True Freedom (Galatians 5:13-26)
Every year Macleans comes out with its list of top Canadian University. You can read the reviews and all the rankings that go along with them. And every year other publications come out with their own reviews of universities based on very different standards. They are lists of the top party schools. If you’re wondering which Canadian schools have made the list, by the way, I know of two: McGill University, in Montreal and the University of Western Ontario,in London, Ontario, are the only Canadian schools to have made the list.
Here’s how it works. Before you go to university, you are not free. If you live at home, you probably have these things called rules. It seems that no matter how old you are, if you live at home, you live under certain conditions and rules enforced by these things called parents.
But one day many of you will pack the car, and you will arrive at university where you have freedom. There is nobody to tell you to go to bed anymore. You can decide when to get up and when to go to bed, or whether to go to bed at all. You can decide how many classes to attend and how many to skip. All the rules and restrictions that were placed on you as a minor are now no longer in place. You now have freedom.
The question is: how do you use the freedom? Do you use the freedom to party and have a great time? Or do you use the freedom to pursue the best possible education? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Freedom from rules is only one side of the picture. You have to ask yourself not just what you’re free from, but what you’re free to do on the other side of that freedom.
This morning, that’s exactly the issue that we’re going to look at. It’s not just an issue for university students. It’s an issue for every single person here as well.
Ever since September, we’ve been looking at the book of Galatians. Somebody’s called it the Magna Carta of the Christian life. It says that we’re free. We are no longer obligated to keep the law in order to be accepted by God. We are set free from keeping the law as a means of salvation. We do not have to add anything to what Jesus has done in order to be accepted by God. Jesus has paid the entire price.
But there’s a problem, and I know that some of you have seen the problem, because you’ve talked to me about it after the service. The problem is this. If we don’t have to obey in order to be accepted by God, does that mean we can live any way we want? If it’s “Jesus + nothing = acceptance with God,” then what’s to stop us from living a life of debauchery and evil? If we’re not under the law, what should guide our conduct? That’s the question we’re going to try to answer this morning from this passage.
I want to show you three things from this passage. First, I want to show you what true freedom isn’t. And then I want to show you what true freedom is. And then I want to show you what we can do with this knowledge.
First: Let’s look at what true freedom isn’t.
Ali was a young man with little money and no wife. This was all the incentive he needs to take the ninety-minute bus ride from his village to Baghdad. As soon as he arrives, the 21-year-old Iraqi heads straight to Abu Abdullah's. There it costs him only $1.50 for 15 minutes alone with a woman.
The room is a cell with a curtain for a door, and Ali complains that Abu Abdullah's women should bathe more often. But Ali sees the easy and inexpensive access to women as a big improvement over the days when Saddam Hussein was in power. The dictator strictly controlled vices such as prostitution, alcohol, and drugs. The fall of the regime gave rise to every kind of depravity. In addition to brothels, Iraqis have their choice of adult cinemas, where 70 cents buys an all-day ticket, and the audience hoots in protest if a non-pornographic trailer interrupts the action.
Referring to all the newly available immoral activities, Ali grins and says, “Now we have freedom.”
Some people, reading Galatians, think that this is what Paul is talking about. We are not under the law, so we now have freedom to do whatever we’d like. Paul knows that this is what some are going to think he’s saying, so in this passage he makes it clear. He says in verse 13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
And then, in verses 19 to 21 he makes it even clearer. This is what freedom is not about. He writes:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
I think it’s going to help to make a list. Here’s what the Christian life is not about. The Christian life is not about keeping the law. It’s not about keeping a series of rules. Why not? Well, we’ve looked at this. Paul said back in Galatians 2:16, “By the works of the law no one will be justified.” Later on in Galatians 3:10 he says, “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.” In verse 3 of this chapter he says that keeping part of the law obligates you to keep the whole law. So the Christian life isn’t about keeping the law. It doesn’t work. Nobody is good enough. It’s a losing proposition. The message of the Bible isn’t that you should be good, and God will accept you. That’s an unbiblical message right from the pit of hell.
