It is befitting that our 9th study on Galatians fell on the 9th of August - Singapore’s National Day. There are parallels to be drawn from how our nation was built post-independence to how our lives are built post-Cross. If we dwell on it, there are some similarities in how Singapore grew from her past to her present, and how we moved from sinners to heirs in Christ. Much of what Singapore is today stems from the values that grew out her day of freedom, and the same applies for our lives. Much of who we are and who we are to be stems from the heart of the gospel and the work of Christ’s Cross.
This passage answers the nagging question present throughout Paul’s writing that spoke to the formal and material principles of the reformation: “how does this apply to my life?”. The answer can be summed up in two words - gospel freedom. Read on to find out how Paul wants you to live your faith!
(A) For Freedom: Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1)
Gal 5:1 is often quoted, but rarely dug deep into. While Paul’s logic is clear, breaking the verse down into its various components brings further clarity about his message. Paul tells us here that:
- Something has happened "Christ has set us free”,
- for a reason “freedom”,
- and we are called to respond to it by resolving “stand firm therefore”
- not to fall back into the bondage of the law’s burdens “do not submit again to a yoke of slavery"
The idea of “gospel freedom” is sometimes lost on us. We do “Christian things” because they are “Christian things”. We go through the motions. We forget the joy and the liberation that is in it, and in doing so inch close to falling back into that yoke of slavery. But that’s not the life that we are called to! That’s not why Christ died! Gospel freedom is not only a freedom from sin. In this verse, it also clearly constitutes a freedom from the weight of the law’s call to personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience - a weight that Paul likens to a “yoke of slavery”.
Friends, do you feel weary in your Christian practice? Do you feel like your prayer life, Bible reading, and church-going comes before your righteousness? Look to Christ, and remember that there is a great joy and liberation that His gospel calls us to!
(B) Mechanics of Righteousness: Only faith working through love (Gal 5:2-6)
Paul seems to repeat himself twice in the next 2 verses (Gal 5:2-3), and it is helpful to take a closer look at their similarities and differences. Both verses speak a warning against practicing circumcision again. However, it shifts from personal consequence to universal legality (“you” (Gal 5:2) to “every man” (Gal 5:3), “say to you” (Gal 5:2) to “testify again” (Gal 5:3) and “obligated” (Gal 5:3)).
The shift in language is important. Paul addresses the Jewish legalists on their own terms by roping in the language of the courtroom, which reminds us that the fundamental issue at hand is how one becomes righteous. But what does it mean to be righteous? To be righteous is to be right with God, and you need to be perfectly holy by keeping His laws personally, perpetually, and perfectly to be right with God! But we know that we can’t do that because of our sin, and our failure to do so can only result in a “guilty” verdict. In saying these things, Paul reminds the church of what is at stake in this battle over the true gospel - our advantage in Christ, and freedom from the entire law’s obligations, which ultimately points to our eternal verdict of “righteous” or “condemned”.
This may be a familiar message to us, so it is worth considering what our attitude towards the gospel is? Do we know what it says? Are we bored of what it says? And do we truly rejoice in hearing the gospel preached, knowing that we need to hear its freedom bell toll every day?
Paul moves on to illustrate his point in Gal 5:4, which can be broken down into 3 parts -- severed from Christ, justified by the law, fallen away from grace.
The common thread running through these 3 consequences is that have been deemed guilty, which ties in with the language of the courtroom in Gal 5:3. Guilty sinners simply cannot be with a holy God, and trying to work out your own righteousness will definitely make you guilty.
Thabiti Anyabwile summed this up when he said, “(that) not by the rejection of anything or any law, but by the simple addition of circumcision as a requirement for righteousness, you nullify everything that Christ did on the Cross!” That’s what it means to fall away and reject grace. It is to say that Christ’s work is not sufficient for our salvation - words we would never dream of saying, but sometimes echo through our actions.
Paul breaks away from this courtroom language in Gal 5:6 by referencing “faith” and “(the) hope of righteousness”. These things point to what our life in Christ should look like. While Paul spent the previous 2 verses saying what it shouldn’t look like (what we can’t do), this verse reminds us of what we can do! Our inability to work out our own righteousness does not mean that we do not hope for righteousness. It means that by faith, through the Spirit, we eagerly long for a day where we will sin no more. Paul calls us to be encouraged, excited, and eager for that final consummation. To harbour in our hearts a hope that longs for Christ to come again and make all things new. This is the hope that we must hold on to in our struggle with sin. Not a defeatist mentality that capitulates at the weight of every struggle, but one that always looks forward to the hope that we have In Christ.
