Christians are free from the law and free for holiness – Galatians 5:16-26, Part 2

In the United States we often say, “It’s a free country, I can do what I want.” But that’s not true. Yes, the USA is a free country, but people are not free to do whatever they want. We have TONS of laws, and if you break a law you will face the consequences. We also lock people up, taking away their freedom, if they break certain laws. Christians also have a similar phrase that goes like this: “I am free in Christ!” It sounds really good to have a life of freedom. But how free are we? Do Christians say, “We are free in Christ,” but actually have laws too? It can seem that way, and frankly become quite confusing. In this post, we’ll try to follow Paul’s teaching in Galatians to sort it out.

This week we are studying Galatians 5:16-26, the passage of Scripture which introduces us to the Fruit of the Spirit. In the previous post, I mentioned that a month ago we studied Galatians 1, verse 1 all the way through Galatians 5, verse 15. It was a kind of overview of the letter to the Galatians Christians. We learned that there were some people in the Galatians churches who believed that non-Jews (commonly referred to as Gentiles), when they became Christians, also needed to become Jewish by observing the Mosaic Law. Why? In the previous post you can read their rationale more fully, but the brief summary is the Jews believed the Gentile Christians, if they didn’t start observing the Mosaic Law, would become lawbreakers. To those Jews’ very important concerns for the Christians’ behavior, Paul says, “I disagree with you…but I also hear you.”  Read Galatians 5, verses 13-15, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Galatians 5, verses 13-15 is an important transitional section in the letter, as Paul answers his critics and moves toward an important conclusion.  Here’s how Paul responds to the people who think that being free from the Law will result in Christians doing terrible things.  Again, he says two things in response: (1) “I disagree with you,” and (2) “I hear you.” First, he says, “I disagree with you. Christians are free from the Old Testament Law.  We do not need to obey the Old Testament Law.”  Hold on a minute.  Really, Paul?  None of it?  What about the Ten Commandments?  Surely we have to obey the Ten Commandments, don’t we?  You are going to say that we need to obey the Ten Commandments, aren’t you, Joel? 

Nope.  Nowhere in the New Testament do we read anything other than “You are free from the Law.”  There is no teaching by Jesus, Paul or any of the other writers that says, “You are free from the Law, except the Ten Commandments. Those you still must follow.”  Some people disagree with me, and they describe it this way.  “We are free from the ritual law and ceremonial law, but not the moral law.  What they mean is that Christians don’t have to practice all the rituals, like the sacrificial system, and all the cleanliness laws, and the hundreds of other laws that make Judaism what it is.  But,” they say, “the moral law is different, because that is the foundation of the law, and every other law is based on the Ten Commandments.  So, you’re wrong, Joel. Christians do still have to follow the Ten Commandments.”

That might sound good, except that neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor any of the New Testament writers say anything like that.  In fact, when people asked Jesus what the greatest commands of the Law are (see Matthew 22:37-40), he could have said, “The Ten Commandments,” but he didn’t.  When asked what the greatest commands of the Law are, he didn’t mention any of the Ten Commandments.  Instead, he said there are other commands that sum up the Law for us.  “The most important command is, Love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself,” which is the very law that Paul refers to in Galatians 5, verse 14. 

If this is making you nervous, thinking, “Woah, Joel, are you really saying that it is okay for us to disobey the Ten Commandments?  Are you saying that we can make idols, lie, steal, commit murder and adultery?”  Of course that is not what I am saying.  What I am getting at is what Paul clearly writes.  We are free from the Law, every single command of the Old Testament Law.  But as Paul says in verse 13, we are not free to indulge the sinful nature.  This is the second part of his argument in Galatians, and it leads to what he will say in the rest of the chapter.  Paul’s point is this: The Law can still be of use to us, because it shows us the heart of God.  Every Old Testament Law teaches us something about who God is, and how we can love him and love our neighbors. 

Furthermore, 9 of the 10 Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, which means that we do follow those nine.  You know which one is not repeated?  #4.  Keep the Sabbath.  Christians do not have a sabbath day.  Sunday is not the sabbath.  There is no New Testament teaching that says we need to take a 24-hour period of rest from work each week.  What we do learn from the principle of Sabbath though, is that God’s heart desire his people to be sabbath-minded people.  That means we trust in him, rather than trust in our own ability to work and make money.  We are to be dependent on him, rather than self-sufficient.  Then of course we set aside time for rest, for worship, for family, for enjoyment.  Sabbath is so much more than a 24-hour period.  We do not need to follow a legalistic Sabbath, we need to follow the principle of sabbath which flows from God’s heart.

All this to say, we Christians are free from the law, but we are free for a new purpose of righteousness and holiness, to pursue the way the Jesus lived.  That’s the second part of Paul’s response, “I hear you.” The Jews were correct to be concerned about selfish, sinful living. So he says that Christians are not free to indulge the sinful nature. Instead we should look to Jesus as our example for how to live. To live that kind of life, though, can seem impossible.  Live like Jesus? Wasn’t he perfect? We think we could never be like that. So we take a different route, the legal route. Why? It is much, much easier to set up a list of laws to follow.  It is much more difficult to experience transformation so that we follow the way of Jesus. 

Let me explain with a phrase from the Old Testament. There are numerous times when God told his people, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  What does God mean?  Is he saying that he set up this vast system of laws, but didn’t really care if they followed it?  That’s contradictory.  And we know God is a consistent God.  Let me try to explain what God means, and I think you’ll see how important this is to understanding Paul’s argument that we are both free from the law, and free to pursue holy living. 

God told the people that he desired mercy, not sacrifice, because at the time, the people of Israel were just going through the motions of following the ceremonial laws.  Every Saturday, which was their sabbath day, they would bring a sacrifice to the temple, where the priest would sacrifice it.  Every Saturday, they would go to the tabernacle, hear the readings of Scripture, sing songs, and prayer.  And they kept doing it week after week.  In fact, they kept going through the religious motions on Saturday, their sabbath, while throughout the rest of the week, they were living lifestyles that were not consistent with the Law.  They were thinking that sacrifices were all God wanted. That he just cared about them going through the rituals, making the sacrifices each week.  As if God took pleasure in the death of perfectly healthy animals. Or perhaps he was hungry? No! But they kept offering the sacrifices anyway, wrongly thinking that’s what God wanted. So it wasn’t a big deal to them that they were jerks all throughout the rest of the week, practicing injustice such as paying their workers poor wages, cheating, stealing, lying.  God says, “No, no, no…I don’t actually want your sacrifices, I want your hearts.  I want you to become different people.”

God doesn’t want us to just check things off a list.  Go to church?  Check.  Give 10% of my income to the church?  Check.  Pray before meals?  Check.  Those are all good things, but they aren’t what God really wants.  That’s what he means when he says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  God wants us to become different people.  God wants us to change. God wants us to live lives of justice, lives that are in line with his heart.  If you’re a jerk at home, at work, or with your friends, don’t think that God just wants you to go to church and that other stuff doesn’t matter.  There’s 168 hours in the week.  For God, they all matter. 

Here’s the thing: just keeping the law won’t change us into people who are living how God wants us to live during all 168 hours.  Paul says the Law was powerless to change us.  We can keep the law and look good on the outside doing it, but inside, our hearts and minds can be a mess.  God wants to change us from the inside out.  Because when your insides are changed, the fact that you are free from the law won’t matter.  If your insides are filled with love, then you will love.  You won’t need a law to tell you to love.  You’ll be so Jesus-minded, Jesus-living, that his love will flow from within you.

That idea of people being changed inwardly is exactly where Paul is headed, and we’ll begin learning about that in the next post.

Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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