Galatians 5 and Freedom

Yesterday I finished the rough draft of a paper I’ve been working on.  It is one in a series.  Not sure what will become of them yet.  This one came out to be 12,000+ words.  I’ll share it once I’m done editing.   Here is an excerpt from it. 

Only in the environment of loving others can we cast off the chains of sin.  Discipleship is not an act of isolation.  Rather freedom from sin grows in the soil of mission.  Only once we have joined God on His mission to reunite the world to Himself can we live as priests.  If we want to pursue holiness we must throw ourselves fully into serving others.  We must make sacrificial, die-on-the-cross-for-others love the motivation behind all our actions.  Paul affirmed this in his letter to the Galatians.  Writing to Christians struggling with whether or not they should pacify the ritual and rule following religious folk by being circumcised, Paul said:

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.  Mark my words!  I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.  Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love…You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.  The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  For 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.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.  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.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  (Excerpts from Galatians 5)

It is worth taking a moment to break down Paul’s argument a piece at a time:

  • The Galatians were freed from slavery to idols when they gave themselves to Christ.  To adopt rituals and rules (the manual approach to discipleship) would be to enter back into slavery.
  • Rather than entering back into the rituals and rules to pursue holiness (righteousness), the Galatians should believe that the Spirit is at work.
  • This faith is not expressed through legalistic manual building.  It’s expressed through loving others.
  • This is the purpose of our freedom.  We are not free so that we can party like wild children and not fear the consequences.  We are free from rituals and rules so that we can join in God’s mission and love others.
  • If we are living by the Spirit, loving our neighbors as ourselves, then the Spirit will develop in us things like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, etc…  If we are instead living a life a self-focused sinfulness then idols will take root in us and our lives will be full of drunkenness, hatred, fits of rage, jealousy, lust, etc…

I’ve spent years sitting in classrooms learning the rituals and rules, listening to sermons explaining how various aspects of the manual work, and journaling about what a horrible sinner I am hoping the force of my inner strength will crush the idols around me – all in the name of discipleship.  The ironic truth is all those things served to focus me more on myself and in the end re-enslave me making the Law my master.  If I had just gotten up from the pew, walked out of the classroom, focused less on myself and taken the hungry homeless man on the corner to lunch I would have given the Spirit much more furtile soil to work in.

Galatians 5 and Freedom

Galatians 5 Rethunk

I used to love Galatians 5 because it was a list. 

I love lists.  Rows of things I can check off; is there anything better?  I get a warm fuzzy with each accomplishment.  I’m energized by crossing off completed tasks and singing to myself, “Done.”  The end of Galatians 5 was music to my ears,

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these…

Sorcery.  Never practiced.  Cross it off. 

Drunkenness.  Not a problem.  Cross it off.

Enmites.  Don’t know what that means.  Cross it off.

Feels good doesn’t it?

Immorality.  Dang it! 

This was one I attacked with a fury in college.  For example, while walking through the mall, as my friend and I passed the Victoria Secret store we would look down and comment on our shoes.  I can still hear him in my head saying, “I’m wearing fantastic shoes today.  They are blue.  How do you like my blue shoes?  These are the shoes of a super hero!” 

Paul doesn’t just give us a “stop doing list” though; because he loves list makers like me there is a good list as well. 

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law…

Oh the ecstasy!  What joy!  What excitement!  Two lists in one passage!

So much to do.  So many rules to create.  Lists beget lists you know.  I can’t just say, “Be joyful.”  How?  When?  Where?  Rules must be created to dictate how one is to be joyful when bad things happen.  Slogans must be written to remind one to be joyful so one does not forget.

And joy is just one of nine.  There are eight more to go!

Last Monday night I was sitting with the Thingy and we were kicking around this passage when something new occurred to me. 

The problem with lists is that they quickly drift into legalism.  I am absolutely guilty of this.  I love to make lists and then take them way to far so that they become oppressive rituals and rules that I struggle to follow.

Here is the really ironic thing.  If we back up from the lists and read the whole passage we would see that these lists are the conclusion of a large discussion focused on rejecting legalism and living in freedom from religion defined by rituals and rules.  Look at some of the things Paul says earlier:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.

What is the yoke of slavery?  Religious rituals and rules that squish grace with their legalism.

For you were  called to freedom brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole Law is in one word, in the statement “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

That is incredibly powerful.  Not only does Paul stress that we are free from rituals and rules, he goes on to quote Jesus…but did you notice how he shortened what Jesus said?

Jesus was asked by a lawyer to summarize the Law and He responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Paul here took Jesus’ quote and shortened it to simply the last phrase.  That move had to be intentional.  Paul was saying, “Listen, focus on loving others and all else falls into place.”

This is it.  The only ritual and rule Christ followers need to be focused on.  Love one another. 

Next Paul stated…

But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh…But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 

Then come the lists.  So this life of loving others is empowered and led by the Spirit; thus walking with the Spirit will keep us focused on loving others and protect us from falling into legalism. 

Here is something else I noticed.  Did you catch what Paul called the good list?  Fruit.  Paul called it the “fruit of the Spirit.”  Fruit is what is produced when we focus in freedom on loving others.   Love, joy, peace, patience, and so on are the product of our walking in the Spirit.  They should not be rituals and rules we follow. 

Isn’t it crazy how we can take a passage intended to set us free from rituals and rules and make it into legalism?

It is not that rituals and rules are bad (I’ve talked about this in other posts in detail).  The problem is they quickly drift from being tools we pick up and put down to Laws that dictate our lives.

I hope this is encouraging to you today.

Be free!  Go and love!

Galatians 5 Rethunk