“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.
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.
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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.
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.