Freedom in Christ one of the most important themes that flows through the New Testament. In my experience, however, freedom is also something that we don’t tend to talk about a lot as Christians. Maybe that is because the world around us uses freedom as an excuse to live a selfish life which is out of step with what God wants for his people. So, in the church, it seems that we often avoid talking about freedom in case people misunderstand us. However, because freedom is central to the life of following Jesus, it is critical that we have a good understanding of what Christian freedom is and how it can actually make life in this world better for us and for the people around us.
The central theme of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is freedom. So, for the next six weeks I would like to work our way through Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches so we can have a better understanding of what freedom in Christ looks like and we might be able to live in the joy that Christ’s freedom gives us.
Unlike other New Testament letters where Paul wrote to individual churches, Galatians was written to a group of churches in an area of modern Turkey which would have shared this letter. These congregations had groups of Jewish Christians telling others that to be saved they not only had to believe in the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them, but they also had to conform to the Jewish law regarding things like what foods to eat and circumcision.
When Paul opens his letter, he launches straight into the main reason for writing to them – that they were ‘following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all’ (v6b,7a NLT). Paul’s conviction is so strong that he calls down a curse from God ‘on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you’ (v8 NLT). And then, just in case they didn’t get it the first time, Paul goes on to repeat himself by saying again: ‘If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed’ (v9 NLT).
For Paul, the message of the gospel is critical in the life of the Christian because if anything is added to the gospel, it ceases to be good news for us. If there is one thing we have to do to earn salvation and new life in Christ, then it is no longer a gift from a loving God. The focus changes from what God wants to give us and do for us to what we have to do to earn his love. That displaces God from his rightful position as the giver of everything that is good, and we lose our freedom. For Paul, the purity of the gospel is vital because if the gospel is not free then it cannot set us free, and we remain slaves to the law, to the expectations of others, and ultimately to death. If, as Paul says in verse 4, the good news of the gospel is that ‘Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live’ (NLT), then if we have to add to Jesus’ work by doing anything to get it, we are no longer rescued and we remain trapped in this world where evil and death reign. If, however, Jesus has accomplished everything to rescue us, then we find freedom through faith in him.
We still need to hear Paul’s words today. We might not have factions within the church who are telling us that we need to conform to the Jewish laws and regulations to gain God’s salvation, but there are still people who want to add conditions to the gospel. They are like advertisements which promise something for free, but only if we fulfill certain conditions or conform to some sort of expectations. Some of these conditions or expectations can include as making a decision for Christ, achieving some sort of moral standard, experiencing a manifestation of the Spirit, displaying a certain spiritual gift, having membership with a particular religious organization, or worshiping in a certain way. The rules people add to the gospel in our time and place may be just as subtle and persuasive as they were in the Galatian churches in Paul’s day, but they still erode and even negate the gospel. For the gospel to make us free, it needs to be given to us freely for Jesus’ sake with no strings attached.
This freedom is so important for us as Christians that I will be journeying through Galatians over the next five weeks in my sermons. As we do this I will be drawing on a commentary written by Timothy Keller. He is very easy to understand, so if you would like to get a better understanding of the letter, you might like to purchase a copy of the book and read through it in conjunction with the sermons. I like what Keller says when he writes that the gospel of Jesus is not just the ABC of the Christian life, it is the A to Z. In other words, the gospel is not just something we need to understand to become a Christian, and then we get into meatier doctrines. Instead, the gospel is everything to us and the entire Christian life is exploring what it means to live in the freedom the gospel gives us.
In the coming weeks we will look more at what Paul said to the Galatian Christians, and through them to us, about living in the freedom that comes through faith in Jesus. This freedom is based on and grows out of faith in the gospel – that ‘Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live’ (v4). And as we will see in the coming weeks, the freedom that comes through faith in this free gift can make a huge difference to our lives.