At Christmas, we remember the birth of our Lord Jesus, and the significance this has for his followers. One of the ways Jesus’ birth is so significant for us is the freedom that he brings. Jesus claims that part of his mission is to announce a time of liberty by reading from the book of Isaiah and applying it to himself (Luke 4:18–19). The fact that Jesus could quote from Isaiah and apply it to himself shows there was much anticipation around a messianic figure that would bring freedom (Isa 61:1–2). To really make the point, Jesus explicitly states in relation to sin, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). To celebrate Christmas, then, is to celebrate our freedom in Christ.
This freedom in Christ should not be overlooked, dismissed, or forgotten. Yet, it is a freedom from which we are easily distracted, and we become enslaved all over again. It’s a freedom that the Apostle Paul felt the burden to defend and to remind followers of Jesus at Galatia about. So, as we celebrate Christmas, and thereby our freedom, I want to pick up the mantle that Paul leaves in Galatians 5, and remember the freedom we have in Christ, what it means, and how it applies to us today.
Paul’s opening words in the fifth chapter to his letter to followers of Jesus in Galatia are, “For freedom that Christ has set us free” (v.1). Freedom! Who wouldn’t want freedom, and to enjoy it? But what does freedom actually mean? Freedom from what? Freedom for what? Until we understand what we have been freed from and what we have been freed for, it’s very difficult to enjoy our freedom.
In this chapter, Paul identifies two issues that oppose our freedom. Two issues that prevent us from enjoying our freedom: obedience to the law and works of the flesh. Having explained what prevents us from enjoying this freedom, Paul gives us a clear picture of what this freedom looks like.
Obedience to the Law
First up, how does obedience to the law make it difficult to enjoy our freedom? And do we even need to talk about it as Aussies?
As I was preparing this message, I realised that us Aussies, at least at a cultural level, have a peculiar relationship with the law. We don’t think much of breaking the law, especially when it gets in the way of what we want to do. Much of the time we adopt the position that rules were meant to be broken. So, it may seem strange to us to have a message about not being burdened by law, especially about laws concerning circumcision. After all, our churches aren’t infiltrated by Judaizers insisting that we obey the traditional Jewish laws.
But, at a subconscious level, I think that we actually love law. So, yes! We need to talk about law. At this point, I’m not merely talking about the Old Testament law, or the Australian law. I’m also talking about our own personal law – our standards and expectations. Such laws can protect us. They can set boundaries to prevent us from being hurt. A law that says, “I will not allow someone to enter my personal space if they behave in a certain way, or present in a certain way, or speak in a certain way, or lack some kind of ability”. Sometimes, such laws are necessary. There are people who intend to hurt us, so barriers are required to minimise the damage.
But at other times, they’re not necessary. We’re just out to protect ourselves. When such laws decide who we relate to and how we relate to them, they can become a problem. They can become and even bigger problem when we give our standards and expectations theological importance and start thinking they are actually God’s law. That is to say, someone can only be a follower of Jesus if they meet certain standards and expectations. At this point, these personal laws become a yoke of slavery. Our standards can run contrary to the gospel. They can prevent us from enjoying the freedom we have in Christ (v. 1).
This was the issue for followers of Jesus at Galatia. There were those in the church that were insisting that you had to be circumcised. If you wanted to be in the same space as these people, you had to be circumcised. These Judaizers went a step further and gave their standard of circumcision a theological importance by saying that you could not be a follower of Jesus unless you were circumcised.
To be fair to the Judaizers, circumcision was indeed part of the Old Testament law (Gen 17:9–14; Lev 12:3). However, circumcision had been raised to the point where it had become the defining factor for being in relationship with God. This was never the intention of circumcision. In his letter to followers of Jesus at Rome, Paul points out that Abraham had a relationship with God well before he received the sign of circumcision (Rom 4:1–12). The defining factor for Abraham’s relationship with God was faith – Abraham believed what God had told him (v. 2). Circumcision was simply an affirmation of that faith (v. 11).
