Summary of the text:
Context of Galatians: I still remember my intro to New Testament class in college and the professor discussing Paul’s letter to the Galatians. All of Paul’s other letters begin with words of adoration, gratitude for his relationship with that community. You don’t have to look far (see Colossians 1 or Philippians 1 for example) to the community to which he writes, the blessings he experienced as part of his relationship with them. The gratitude for their sincere faith and devotion to the gospel.
Galatians is different.
Where his words of praise begin in other letters, this is how he begins after the customary greeting:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all.
In other words, Paul is so exasperated by the church in Galatia (modern-day north-western Turkey) that he skips the formalities and goes straight for the theological jugular. What is the central problem you ask?
The presenting issue is a group of Judaizers who have traveled to the fledgling church in Galatia arguing that one must be circumcised in order to be considered righteous in God’s eyes. The law (Torah), these “missionaries” as Paul calls them, argue that it is only through the law that the base desires of the flesh can be controlled. Paul’s response: the gospel gives us a new law, the law of love, which can only be carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What Paul Means by “Freedom”: Our passage begins with these rather well-known words: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Whenever we come across a word that has a particular resonance in our own culture, it’s important to take a moment to mention whether or not our cultural understanding of the word matches the word used in the text.
In an American context, freedom is often seen as the ability to do what one wants with a level of autonomy. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. But this is quite different from what Paul is referring to in this text. The freedom Paul is referring to is a freedom from the law and its exacting requirements.
Live by the law of love through the Spirit: The new life we experience in Christ enables us to live without need of the formal requirements of the law. Paul puts it this way in verse 18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” But this of course requires that we in fact, live by the Spirit.
Preaching Angle: Most of us assume we don’t have to live according to the strict rules of the Torah. Regardless of denomination, most churches preach that salvation is by grace through faith, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2. But how often do we also claim, as Paul does here in Galatians, that our lives ought to be lived through the Spirit? Perhaps this is a place where our Pentecostal brothers and sisters can encourage us.
Do we regularly pray for the Spirit to lead us? Do we rely on the Spirit, or do we tend to rationalize most of life and its decisions? Mike Cosper, of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill fame, wrote an excellent book a few years back that has stuck with me ever since. The primary point of the book is that most Christians, including evangelicals, have unknowingly accepted the rationalized, natural worldview of the Enlightenment without even knowing it.
We tend to assume everything around us happens merely by the laws of nature, never asking whether there are spiritual forces at work. Anyhow, I highly recommend that book, partially because it supports what Paul is calling us to as Christ’s new creations: people who live not by the flesh, but by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Shape of Life in the Spirit: But what exactly gives shape to this life in the spirit? Let’s return to the text (vs.13-14)
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.”
So life by the Spirit takes the shape of love. And this love is of course not a gushy, feelings-based love our culture peddles in movies and tv shows, but a love that is willing to become a “slave to one another.” In other words, it is a cruciform love, marked by a radical humility and service to neighbor, which Paul defines even further towards the end of our passage when he lists the commonly called “fruit of the spirit.” As we close, it seems important to make a comment on the analogy of “fruit” of the Spirit.
I once heard a Pentecostal preacher say, “we need to focus on the roots, not the fruits.” In other words, “trying to be better” Christians will not work. When we spend time in prayer, in worship, in God’s Word, we develop the roots of deep faith, which ultimately manifest into the fruits of God’s work in our lives.
Richard B. Hays puts it well in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: The metaphor of fruit suggests one of Paul’s primary points. Fruit cannot be humanly manufactured; it can grow only organically, as God gives the growth—in this case, through the life-giving energy of the Spirit.”
So may we be the kind of people who turn away from a rigid legalism, but towards a Spirit-filled life of love, where our faith in God grows deep roots. Roots that enable our neighbors to see that fruit bearing in our hearts and our deeds.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
We are rapidly reaching the point in Western consumer societies where people confuse freedom with choice, as they are dazzled daily by an ever-expanding array of external choices in consumer goods and lifestyle options. But the pursuit of freedom has led to a surfeit of choices and a scarcity of meaning and value-a point at which choice itself, rather than the content of any choice, has become the heart of freedom. The result is that modern people value choice rather than good choice.
Taken from A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness Copyright (c) 2013 by Os Guinness. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Key Sermon Illustration
This excerpt by the writer David Foster Wallace was given as the commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.
This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement Speech: This is Water.