What Is “Freedom in Christ”?

Freedom in Christ
Freedom in Christ
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In New York Harbor stands a giant copper statue, 150 feet high — mounted on a base that’s another 150 feet high, putting the torch of “Lady Liberty,” as some call her, more than 300 feet above the ground. This “Statue of Liberty” was a gift to the United States, from France, in 1876, marking 100 years since the Declaration of Independence. The statue was dedicated ten years later, in 1886, and has become a worldwide symbol of freedom — of liberty — for more than 130 years.

But we might ask, Freedom from what? The idea of liberty, of freedom, has taken on a life of its own in the modern world, and it can be easy to lose track of the context of freedom. Freedom from what, and for what?

The founding fathers of the United States had a particular oppressor in mind when they cried for liberty: English rule. And more specifically for the U.S. founders, freedom meant government on the consent of the governed, rather than the authority of kings. Yet, in the struggle for independence from Britain, the founders were not afraid to speak of Liberty in grandiose terms:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The sound of liberty in human ears is a powerful tonic, sometimes healing genuine ills, and other times acting as a poison. The cry for freedom can produce both peaceful elections and mob violence. What began with national freedom from foreign rule can quickly devolve into a cry of freedom against our own chosen government when it turns out we don’t like something. The cry for freedom, unchecked, soon pines for individual “liberty” from any outside “authority,” however human, or divine.

In 1992, Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is a sweeping, expansive claim, which might have stunned even the most liberal of the founders. And that was thirty years ago.

Jesus Breaks The Chain
Jesus Breaks The Chain

Declaration of Freedom

Yet as modern as the emphasis on personal liberty may seem, the cry for liberty is far more ancient than modern liberalism, or the mobs of the French Revolution, or the principled documents of the U.S. founders. More than 1700 years earlier, the apostle Paul, at the climax of his letter to the Galatians, made his great declaration for freedom. Which means that the Christian cry for liberty — for Christian freedom — far predates the cries that inform and distort the popular sense of liberty today.

Paul writes in Galatians 5:1,

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

This cry for freedom captures the heart of Paul’s burden in the letter. The first half of the verse, the declaration of freedom, anticipates the rest of the letter, from Galatians 5:13–6:10, and the freedom of the Christian life. And the second half of verse 1, the exhortation to stand firm, captures the key truth of Galatians 2:16–4:7: full acceptance with God is by faith in Jesus Christ.

The second half of verse 1, then, leads to verses Galatians 5:2–4; and the first half of verse 1 leads to Galatians 5:5–6, Paul comes back to the first part of verse 1. So, there are two distinct emphases in this text: we might call them “freedom from” (verses 1–4) and “freedom for” (verse 1 and 5–6).

The question for us this morning is this: What is Christian freedom? And this passage answers in two clear parts. And then we’ll find at the end a third aspect that is more subtle, and easy to miss, and so perhaps all the more important to draw out.

So, what is Christian freedom?

Freedom From

First, Paul is clear about what Christian freedom is freedom from. Look again at Galatians 5:2–4:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Remember, as we’ve seen throughout Galatians, the issue in this letter is justification, that is, how you get right, and stay right, with God. On what grounds, and by what means, might sinners like us be fully accepted by God, and have right-standing with him?

Paul’s answer, as we’ve seen, is that justification is by faith alone. Your full acceptance by God, your right-standing with God, is (1) based on the work of Christ alone and (2) accessed and received through faith alone. For justification before God, we cannot combine our doing with Christ’s as the basis, nor our doing with believing as the instrument. We both “get in” right relationship with God, and — this is important — “stay in,” by faith alone.

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So in verses 2–4 Paul issues a succession of three warnings, because it takes vigilance to distinguish between justification and other realities in the Christian life.

Freedoms to Be Defended

Paul says, “stand firm” in verse 1. Freedom is a calling he will say in verse 13; Christian freedom, grounded in justification by faith, is a freedom to be defended. It is not enough to start by faith, and then add works-righteousness. And it also takes care to not presume and apply faith alone in improper ways.

For instance, when a parent says to a child, “Clean your room,” we should not assume that is not works-righteousness. The presenting issue is not right-standing before God. The issue is obedience to parents and a fruitful household. That is, unless the parent makes it an issue of works-righteousness by saying, “If you do not clean your room, then you’re going to hell.” If that were the case, the Christian child or teen would have every right to say, “Dear Dad, I cannot earn God’s full acceptance by cleaning my room. I can only get right and be right with God by faith alone in Christ alone. I will obey you, because you are my father, but this is not an issue of justification before God.”