But we need to make a second column here. Let’s call this license. License means living any way that I please. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a liberty of action, especially when excessive; disregard of law or propriety; abuse of freedom.” This is freedom without responsibility. It’s trusting in God’s grace and then living however they please.
D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, used to meet with a young man from French West Africa for the purpose of practicing German. Sometimes they’d had enough, so they would go out for a meal together. He learned that this man had a wife in London training to be a medical doctor, while he stayed in Germany to learn the language. He also learned that once or twice a week this man disappeared into the red-light district of town to pay money and have his woman. Eventually he got to know this man well enough that he asked him what he would do if he discovered that his wife was doing something similar in London.
“Oh,” he said, “I’d kill her.”
Carson challenged him. “That's a bit of a double standard, isn't it?” Carson asked. “You told me you were raised in a mission school. You know that the God of the Bible does not have double standards like that."
The man gave Carson a bright smile and replied, “Ah, God is good. He's bound to forgive us; that's his job.” Or, as someone else put it, “God is a great forgiver; I am a great sinner; what a great combination!”
That’s not what Paul is talking about here. Notice what he says. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” The flesh does not mean your body. The flesh means your fallen, sinful nature. Do not use your freedom from the law as an excuse to live any way you’d like, and to indulge your sinful nature, Paul is saying.
Then he makes it very clear what he’s talking about in verses 19 to 21. He gives us a list of vices. These are what come naturally to our fallen human nature, and it’s not a pretty list. It doesn’t take a genius to realize where all of this comes from. Some of them are behaviors: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, sorcery, drunkenness, and orgies. A lot of people pat themselves on the back and feel pretty good about themselves at this point. They’re not guilty of these. But then Paul gets to what someone calls “respectable sins,” sins that don’t look as bad, sins that we tolerate: anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions. Many churches won’t put up with orgies, but they’ll put up with anger and division. Paul puts them on the same list.
Then he says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Wait a minute! I thought that it was “Jesus + nothing = acceptance with God.” Now you’re telling me that if you trust in Jesus and do these things that you’re out? Yes, Paul says. Why? Because good works aren’t the basis of our acceptance with God, but they are a result of it. If Jesus is truly in our lives, then he will transform us so that this list doesn’t characterize our lives. As somebody’s said, God accepts us the way we are, but he doesn’t leave us there. And if this list characterizes your life, it’s a sign that you really haven’t experienced the grace of God in your life.
You see, true freedom doesn’t mean that we live however we’d like. This isn’t true freedom at all. Jesus said in John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” If you use your freedom from the law as an opportunity to sin, you’ve just entered a different kind of slavery. You’re no longer a slave to the law; you’re now a slave to sin.
These two lists, by the way, are the two ways to be lost. One is the religious way: to live according to rules and the law. This isn’t what it means to be a Christian. It’s dangerous, because it looks like you’re good, but you’re not. The other way to be lost is to indulge the sinful nature and to do whatever you’d like. Paul says that neither of these are what he’s talking about. Neither one is true freedom. Both of these are forms of slavery. True freedom is not doing whatever we please.
Let’s look at what true freedom really is.
If true freedom isn’t about indulging the sinful nature and doing whatever we’d like what is it? Read verses 13 and 14:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)
Later on, Paul gives us a description of the type of things we’ll notice in our lives as we live by the Spirit’s power in true freedom. He writes in verses 22 to 23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
What is true freedom? True freedom is not about satisfying selfish desires. True freedom expresses itself in serving and loving through the Spirit.
We have these three columns. One is law; the second is license. Let’s make a third column and call it true gospel freedom. And let’s notice two things about this true gospel freedom.
