Free Spirit vs. Freedom of the Spirit (Galatians 5:1–6)

“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.

The Most Shocking Letter in the Ancient World? (Philemon 1–7)

When one reads through the Bible each year, while Exodus lasts a matter of weeks, and Ezekiel seems to never end, Philemon is mist soon forgotten. It is read one day a year and with a few other chapters from another book. But what we are so quick to pass over might have been one of the most shocking letters in the ancient world.

The nature of one’s slavery in the Roman Empire depended on the nature of their lord. A slave’s lot might be such that he is envied by many free men, or, it might be horrid beyond our comprehension. The slave/lord relationship would most often be dominated by fear. Lords fearing their slaves and slaves their masters. Slaves comprised upwards of a third of the Roman Empire. Most were owned by few, and no double many of the non-elite would side with the slaves. Though over a century past, Spartacus’ slave rebellion was an indelible cultural memory. Once that rebellion was quelled, some six thousand captives were crucified lining the Appian Way, the major highway to Rome, for over a hundred miles. Roman men were taught to dominate their households and ensure the submission of their slaves by whatever force necessary.

A runaway slave being returned to their master could expect the harshest of treatment and likely death. But, here is Philemon, returning, not by force, but willingly, with a letter from Paul, asking that his lord receive him as a brother.

This kind of thing can only happen in Christ. Paul doesn’t attack slavery head on. He attacks no social evil in this way. Sinners gotta sin. Outside of Christ, all is Babel. In Christ, there is Pentecost. Outside of Christ, man doesn’t understand man, man is fearful of man, and man is against man. Outside of Christ fear rules the relations of men. Outside of Christ, the powerful enslave the weak in a multitude of ways. Outside of Christ, even brothers kill one another. But in Christ, Pentecost has brought the different together. In Christ, Jew and Gentile, slave and free sup around one table as brothers with their Lord serving them. In Christ, we are speaking and hearing one message—Jesus. Only in Jesus do we see reconciliation and forgiveness of this magnitude and we see it in Jesus because it is dwarfed by that which we have received in Him.

A Call for Slavery (Colossians 3:22–4:1)

While some are repulsed by the command for a wife to submit to her husband, many ignore the command for slaves to obey their masters. They’d rather act like it’s not there, like dust quickly brushed under the rug as the guests approach. We wear the Bible’s slavery passages like a stain we got on our white shirt on the way to a job interview. We sit awkwardly trying to hide it.

The embarrassment goes as deep as our translations. It is as though a coverup is afoot made easy by a prior historical fumble. The Latin servus was used to translate the Greek doulos. The Latin then crossed over into the early English translations as “servant.”

Many modern English translations now used a mixture of slave, bondservant, and servant. When it comes to passages where cause for offense might be most intense, translators often waffle and default to servant or bondservant. Doulos, means slave. Every time. No exceptions. Murray J. Harris writes:

“In New Testament Greek there are at least six terms that are often translated or could be translated by the English word ‘servant.’ But only one New Testament word—doulos—has the distinctive meaning of ‘slave’, and this word occurs 124 times in the New Testament.”

The ESV translates this same word as “slave” in 3:11 and there is absolutely no reason to do otherwise in 3:22. At the close of chapter 3 Paul is speaking precisely to those just addressed as slaves and the free lords they serve.

The term slave should cause us to blush at our national heritage, but not at our Biblical heritage. Put shame where it belongs, on sinful men, not the Holy Word of God. Do not ever be embarrassed at the Scriptures. We shouldn’t blush to take any portion of God’s Word on our lips. If there is any right to embarrassment, the Word of God should blush to be on our lips. We are the stain. God’s Word is pure.

There is a radical difference between a slave and a servant. Most notably, servants are hired, whereas slaves are owned. Some argue for a translation of “servant” because ancient slavery was different from modern slavery and they fear an anachronistic reading of our ideas back into the text. Yes, it was different, but why is it any better to read our modern idea of servanthood back into the text? Modern slavery is a good deal closer to ancient slavery than modern servanthood is. Use the right words so that the right questions are asked. Making it easy doesn’t make it clear. Rather than making our translations soft, we need to do the hard work of teaching the sheep to be good readers of God’s good Word.