When we make something apart from faith, like a law, as the defining factor for being in relationship with God, our thinking is running contrary to the gospel. The gospel is about grace and removing the barriers that stood between us and God, and each other. By insisting on circumcision, these Judaizers were putting a barrier between themselves and others, and others and God, that just should not have been there. What they were doing was contrary to the gospel!
We can have the same issue as followers of Jesus in modern-day Australia. Not because of Jewish traditions and laws around circumcision. But because of personal laws that we make for ourselves, and then give them a theological importance and start thinking our laws are God’s laws. We may find ourselves thinking someone can’t be a follower of Jesus unless they behave in a certain way, or present in a certain way, or hold certain political views, or have a certain level of ability. This is not to deny repentance, discipline and maturity in the faith! But if we are insisting that people obey such laws to be a follower of Jesus, and thereby earning God’s favour, we’re erecting barriers that shouldn’t be there. In which case, Paul tells us that Christ will have no value for us – at all (Gal 5:2). That is a super scary prospect.
Pauls says that anyone who tries to earn God’s favour, in the case of followers of Jesus at Galatia by being circumcised, is obliged to keep the whole law (v. 3), and we can’t! Paul should know. Paul writes concerning himself to followers of Jesus at Philippi ―
Paul had ticked every Jewish box. He had a glowing report card. But compared to knowing Christ, he considers that report card as “rubbish”. He treats that report card as food that has gone bad and needs to be thrown out. He knows that as good as his achievements were, he was still coming short of what God required of him. As he says in his letter to followers of Jesus in Rome, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). So, Paul totally renunciates his former achievements as a Jew because they just could not give him what he now has in Christ. Paul warns in that anyone who tries to earn God’s favour by keeping the law alienates themselves from Christ (Gal 5:4) – the source of the grace that we need if we are to have favour with God.
Chances are, whatever our personal law is, we’ve broken it ourselves. How do you think we’re going to go with keeping God’s personal law? Our token gestures of keeping the law will not satisfy a Holy God. Instead of depending on ourselves to keep the law, Paul says in that we must wait for the righteousness that comes through the Spirit (v. 5). This is why Christ was crucified and raised back to life so we could be freed from sin and the penalty of having broken God’s law. It doesn’t make sense to have been given such freedom only to go back to insisting on law.
That’s why we need to be on our guard against any insistence of law. It doesn’t take much! As Paul states, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (v. 9). Any insistence of law completely changes the consistency of the gospel. Insistence on law, no matter how small, changes the gospel to anti-gospel. If we allow law to determine our attitude towards another person, we are out of step with the gospel. Any little detail or law that causes you to exclude someone is working against the gospel and denies grace. Such details can be so subtle, we may not even notice them.
Perhaps you’re withholding love and affection from someone because they have hurt you. That’s a law! What you are saying is “I won’t love you unless you treat me right.” Can you imagine if God said that to us? None of us would stand! Not one of us would know God’s favour if he waited for us to treat him right. Instead, God puts measures in place so our sins against him could be forgiven. God gave the great cost of his only Son so that we could be reconciled with him. So that God can treat us not according to our sins, but according to his love for us. God’s concern is to enter a personal relationship with us, not to erect barriers. So, neither should we be looking to erect barriers between us and others.
None of this means we don’t work through issues in our relationships. But if our only response is to insist on law, we’re acting against the gospel. This is really serious! Paul says about those insisting on circumcision, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves” (v. 12). That is, to cut themselves off from the church. Paul wants us to understand just how seriously opposed insisting on law is to the gospel. Insisting on law will hamper us enjoying our freedom in Christ.
Works of the Flesh
Which brings us to the second point: How does the works of the flesh prevent us from enjoying our freedom in Christ?
By flesh, Paul is referring to the desires of our sinful nature. Notice that Paul uses the word “work”. Our sinful desires aren’t sitting passively in the background waiting for us to act on them. They are actively working, trying to distract us from our freedom. Paul says that they are obvious – sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and Paul could have easily mentioned more (vv. 19–20). Well, if they’re so obvious why does Paul name fifteen of them? Because as obvious as they may be, they are incredibly subtle! They are so interwoven into the fabric of life; they pass through into the church and hardly anyone notices.