In the event that some take his message the wrong way, Paul makes it crystal clear - circumcision does not work, but “uncircumcision” doesn’t work either! We must remember that none of our works can save us. You are not saved by what you do or don’t do. You are only saved by Christ so look to Him and His cross as you fight your sin. This is the heart of the passage! Only faith working through love counts for something, and a faith that works through love is a faith that is supplemented by works born out of love. True faith brings for fruit that is seen through works.
Doesn’t this message sound forth in the songs we sing? “That the light of Christ might be seen today, in our acts of love and our deeds of faith…” Let us always remember that we are saved by faith alone but not a faith that is alone.
(C) Perseverance in Righteousness: Tuning your ears to the one who calls you (Gal 5:7-12)
Paul’s tone changes dramatically in the next few verses. This is a tender and entreating Paul, reminiscent of the Paul we see in 4:12-2. While Paul has every authority to lambast them, he gently appeals to them to listen to the One who calls them. This makes clear the fact that there is a Caller who called them, and has called us. Are our ears tuned to the one who calls us? Instead of being bogged down by imperative after imperative, Paul beseeches us to listen to God’s voice which is living and active through His Word today.
Paul proceeds to allude to the effects of a leaven on a lump of dough. He makes it a point to separate the Galatian church (the lump) from the people hindering them (the leaven). There is a necessity to distinguish between “the hiss of a serpent and the whisper of God”, and this necessity applies to the church at large! We have to be able to distinguish between false teaching and right teaching. The great comfort in this section is in how Paul’s confidence of their right judgment is in the Lord. Isn’t this liberating? Paul’s confidence lies not in their personal ability to distinguish right and wrong, but in who they are in the Lord!
We think about friends who have fallen away and have become disobedient to the Word. Maybe it’s a leader, or maybe it’s just a layperson that you really respected and loved. How have you reacted to them? Are you like Paul - loving, caring, and tender - with them? Or are you spiteful and damning? Paul gives us a loving Pastoral picture that helps us see what it really means to love in leading.
He proceeds to set up two camps - himself, and “those who unsettle (the Galatians church)”. First, Paul addresses them as brothers (encouraging), reminds them of what they claim he is doing (affirming circumcision), and reminds them of what is still happening to him (still being persecuted), which proves that what he teaches is drastically different from what they are preaching.
Then he gets to the offence of the Cross.
Friends, is your faith offensive? It should be! Especially in our age that elevates the sovereignty of an individual’s choice, thoughts, and self-expression. This message of the Cross is offensive and repulsive to a world that clamours to curve inwards. The call to action here isn’t to seek to offend, but to think about whether your personal conduct reflects this gospel message that the world often finds offensive. Do you faithfully preach the gospel in its entirety regardless of the offense that others might take to it? It is an offensive message of love, but we also known its liberation. It is to this freedom that we have to call people to.
Paul end this section on a slightly jocular note by calling the false teachers to go the whole way with circumcision by castrating themselves. While light-hearted in form, it remain serious in substance. The law’s demands don’t stop at circumcision. They are far too weighty for anyone to bear, and impossible for anyone to fulfil. Our only hope is in the work of Christ and Christ alone. Persevere and hold fast because you know your Caller, and you are known by Him!
(D) Unity in Righteousness: Serve one another through a faith that works through love (Gal 5:13-15)
However, the temptation with gospel freedom is to treat it cheaply. It is to say that Christ has forgiven my sins so I can sin all I want. It is to claim that because Christ is a loving God, He is merely doing His job by forgiving us. But that’s not what grace says. It’s not what the gospel says. Gospel freedom isn’t a license to sin, but a call to a loving service. Again, Paul goes back to the language of the law, by reminding them that the law is fulfilled in a loving service - a faith working through love! The same love that springs forth through faith has to work itself forth in acts of service to our fellow brothers and sisters.
If you tie this up with what Paul has been saying all the while, this is how you run well! Run well by bearing fruit with faith! Paul continues to address the mindset that comes with a law-based righteousness which says “but I need to do more”. The effects of this law-based righteousness is that you will “bite and devour one another”, and you know that this is true! When you start justifying yourself, you are chained to comparison. You are a slave to how your works compare with another’s. Isn’t that the sinister start to biting and consuming one another? Isn’t that a secret sin that plagues us time and time again?
This mindset is not absent Christian circles. Paul says in this section that its solution is in being reminded that we are free. Freed from the law. Freed from comparison. Freed from this oppressive yoke of slavery. And free to love and serve sincerely, genuinely, and faithfully! Gospel freedom calls us to gospel service. This is what you get at the end of a faith-based righteousness. The joy and delight of loving, serving, and caring community. Friends, let us apply this truth to our lives today. Do not let the message of Galatians linger at the formal and material principle. Let these words dig deep and drive us to a joyful, liberated, and hope-fuelled service!