Galatians 5:1, 13-25 - Stand Firm In Your Gospel Freedom - July 21, 2019

Have you noticed that many of the biggest milestones in life are often characterized by the achievement of some level of freedom? From getting your first bike or your driver’s license – which free you from your parent’s schedules; to moving out of the house – which frees you from your parent’s rules; to paying off your home – which frees you from monthly mortgage payments; to retirement, which frees you from the demands of the workweek. At the same time, when you achieve these freedoms, does that mean that you are truly free to do whatever you want? Hardly. In fact, with freedom often comes greater responsibility. Up to this point in his letter to the Galatians, Paul has been adamant that salvation comes by grace through faith alone not by works of the Law. Obedience to the Law won’t save anyone. And now, in the third part of his letter, Paul addresses the accusation hurled against faithful Gospel preachers of every age: “It’s dangerous to say that people don’t have to obey the Law to be saved – because if people realize they are freed from the demands of the Law then they will just go back to their sinful ways.” And this challenge seems to make sense. Nonetheless, Paul doesn’t waver in his premise. He encourages us to Stand Firm in Our Gospel Freedom.


It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Commentators refer to this as a Janus verse. Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways – he’s depicted as having two faces, one looking to the past and the other to the future. Before we look ahead to what it means to live as a liberated child of God, we must remember that we were slaves. Jesus said in John’s gospel: I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Apart from Christ we were enslaved by our sins, our disobedience – because we can’t get rid of them, can’t remove them; apart from Christ they control you, define you, and determine your eternity. Sadly, those who resolve to free themselves from their sins wind in an even worse form of slavery: slavery to the Law. Trying to overcome sin by being a better spouse or parent or friend, by striving to be more honest and diligent and selfless is futile because try as hard as you might, you can’t do it. You can memorize the 10 commandments and vow every day to keep them and you will wind up dead before you do it. As natural born sinners we can’t overcome sin nor can we keep the Law and so we were slaves to both – unable to free ourselves.


But Christ has set us free. Last week we heard how: God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law (Galatians 4:4-5). Remember those two big, technical terms from last week: Christ’s active and passive obedience? Christ has set us free from the Law by keeping it perfectly as our substitute – by lifting that yoke off of our shoulders and covering us with his righteousness through Baptism (Galatians 3:27). And having kept the Law for us, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem and carried the burden of our sins to the cross, to absorb God’s wrath and sin’s punishment as our substitute. And his work is completely, absolutely, finished (John 19:30). As a baptized believer you must stand firm in this message of freedom: you stand before God completely righteous, completely justified – free from the consequences of sin and the demands of the Law – through faith in Christ.


Don’t let anyone rob you of that freedom. Don’t let anyone tell you that you must do this or that, you must have this experience, you must be a better person to be saved. Don’t rob yourself of that freedom by turning back to your good works, your charity, your service as your confidence for salvation – because if you do, you’re becoming a slave all over again. Instead, stand fast, stand firm, in the freedom Christ died and rose to give you. But, remember, this is a Janus verse: it not only looks behind but it looks ahead. You are freed from sin and the Law but you are not free to use this liberty however you choose. In other words, having lifted us up out of the ditch on one side of the narrow road of freedom – the ditch of legalism; Paul now looks to keep us out of the ditch on the other side.


Paul describes this ditch in detail: You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature…the acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. The ditch on the other side of the road is the abuse of Christian freedom as a license to sin. Paul says that these acts of the self-centered, sinful nature are obvious; but I wonder if that’s true anymore. A 2015 Barna poll showed that a majority of people in America think that not recycling is more immoral than viewing pornography. [1] We don’t have to even venture out past those doors to find people who secretly think that homosexuality is a defensible lifestyle, that living together outside of marriage or getting an easy “no-fault” divorce is ok because God really wants us to be happy. Then Paul mentions sins against the 1st commandment: idolatry and witchcraft. Lutherans especially are familiar with the phrase “you don’t have to go to church to be saved.” And that’s true. You don’t have to go to church, you don’t have to read your bible, you don’t even have to be Lutheran to be saved (just don’t tell anyone I said that!). To suggest otherwise would be legalistic. But if you use that freedom as a license to spend the summer ignoring the means of grace in favor of sports, fishing, camping, vacations and parties – you not only have abused your Christian freedom but you have cut yourself off from the God’s grace and revealed that you are really an idolater.  


