Going on in Christ—Freedom from “License”: Gal 5.13-24

Battle! That’s what we get when we move out in Christian freedom.

Last week at Woodland, we discussed how the Gospel, rightly applied, leads to freedom from law—the sense that we must do something to be right with God. This week, we learn that the same gospel frees us from license—the sense that we’re okay, just the way we are; the impression that we can live any way we want to live.

Freedom from license means victory over sin by the power of the Spirit. 

The right image is the battle. And, this battle requires preparation (verses 13-15). Now, being free in Christ, we’re not to serve the “flesh”—that part of us that still seeks to save ourselves apart from Christ; that aspect of our yet unredeemed selves that sits at the center of an elaborate program of self-salvation. If we do, we’ll “bite” and “devour” one another. Picture a snake pit!

Instead, we’re to use our freedom to fulfill the Law of Christ: Love your neighbor as yourself (Deut 19; Matt 22). But, how?

Have you ever noticed how often, when God give His people something to do, the Spirit turns up? But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh (verse 16). This image shows how we’re to yield to the Spirit of God in the midst of the battle. Like an ancient student walking alongside and following the lead of his teacher, we’re to follow the lead of God’s Spirit, the warm, personal, reassuring presence of Christ in us (4:6). Yielding to His leadership reminds us that, while we don’t do anything to earn salvation, there is effort in the Christian life. Our role takes the form of cooperation with the Spirit of God who helps us in the confusion of the battle.

Note the language of desire. While we in our dim passions might fumble around in our opposition to the Spirit, His Spirit opposes our flesh (verses 16-18). Confusion results, as in a battle. But, if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law (verse 18). The Spirit will prevail in those who respond to God’s Spirit with the well-known “fruit” of the Spirit as evidence.

Putting ourselves in the place to yield to the Spirit is then the key. Recognizing that we can’t achieve freedom in the Christian life on our own, we still have to put ourselves in the place for the Spirit to work on us. You can’t fall asleep by trying, but it sure helps to be in bed. Maybe, your mechanic alone can fix your car, but you still need to take it to the shop. Call it “aggressive-passivity,” maybe.

Practically, yielding to the Spirit will look like meeting with God in His Word, the Spirit’s chosen theatre of operation. Yielding to the Spirit will likewise involve preaching the Gospel to ourselves: we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ, not our goodness through self-effort in our circumstances. Those who follow the Spirit’s lead will grow in the Spirit’s fruit and take on His desires. Having … crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (verse 24), their Christian experience of freedom will begin to match their new identity in Christ.

We will know victory in the battle with the flesh!

Find a friend and consider the following questions:

How does this passage, as well as previous passages in Galatians, show that the Spirit replaces the former work of the Old Testament Law? 

What does this section tell us about the “normal” Christian life? What part does desire play in the Christian experience? 

In the language of this passage, what is really happening when we, however briefly, choose to sin? 

What do you think about the idea of “aggressive-passivity”? What does God do in bringing about our Christian freedom? What do we do? 

How is this discussion about Christian freedom different than a discussion about trusting Christ for salvation? (Hint: think of the difference between entering the Christian life and “going on” as we grow in Christ.)

Why is spending time in God’s Word so critical in knowing Christian freedom?

How do we go about preaching the Gospel to ourselves? What are some “Gospel-problem” areas in your life? (think: last week’s message) where you might preach the Gospel to yourself? 

Going on in Christ—Freedom from Law: Galatians 5.1-12

What’s your Gospel problem? That place where you know stress. That area to which you’re most inclined to respond with sleeplessness, sleeping too late, working too much, irritability.

That could be your Gospel problem.

By the time the Apostle Paul comes to Galatians 5:1-12, he’s made his case in the letter: we enter the Christian life by grace through faith in Christ, and we go on the Christian life by grace through faith in Christ. It’s the “going on” part his Galatian readers struggled with. Taking on the mark of circumcision indicated a half-hearted, fire insurance, “Jesus-and” kind of dependence on Christ. Paul’s bad news: “… Christ will be of no advantage to you (verse 2) … You are severed from Christ (verse 4).” Might as well try to keep the whole Law while you’re at it, Paul chided (verse 3). Might as well finish the circumcision job like a pagan idol worshipper, for all the good circumcision will do you (verse 12; Deut 23.1) … Owiee!

