Set Free

In Chains
November 13, 2014

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery… For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Galatians 5:1, 5-6

Some early Christians were trying to convince Gentile converts to Christianity that they should be circumcised. Circumcision was part of the covenant between God and His people, and the converts to Christianity were being grafted into that covenant family (a metaphor Paul himself uses in Romans 11), and so the “Judaizers” were merely asking them to keep up their end of the covenant bargain. ‘Welcome to the family,’ they are saying. “Now here’s what you should know about how this family acts.”

We tend to decry these people for their legalism, and their lack of appreciation for God’s free gift of grace. But imagine how hard it must have been for these people, having grown up being taught that God wants them to look, act, and live a certain way, to suddenly be told that that same God no longer cared about those things. This new religion seems not just too easy, but too lax. It let people off the hook too much. We can almost hear them think: “Some grace is wonderful (no one is perfect after all), but too much grace replaces religion with anarchy, with lawlessness.”

All the Judaizers were worried about, really, is that Paul removed certain requirements from God’s will because he wanted to make the gospel message more appealing to Gentiles. And how often today do we not hear that same charge levelled at well-meaning (though perhaps misguided) Christians who are eagerly selling a vision of Christianity to people who would otherwise not want anything to do with it?

“Well no wonder that’s popular,” we hear. “It promises all of the rewards, but asks none of the commitment. Where’s the regular devotional life? Where’s the call for church attendance, tithing, and serving on committees? Where’s the call for continuing to think what’s true, even when it becomes unpopular? For holding the line on the hot button issues, so that we stand out as authentic Christian voices, speaking truth to power? Where is the personal sacrifice, giving something up for God and the faith?”

But here again the words of Paul: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Paul is telling us as plainly as he knows how that being a Christian does not ask anything of us, because God has already demanded everything of Christ. There is no way we need to act, no things we need to do, no commitment we need to live up to. Why not?

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

That is quite a compact summary of the gospel: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

God has high standards—and Christ has already met and exceeded them. Let us live in the freedom that comes from being released of all expectations. Let’s stop being obsessed with being ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘different.’ Instead, let us use our newfound freedom in Christ to love boldly everything and everyone that God puts in our lives.

Dear God,
You had a great and wonderful plan for us, for this world, but we ruined it. Thank you for fixing the mess that we made, for freeing us from the chains we lock ourselves into. And thank you for not putting new chains in their place. Help us adjust to this life of freedom, so that we may learn to live as children and not as slaves. Help us love boldly. In a world in which nothing is free, and everything comes with some strings attached, help us to show what it means to have our chains broken, and to express your love to all who seek it. In your son’s name we pray, Amen.

About the Author
  • Neal DeRoo is founding editor of in All things and Associate Professor of Philosophy at The King’s University in Edmonton.

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  1. You rightly hit on the fact that we should be more sympathetic to the position of the rival missionaries in Galatia, Neal. In fact, I think this raises a tough question: why exactly is Paul so angry (see Gal 5:12!) at the idea of observing the Law, which he himself declares “holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12)? It is about the freedom ushered in by Christ, as you point out. And I’d add that we need to take more seriously the “apocalyptic” understanding of the gospel in Paul’s thought. The reason that Paul will not compromise is because nothing less than the world-transforming power of the gospel is at stake. The ways that we divide the world (Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female [Gal 3:28], and let’s add our own, rich/poor, republican/democrat, etc.) have been taken away in the cross. There remains only a new world for those “in Christ,” so when we go back to those old ways of dividing the world we, according to Paul, effectively deny the gospel itself.

  2. The St. Paul who says this also says a lot about what types of people and behaviors are unacceptable and damning. How do you reconcile that, or simply the social and political necessity of taking stands and sometimes sides, to the exclusion of others?

    Let me hint at my answer and the deeper question/problem: do people, even those who claim Christ, really want the gospel? There is an extreme wisdom in Dostoevsky’s “grand inquisitor” who tells Christ that hardly anyone wants the burden of responsibility that comes with the freedom of the gospel. Those few who can bear that freedom must build and offer the church to the masses as a religious substitute for faith in the Pauline sense. The responsible thing to do is to lessen or take away the burden of personal freedom and responsibility that most people cannot handle.

