This week we celebrate the Fourth of July, the founding of our great nation. The United States of America, in spite of its flaws and struggles, is nonetheless still the greatest, freest nation in the world. If we are going to be a free people, though, we have to learn to live like it. This week, as we celebrated, we took a look at some words from the apostle Paul encouraging us to live like free people as followers of Jesus. This lesson is profoundly important not just for our relationship with Jesus, but for our nation as well. Listen in as we unpack these important ideas together.
Live like You’re Free
Our freedom is under attack. How’s that for the start of a sermon? Do you feel like you’re at a political really of some sort yet? I’d better explain what I mean, or I’ll have you heading for the exits before I even get to my first point! Let me try that again: Our freedom is under attack. Sound any different that time? No? Well, let’s talk about it anyway.
If you’re the kind of person who pays much attention to the goings on of the world around you, you know that there is a very real sense in our nation right now that our foundational freedoms are under attack. But before you go thinking that this is all just some right-wing screed—I mean, hello, a Southern Baptist Church talking about freedom on the Fourth of July…how much more right wing could you get?—let’s be honest with ourselves. Making that kind of an observation isn’t a partisan thing to do. Oh, sure, we’re often told it is, but loudly voiced concerns about the freedom and democracy on which our nation is built is not something on which one side of the political aisle or the other has a monopoly. While the reasons each side argues for the fragile nature of our freedom vary rather wildly, on the fact of the matter there is relative unanimity. And in the partisan times in which we live, to have that level of agreement on any idea is a rather remarkable achievement…and one to which we had better be paying attention.
So, why are we talking about freedom this morning? Because this is the day for it. We’ve been talking about it as a culture, we’re celebrating it as a nation this week—wasn’t yesterday’s parade and being back to normal this week in general wonderful?—and when these kinds of conversations are going on around us, as followers of Jesus, we need to tune in. We need to be talking about it ourselves. We need to be talking about this in particular as followers of Jesus not simply because the culture around us is talking about it, but because the very idea of freedom is a Christian one in the first place.
Freedom as we know it and love it today did not exist anywhere prior to the existence of the Christian faith. It didn’t exist at a national level until Christianity had expanded to such a degree that whole nations collectively began calling themselves “Christian.” Any nation around the world where freedom exists today is either Christian in confession, Christian in tradition, or has governing documents whose shape and scope are owed to the Christian worldview of another nation (like Japan’s post-WWII constitution). Simply put, freedom does not exist without Christianity. No other worldview has the necessary structures to support it as we have been taught to understand it. And, because of the very unique nature of our founding as a nation, rooted deeply as it was in the Christian worldview, we have always been and still are today the freest nation in the world. Understanding how we can maintain that for another 100 years is something worth our time.
Well, if we are going to talk about freedom as followers of Jesus, there are a few places we can turn in the Scriptures and find a great deal of help. One of these in in John 8, and Jesse Herring did a great job addressing this passage last Sunday evening in the heat at the community worship service. Another excellent option is Paul’s letter to the believers in the Galatian region of Asia Minor. That’s where I’d like to take you this morning, if I could.
Now, Nate looked at a lot of Galatians with you last Sunday as he summarized what the students spent their week at camp dissecting together. We don’t need to go back over what he said then because he did a great job doing it. I want to jump with you right near the end of the letter to chapter 5. Here, Paul starts out with a banner statement. It’s the kind of statement that you could take completely out of context, make a bumper sticker out of, and probably get pretty far with it. There are a few of these kinds of statements scattered across the Scriptures and this is one of them.
Listen to this from Galatians 5:1: “For freedom, Christ set us free.” Now, pause there for just a second. What Paul is doing here right out of the gate is setting out a reason for our freedom. Listen: There are more reasons for our freedom in Christ than just this one. We are given freedom to bring glory to God. We are given freedom to love one another. We are given freedom to pursue God’s purposes. There are several reasons God has set us free in Christ. As for the question of what we are freed from, Paul will answer that in the next sentence. One of the reasons we have been set free, though, is so that we can be free. God set us free in Christ simply so that we can enjoy living our lives as the free people He created us to be in the beginning. There is no real agenda to our freedom. We are free so that we can enjoy being free. Of course, in order to do that we have to know how to enjoy our freedom. That’s where Paul goes next. “For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In other words—and this is something Paul is going to come back to again and again in this passage—if you are free, live like it. If you are free, live like it.
