“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” —Galatians 5:1
If justification by faith alone in Christ alone is the central doctrine of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, why is it hailed as the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty? Because as 5:1 demonstrates, justification by faith is bound to freedom as an attempt at justification by works is bound to slavery. Here we have the central commands of this letter: “stand firm” and “do not submit.” These are really one command. Standing firm is not submitting; not submitting is standing firm. This imperative flows from this gospel indicative, “for freedom Christ has set us free.” Christ, in whom we have this freedom, is laid hold of through faith; the Christ grasped through faith is our righteousness.
What is freedom? Certainly it is freedom from something. It is freedom from the law’s demands (3:23), the law’s curse (3:10), sin (3:22), and the elemental spirits of this world (4:3–9). We are freed from these things, but what are we freed to? Is our freedom only negative?
What is freedom? Consider this, one of the most famous works of Jonathan Edwards is his treatise The Freedom of the Will. One of the most famous of Martin Luther is The Bondage of the Will. What might surprise some is how harmonious the two are. It is all a question of what is meant by freedom. Luther, ever the blunt one, says that the will is in bondage to sin (i.e. John 8:34, Romans 6:17). Edwards, in his more sophisticated style, first says that the will freely does whatever it wants. The problem is, the only thing fallen man want’s to do is sin. Fallen man freely does as he wants, but his want-to is enslaved to sin. So, as Calvin says, to insist that such a will is “free” is to use a big word for a small thing.
What Edwards demonstrates is that being free to do whatever I want to do isn’t truly freedom. Yet, this is exactly what our modern, individualistic connotation of freedom is. As fallen a man, being free to do whatever you want is bondage to self—a self who is a damned fool. As a fish is free in water, so we are free when we bow to the Sovereign who is life, goodness, beauty, and truth. When a creature tries to play creator and cast off God’s Lordship, he embraces death, evil, ugliness, and lies. He embraces bondage. Bondage willingly embraced is the worst kind of bondage. The soul might be free when the wrists are shacked, but, though the wrists are unshackled, they are not free if the soul is chained.
So again, what is freedom? At its core is the redemption of Christ purchasing us unto Himself, so that we are counted righteous in Him, reconciled to God, and adopted as sons with all the benefits and promises thereof. But central to this freedom as Paul now wants to work it out is life in the Spirit. When Paul began laying down his defense of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in chapter 3 he asked, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Paul will bring this full circle in 5:16–18.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
What beautiful irony: walking by your own desires is bondage whereas walking by the Spirit is freedom. In the former we are under the law and break it. In the latter, we are free from the law and keep it. What is this life in the Spirit? It is living unto God by God. It is living as a creature in love and dependence on the Creator. It is not a life that strives for justification. It is a life that stems from justification.