For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.Galatians 5:1
I think we can all agree that “freedom” is a very important word in our world today. An important word and concept in our country. At times, it is a controversial word, because we do not always agree on what freedom means, or what it should look like. But we can all agree that it is vitally important.
Freedom is also an important word in the Bible. The defining event in the Old Testament is the freeing of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. And in the New Testament, the defining event is arguably the freeing of God’s people from slavery to sin, death, and the devil. In today’s second reading (Galatians 5:1, 13-25), we have one of the more well-known passages about freedom in the New Testament, from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which is sometimes even called the “Epistle of Freedom.”
And so, I thought it would be worth our time this morning to consider this passage from Galatians, and to think about the freedom that Christ offers us, the freedom that we are called to, the freedom of the gospel. What is the freedom of the gospel? What does freedom mean to a Christian? Jesus tells us in John 8 that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” But what does Jesus set us free from? And what does he set us free for?
Three Freedoms Described by Martin Luther
Martin Luther, it turns out, wrote a lot about this subject – about freedom and how it relates to our Christian life. One of his famous works is actually called, “The Freedom of the Christian.” In Luther’s commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he also offers some important insights into the nature of our freedom. So this week, I looked back at his commentary on today’s second reading, Galatians 5, and especially its opening verse: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Martin Luther, writing on this particular passage, asks and answers a very simple but important question: what freedom? And Luther goes on to remind us that there are at least three different types of freedom.
First, there is political freedom. This is often what we think of when we think about freedom. And it is important. It is why we can be here this morning, worshiping God, without fear of the consequences. Our ancestors have died for this freedom. And the battle continues, in many parts of our world, for the political freedom that we enjoy here.
Political freedom is important. But this can’t be the freedom for which Christ set us free. He didn’t rescue Israel from political tyranny at the hands of Rome. His death and resurrection offered no more political freedom than they had before. They still had to pay taxes to Caesar. And many of Jesus’ own followers would eventually be killed by the Roman government. It wasn’t for political freedom that Christ set us free, says Luther.
Freedom of the Flesh
Neither was it for freedom of the flesh, says Luther. The freedom to do whatever we want, as long as it feels good. That’s a favorite freedom in our world today, isn’t it? It often seems as if that’s the only freedom that matters to popular culture. I find it kind of reassuring to know that it has been that way at least since the days of Luther, back in the 16th century. Listen to Luther’s words about this freedom, the freedom of the flesh, which sound as though they could have been written today:
“There is the freedom of the flesh, which is chiefly prevalent in the world. Those who have this obey neither God nor the laws but do what they please. This is the freedom which the rabble pursues today… We are not dealing with this [freedom] here, although it is the most widespread, and is the only goal and objective of the entire world.”
It’s maybe a little cynical to think that this is the only goal and objective of our world. But then again, I wouldn’t want to try and win a debate about this! And, at any rate, this is clearly not the freedom that Jesus came to bring us.
The Freedom of the Gospel
So if the freedom given to us by Jesus is not political freedom, and it’s not freedom of the flesh, then what is the freedom for which Christ has set us free? Listen to what Luther says about this:
“Christ has set us free, not for a political freedom or a freedom of the flesh but for a theological or spiritual freedom, that is, to make our conscience free and joyful, unafraid of the wrath to come. This is the most genuine freedom; it is immeasurable.
When the other kinds of freedom … are compared with the greatness and the glory of this kind of freedom, they hardly amount to one little drop. For who can express what a great gift it is for someone to be able to declare for certain that God neither is nor ever will be wrathful but will forever be a gracious and merciful Father for the sake of Christ? … Therefore the freedom by which we are free of the wrath of God forever is greater than heaven and earth and all creation.”
Of course, right? This is the freedom of the gospel, the freedom for which Christ died. To make us right with God through the forgiveness of our sins. This is the freedom that we celebrate every Sunday. This is the freedom that begins with confessing that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. But ends with hearing that Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. Yes! Jesus Christ has set us free from captivity to sin, death, and the devil. And if the Son sets us free, we will be free indeed.
Freedom from Fear of Death
Perhaps it is because of the recent deaths in my family, but it is striking to me how important it is to be freed from the fear of death. It is, truly, the only way to live. When you think about it, neither political freedom nor freedom of the flesh free us from the fear of death. We may have freedom from political tyranny. We may even have the freedom to do whatever they want. We may be wealthy, powerful, and privileged. But even then, somewhere in the back of our minds, we won’t be able to shake the realization that we are going to die. Not without the freedom of the gospel.
We can have all sorts of political freedom, all sorts of freedom of the flesh, but it amounts to nothing without the freedom of the gospel. Jesus Christ alone can offer us the freedom that truly matters. He alone can offer us freedom from captivity to sin; freedom from fear of death; and even freedom from the grip of evil. We are here today worshiping Him, because he has set us free from all of these powers.
Stand firm, therefore
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
St. Paul knew that this freedom was a gift easily lost; a blessing easily squandered. And so he reminds us to stand firm in that freedom; or we will find ourselves right back in that yoke of slavery. And it’s easy to do.
You might remember that back when this great country of ours finally gained its freedom from England, there was a movement to make George Washington our King. Why? Because that is what they knew. They wanted the security of having a King, even if it meant giving up their hard-fought freedom.
Or, think of those stories of prisoners who, after finally being released from prison, find this freedom so hard to live with that they try to figure out a way to get back into prison. Why? Perhaps because they prefer the security of knowing what to expect behind those prison walls; as opposed to the freedom and uncertainty out here in the world.
St. Paul knew that it would always be tempting to do this same sort of thing. To turn the freedom of the gospel back into something that we have to do to be saved. It would always be tempting to believe that there must be something that we have to do, that we can do, to earn their salvation. And so Paul reminds us in this letter to the Galatians not to submit again to that yoke of slavery.
Live By the Spirit
But there is another danger that St. Paul was worried about, which seems more prevalent today than ever before. In Verse 13 of our second reading, St. Paul writes:
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
One of the great dangers to we who have been given the freedom of the gospel is that we may confuse it with freedom of the flesh. We may be tempted to think that because we have been saved by God’s grace, we can do whatever we want and still enjoy the gift of salvation. So Paul warns us, in this passage, that our freedom is not of the flesh, but of the spirit. And so we should live by the Spirit, he says, and not gratify the desires of the flesh.
And what does it mean to live by the Spirit? Well, you know a tree by its fruit. And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no more wonderful description of what it means to live by the Spirit than that. There is no better description of what we have been set free for than that.
And so today, as we gather in freedom to worship the God and Father or our Lord Jesus Christ, I invite us to take some time to examine our lives, and the fruit that we are bearing. Is it love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If it is, then let us thank God for the gift of spiritual freedom, won for us by Jesus Christ himself. If it is not, then let us turn to Christ, and seek the gift of true spiritual freedom. It is for this freedom that Christ has set us free. For love, for joy, for peace, Christ has set us free. For patience, kindness, and generosity, Christ has set us free. For faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Amen.