Paul on Christian Liberty in Galatians 5:1

Paul on Christian Liberty in Galatians 5:1

Jesus came to set us free, not enslave us to the law. All of the Protestant Reformers agreed upon this point and spoke of its importance. This is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. If Christian liberty is not the defining characteristic of the Christian life, then the doctrine of justification is not properly understood. 

If anything is worth defending it is Christian freedom.  In the face of the threat to such liberty posed by the Judaizers, Paul issues a stern warning to the Galatians– “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).  Anyone who seeks to be justified by obedience to the law of Moses, through receiving circumcision, through the keeping of Jewish dietary laws, or in observing the Jewish religious calendar, will fall from grace and come under God’s curse (Galatians 5:4).[1] 

Paul has already pointed out that those who seek to be justified on the basis of works of law (Galatians 2:16), or who place their confidence in what Paul identifies as the basic principles of the world (stoichiea) will find themselves in eternal danger.  In Galatians 5:1-12, Paul contrasts the Judaizing campaign of enslavement to the law with Christian liberty in Christ.  This is yet another important plank in his case against the Judaizers.

In the first four chapters of Galatians, Paul issues several responses to Judaizing legalism.  In chapter 5, we move into what some identify as the “practical section” of Paul’s Galatian letter, when the apostle takes up the practice of Christian liberty and exhorts the Galatians to defend it.[2]  While Paul does change focus a bit from those redemptive historical events which culminate in the death of Jesus and justification through faith, here he describes the Christian life in light of the gospel revealed to him by Jesus Christ.[3]  The apostle continues to set out sharp contrasts between opposing positions.  Readers of Galatians are now well aware that Paul is fond of antithesis (contrast) as a rhetorical critique and he uses it repeatedly. 

Following up his analogy between Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-4:31, when Paul turned the Jewish understanding of redemptive history on its head, in Galatians 5:1-12, he contrasts faith and works yet again, proving that they are diametrically opposed to the other when it comes to the justification of sinners.  To seek to be justified by works of law or through observing of dietary laws, feast days, or circumcision, is to return to slavery to sin and bondage to the basic principles which characterize this present evil age.  This is a very serious misstep since Jesus Christ came for the purpose of setting us free from bondage to sin and the law.  The gravity of this misstep is identified in verse 1 of chapter 5, when Paul challenges the Galatians with the uncompromising declaration, “for freedom Christ has set us free.” 

This is where the Christian life begins for the Galatians and the readers of this epistle–with freedom from the guilt of sin and its enslaving power.  Christian freedom is a central concept in terms of our standing before God, as well as a major theme in the Galatian letter.[4]  The agitators in Antioch and Galatia deplore Paul’s stress on Christian freedom and see it as the chief sign of a low bar of entrance for Gentiles and an affront to the traditions of their fathers.

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