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Galatians 5:1-6

August 29, 1999

Text Comments

5:1       As you know, the process by which the Bible was divided into chapters and verses stretched over many years, centuries indeed, and wasn’t completed for the NT until the 16th century. The divisions of the Bible, both chapter divisions and verse divisions, are not original to it and not part of its inspiration. They are the result of human editorial arrangement. Sometimes that arrangement is ideal and sometimes not. Here there is a question whether verse one should be the beginning of a new division, the end of the previous one, or, in some way, a separate brief paragraph that both ends the former section and begins the next. It is not always easy to know where to put the divisions.

The thought of v. 1 clearly continues the thought of v. 31: we have been made free Paul says there, so, he goes on, do not enslave yourselves again. The verses that follow are exhortation based on the fact that faith in Christ makes slaves free and on the assumption that no one who has been a slave and then set free, wants to become a slave again.

The “freedom” Paul is speaking of here is, of course, the freedom he has been speaking about all along: the freedom from God’s wrath, or the curse of the law and the threat of its punishment for those who have disobeyed, freedom that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ, and, especially in this context, it is freedom from that judgment that the law pronounces on those who strive to be justified by their own works. It is freedom from being “locked up”, “held prisoner” by the law, which is the fate of all who have not believed in Christ for their peace with God (3:22-24; 4:3-7).

v.3       Paul has made this point before. “A Christ supplemented is a Christ supplanted” [Hendriksen, 195]. You will notice in v. 2, once again that Paul is not denying that Christ has a place in the judaizers’ scheme. But his argument, once more, is that if works are added to Christ, Christ and his grace are nullified. Christ plus works is simply works. It is either grace and Christ only or it is salvation by works and not Christianity and not the gospel at all. Here remains our fundamental objection to Roman Catholicism and here is the reason we cannot agree with the Protestant converts to Rome who are urging us to reconsider and to repair the rift caused by the Reformation. Rome’s position on salvation, its soteriology, is materially identical to that of the judaizers. It is Christ plus, Christ and our works for our peace with God. And Paul says that any addition to Christ in the matter of one’s justification makes Christ of no value to a sinner. Rome has no answer to Paul’s tremendous polemic in Galatians. These judaizers believed in Christ too; they believed he was the Messiah; they believed he died for sinners; they believed he rose from the dead; they believed he was coming again to judge the living and the dead. They certainly would have called him their Savior. But they believed his work for us had to be supplemented by our work for him. And Paul regards that step as fatal to the gospel and to salvation. It is either Christ alone, by grace alone, or you might as well be a pagan idolater. That is what he has said twice in chapter 4 (v. 3; vv. 8-9).

[What that means, as we have said before, is that the great divide is not found between those who call themselves Christians and those who do not; but between those whose hope of heaven is in Christ alone and not in any way in their own efforts and those who think that in one way or another, to one degree or another, they hold their salvation in their own hands.]

And his argument here enlarges that point. It is either Christ or the law that justifies. And if Christ, it is Christ entirely and if it is law it is the law entirely, which means that one can’t pick and choose. If you are going to find peace with God by your works, then you must do all the works of the law, not just one or two, not just circumcision and feast days and clean and unclean foods, but all the commandments of God. Paul has already made this point in 3:10 with a citation of Deuteronomy 27:26. [This is, by the way, the irony of all legalisms. They make their principle obedience to the law, but then they gut that obedience in order to make it do-able, realistic. Legalists always demand much less of people than the gospel demands. The law party does much less justice to the law than the gospel party! When you forsake all thought of earning God’s acceptance, you are finally free to face the entire, the impossibly comprehensive and searching demands of God’s law, you are free to see that the law asks for nothing less than perfection in thought, word, and deed. And you can now strive toward that perfection because your failures do not make the effort useless. For your obedience is not your entrance to heaven, it is only your love for the one who is taking you to heaven! Legalism is destroyed by the thought that I must be perfect before God; the gospel aspires to that perfection and inspires the soul to seek it for love and for gratitude’s sake, and we are not defeated in that striving because we know that our peace with God, our acceptance with him does not depend upon the perfection of our own obedience, but already rests eternally secure on the very real perfection of Christ’s obedience for us.]