Let me show you how this works: I won’t go through all fifteen, but I’ll focus on one – drunkenness. In some pagan cults throughout the Roman Empire at the time, such as the worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, becoming intoxicated was part of the worship. So, you can imagine these people becoming Christians and bringing their practice of intoxication into the church and thinking it’s perfectly acceptable to become intoxicated during the church service. It’s subtle!
This is why Paul admonished followers of Jesus in Corinth, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Cor 11:20–21). I can just imagine someone saying, “I use to get drunk for Dionysus, but now I get drunk for Jesus. That’s gotta be good, right?” WRONG! It’s not good. It fails to testify to the power of the gospel to transform lives as part of being reconciled to God.
While practices of intoxication aren’t readily passing through into the church today, I’m more concerned that practices of materialism are rampantly passing through into the church. We live in a culture where the desire for more is perfectly acceptable, and perpetual dissatisfaction is normal. We can obsess over getting the next best thing. This finds great expression around the time of Christmas – the time when we’re supposed to be celebrating Christ and the freedom he brings.
Instead, it seems to me that our culture’s hopes and values are personified in the character of Santa Clause, and we readily tell our children through songs and stories about how this character may be appeased in order to gain what they desire. The desire for more. I’m often staggered by how readily accepting followers of Jesus are of Santa. This character is so accepted, I’ve ended up in trouble for speaking against him. The protests have come along the lines of, “He’s only a bit of fun! Why shouldn’t we have Santa at Carols?”
In 2011 I was in New Zealand attending a carols event for people with intellectual disabilities. There was a preacher that gave a wonderful clear and concise message about being saved by grace through Jesus. Not long after that, someone dressed up as Santa got up the front and asked who’s been good? Can you hear the conflict? Two messages were preached at that carols event. One was about grace, and the other was about works righteousness and being good enough to get blessings. Two entirely different messages!
Now, am I saying you can’t be a follower of Jesus if you accept Santa? Of course not! That would be making a law not unlike a Judaizer insisting that you can’t be a follower of Jesus unless you’re circumcised. I don’t raise this issue as a point of law. But I raise this issue for the sake of those who have yet to gain any understanding of God’s grace.
It deeply intrigues me as to why a follower of Jesus, who understands that God’s acceptance and blessing is by grace alone, would promote any figure that represents works righteousness. Jesus’ words are plain, “For he [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). In other words, God’s blessings come to those who have been good, as well as to those who have been bad according to “Santa standards”. God visits those with his grace who have been nice, as well as those who have been naughty.
Our task, therefore, is not to earn God’s blessing, but to give him every thanks and praise for the abundant blessing that he has already lavished upon us. Why would any follower a of Jesus want to convey a message that opposes this profound truth? We do so, because it’s part of our culture of desiring more and perpetual dissatisfaction, and we think very little of confusing cultural conventions with Christian practice. When we confuse cultural conventions with Christian practice, our enjoyment of the freedom we have in Christ is hampered.
Of course, it’s not just materialism and Christmas traditions we need to think about. It’s also our attitudes towards relationships and sexual expression, work and recreation, and so on. Our culture puts a value on all these aspects on life. That’s why we need to be careful about what we bring into the church from the world. It may well be “just a bit of fun”. But we need to be asking, how do our attitudes and practices reflect the truths of the gospel? Do they enhance our freedom in Christ, or do they hamper it?
The reason why the works of the flesh hamper our enjoyment of our freedom in Christ is because they encourage selfishness. The works of the flesh are all about “me”. It’s all about what I want, what will make me secure, what will make me happy, what will make me feel important. The works of the flesh do the same thing as observance of the law. They put a barrier between us and others. It’s anti-gospel. They have no eternal worth, and Paul warns that those who live accordingly will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Gal 5:21). Ultimately, works of the flesh will prevent us from enjoying the freedom we have in Christ altogether.
The freedom we have in Christ looks like the fruit of the Spirit, which as we’ll see reflects the very character of God (vv. 22–23). So, when Paul mentions “love”, he’s talking about God’s love. God’s love is unmerited, and it enables people (v. 22). God’s love empowers others. The other fruits that Paul mentions can be taken as an exposition of God’s love. So, we’re not to think that there are nine entirely separate fruits, but one fruit of God’s character viewed from nine different angles.
