Oftentimes people will start reading Galatians from Chapter 5, after all it seems the most practical and it’s got that great Fruit of the Spirit verse. But to skip or minimize the preceding four chapters is to miss the whole point of chapter five and, indeed, the whole letter. Paul has been meticulously building, layer by layer, his argument of freedom from works-based righteousness and righteousness based on faith alone. Here in chapter five he builds to his great conclusion and shows us what it means to be free in Christ.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)
First let’s put this in context. Paul just finished using the example of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar as an allegory of freedom in the Promise or slavery to self-effort. He makes the point that we, who have accepted the work of Christ by faith, are children of the Promise. So saying, “For freedom Christ has set us free” ties back to the previous verse, “we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” Paul is saying that we have a birthright that comes from being recipients of the promise of God in Christ. Jesus won for us freedom from the law. Jesus did not die just to submit us again to the demands of the Law. So there was a purpose, a benefit, an inheritance, a promise in the Cross that we can and need to claim.
But what does freedom mean? In his comments on this verse John Stott says, “The freedom described in vs 1 is not primarily a freedom from sin, but rather from the law. What Christ has done in liberating us is not so much to set our will free from the bondage of sin as to set our conscience free from the guilt of sin.” We are free from the dictates of the law, from the curse of the law and from servitude to the law, which means we are also free from the guilt, shame and condemnation that comes from failing to keep the law as a means to earn our righteousness before God.
Again, Martin Luther says it so well, “Our conscience is free and quiet because it no longer has to fear the wrath of God. This is real liberty, compared with which every other kind of liberty is not worth mentioning. Who can adequately express the boon that comes to a person when he has the heart-assurance that God will nevermore be angry with him, but will forever be merciful to him for Christ’s sake? This is indeed a marvelous liberty, to have the sovereign God for our Friend and Father who will defend, maintain, and save us in this life and in the life to come.”
For me this verse finally starts to put the rest of the letter in order and make sense out of it. Paul comes back around to the idea of Christian liberty that he alluded to in Chapter 2 (see post Coming Attractions). Freedom isn’t simply about freedom from sin, but freedom to pursue God without the fear of condemnation or guilt or the endless cycle of trying to be good enough by living up to some standard that others have set for us or, indeed, that we have set for ourselves. We can experience and live in constant peace with God. Nothing can assail our conscience. No sin or no devil can condemn us. No fear of God’s rejection need overwhelm us. That is all in the past.
So let us breathe freely the air of God’s favor. Let us walk in the freedom Christ paid so dearly to obtain. Let us enjoy, guilt free, our unrestricted access to the presence of the Father. That is what we were meant for. It is for freedom that Christ set us free.