Jesus, plus nothing, equals everything, he’d have them know.

Like the Galatians, freedom from law, for us, means relying on the work of Jesus and refusing to return to self-effort. Far from demanding more of us, Christ asks us to “stand firm” (verse 1) in His work, His righteousness, His relationship with us. We’re sons and heirs, after all. Then, we’re not to “submit again” to that drive to please Him through self-effort (verse 1b). Freedom results, to which we’re helped by the hope of salvation at Christ’s return and the continuing guidance of His Spirit, reminding us that it’s all true (verses 2-6). And then, when we fail (and we will sometimes, like the yeast works its way through all the dough), we return again to the work of Jesus (verses 7-12) … freedom!

All this is why Galatians is such a fantastic book for growing Christians, and why our Bibles should fall open to its well-worn pages. Trusting Christ isn’t a “one-and-done”. We all have our Gospel problems where we need to return to the work of Christ, again.

Find a group and discuss these questions as they relate to the passage and your life:

Why is it significant that the believer must only “stand firm” in her position in Christ? (Why do you think that it is that Paul doesn’t ask us to do something to experience freedom? 

Why is it so easy to return to self-effort and rule-keeping? What does Jesus offer in exchange for our best results? (Consider Matt 11.29-30)

Give your own paraphrase of Gal 5.2. How does the work of Christ prove to be of no benefit to the one who insists on coming to God through his own self-effort? 

What do verses 5-6 tell us about the normal Christian life? Whom do we rely on while we wait for that moment when in Christ’s presence we will be acknowledged as RIGHTEOUS!

What are some ways that we lose our freedom in Christ? What are your own personal indicators that you are trusting in someone or something other than Christ? 

Freedom through Weakness: Galatians 4.21-5.1

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Old Woman on Tashirojima by Nic Walker on Flikr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This week we Americans received a new president. Amidst the bluster about greatness (again) through strength, we just might be forgetting what it means to be free.

This week at Woodland, we’ll consider freedom. Not a nation state, but an outpost of the Kingdom of God, where do we, as American Christians, really find our freedom?

Paul’s brilliant little allegory, found in Galatians 4.21-5.1, recounts and recasts the story of two boys, and their mothers. Set against the story of Genesis 15-21, we remember Abraham and Sarai, old and nearly infirm, expecting, of all things, a son. Not able to take God at His word, they went the route of strength: find the young and vibrant Hagar, bring about a son in the usual way, assume this is what God had in mind. But God would have none of it. “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Gen 17.19). Then, later, “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman” (Gal 4.30). Not that God didn’t care for Ishmael and his mother, but they would not inherit. Apparently, strength counts for nothing in God’s economy.

The reversal, in Paul’s recounting of Israel’s core narrative, requires us to consider whom we identify with. Will we come to God through strength, human ingenuity, cleverness, the natural advantages to belittle those without means—just as Hagar and Ishmael ridiculed Sarah and Isaac? Paul attaches Hagar and Ishmael to Mt. Sinai and the Mosaic Covenant, long the place of freedom from bondage in the Israelite imagination.

But, is Sinai really about freedom? While boasting of strength and will and moral might (Ex 24.3), Israel failed under the Law. Like Hagar and Ishmael failed before them. Like strength and human effort fail always. And, like you and I fail apart from Christ. Sinai, along with the earthly Jerusalem, is really about slavery and bondage.

Then, there’s Sarah and Isaac. Paul attaches them to the Abrahamic Covenant. Those who approach God in weakness and faith come as true sons of Abraham (3.7-9), as sons not slaves, as those who will inherit (4.28).

It’s always been so, and it was so with Christ. “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear” (Is 54.1). Paul’s quotation from the Servant Songs of Isaiah references (in Isaiah’s day) the One who would come to rule. Consider 54.1 in context, the verse just before, ” … he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (53.12). Paul’s tale of two mothers and sons is really about three sets of mothers and sons. But only one of the mothers, Sarah and her son, Isaac, anticipates Jesus and his mother, barren because she’d known no man.