Well, as I said, that’s a bumper sticker theology type of verse. We could spend our whole time just unpacking this one verse without talking about anything else. But this statement from Paul—like any statement from Paul or any other Biblical author for that matter—doesn’t come without a context. When we understand that context, we can better understand the richness of what Paul is saying here. So, let’s look at this a little more closely.
As Nate mentioned last week, one of the major issues the believers in the region of Galatia were dealing with was a pressing temptation to turn to some version of law as a means of guaranteeing their salvation. More specifically, there was a group of Jewish background believers who followed after Paul when he visited various cities and planted churches who had taken it upon themselves to “correct” his theology. These folks argued that while Paul was right to talk about Jesus, he was wrong in saying that salvation was for anyone. If you wanted to be saved, you had to become a Jew and keep the Law of Moses. After all, Jesus was Jewish. Specifically for Gentiles, this meant being circumcised. That was a huge part of God’s covenant with Israel through Abraham and was the primary way a man was marked out as a faithful follower of God. When it came to keeping the Law, you could talk about it all you wanted, but you really couldn’t deny this.
In any event, what was really a matter of great concern for Paul was that some of the Galatian believers were considering adopting this practice in its entirety as a means of guaranteeing their salvation. These folks were being swayed by the arguments of the Judaizers, as Paul called them. Most of this letter was Paul imploring them to not go down that path. Your salvation doesn’t need that. It doesn’t rely on it. It won’t help you get there. And, as a matter of fact, if you start walking down that road, you will necessarily be walking away from the Gospel which is where salvation is really found.
Well, after reminding the Galatians about their freedom in Christ and calling them to live like free people, Paul makes clear that this law versus grace conflict is what he has in mind. In fact, he doesn’t just have it in mind, he’s fairly well jumping up and down on the point. In the verses that follow here, Paul uses some really strong language to make his point. Come back to the text with me in Galatians 5:2 now: “Take note! I, Paul am telling you that if you get yourselves circumcised [that is, if you submit yourselves to the law as a means of salvation], Christ will not benefit you at all.” Are you hearing what he’s saying here? There’s no salvation to be found in rule keeping. Period. Verse 3: “Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to do the entire law.” This is no pick-and-choose affair. If you want to find salvation by law, you have to keep all of it perfectly. If you fail even at one point, you lose the whole thing. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound much to me like freedom.
But it actually gets worse. Verse 4: “You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace.” Yikes! Alienated from Christ?!? Fallen from grace?!? I told you this was strong language. Keep going with me in v. 5 now: “For we eagerly await through the Spirit, by faith, the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love.” In other words, what you do or don’t do with your body doesn’t matter. Loving one another after the pattern of Christ because of your faith commitment that such a lifestyle is worthwhile because He rose from the dead and is who He said He is, is all that counts.
And after laying out some truth, Paul gets personal with them. He says, “Look, I told you that. Why are you running off down this other path that doesn’t lead to the salvation you are seeking?” “You were running well. Who prevented you from being persuaded regarding the truth? This persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.” In other words, “God didn’t tell you this.” “A little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough. I myself am persuaded in the Lord you will not accept any other view. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. Now brothers and sisters, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. I wish those who are disturbing you might also let themselves be mutilated!” And just so we’re clear: That’s the PG version of the language Paul actually uses, which probably should get something more like an R rating. They cleaned up his language a bit for this translation so it didn’t offend anybody. Somewhat interestingly, the children’s Bible translation we give to all of our kids, the NIrV, actually makes things more explicit: “So then, what about troublemakers who try to get others to be circumcised? I wish they would go the whole way! I wish they would cut off everything that marks them as men!” Like I said: Strong language. You think maybe Paul is a little bit passionate about all of this?
