive eternal life. The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches teach something similar. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormonism, also teach that our works are part of the righteousness by which we are declared righteous in God’s sight. Each of these groups, then, in some way adds to the work of Christ as the ground of our righteousness in God’s sight, or adds something to faith as the means through which we receive the righteousness of Christ. To officially accept their teaching, then, severs you from Christ. It proves that you are not receiving and resting on Christ alone for salvation, but feel instead that you must add to his work in order to be justified.
Back to our earlier test, then: When you feel a pressure to do something, ask, “Does God require it in scripture?” Even though circumcision is required in the law of Moses, the Old Testament, we learn here that God does not require us to keep the law of Moses! So we aren’t simply asking is there a Bible verse that tells someone to do something. We are asking does God require it of us in the Bible? One helpful tool for discerning that that developed in the history of the church was a division of the Old Testament law into moral, civil, and ceremonial law. Circumcision is part of the ceremonial law, but so is the observance of days, months, seasons, and years, as we saw in chapter 4. The ceremonial law was abolished when Christ fulfilled the law. From it we have been set free, and submitting to it again is to submit to a yoke of slavery. The civil law are those parts of the law intended for Israel as a nation-state. The church is not a nation-state under the New Covenant, however, and so we are also free from those laws, though we can learn from the wisdom of God that they reveal. But then there are some parts of the Old Testament law that we find are still required under the New Covenant, like the commandment not to murder, and these we call the moral law. We obey them now not because they are required in the law of Moses, but because they are required by God.
That distinction should help us better answer the question, “Does God require it of us in scripture?” We can add another question, though: “Why does God require it in scripture?” God requires baptism of Christians in scripture, for example. It’s not civil or ceremonial law. But why does God require it? It is not because baptism is necessary for our justification. It is because baptism is the sign of our justification. The moment you believe, apart from baptism, you are declared righteous in God’s sight by faith alone in Christ alone, and you receive the gift of eternal life. So if you feel a pressure to get baptized after coming to faith in Christ, you should feel that pressure, but why? Not so you’ll be saved, but so that you’ll obey the God who already saved you! You should feel that pressure because there is a new impulse in you that drives you to obey God, and that’s an impulse you should absolutely act on! In fact, we’ll see in the verses that follow that deeper than baptism, there is a way of summarizing God’s moral law that our faith works through. So obeying the moral law does not sever us from Christ. What does is accepting the teaching that we must still keep the ceremonial and civil law, or accepting that our obedience to what God does require is in any way part of the righteousness by which we are righteous in God’s sight. That’s what severs you from him; make no mistake about it. You may still profess faith in Christ, but you will be severed from Christ. That’s how serious this is. Do not take it lightly, and do not toy around with false gospels. If that’s how we are severed from Christ, let’s look then at the contrast of how we stand firm in Christ.
How we stand firm in him
Verse 5 gives us the contrast. Unlike those who are severed from Christ, here’s how those who are in Christ live: Through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. To live under the law means you try to obey what the law requires while you still do not love God or others. To live by the Spirit, though, means the Spirit produces in you love, and you act in accordance with it. To live under the law means you do what the law requires to become righteous. To live by faith, though, means you eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. The law is attractive because it gives you a way to feel righteous now. I’ll get circumcised, I’ll be able to look and see that I’ve been circumcised, and then I can feel righteous now. The gospel doesn’t give you that. If you really believe the gospel, you feel like a sinner, but you believe, by faith, that even though you know you aren’t righteous in yourself, you will be declared righteous in the end, because you are receiving and resting upon Christ as your righteousness.
Those who are in Christ have not seen Christ. We have not seen his perfect record of righteousness. We have not seen his curse-bearing death in our place. We have not seen the resurrected Christ enjoying eternal life. But we have heard of these things in the word of God, the gospel, and by faith, we believe that in him, we too will be declared righteous when we appear before the judgment seat of God. In Christ Jesus, then, verse 6: Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. Getting circumcised does not make you righteous, but neither does remaining uncircumcised! Nothing you do, and nothing you don’t do, makes you righteous in God’s sight! In Christ Jesus you have all the righteousness you need, because you have Christ Jesus, the righteous one! Resist the urge to feel righteous by something you can see and do. Wait, by faith, for the day when God will declare you righteous.
Of course, in a sense you have already been declared righteous, but that’s a declaration you have only heard in the promise of the word, and which you have only appropriated by faith. The hope of righteousness for which we eagerly wait is the day when we will see Jesus, who is our righteousness, with our own eyes, rather than merely hearing him by faith, and when we will hear directly from God: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master,” and in resurrected bodies, will enter into the joy of our master. On that day, our faith also will be revealed for whether it was true saving faith in Christ, or a bare profession, by whether it did in fact work through love, and we read of that in verse 6.
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. Here we have one of the clearest affirmations in the whole Bible that justification is by faith alone. In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only this one thing matters: Faith. Yet this faith, though it is the only thing that matters in Christ, is never alone, but works through love. The Westminster Confession of Faith 11.2 puts it this way: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” Faith is the alone instrument by which we receive the righteousness of Christ, and it is on the basis of that righteousness alone that we hope to be declared righteous by God in the end. Yet that faith is never alone in the person justified, but “worketh” by love.