So, as Christians who love and delight in the freedom we have in Christ through justification by faith, we will want to take care to be vigilant in what pressures we put on others, and what pressures we allow others to put on us, and on what terms. To stand firm, and defend justification before God, we want to keep it clear in our minds and words.

Freedom from Circumcision

Christian freedom, then, is freedom from what? We have seen in this letter that justification by faith frees us from sin (Galatians 3:22), and from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13; and from the elementary principles of the world, Galatians 4:3). Christ’s sacrifice covers our sins, and frees us from the guilt of our sins, and increasingly from the power of our sins.

The most immediate freedom from in these verses is freedom from circumcision. Galatians 5:2 is the first time in this letter that Paul has mentioned circumcision, but this is the flashpoint in Galatia. Because of the pressure from the false teachers, the Galatian Christians seem to have already added the Jewish festivals to their Christianity (Galatians 4:10), and are contemplating accepting circumcision as the decisive step of taking up old-covenant law. So, circumcision represents taking the yoke of old-covenant law, believing it to be a necessary step to belong to God’s people and be found “righteous” on the day of judgment.

So, in verse 2, Paul says, in essence, “If I could just say one thing to you . . .” He says, “Look: I, Paul . . .” In other words, Listen, it’s me. You know me. I brought the gospel to you. Listen up. I’ll shoot you straight: “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” It’s not because circumcision is wrong or damnable in itself. But, in this instance, accepting circumcision would mean that the Galatians now believe that Christ, and faith in him, is not enough to be right with God, and so, to be circumcised would be to rebel against God and Christ. That’s the first warning.

Freedom from the Law

Then a second warning in Galatians 5:3: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” When Paul says keep there, the word is literally do. In this situation, where the old-covenant law, through circumcision, has been made an issue (by the false teachers) of right-standing with God, to embrace it is to turn from Christ and his new covenant.

They cannot just add circumcision; to turn there is to turn to the whole law. And now that Christ has come, there is no longer a valid sacrificial system there that God accepts. If you “add the law,” you must do the law perfectly. And you cannot do the old-covenant law perfectly. For that matter, you cannot do all the new-covenant commands either, but in the new covenant we have Christ. In the new covenant, we have his provision for our sins. And so we do weekly confession every Sunday as a church. We fail every week. Every day. We cannot get or keep ourselves right with God by or through our doing.

Freedom from Earning Righteousness

Then, a third and final warning in Galatians 5:4: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” “Grace” here, as with doing in verse 3, gets at the underlying issue. We’ve talked in this series about “law” meaning the old covenant, and not law or commands in general. We’ve emphasized the shift in the epochs of history, from old covenant to new. But this letter is not only about old covenant versus new. A second problem lies behind that: doing versus believing, for right-standing with God. Or, earning versus grace.

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To accept circumcision, Paul says, will be to fall from grace, because circumcision represents an adding to Christ for justification and unavoidably introduces law and doing into the grace and faith of being right with God through Christ.

“Living the Christian life by grace means that we get and stay in right relationship with God by faith alone.”

What does it mean, then, practically, to live the Christian life by this grace when there are commands in the new covenant? Every Sunday at our church, we rehearse Jesus’s Great Commission to teach all nations to observe all that he commanded. Living the Christian life by grace means that, at bottom, we get and stay in right relationship with God by faith alone, based on Christ alone.

And as we obey Christ’s commands (which we do, increasingly from the heart!), and as we access God’s voice daily in his word, and respond to him in prayer, and gather with this body on Sundays to worship and during the week for fellowship, we do not seek to secure or maintain our standing with God by our doing, but our efforts, our lives, our obedience from faith are channels of God’s ongoing grace to us. Not obligations for justification, but expressions of what we call sanctification. Which leads, then, to what our freedom is for.

Freedom For

Remember, the first half of verse 1 (“For freedom Christ has set us free”) is picked up in verses 5–6. Verse 2 was Paul’s one, direct word of exhortation, about freedom from — from sin, from law, from the curse and death, and from trying to earn God’s acceptance. Now verses 5–6 celebrate freedom for what and summarize the whole letter, from beginning to end — and note the emphasis on faith:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Our first question might be, What’s this “waiting for the hope of righteousness”? In Christ, don’t we already, by faith, have right-standing with God?

So far in Galatians the emphasis has been on the past (Christ’s completed work) and present (we are justified, now, by faith). What’s this future aspect?

Future Hope of Freedom

First, we should clarify that “hope” in English sounds far more uncertain in our ears than “hope” in Greek (elpis) did to the Galatians. And hope, as deep confidence, not a thin wish, fits here with a future aspect of justification, when it is indeed by faith.