    1. Anthony, when you say the ‘responsible’ thing to do, what do you mean by ‘responsible’? That is, responsible to whom or on what register: ethically responsible? politically? religiously? morally?

      I ask because I wonder if Christ’s response to the Grand Inquisitor (paralleled by Alyosha’s response to Ivan who tells the story) might also be the best response Paul could give to your critique here: to simply give you a kiss, in an act of forgiveness and love. Of course, such a response does not work on the same register as the one in which the critique/problem is posed, but therein you have the problem or the issue: for what purpose (or on what register) does Paul make the condemnations he makes? Why is he so upset with the Judaizers here, for example? As Ben poses above: “Why is Paul so angry at observing the Law?” Given what he says in ensuing chapters, it clearly isn’t following the Law that he has the problem with–it’s that the Judaizers were wanting to replace Christ’s gospel with something else (slavery to obedience).

      I wonder if we can look at the complex relationship between judgment and grace, between exclusion and embrace (to borrow the title of Volf’s book), in a similar vein. Perhaps God always greets us with forgiveness, exemplified in the ‘holy kiss.’ Perhaps, we, too, ought to greet each other always with forgiveness. But this ‘ought’ operates on a particular register; on the other registers in which we also operate (e.g., judicially, politically, etc.) we have other responsibilities. I can (morally) condemn actions I think inappropriate; I can even move (politically or judiciously) to ensure that those actions cannot be repeated; but I can nonetheless forgive the perpetrator of those actions.

      To cast religion primarily in the light of (social or political) freedom v. responsibility might be already to miss the (primary) point of the Christian impulse. Christianity is not primarily a social or political system–it is a relationship with God that has (sometimes unpredictable) effects throughout the whole of life. This, after all, is Dostoevskey’s point with the rest of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, from which The grand Inquisitor chapter is taken: ultimately, Dmitri (the oldest Karamazov brother) opts for the active love (embodied in Alyosha) over the socio-political freedom/responsibility conundrum (embodied in Ivan).

      But this does not get Dmitri out of having to go to prison. He is forgiven–but still punished by the state.

      1. I would say the inquisitor’s position is responsible in every category, but Christ is responsible only to love in the most radical and pure sense. Of course no social order can exist on that basis — that of a purely spiritual morality — but we need Christ to see this as society’s great defect or tragic flaw. Isn’t the importance of Dmitri due to the fact that there are and always will be only a few of him? As Nietzsche said, there was one Christian and he died on the cross.

        I believe the shorthand for your idea of morally condemning someone’s actions, politically or juridically trying to constrain those actions, and still “forgiving” the person is “love the sinner, hate the sin.” In practice the negative tends to eclipse the positive, so it has come to be seen as a glib and insincere bit of rhetoric. Such compartmentalization of the political and the moral from “personhood” is not really faithful to the wholeness of social human life and the primary importance of what is true and right. In fact it may be a type of inhumane violence. What could “loving the interracial couple but hating the sin of their marriage” mean in southern states up into the 1960s? The love seems not to be directed toward examination of foregone conclusions where personal values and judgments are assumed to be God’s also.

        1. I was not advocating a simple ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ position. Rather, I was trying to better understand or analyze the issue by pointing out that one action can be simultaneously God-honoring (on some levels) and not God honoring (on others). Hence, no action is wholly sinful or unsinful, but is rather a mix of both. Granted, this, too, can be oversimplified, made cliché, abused, and then dismissed. But certainly we shouldn’t abandon a position merely because it can be abused. If we were forced to abandon any stance that could/had been misused, we would have nowhere left to stand.

          Your claim about compartmentalization is a good one. Of course none of these levels can be wholly removed from the concept of personhood, which functions in all those registers. Still, to fail to adequately distinguish between the registers also does a disservice to personhood, as it threatens to either reduce all personhood to one or two elements of personality (and the ‘person’ becomes shorthand for the political citizen or the moral subject) or it aggrandizes personhood to the extent that any critique whatsoever becomes a direct attack on personhood (so I’m unable to disagree with you politically or theologically without it being construed as being against your very person).

          In light of the article, we could say that it’s important to acknowledge that one’s views on gender have political, theological, moral, social (and probably other) roots as well. Questioning any one of those levels is not inherently an attack on the entire person–but it does also strike at an element of them. Hence, the need to be careful in dialogue–but also the need to continue talking.