Note the two “I”s in vv. 2-3. “I, Paul…” and “Again I…” Paul is projecting his personal presence, his apostolic authority as much as possible. “This is Paul speaking to you, your father in the faith; Christ’s apostle; your brother…”

Now this is the first time in the letter when Paul makes explicit reference to the demand the judaizers were making that these Galatian Gentile Christians be circumcised. Circumcision was the key to the entire system and nothing could more profoundly demonstrate that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to become full Christians than that Gentile converts also submit to circumcision. To become a Jew a Gentile had to be circumcised. And now the judaizers were saying that the same applied to Christians.

v.4       It is interesting, the verb the NIV translates “alienated” is the same word he uses in the opposite sense in Romans 7:6. There, by dying to sin we are released from the law (that is, the law as a means of salvation and so a means of our hopeless bondage to sin and guilt); here, by accepting the law as a principle of justification we are released from Christ.

And “fallen away from grace” is the reverse of Romans 5:2: “we have obtained access into this grace in which we stand…”

v.5       The righteousness for which we hope is that acquittal in the day of judgment. There is a sense in which our justification is not complete until it is declared in the verdict of the great day. But Christians are already assured of that verdict. That is the sense of “hope” in the NT. Not a fond wish, as in “I hope that God will receive me,” but a confident expectation based on the presence of the Holy Spirit and his communication of the gospel to our hearts. We can eagerly, not fearfully await the day because of the verdict of the last day is already realized in our hearts and lives. Paul elsewhere develops this idea that the Holy Spirit within believers gives present actuality to the prospect of future glory. Romans 5:1-5 is such a text. There too Paul speaks of our rejoicing “in the hope of the glory of God” and that this hope does not disappoint us, “because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” [The thought is akin to other places in the Bible where a future state is said to exist already in the present by means of our having grasping it by faith: by faith we have eternal life, now; our citizenship is in heaven; we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, now; etc.]

v.6       Paul uses this form of words “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value…” three times. Here, in 6:15 and in 1 Corinthians 7:19. In the last case, strikingly, the only thing that counts is “keeping the commandments of God.” Paul is no antinomian! The opposite of legalism is not lawlessness, and it isn’t love replacing the law as many American evangelicals have thought, but an embrace of grace that puts our obedience, even stricter than the legalist’s obedience, on a completely different foundation to be offered for a completely different reason.

Again, in regard to Roman Catholicism, we have to say that the whole Bible teaches us to put “baptism” in the place of “circumcision” here and say the same thing. But the Roman Catholic will not say this. If Roman Catholicism would just say that: “neither baptism nor unbaptism has any value…but faith expressing itself through love…” the controversy would be of an entirely different type and Protestants would not say that the very gospel was at stake in the Protestant Reformation. But Roman Catholics do not say this because they do not believe this.

Here faith is the root, love is the fruit. As the old adage has it: we are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. This is a faith that is active in the heart, that produces gratitude and love, which, in turn, produce an obedient life of faithful service. Paul and James come together here.

Now the gist of Paul’s remarks is clear enough. But perhaps we will see the true force of them better if we pause to ponder the fact that a great many people don’t agree with what Paul says here, nor do they accept the force of his argument. It makes sense to us that if you embrace the principle of obedience for justification you must keep all of the law and not just a few choice commandments, such as circumcision, or, in our own day, baptism. But most people don’t think that.

They are quite happy to admit that they aren’t perfect; they think and do wrong things. But they also believe that they do enough to gain acceptance with God. Even in Paul’s own day, there were many Jews, even rabbis, who didn’t think that perfect obedience was required for justification. Some held that view. But others had a much more liberal interpretation of the amount of obedience actually required for justification before God. One rabbi, the famous Aqiba, seemed sometimes to say that a single act of meritorious obedience would be enough to win entrance into heaven, never mind the many acts, the lifetime, of disobedience. He turned James right around. James, you remember (2:10), says that if you offend against any part of the law of God you have offended against it all; break one commandment you might as well have broken them all. (It is a theoretical argument, of course, as Paul here; no one keeps any of the commandments, much less all of them!) Aquiba, on the other hand, virtually says that if you kept any part of the law you kept it all! [Bruce, NIGNT, 230]

I suppose the ordinary theology of the average American, Christian or otherwise, lies somewhere between the two. Your merits must accumulate to some point, where that point is God only knows, but the assumption is that only the truly, egregiously wicked go to hell, the Hitlers of this world. For, by and large, there is enough good in almost everyone’s life. It is why we have a firestorm of protest and outrage whenever it is suggested in public that someone might have been condemned to hell for the life he or she led. The very idea is outrageous to our day and time.

