Use Your Freedom for Others
Sunday School Lesson for July 6, 2003
Background Passage: Galatians 5:1-15
Focal Teaching Passage: Galatians 5:1-12
A Call to Stand Firm in Freedom (5:1)
Here we find one of the most significant verses in the whole Epistle. Paul strongly exhorted his brethren to "keep standing firm" upon the fundamental truth of the gospel—that Christ has "set us free." The significance of this command is better understood as the background of their struggle to resist the false teachers is considered. Remember, the Judaizers had preached that one could secure God’s favor by adding the works of the Law to grace. This, they claimed, was the true path to spiritual liberation. However, Paul had fervently argued in chapter 4:21-31 that to return to the Law as a mechanism of salvation would only result in bondage and death. Here he put the exclamation point, as it were, upon his previous appeals to reject such a twisted ‘gospel.’
The point is that since believers have been set free by Christ—by means of His life, death, and bodily resurrection—they must steadfastly refuse to be brought under a "yoke of slavery" again. In other words, Paul called upon his readers to become what they are. That is, "to make visible in the earthly realm of their human existence what God has already declared and sealed in the divine verdict of justification" [George, 352]. Despite the claims of the false teachers, the true believers of Galatia were summoned to live lives of spiritual freedom and obedience to God upon the basis of grace alone.
A Warning Concerning the Forfeiture of Freedom (5:2-6)
From these words we find more evidence that the false teachers of Galatia had insisted upon circumcision as absolutely necessary for salvation. Paul’s response was both clear and to the point! His reaction was not against circumcision per se, but in opposition to those who claimed it was essential to knowing God. To submit to the ceremonial rituals—to "receive circumcision"—would leave no room for grace—"Christ will be of no benefit to you" (v. 2). The warning was, in essence, that if they did submit themselves to the Law, they would be turning their backs on the salvation accomplished by Christ. In this way, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ would be of no benefit to them. Those who believe that they can essentially save themselves through works have no need of a crucified Savior. Consequently, if the Galatians rejected the cross by "accepting circumcision as a means of salvation [it] would be the same as their sliding ‘backwards’ into the paganism of their former life" [George, 356].
In addition, Paul argued that one could not pick and choose which specific command to submit to. To adhere to the Law’s regulations regarding circumcision would place one under the obligation to "keep the whole Law" (v. 3). Each individual precept is interrelated to the whole. To insist that one specific regulation is necessary for salvation brings one under the burden of maintaining perfect obedience to the entire Mosaic Law (cf. 3:10). Certainly, this was much more than the Judaizers had bargained for!
Paul’s language became even more dramatic in verse 4 as he gave a further description of those "who are seeking to be justified by law." Note his two-fold portrayal:
Such dramatic language by the apostle is not meant to indicate the possibility that a truly regenerated believer could lose his salvation. Rather, Paul was concerned about warning "Christian churches that were founded on the doctrines of grace but that were in danger of forsaking that sound doctrinal bedrock for a theology that can only lead to ruin" [George, 360].
In contrast to those who depend upon works to save them, Paul spoke of the "hope of righteousness" upon which the believer in Christ depends (v. 5). Note the powerful contrast between circumcision—a work of the Law or "flesh" (3:3)—and "the Spirit." Here, then, it is once again made explicitly clear that "righteousness," a right standing before God, comes by means of the work of God and not the work of man. It is "through the Spirit, by faith," or a faith produced in the repentant sinner by the Holy Spirit, which provides one with the promise and certainty of salvation. As Cole explains, it seems most evident that saving faith is "the first gift of the Spirit" and the "gift of grace from which all other gifts and graces follow". Consequently, the believer’s salvation/justification has nothing at all to do with works.
Note Paul’s use of the word "hope" in reference to the believer’s right standing before the Father. In the biblical sense, hope contains no hint of uncertainty whatsoever. Rather, it communicates the absolute certainty and unshakeable nature of the believer’s salvation in Christ—a salvation that will be manifested in its glorious fullness at the end of time. The believer in Christ, therefore, lives in the continuous attitude of "a buoyant expectation that God in fact has accepted him" on the basis of the righteousness and perfection of Christ alone [Cole, 192].
As if Paul had not made his point with sufficient clarity, he declared in this verse that, as far as God is concerned, "circumcision nor uncircumcision" makes any difference in one’s status (cf. 3:28). That is, it does not impact one’s standing before God in the least. What counts in terms of salvation is "faith working through love." Saving faith, a gift of God’s Spirit that links one to Christ’s righteousness, outwardly expresses itself in love for God and for others. In contrast, the false teaching of the Judaizers manifested itself in ways that betrayed a party spirit of selfishness and self-promotion.
The Cross and Freedom (5:7-12)
In the verses that follow, the apostle challenged his readers to see the grave spiritual dangers associated with the false ‘plan of salvation’ offered by Paul’s opponents—one that failed to affirm the saving power of the cross of Christ.
At this point, Paul spoke very emphatically regarding the false teachers and their ringleader.
Paul’s response to the one (and his followers) who was leading the effort to upset ("troubling") the churches was most explicit. His point was that if circumcision could make a fundamental change in one’s relationship to God, then the Judaizers should take the next logical step. In other words, if they were so "enthusiastic about circumcision. . . why not go the whole way and castrate themselves, as did the indigenous priest of Asia Minor in honor of their strange and barbarous gods?" [Cole, 201]. They should, therefore, "mutilate themselves" if they truly believed that such works have saving power.
Major Themes for Reflection and Application
One: Enslavement or freedom?—If we who have believed in Christ have truly been set free from the power and curse of the Law, why are so quick to adopt a pharisaical attitude toward others? Why do we so quickly point fingers in judgment at those who do not live up to our standards?
Two: What are you depending upon to grant you entrance into the presence of God?—This is, perhaps, the most basic question on could raise about salvation and eternal life. Any answer that does not begin and end with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is wrong! Remember the words to the old hymn: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness."
Three: Distinguishing true and false messages and messengers—What is the difference between Godly "persuasion" (rightly employed by those who faithfully preach and teach the Word of God) and the type of "persuasion" employed by the false teachers of Galatia?