In other words, true faith produces in us obedience to that summary of the moral law which is love. Faith works through love. If you truly receive and rest upon Jesus alone for salvation, he will produce in you, by his spirit, the new impulse of love, love for God, love for other Christians, love for neighbor, love even for your enemy, and that kind of faith, a faith that produces love, is the faith that justifies in God’s sight. That’s how we stand firm in Christ. We don’t turn to the ceremonial or civil law, we don’t give in to the pressure of others, to do what they say we must do, and we don’t look to our obedience even to the moral law to save us. Rather, we wait with patience for the day when God will declare us righteous, and in the meantime, we love God and love others, not to be saved, but because we believe we will be saved. We do it because we have been set free.
Remember what Paul said in Galatians 2:19? “For through the law I died to the law, that I might live to God.” That’s true freedom! It’s the freedom to live to God, to live a life of love, which is the fulfillment of the law! Don’t get bogged down trying to be what everyone else wants you to be. Don’t joylessly try to do what God requires while hating God in your heart. Receive and rest upon Christ, and as that faith in him produces in you love for him, act on that impulse. Do you lack joy in Christ? Why? What do you feel like you must be doing that you aren’t? Has God required that of you in scripture? If not, stand firm, and don’t submit to it. If he has, do it not because you must; do it because you love him! And if your love for him is lacking, deal with the problem there! If love is lacking in you, it’s because faith is in some measure lacking in you. Faith works through love, and faith is strengthened as you go back to what Christ has done for you and believe it. Look again at what Christ has done. Look at how he, as the eternal son of God, became man, and was born under the law. Look at how he endured from sinners such hostility against himself, and was tempted in every way, yet without sin. Look at him hanging on the cross, bearing the curse our sins deserved. Look at how he rose from the dead to eternal life. Look forward to the day when you will see him with your eyes. Look at him by faith, His Spirit will produce in you love, and then act on the impulse of love. That’s how we stand firm in him. Finally, then, let’s look at the confidence we have in him.
The confidence we have in him
In verses 7-12 Paul helps the Galatians see the reality of what is happening here, but lands on confidence. He compares the Christian life to a race, and reminds the Galatians that when they started by faith, they were running well. Who hindered them, he asks in verse 7. He doesn’t answer the question, but he does say who it is not in verse 8: It is not him who calls you. God is still calling you to himself, but not through these false teachers. And just in case you still think their teaching is no big deal, verse 9: A little leaven leavens the whole lump. That leaven of a legal spirit is downright dangerous. That leaven that says you must do things God doesn’t require in scripture, or that says you must do the things God requires in scripture to attain your own righteousness, cannot be dabbled in. It will overtake you, and it will overtake your church, if you let it. This is a very real threat the Galatians are facing, and Paul does not downplay it. If anything, he keeps stressing it. This is going to sever you from Christ! This is not from God who calls you! A little leaven leavens the whole lump!
And yet, for as serious, dire, and dangerous as this is, in verse 10 we read of confidence. Paul says he has confidence that the churches of Galatia will take no other view, and why? He says he has confidence “in the Lord.” He does not have confidence because the threat isn’t that real or the teaching isn’t that dangerous. But he has confidence in the Lord that the churches of Galatia will not get circumcised and put in their lot with the false teachers, but will instead receive the teaching he’s giving them in this letter. The Jesus who redeemed them from the curse of the law will not then allow them to receive the curse of the law. Though they are prone to wander from him, he is committed to them, and he will keep them, so that they are not severed from him. This is the confidence we have in him to enable us to stand firm. As John MacArthur has said, if you could lose your salvation, you would. But to all who have true faith, a faith that works through love, Christ will keep you from stumbling. He will keep you believing the gospel, he will keep your faith working through love, he will keep you from officially accepting a false gospel, and so he will ensure that you are righteous in him in the end. That’s why we can eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
There are two errors to avoid here, then: One is the error of thinking that because you professed faith once, you’re good for eternity no matter what you believe or how you live. No; if you accept a false gospel, you are severed from Christ, whatever your profession. And if your faith isn’t working through love, it’s a dead faith that will not save. You must stand firm in the freedom you have in Christ. On other hand, there is the error of thinking you must keep yourself standing firm. No; Christ is the one keeps you. He is the source of your confidence, from beginning to end.
And we not only have confidence that he will keep us; we have confidence, verse 10, that those who teach false gospels will bear the penalty. In other words, they will face God’s judgment. Though they may seem powerful now, and though they may exert a large influence over us and our churches, in the end, it is they who will be judged, while we will be kept. So do not fear them. Their inner ring is not one you want to be in. Christ died to set you free, and he set you free so that you might live free! He set you free so that you might serve God joyfully as his children! Receive and rest upon Christ, he will produce in you the impulse of love by His Spirit, and you act on that impulse. But don’t act on every impulse. When you feel the impulse that you must do things God has not required of you in scripture, when you feel the impulse that you must do even the things God has required of you in scripture to be justified in God’s sight, stand firm, and do not act on that impulse. Do not accept a false gospel; it will sever you from Christ. Walk by faith, let that faith work through love, and look forward with eager expectation to the day when God will declare the final verdict of righteousness over you, not because you are righteous in yourself, but because you are righteous in Christ, the righteous one.