One: It begins in the heart. It’s inside-out. Paul talks about love. He says that this is the fulfillment of the whole law. In an sense, every command is basically a version of this. Want to love your neighbor? Don’t kill him! Don’t steal his wife! Don’t lie to him. Every command is really about loving your neighbor. But you can keep all the commands and still not really love your neighbor from the heart. That’s why the law isn’t enough. That’s why we need the gospel; the gospel gives us a new heart so that the change comes from the inside-out. We’re free from the law as an outward observance; instead, we end up with love that springs from our hearts from the inside-out. It’s really about a renovation of the heart that comes through the Spirit.
Second: it’s the work of the Spirit. Notice the fruit of the Spirit in verses 22 to 23. Notice that it’s called the fruit not of the disciple. It’s the fruit of the Spirit. This is what the Spirit produces in our life as we yield to him. True freedom is experiencing the Spirit’s power as we are transformed from the inside out. John MacArthur the Spirit’s provision of fruit to a man on a ladder picking fruit, and dropping it into the basket below. The only way to receive the fruit is stand under the ladder with the basket ready. The only way to receive the fruit of the Spirit is to stay close to the Spirit and to trust that he will give us the fruit of the Spirit in our lives as we depend on him.
This is true Christian freedom. It’s not about indulging our sinful nature. True freedom expresses itself in serving and loving through the Spirit, not in satisfying selfish desires. You see, the law becomes something good when we’re transformed by the Spirit. Spurgeon put it this way:
What is God’s law now? It is not above a Christian — it is under a Christian. Some men hold God’s law like a rod, in terror, over Christians and say, “If you sin you will be punished with it.” It is not so. The law is under a Christian for him to walk on, to be his guide, his rule, his pattern….Law is the road which guides us, not the rod which drives us, nor the spirit which actuates us. The law is good and excellent, if it keeps his place.
So let’s look again. We’re not under the law. We’re also not free to indulge the sinful nature. Instead, we’re free to love and to be changed through the power of the Holy Spirit.
To put it differently, we don’t obey God in order to be accepted. But we do obey as a result of being accepted. Having been accepted, give God your all. As the song says: love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
What do we do with all of this?
Nice theory, but what do we do with this? Three things.
One: keep the gospel central. Remember: Paul’s point is that we truly change as we encounter the gospel. So stand firm in the freedom that is yours in Christ. Don’t move on from that. That is the basis of our justification, but it is also the foundation of your growth in holiness. Dwell there. Keep returning to what Christ has done. Make that the major theme of your life.
Two: Paul tells us in verse 24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Here’s what this means: You have been crucified with Christ. When this happened, your sinful nature was dealt a fatal blow. Your sinful desires are still there, but they are mortally wounded. They no longer rule and reign over you. So remember they’ve been dealt a fatal blow. Consider them dead. Don’t administer first aid. Don’t put it on life support. Consider it dead. Whatever sins you struggle with: remember that they were dealt a fatal blow at the cross. Remember that they’re as good as dead, and treat them that way, because that’s what they are.
Finally: verse 25 says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Have you ever marched in formation? I used to in a boy’s club I had joined. The leader puts his left foot forward; you do as well. You march as one together. We saw this in August in Ottawa. We stayed by Parliament. We thought we’d sleep in. Every morning we’d hear this marching band. We’d look out and we’d see these soldiers marching right past our hotel room on the way to the changing of the guard. It started to get old the third day; we’d rather sleep in. But I did notice that they were in lockstep. That’s what Paul says we’re to do here. Keep in step with the Spirit. Stay in formation; depend entirely on him. Keep up with his commands, and march side by side with others who are following him as well.
This is freedom. If you want freedom in playing the piano, you practice. It’s the only way you can sit down at a piano and be able to play whatever you want. If you want a fish to be free, don’t break the aquarium and release the fish to the air so it can be free. It needs the water to be free. The same thing is true for the Christian. Freedom does not mean the absence of any restrictions. It means the right kind of restrictions. It means that we’re set free to love through the transforming power of the Spirit and to be changed from the inside out.
No law, no license, but love through the Spirit. That is true Christian freedom. True freedom doesn’t mean indulging the sinful nature; it means changing through the Spirit’s power.