“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
So Paul begins chapter 5, kicking off two chapters that are some of the most powerful examples of liberation theology in Scripture. My Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible labels this section “The Nature of Christian Freedom,” a very apt classification.
Paul has argued through the first four chapters of Galatians against the need for a return to obedience to the law in light of our justification by our faith. His argument comes to a magnificent head here in chapter 5. In short, Paul tells his readers that by accepting the need for circumcision, and thus the need to be subject to the Law, they are rejecting the freedom God has granted them through their faith. In verse 6, Paul tells them (emphasis mine), “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”
Because of our faith in the example of Jesus, we are liberated from the shackles that have held us all back from our relationship with God. That liberation releases us from the need to live in a state of fear, dictated by an unyielding code of right and wrong, and allows us to live in the freedom of knowing we are loved unconditionally. That knowledge of our freedom should propel us on to a life of love. It should fill us so full of unconditional love that we have no choice but to live a life that spreads that overflowing love far and wide.
Paul also reminds the Galatians here that this isn’t an unrestrained freedom to do whatever we want. In verses 13 and 14 he says,
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
What an paradoxical example of the love we experience by communing with God. Through overwhelming Christian freedom, we in turn become slaves; our freedom gives us the right to unconditionally serve our fellow man. Some translations and scholars have seen the need to soften the language of slavery here, replacing it with “servant” or some other variation. But I think the word “slave” is so important here, to show the intensity of the life of service we are reborn into.
Paul then moves into parallel lists, first of the things that a life lived in obedience to law puts the focus on: “fornication, impurity, licteniousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing.” The second list is what he calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” the things that should shine forth in us if we are truly living in faith: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Paul juxtaposes these lists to show what a life lived under the law looks like, and what a life lived in faith looks like. Under the law, the focus of life becomes the first list, and the never ending (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to avoid them. In essence, it is a life lived in chains, a life in which we are imprisoned by sin and the fear of violating the law.
In contrast, a life of faith is a life free to live in all those wonderful values Paul lists secondly. It is a truly liberated life, and a life in which we can’t not serve and love all we come in contact with.
What a journey Galatians has been. Starting with such evident anger, Paul builds to a crescendo that is beautiful, and so very powerful. And it is all centered around one, coherent message: through Christ, we are now set free from the shackles of the law. Our lives of faith negate any need for the law, and a return to it indicates a lack of faith and a backsliding of our relationship with God.
Remember this theme as we continue into Paul’s letters. It is foundational, and should be the lens we read him through from here. We are moving chronologically with Paul, and that gives us the benefit of watching Paul grow; it lets us wipe ourselves clean of the theology we have been taught our whole lives, and instead join Paul in redeveloping a theology of coherence and simplicity.
Tomorrow: 1 Corinthians 1-2
For a PDF of the 30 Days of Paul reading plan, click here.