“It was for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Gal 5:1)
But what does that freedom look like?
I remember the party when we were leaving secondary school, joyfully cutting up our school ties and pledging eternal friendship with blue marker pens on each other’s white shirts.
In a way, I guess, we were celebrating our freedom from what seemed an oppressive regime.
But imagine if the following week you came downstairs in your uniform again (tie sewn back together, shirt scrubbed)…. Imagine if you caught the same bus and attended the same lessons, and did the same homework.
And the teacher pulls you aside and says, “Uh, you really don’t have to do this anymore! It’s no longer appropriate. You’re free of it now.”
There’s simply no going back to the old way of doing things.
According to Paul, this new freedom from old restrictions is something for which we have to contend, to insist upon. “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.”
So we cannot allow anyone to slip the old uniform back on us again. And don’t put it on yourself!
Of course, Paul’s issue was with circumcision and with the idea that for these young believers in Galatia, following Christ was part of a wider idea of following the rules and regulations of the Jewish covenant.In fact, it’s the other way around: those old regulations were only the shadow which point to the real thing, the substance, which is Christ. Christ is the Big Picture. Or, if you like, Christ is the sea, and the Law was just a river that led you there. So don’t trade the bigness of this new life for the old narrow “rule-keeping system.”
“I am emphatic about this. The moment any one of you submits to circumcision or any other rule-keeping system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered. I repeat my warning: The person who accepts the ways of circumcision trades all the advantages of the free life in Christ for the obligations of the slave life of the law.”
When I look back at those shenanigans with the school uniform now, it all seems pretty ridiculous. I find myself rolling my eyes at my childish antics. And that’s just how Paul regarded the Law. Here’s his devastating rebuttal in chapter 4:
“What I am saying is that as long as an heir is under age, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were under age, we were in slavery…But …God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. …So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.”
We’re past all that silly stuff! I’m no longer a slave, I’m a son, an heir with rights, privileges and responsibilities.
But if I attempt to live by my own religious plan and projects then I cut myself off from grace. I “fall out of grace.” There’s only the two ways, the Law-way and the Grace-way:
“Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.”
So here’s the clue. Here’s what Grace-life looks like. It looks like faith expressing itself in love. There’s much more to come (at the end of the chapter) but consider this for a moment.
I read somewhere that this was John Wesley’s favourite verse; that he saw the whole of the Gospel in the phrase “Faith expressed in love.”
I like that. Faith is the motive power. Faith that Christ has redeemed you and changed you, and called you His own. It’s not something that you could do, but something that He has done for you. It is finished. You are a joint-heir with Him of all that He has accomplished.
And love is the consequence. Love is the way you live because of what Christ has done for you.
“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died…
Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Love demands that I live in love. And the Spirit that God puts within us enables us to express this in our lives: And “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Do we have to follow some rule, put our name on some rota, or strive harder in some way? No, no: “Against such things there is no law.” No law at all! Imagine that.
But don’t we have to try at all? After all, we mentioned John Wesley who must have been one of the most driven workaholics in history! Even the name “Methodist” testifies to that organised, dutiful, systematic approach to life.
And Wesley said, “Let me not live to be useless.” And his familiar principle was “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can.In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
And he not only said it, he lived it out.
But there’s a difference between healthy striving and a kind of fake perfectionism as if you have to keep proving yourself “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
There is no law for us! We are not working for our salvation. We are working from it. And Wesley saw all this in the word “Expressed.” Faith is expressed in love in something of the same way that the energy of the plant (seed, roots, stem…. In Dylan Thomas’ phrase: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”
And the New Testament testifies to this energy of grace:
“Woe to me if I preach not the gospel…”
“The love of Christ constrains us…”
“Go into all the world…”
The whole of the book of Acts is a glorious exposition of the truth that love is an active verb. This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free.