Sticking with the Bible beyond the Kiddie Rides (1 Timothy 6:1–2)

1 Timothy is conducive to squirming. False teaching, male and female roles, church leadership, church discipline—all those politically correct topics—can cause us to shift in our seats. And now, slavery! Squirming saints should be as a young boy on his first big roller coaster, shifting nervously, putting on a face, yet crying, “I don’t want to,” on the ascent, then exclaiming, “Do it again!” at the ride’s conclusion. Saints may squirm, but they must stick in their seats.

Squirming is serious. It’s for fear of texts like these that many abandon the Bible as God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. The one thing we mustn’t do is explain away such texts. We must not antiquate them, making them obsolete relics of the past. Small compromises here lead to big falls; gradual slopes turn suddenly into violent plummets. Differ with Douglas Wilson where you will on how slavery should have been addressed, this is a wise word:

If those who hate the Word of God can succeed in getting Christians to be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God, then that portion will continually be employed as a battering ram against the godly principles that are currently under attack. In our day, three of the principal issues are abortion, feminism, and sodomy. If we respond to the ‘embarrassing parts’ of Scripture by saying, ‘That was then, this is now,’ we will quickly discover that unembarrassed progressives can play that game even more effectively than embarrassed conservatives can. Paul prohibited eldership to women? That was then, this is now. Moses condemned sodomy? That was then this is now.

This isn’t 1+1=2. This is calculus, but the problem is workable. When conditions are similar, and I doubt they will ever be even close to identical, obedience should look similar. Squirming?

We hear words through a filter. A particular word might be thought dirty, when it isn’t the word, but the filter. “Damn” is a word that is oft abused, but it can be used truthfully. To be damned isn’t a good thing (for the damned), but the Bible’s word on damnation is good (for them to hear). “Slavery,” isn’t good (for a man to be in), but the Word’s word on slavery is. When the Bible says, “slave,” don’t think you need to clean the Bible. You need to clean your ears. If a filter were immersed in mud, and then clean water put through it, only a fool would say, “The water here is putrid. This is what it looks like after I ran it through this filter.” God’s mouth never needs to be cleaned, but our ears often do.

If you squirm at the Scripture’s mention of slavery, rememberer that our dark history was their dark present. That ought to alleviate some twitching, but in case you’re still doing the truffle shuffle, let’s do some ear cleaning. Don’t assume you know exactly what Paul is speaking of when he says “slavery.” Ancient slavery was different in many ways. It wasn’t based exclusively on race. Reasons for being a slave ranged from being captured in war, to selling yourself into slavery. Day laborers had the harder existence, living in poverty and doing hard menial labor while slaves acted as cooks, artisans, doctors, and teachers with their needs provided for. It wouldn’t be rare for you to be better educated than your master, or for you master to see to your education. You could be ransomed or you could ransom yourself. Ancient slavery was unique. Hebrew slavery according to the Pentateuch more so. Yet, to the degree that a person finds themselves in a similar situation, even that of employee/employer, they are under similar obligations. The Word stands.

Lap bar now secure and fastened, some jitters should be alleviated, but only one thing can convince you the ride is good. Only one thing can make you shout, “Again! to this ride, “Amen!” to these truths—the gospel that Paul bases all these commands on. We must see the gospel as the more stunning and surprising reality in this dark world. Slavery should appall us, but not as much as the gospel awes us. The more surprising thing isn’t that slavery is, but that the gospel is. In sum, here is Paul’s point, the gospel is to be goal (v. 1) and grounds (v. 2) of all our behavior, even in ghastly situations. One might labor to end human trafficking, upon the grounds and for the sake of the gospel, while another obeys his master, upon the grounds and for the sake of the gospel. When a man so lives, as a slave of Christ, it matters not if he is in human chains, he is free.