[As an aside, this may be in part because the church has not spoken more decisively and resolutely about the sinfulness that brings damnation, especially not about the fact that the worst sinners in hell will always be church-goers not mass murderers. The worst criminals against God and man will be found in a church, not a prison. To whom much is given much is required; let few be teachers (of God’s Word) for theirs is the stricter judgment; it is a lesser thing to kill the body than to kill the soul.]

But back to our main point, legalism is not some particular calculation of the merit required for entrance into heaven, it is the idea that human merit, the sinner’s merit, has anything to do with justification at all. Whether one needs 100%, 51%, or something less, if my own performance, my own obedience, my own good works are any part of the calculation of my acceptance with God, any part of the ground, the reason for my acceptance with God, then I am a legalist, whether or not I employ some concept of God’s grace, God’s leniency, or even Christ’s righteousness, to fill in the rest of what is needed to get me to heaven.

That is Paul’s point, but the judaizers didn’t agree, and, to be honest, most people who have been counted as Christians in the history of the world since, haven’t agreed with Paul either.

But think about it. How would you ever know exactly how a person was to obtain acceptance with God? Well, says Paul, I can tell you because I am Christ’s apostle and I speak for God and for the Son of God. We know about justification in the only way anyone could ever know: God has spoken. And what God has said, I am telling you, Paul says. I can tell you that, in fact, if you embrace the principle of justification by your own works, by your own goodness, then you must keep every commandment perfectly if you hope for peace with God and a place in heaven. God requires perfect righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is perfect. If your righteousness is part of the whole, then it must be perfect too. That is because God is holy, so holy nothing less than perfect righteousness and perfect obedience will receive his acceptance and reward.

Faith, true and living faith in Christ, sees the force of Paul’s argument, agrees that it is the teaching of Holy Scripture, Deuteronomy and James to name just two places.

You must believe the Bible’s, the apostles’ teaching about justification, for there is no other way to know how sinners can be made right with God. Anything else is the guess work of people who are rendered incapable by sin to think wisely and well about God or the judgment day. Leave this fundamental religious question to human opinion and you will end up with the stoicheia, the ABCs that lie beneath every man-made religion. That is what Paul said in chapter 4. Pagan idolatry and sophisticated first century Judaism amount to the same thing: do this and live; legalism.

But you must believe, faith is the key also because the consequences of faith and works likewise cannot simply be read off the face of human life or deducted from theological premises.

We wish that they could. We wish very much that everyone who embraced the works principle, whether in a Christian or a pagan form, betrayed the consequences of that false principle in his or her daily life. We wish that it were perfectly obvious that, as Paul says here, all legalists were obviously and evidently slaves and all true Christians were just as obviously free. We wish we could see the slavery on the faces of the unbelieving and the liberty on the faces of the gospel’s sons and daughters.

But we can’t, most of the time. All of us know unbelieving people who, to be honest, seem happier and better adjusted than some Christian folk we know. Many unrighteous people look and act like they are free and greatly enjoying their freedom, so much so that we Christians can envy them. And many Christians look and act like slaves. That is the truth of the matter and we all know it and have seen it. We all have seen it ourselves! It is one of the most important lessons you young people must come to terms with as you grow up. The world often looks very appealing to you; worldly people look and sound appealing to you. Christians can often, by comparison, seem dull and uninteresting. It would be so much easier if unbelievers shuffled through life stooped over, defeated in spirit, looking like the slaves that they are and it was the Christians who had the spring in their step and the sense of thrill in their freedom.

