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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).