And if that’s not damning enough, the majority of the sinful acts Paul mentions (8 of 15) apply to social interaction within a community – a Christian congregation like those in Galatia, or in McFarland, like Risen Savior. Do you ever wonder why more of our members don’t attend important quarterly meetings or volunteer to serve on vital committees? Is it because of the biting and devouring Paul mentions in verse 15? Is it because they seem to have a tense and argumentative atmosphere, because we are so quick to judge or heap shame on others when they don’t live up to our “standard” of behavior, because we demand others do things we aren’t willing to do or because approach decisions with an utterly selfish, “my way or the highway” mentality? This should not, cannot be. In fact, Paul says that those who make a practice of such divisive and self-centered behaviors have no place in the kingdom of God. And make no mistake, the one thing every one of these acts of the flesh have in common is that they are utterly selfish and “me” centered. But Christ didn’t free you to serve ourselves, he freed you from serving yourself. Now, this doesn’t mean that if we have committed those sins (which we all have) that we can’t be saved. These sins are not unforgivable. Jesus died for these sins too; he has erased them from our record forever. But Paul’s warning stands: anyone who makes a practice, a habit, a lifestyle of living in these sins will find themselves shut out of heaven.


Because the freedom which Christ died to give us is not freedom to serve the sinful flesh, but freedom of another kind: to serve one another in love. Yes, I know it sounds contradictory, but the Greek literally says that we are freed to be slaves – slaves to one another. And what does it look like to serve one another in love? The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Wait a minute, I thought Paul spent 4 chapters arguing that we are free from the Law, what gives? We are free from obedience to the Law – as far as our relationship with God goes. Christ has satisfied God in our place. But we still owe a debt of love to one another (Romans 13:8) and the Law still serves the all-important role of defining and guiding what love for others looks like. In other words, while we are freed from the Law as a means of serving and pleasing God (after all, God doesn’t need our service (Acts 17:24-25)) – that frees us to fulfill our real obligation: to serve one another in love.


It’s important to note here that Paul doesn’t use imperatives but indicatives to describe this life of freedom; he doesn’t say you must do these things, he says you will do these things, naturally, inevitably. We don’t love others to become Christian or to remain Christian, we love others because we are Christians – because we know how God loved and served us in Christ! Just as a good tree bears good fruit (Matthew 7:17) so Paul says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The first thing to note is that in contrast to the acts of the flesh; the fruit of the Spirit consists of changed attitudes – because where the heart is changed, where the tree is made good, good fruit will inevitably follow. The second thing to note is that these are not the product of our hard work and effort, but the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Set free from spending all our time and energy trying (and failing) to please God – we are now free to joyfully serve others in love. And against such things there is no law. That’s a dramatic irony – but you get the point, right? No law in the world forbids or restricts these fruits – you are free to be as loving, joyful, patient, kind and self-controlled as you want.


But if we are free to produce as much fruit of the Spirit as we want, why do we so often find ourselves going back to our old sinful ways? The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. The most violent war going on in this world is one that will never appear in news headlines – it’s the war going on in your heart and mine between the Old Adam and our New Self. Unlike the rest of the unbelieving world which remains completely enslaved to the sinful nature, we Christians are torn – so that what [we] want to do [we] do not do, but what [we] hate [we] do (Romans 7:15). And this war will not end until God kills this flesh once and for all and takes us to heaven.


But that doesn’t mean the outcome is uncertain, because those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. No honorable Roman would ever cast crucifixion in a positive light. Crucifixion was such a brutal and gruesome form of execution that it was reserved only for slaves and the very worst criminals. Paul’s point is that there is no reforming, no reasoning with the sinful flesh – the only thing to do with it is kill it without pity or mercy. That’s what the Holy Spirit for you through Holy Baptism. He nailed that sinful flesh to the cross to die. But, if you know anything about crucifixion, you know that death doesn’t come immediately. The sinful nature will claw and struggle to get down, to regain control of your life – and you will be tempted to help pull the nails out for him. The only solution is to return to baptism through repentance. That’s what repentance is: to hold out your sins and your sinful nature to God and plead with him to put this ugly beast to death once again.  


And, finally, Paul says that this inner transformation will produce visible results since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. These are military terms. He’s picturing a military parade where a disciplined squad of soldiers marches down the street in perfect sync with one another. This is what the Church looks like that is standing firm in Christian freedom. We walk in sync with the Spirit and with each other, not out of fear or guilt, but because we have been set free by Christ to serve one another. Yes, we will continue to stumble and fall along the way – but, freed by Christ from our sins of the past frees us to look forward in service to others – and that’s what it means to stand firm in your Gospel freedom


Martin Luther summarized these verses beautifully when he wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” [2] You are free; free from sin and the Law; you are free to serve others in love. Stand firm in that freedom because that’s the freedom which Christ died to give you. Amen.  


[2] AE 31:344