Galatians 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free! This declaration of our freedom is both a statement of an accomplished fact and a goal to pursue. Freedom is ours because of the accomplishment of Christ: Christ has set us free! Paul does not appeal to his readers to fight to be free. Our Christian freedom is not the result of our long march. We have not liberated ourselves by our efforts. We are not able to do so. But now that freedom has been given to us by Christ, that freedom is our goal and our responsibility.
Imagine a prisoner who is suddenly surprised to find out that he has been pardoned and set free. He did nothing to accomplish this. He was not even aware that it had happened. But there he stands outside the prison walls, a free man. Now it is his responsibility to live as a free man.
Charles Wesley captures the Christian experience of this liberation in one of his great hymns:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
Our imprisonment has been a major theme in Paul's letter to the Galatians: "The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin" (3:22). "We were held prisoners by the law, locked up" (3:23). "We were in slavery under the basic principles of the world" (4:3). So there is no doubt about the nature of our slavery. We were condemned prisoners under the judgment of the law of God, doomed to live under the severe restrictions of the law but with no hope of earning our freedom by our obedience to the law, since all the law could do was to point out our transgressions (3:19). This imprisonment under the law separated Jews from Gentiles (2:14; 3:23); the law isolated its prisoners in different cell blocks according to their ethnic origins.
Our release from prison and our release from slavery run as parallel themes in the letter: Jesus Christ "gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age" (1:4). "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law" (3:13). "God sent his Son . . . to redeem those under law" (4:4-5). "Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman" (4:31). So the nature of our freedom is clear. We have been delivered from the judgment of the law of God, and we no longer live under its disciplinary regulations. In the imagery of the preceding story of Hagar and Sarah, we are not children of the slave woman, who stands for the Mosaic commandments; we are children of the free woman, who stands for the promise. Our lives are not imprisoned by the dread terror of breaking the commandments: "You shall . . . ; you shall not . . . !" Our lives are lived in the joyful freedom of knowing that in Christ God has fulfilled his promises: "I will bless you!" This freedom from imprisonment under the law has led to a new community in which the divisions between race and class and gender are removed (3:28).
The liberating, redemptive act of Christ that sets us free from slavery and imprisonment under the law has also been a major theme of this letter. It was by his death on the cross when he took the curse of the law for us (3:13) that Christ has set us free. For when we believe that message of Christ crucified, we receive the Spirit (3:1-2) and participate in the benefits of the cross ourselves: we then view ourselves to have been crucified with Christ, set free from the curses and demands of the law, but now able by the indwelling life of Christ to live for God (2:19-20). Now that we are set free from living like slaves under the law, we can all live together in one family as the beloved children of God who by the indwelling Spirit call God "Abba, Father" (4:4-7).
All these major themes of slavery, freedom and the liberating work of Christ are now summed up in the ringing affirmation of 5:1: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
That indicative is followed by an imperative, Stand firm, then. This may sound like a dull lesson in grammar, but it is actually central in Pauline ethics. What we must do (the imperative) is always based upon what God has already done (the indicative). Or to put it another way, what God has done gives us the opportunity and power to do what we must do. This indicative-imperative structure is seen here in verse 1 and also in verses 13 and 25. So it provides the structure for the whole chapter: God's gift of freedom must be defended (v. 1); God's gift of freedom must not be abused but must be used to serve (v. 13); God's gift of life by the Spirit must be expressed through the Spirit (v. 25).
In Paul's letters he often exhorts his readers to stand firm: "stand firm in the faith" (1 Cor 16:13); "stand firm in one spirit" (Phil 1:27); "stand firm in the Lord" (Phil 4:1). Here he appeals to them to stand firm in the freedom Christ has given to them. Paul illustrated in his autobiography how he stood firm in his freedom against "false brothers" who "infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves" (2:4). He did not give in to their pressure to make Titus, a Gentile convert, a Jew by circumcision. Now similar false teachers have infiltrated the ranks of the Galatian churches with the same demand. They have been putting the Galatian converts under intense social pressure to become Jews by being circumcised. Stand firm, Paul says. Do let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (v. 1).
In Paul's day one could often see oxen harnessed by a yoke to a heavily laden cart, straining to pull their burden uphill while being goaded with sharp sticks. Paul uses the word yoke, as it was often used by his contemporaries, to refer to the yoke of the law. We can see from his statement in verse 3 that the crushing weight of this yoke is the obligation to obey the whole law. A similar use of yoke can be seen in Peter's speech at the Jerusalem council, as reported in Acts 15:10: "Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the [Gentile] disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?" The yoke of the law is a yoke of slavery, because it places us under the burden of commandments we cannot keep and under curses that we deserve for our disobedience. But God sent his Son to lift this heavy yoke from our shoulders and to take it upon himself: he was "born under law" (4:4) and kept all its demands for us; he died under the curse of the law for us (3:13). Since he has set us free from this yoke of slavery, we must not take it on ourselves again. In contrast to the yoke of slavery under the law, his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Mt 11:30).
In order to strengthen his readers' resolve to defend their freedom in Christ and resist the false teachers' efforts to put them under the yoke of slavery to the law, Paul sets forth the terrible negative consequences of submitting to this yoke of slavery in verses 2-4. Then in contrast to this negative picture, he sets out a positive description of maintaining our freedom in Christ in verses 5-6.