Now, it would be really easy to get all bogged down in the strength of Paul’s language here and miss the larger point he is making. To make sure we don’t do that, let’s keep going down to v. 13: “For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love.” That’s Paul’s point. That’s why he was jumping up and down about all that other stuff. Paul wanted passionately for the Galatian believers to enjoy the freedom they had in Christ to the absolute fullest measure possible. If they used that freedom, though, to do something they wanted to do but which wasn’t on God’s agenda, they were going to use their freedom to lose it. Paul didn’t want that for them. He didn’t want that for them and so tried to make the point as clearly and memorably as he could: You are free people; live like it. If you are free, live like it.
That, of course, just begs the question of how. How do we live like free people? If being free doesn’t mean simply being able to do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, as our culture so eagerly teaches us, what does it mean? Paul hints at the answer there in that last verse. “Don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love.” Then, to make sure his audience connected all of these different pieces he’s been talking about, look at what he says next: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” That’s it. If you do that one thing, you will fulfill the law and be free. “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.” If you are free, live like it. And the way you do that is to love one another.
Here’s the thing about freedom (and I know this is going to sound counterintuitive, but it’s true all the same). All freedom has boundaries. Whatever form of freedom you can imagine, it has boundaries. There’s no such thing as a boundary-less freedom. It doesn’t exist. We can pretend it does and often do, but we’re never doing anything more than pretending. So then, whatever kind of freedom you want to imagine—I’m imaging the freedom found only in Christ—as long as you live within the boundaries of that freedom, you will be free to enjoy it. When you leave those boundaries, you’re no longer free in the way you were thinking. And, if you try and tell yourself that you’re just leaving a small freedom for a bigger one, you may be, but that bigger freedom also has boundaries, and if you cross those, you won’t be in that freedom anymore either. At that point you really have only two choices: Lose the freedom, or build bigger walls around the freedom to keep you from crossing it. Of course, when you build bigger walls to keep people within the boundaries of a freedom, it starts to feel not very free. The Berlin Wall was intended to keep the people of East Germany from missing out on enjoying the benefits of the freedom afforded to them by the communist state. See how this works?
What Paul is saying to us through this text this morning is this: If you have stepped into the freedom of Christ—which is the freest freedom there is—stay within those boundaries. Don’t go looking for freedom anywhere else because you won’t find it. You’ll only find slavery of one fashion or another. If you are free, live like it. And the way to live like it is to love one another. Bigger than that, it is to live within the bounds of the character of God. Kingdom living is free living. Anything else isn’t. If you are free, live like it.
And listen: This doesn’t just apply to a relationship with Jesus. The same idea is true no matter what kind of freedom we are talking about. In this nation we have freedom. We have an incredible freedom relative to the rest of the world. But whether you are left, right, center, or otherwise, can we all agree that we’re not as free as we used to be? The simple reason for that is we keep trying to violate the boundaries of our freedom to live as we please which results in bigger, tighter boundaries being put in place (that is, laws). Where law flourishes, freedom vanishes. That’s part of why Paul was so against the Galatians turning to the law for salvation. When our nation was in its infancy, John Adams famously wrote about our governing document: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Well… If you are free, live like it.
People who are not free are constantly on the lookout for what they can gain for themselves regardless of how their neighbors will be affected by such efforts. They are untrusting of one another. They are greedy and selfish. They tend to be lazy and cynical. They place little value on the lives of the people around them. They are beset by squabbles over things that do not ultimately matter. They are hopelessly divided into groups that war against one another. People who are free, on the other hand, give of themselves for the sake of their neighbors. They are kind and generous. The trust among them is high. They forgive easily and don’t hold grudges. They listen carefully to one another and respect one another because of their shared freedom even when they disagree strongly. In short, they love one another. If you are free, live like it.
Freedom isn’t easy. In fact, it is incredibly difficult. Freedom is not the natural state of people. Establishing freedom is wonderful, but it won’t remain unless it is constantly maintained. We don’t drift naturally into freedom. Our natural drift is into our own, personal universes. And though we do have total freedom there, its boundaries are not any larger than ourselves. In this nation—more, in Christ—we have access to something entirely larger than that. We just have to live like it. If you are free, live like it.