Even including the rabbinic argumentation involving allegory and typology, Galatians 4.21-5.1 speaks to American Christians today. Where do we find our freedom, especially in an environment where we can expect downward mobility in culture, even ridicule?

Find a friend or group of friends and consider some questions from Galatians 4.21-5.1.

Looking outward—

Where do we as American Christians increasingly find ourselves in positions of natural disadvantage? 

How does this reaffirm us as New Covenant believers who are looking forward to the fulness of God’s Kingdom (Phil 3.20; Heb 12.22; Rev 3.12)?

Where does this passage point us as we seek freedom? 

Looking within our church family—

Does the circle of those we include in church events only include those who are like us? Or, does it include an eclectic variety of sinners united only by weakness and dependence on God? 

Do we allocate time to the kinds of problems we’d find in the middle of the newspaper—the crises in developing nations that seem far away? Or, are we only front page and sports page Christians? 

Do we continue to consider those who can’t care for themselves—the unborn, orphans, the mentally handicapped, refugees, children in our Sunday school program? 

Gospel versus Religion: Galatians 4:8-20

Sunday, at Woodland, we’ll return to Galatians—that deep, glorious study in the Gospel.

We’ll find Paul, in chapter 4:8-20, pleading again with his Galatian children in the faith. The Galatians have left Paul’s teaching—the Gospel itself—to follow new teachers who would re-cast the young, Galatian believers in their own image. Unless the Galatians return to the truth of the Gospel, their new life will involve the quest for self-salvation through religious ritual (verse 10), as well as subordinate status to their new instructors, who would turn them into special ministry projects, in order to elevate themselves (verse 17).

Paul’s message: the Gospel brings freedom; religion (as in Christless, self-salvation programs through works) brings bondage. 

For Paul and the Galatians, bondage looked like estrangement. Previously, Paul had known the Galatians during a season of personal weakness that involved physical disability (verse 13). Even, and especially, in weakness, he’d become like the Galatians (verse 12), and they’d received him and the Gospel message, willing even to sacrifice their own selves for Paul’s good (verse 15). Their mutual status together: shared freedom … blessedness! (verse  14).

All that had ended at the writing of the letter. Now, Paul felt the need to give birth to his Galatian children again! (verse 19). His desire to see them recast in Christ’s image (verse 19) would result in his own shared freedom in the Gospel with the Galatians. But, only if they’d abandon their self-salvation quest through religion to return to trust in Christ alone.

Paul’s message describing Gospel versus religion meets us at two levels. As individuals, we might not come, like the Galatians, from pagan idolatry, and we might not dabble in ritualistic religion. But, we all have our idols, because we all seek to save ourselves. Competency, respectability, order, a well-disciplined family. All are good, but as requirements for happiness in place of Jesus, they serve as means for self-salvation leading to bondage.

Then, in community, as the Galatians and their new teachers show us, religion means we won’t be content to attempt to save ourselves, we’ll also attempt to save others by our own effort. This is “minister’s disease,” and I, for one, get how it works: We start out serving, but somewhere along the way it becomes a program that is my idea, and I find myself exhausted. And then, because I’m exhausted, I expect others to come alongside me to exhaust themselves. And, when they don’t come, I get angry and build a case against them in my own heart …

Sound familiar? “Minister’s disease” will often be found in communities where there is no joy.

In response, we have the message of Galatians: Just as we have entered the Christian life by grace through faith in Christ, so we continue in the Christian life by grace through faith in Chris. And for us, as with Paul the Galatians, returning to the Gospel when we fail will mean shared ministry in freedom,”blessedness”.

Find a friend and have a look at Galatians 4:8-20.

Thinking of verses 8-11—

Why is religion even more dangerous than non-religion?

What idols (anything that is not Christ) are you tempted to use for your own happiness?

How does knowing that God knows you (verse 9) free you from the temptation to worship “idols”?

Thinking of verses 12-20—

Why should the Galatians have found Paul’s argument compelling?

What do these verse have to teach us about our dependences on each other as we serve one another? 

How should your Christian service change as a result of this passage? 

The Gospel brings freedom; religion brings bondage.