Paul has the final judgment in view in verse 5, and he does not change his emphasis on faith. Faith in Christ is how we now enjoy full acceptance with God and how we will be found in the right at the end. We enter by faith, stay in by faith, and will be confirmed by faith. Same basis: Christ’s work, not ours. Same instrument: our faith, not our doing. What hope then remains for the future? God’s public declaration of our righteousness in Christ, by faith, for all to know, at the final judgment, confirmed by real evidence of change in our lives.

Freedom for Enjoying God

So, what, then, about freedom for? Paul says in Galatians 5:5 that this is “through the Spirit,” which is critical in understanding Christian freedom. The Holy Spirit changes us. He takes out the old, natural heart of stone, and puts in a heart of flesh. He gives us new desires. He begins his lifelong sanctifying work in us, and we become new. He frees us to be adopted as sons and daughters.

And he frees us for the inheritance of all things, which means that freedom in Christ — freedom for — includes “the things of earth” that God has given us to enjoy him. In Christ, through the Spirit, we are free to enjoy God’s good gifts to the full — which means receiving those gifts consciously from his hand, and tracing the gift to the Giver. And there’s more.

The great new-covenant prophecy in Jeremiah 31 captures so well the “freedom from” and “freedom for” of the Christian life. In Christ, we have freedom from: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). And listen to how Jeremiah casts the freedom for:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts (new desires, by the Spirit!). And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:33–34)

“Christian freedom is for enjoying what we were made for — who we were made for: God in Christ.”

Christian freedom is freedom for knowing God. For being his, and having him as ours. Through the Spirit, we are freed for holiness, freed for true life, freed to be sons and daughters in the happiest family, freed to enjoy the inheritance of everything, and to enjoy Jesus now and forever. Christian freedom is for enjoying finally and forever what we were made for — who we were made for: God in Christ.

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Freedom With

But there is one final reality in this text to understand Christian freedom. And this is Paul’s accent at the end of verse 6:

In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Paul is not here saying love justifies us before God. He is saying that the faith that justifies us before God is the kind of faith that “works through love.” It is an active (not lazy) faith, a lively (not dead) faith, a Spirit-empowered (not self-mustered) faith. And this love (for others) is a freedom, not a burden. In Christ, we have been freed to love. Which means, third and finally, Christian freedom is not only freedom from , and not only freedom for, but also freedom with.

Jump down to Galatians 5:13:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

Note the confirmations of our first two points: (1) we are called to freedom. Freedom from earning God’s acceptance through our doing, and freedom from sin, and law, and death is not optional, but essential. And (2) freedom is for joy, for holiness, for life, for knowing God — not “an opportunity for the flesh” but life in the Spirit. And then finally, (3) freedom with: “through love serve one another.”

Justification by faith frees us to love others. It frees us from the burden of earning our standing with God. It frees us from being fixated on our status and deeds. And it liberates us, then, to love others — to give attention to their needs, and take the initiative, and expend effort, to meet them.

And not only is Christian freedom for loving others, but it is a freedom with others. This is the subtle point in the text: we’re not alone. Verse 1, “us.” Verse 5, “we.” Verse 6, “love [others].” Verse 13, serve “one another.” And we’ll see in the coming weeks, verse 15, “one another” twice more. And then, verse 26, “one another” two more times. And Galatians 6:10, “especially the household of faith.”

Freedom Together

Christian freedom is freedom together. It is not the kind of liberty that moves us away from each other, to protect our rights, and guard our little packages of liberty. But it is a freedom together, a freedom with, a freedom that is greater and more enjoyable with others. In Christ, we are free to serve others, bless others, love each other; we are freed from self-justification, self-focus, selfishness. We are free to make the happy choice to not exercise some personal right, at times, for the sake of love, as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 9–10: “though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all.”

“Justification by faith frees us to love others.”

And the freedom of joy together through love is a greater freedom than self-focus. The sweetest, most enjoyable freedom is not alone but together — and often is enjoyed by denying ourselves some personal “rights,” or lesser freedoms, for the sake of others and enjoying the greater joys and greater freedom of love. Freedom with is far greater joy than freedom solo.

So, we come together to the Table. The Lord’s Supper is a table both of liberty and union. Liberty in that we have been set free from our sin and death and hell, and free from the burden of earning God’s acceptance. And we have been set free for life in the Spirit and the joy of holiness and love. And we have been set free together. There is unity in our liberty in Christ.

We call this Communion because in this Table we draw near to, not away from, both Christ and each other.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Rich Wounds: The Countless Treasures of the Life, Death, and Triumph of Jesus (2022).

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