Paul's list of the negative results of getting circumcised and trying to be justified by law is prefaced by strong reminders that he is speaking with authority: Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you (v. 2). Again I declare to every man (v. 3). There must be no doubt about his warnings. They come from Paul, "an apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father" (1:1).
His warnings are given to those who are getting circumcised. The present tense indicates that the process has just begun. Paul wants to stop the slash of the knife. This is the first explicit reference in the letter to this fact that the Galatians are being circumcised. Since the surgical procedure of circumcision has no theological significance to us today, it is difficult to understand why Paul is so upset about it.
In Paul's day circumcision was the mark of belonging to the Jewish nation. For a Gentile to get circumcised in the Greco-Roman world, where circumcision was repugnant, indicated that inclusion within the Jewish nation had become a very high priority for him. But why would inclusion in the Jewish nation become so extremely important to Gentiles? Paul understood their motive as trying to be justified by law. In other words, they thought they could gain God's approval only by belonging to the Jewish nation. This meant they did not consider faith in Christ to be a satisfactory basis for God's approval. They were being convinced that faith in Christ had to be supplemented with identification with the Jewish people through circumcision and law observance.
Paul lists four inevitable, negative consequences of adding such a supplement to faith in Christ. First, Christ will be of no value to you at all (v. 2). If you start to trust in circumcision to gain God's blessing, then you have stopped trusting in Christ. If you do not trust in Christ, then Christ is of no value to you. When you put your trust in your own position or performance for God's blessing, you are indicating that who you are and what you have done has more value that who Christ is and what he has done. You have turned your back on Christ.
Second, the consequence of getting circumcision is the obligation to obey the whole law (v. 3). Evidently the Galatians thought that by observing a few important laws they could identify themselves as full members of the Jewish nation and thus secure God's blessing for themselves. But Paul now informs them that the law is a vast, interdependent network of legal codes. Getting circumcised indicates that you are relying on keeping the law for God to bless you. If you are relying on the law, then you are obligated to keep the whole law. You cannot be selective. You have embarked on an impossible mission. Once you have decided to base your relationship with God on your performance, you will not be graded on a curve. You must get 100 percent all the time.
The third and fourth consequences of following the demands of the false teachers are given in verse 4: You . . . have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. No doubt the rival teachers had assured them that keeping the law was not abandoning their faith in Christ; it was the way to "attain your goal" (3:3)--perfection--in Christian life. But Paul says that those who regulate their lives by the law are removed from the reign of Christ over their lives. If you trust in your own efforts to keep the law, then you are no longer trusting in God's grace. Circumcision or Christ, law or grace: these are exclusive alternatives. You cannot have it both ways. You must choose.
The danger of apostasy, falling away from grace, must have been very real, or Paul would not have used such strong language. If we use the doctrine of eternal security to deny the possibility of falling from grace, we are ignoring Paul's warnings. People who ignore warnings are in great danger. Just observe the person who sees the warning sign of a sharp curve and a fifteen-mile-per-hour speed limit but keeps driving at seventy miles per hour.
Having painted a negative picture of what will happen if freedom in Christ is given up for the yoke of slavery, Paul describes in verses 5-6 how freedom in Christ is maintained. Both verses focus on faith. Faith in Christ is the only way to protect our freedom in Christ. Paul spells out in very concise terms what this life of faith is like. His terms echo what he has already taught at some length in the preceding chapters; they also introduce the central themes of the rest of the letter.
First, the life of faith is life by the Spirit: by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit (v. 5). By faith in the gospel we received the Spirit (3:2). We now "live by the Spirit" (5:16), "are led by the Spirit" (5:18) and "keep in step with the Spirit" (5:25). The presence of the Spirit marks us the children of God (4:6), and the power of the Spirit produces in us the character of God (5:22-23). The control of the Spirit in our lives makes the yoke of the law unnecessary (5:18).
Second, the life of faith is a life of confident expectation of righteousness: by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope (v. 5). Paul's focus here is the future righteousness which is ours when God completes his work in us by his Spirit. By depending on the Spirit, we can expect to reap the harvest of eternal life in the future (see 6:8). In the past, when we put our faith in Christ at the beginning of our Christian life, God credited righteousness to us (3:6-9). In the present, by the power of the Spirit, God produces righteousness in us (5:13-25). Or to put it in more theological language, our righteousness--credited to us by justification, produced in us by sanctification and perfected in us by glorification--is always a gift received from God by faith.
Third, in this life of faith what matters is union with Christ, not union with the Jews or Gentiles or any other racial or social group: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value (v. 6). The world's divisions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female have been obliterated in our union with one another in Christ (3:28).
Fourth, our life of faith is a life of loving one another: The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (v. 6). Freedom from the law does not leave our life without moral direction. Faith in Christ gives us not only moral direction but also the moral dynamic to fulfill the true intent of all the law by serving one another (vv. 13-14). The evidence of true faith will be genuine love, for true faith in Christ is inevitably expressed through love.
These four concise descriptions of the life of faith enable us to see how faith in Christ is the only way to maintain our freedom in Christ. In his ethical appeal (5:13--6:10) Paul fills in the implications and applications of these brief statements. But first he exposes the false teachers for who they really are in order to rid the church of their destructive influence.