I don’t say that that is the way it ought to be, of course. If a Christian is living as though he or she were a slave to sin, guilt, or fear of judgment, he or she clearly is not embracing the gospel as he or she should and could. And there can be many reasons why. Troubles in one’s past can cause even true believers to struggle to accept the full freedom that Christ bestows on his children. When one’s life has become used to slavery, it can be hard to adjust to freedom, hard to believe it, hard to trust it, fearful to practice it. Like a convict who has been in prison so long, he is scared to death of having to live the life of a free man with all of that responsibility.

Bad teaching can produce a similar result, even good teaching that lacks balance can do that. I was reading recently of the ministry of James Fraser of Alness, an 18th century Scottish minister and the author of one of the most celebrated works on sanctification in the Reformed tradition, an examination of Paul’s teaching from Romans 6:1 to 8:4. But his own preaching concentrated too much on the law and conviction of sin, he labored too much to awaken consciences and not enough to heal the wounded, and a number of the people in the parish began to go to the next parish to get more grace and forgiveness for themselves. Fraser’s preaching depressed and discouraged them, it didn’t lift them up. So many, in fact, were in the habit of going from Alness to Kilmuir that the Kilmuir congregation began to complain about the crowding in their church. The Kilmuir session finally asked their minister to speak to Mr. Fraser about it, but Fraser himself felt it was all of the Lord and wasn’t bothered.

I say, a lack of a true and living sense of one’s liberty in Christ can result from many things. It also is one of the Devil’s primary interests, enslaving Christian hearts again and taking from them the power and blessing of the gospel. He is known as the “accuser of the brethren” and what are his accusations designed to produce in us but a looking at ourselves and our sins again instead of at Christ and his perfect righteousness that makes any and all accusations irrelevant. And our hearts easily take to the yoke again. The human heart in sin is fond of fetters and is always ready to forge a new set for itself. And so we begin to think about our failures and worry about more to come; we begin to compare our lives with the lives of others and wonder why they have what we do not; we begin to think about everything but Christ for us the hope of glory. We wonder what we have done that accounts for our disappointments and wonder what we must do to escape them. And we are no longer putting faith first and Christ first as Paul says we must in v. 6.

So it is not a small thing Paul is speaking of here. It is not an easy thing or a thing to be taken for granted. Many slaves read this text and think Paul is numbering them among the free men. And many freemen have read this text and wondered if they were still among the slaves.

Take Paul at his apostolic word. This freedom that is ours in Christ can be squandered. It must not be taken for granted. It must be practiced. One must get up in the morning and believe oneself a free man, a free woman. One must remember that freedom and thank God for it, and bless Christ and his cross for it ten times a day. One must see those without Christ as the slaves they are whether they know it or not or act like it or not, or look like it or not. For the worst slavery of all is that of the slave who discovers only at the Last Day that he has been a slave all his life. And you must remember that though the public demonstration of your acceptance with God must await the last judgment, that acceptance is already yours and you are to live in the power and joy of it every day.

I love the way Alexander Whyte put this. He was preaching on the robe that the father in the parable ordered to be brought for his prodigal son who had returned home. “Bring forth the best robe and put it on him,” which Whyte naturally and rightly likened to what the Bible calls the robe of Christ’s righteousness which is put on the saints and by which their sins are covered and in which they will stand on the last day.

“…we are always returning home from the far country and we are always saying, ‘Father, I have sinned.’ And our Father is always saying over us, ‘Bring forth the best robe and put it on him.’ Every morning you rise put on again the best robe. And every returning night lie down again in it. Go out to your day’s work always wearing it. Make it your morning coat and your evening dress. Be married in it, if you would be married in the Lord, and make it your winding sheet, if you would die in the Lord. Die in it and awake in it and go up to the judgment in it. Stand at the right hand of the great white throne in it, and enter heaven shining like the sun in it.” [Thomas Shepard, 161-162]

Which is just a more homely way of saying what Paul has said to us here: ‘Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ Be the free men and women Christ has made you to be. You are impervious to condemnation. No one can reach you or touch you in that way. You are free in Christ. You are already in heaven. Already living forever. Now live accordingly. Eagerly await the demonstration of what is already yours and give yourself to a life of faith expressing itself through love. Make sure that is the principle of your life. Do that and you do all.