God’s love rejoices in the gospel, seeing it proclaimed throughout the world and at home, and seeing people come to faith. God’s love is peaceful in bringing individuals to wholeness and communities to harmony. God’s love is patient in bringing people to repentance. God’s love is kind in being gracious to people. God’s love is generous, not seeking its own benefit. God’s love is faithful – you can rely on it, it’s dependable. God’s love is gentle in that God could easily and rightly bring his wrath against us, but instead he is slow to anger. God’s love is self-controlled – it’s not impulsive but deliberate. Where the works of the flesh are all about me, the fruit of the Spirit is all about others.
Inasmuch each of these fruits could be greatly elaborated on, I want to dwell on patience a bit more. As I was preparing this message, I was particularly challenged by this one aspect. Earlier I mentioned our personal law. Our personal laws protect us. They make us feel safe and prevent us from being hurt. So, what happens when someone breaks one of our personal laws? Do we become upset or angry? Is our first instinct to punish the person who broke our law?
I’ll be honest, that’s my first instinct. To speak to them harshly if I speak to them at all. To not cooperate with them or ignore them entirely. I know I’m not the only one who does such things. Perhaps we might go even further than this by gossiping and turning others against them. But God’s first instinct isn’t to punish, but to lead people to repentance. As Peter says, “He [God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pe 3:9).
For me, instead of punishing the person, I’m to calmly tell the person what they have done wrong, the impact their actions have had, and what I would like to happen in future. And after that to forgive them – to treat them as though they have done nothing wrong. It does not mean to forget what happened or pretend that it didn’t happen. But it does mean I am to treat them the same way God treats them in Christ. In his letter to followers of Jesus at Ephesus, Paul describes such followers as holy and blameless (Eph 1:4). This is how we are to treat one another as followers of Jesus. This empowers and encourages the person to avoid hurting us again. I find this hard for a whole stack of reasons. I would think this is true for each of us. But this is what it means to be free in Christ.
This is a high calling. As I was preparing this message, I found myself being confronted by the standard for our behaviour as followers of Jesus and despairing. It’s the same experience when I read about imaging God in our lives in Colossians 3:5–14, or the actions of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4–8. I can’t do this!! I suspect other people experience something similar when they start reflecting what implication these passages have for their lives. But we need to understand that it’s not something that can originate with us. It’s not something we can psych ourselves up to do thinking, “I’m going to be really loving and patient today!” Most likely, we won’t get past breakfast before we have failed yet again.
We need to understand that the fruit of the Spirit can only originate with God. If we are going to grow in displaying the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, we must be dependent on God. We must be in a personal, saving relationship with him. For example, if we are to grow in patience, we must be impacted by the extent that God has sought to reconcile ourselves to himself.
As God has removed barriers between himself and us, so the removal of barriers between ourselves and others is paramount. We are to be convinced that reconciliation with others is more important than what we want, or what will make us happy, or what will make us feel secure, or what will make us feel important.
This is what it means to crucify our sinful desires (Gal 5:24). To strip our works of the flesh of all worth and dignity. To put it to shame and totally reject it in favour of being led by the Spirit. In favour of looking for ways to serve each other that reflect the character of God in the way we relate. This can be scary.
It may mean engaging people who see things differently to us. It may mean relating to people with a very different life experience than us, such as those with disabilities. It may mean putting ourselves in a position where we could get hurt. It may mean forgiving those who break our personal law and being gracious to those who don’t come up to our expectations.
So, as we go into Christmas, let’s remember that it is because of Jesus – that he was born, lived died and rose again – that we would be free from law, and that we would be free from our sinful desires. This freedom has been given to us so that we may live by the Spirit. This means depending on God and what he has done rather than our own abilities. So, let us not feel the need to observe any law, or yield to the desires of our sinful nature. Instead, let us celebrate Christmas and take hold of our freedom in Christ, reflecting the very character of God in the way we love and serve others.