Getting free and staying free

Galatians 5:1-26

24 October 2004

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


Would you consider yourself to be a religious person?

Sometimes people ask me "Are you religious?" . What they mean is "Do you believe in anything?" , but what they ask is "Are you religious?" and I have to confess that I'm never quite sure how to answer them.

A Muslim who has to pray five times a day, and fast for a whole month every year: that's a religious person.

A Jew who has to use separate sinks for preparing dairy and non-dairy foods: that's a religious person.

A Sikh who has to get up three hours before dawn every day to wash and pray: that's a religious person.

And what about this picture caption from a newspaper this week. I'll spare you the actual pictures.

A religious devotee pierces his tongue with a power drill bit at a Thai ceremony yesterday [and it's not a small one either; judging by the picture it's about a foot long and half an inch in diameter]. The annual Vegetarian Festival is famed for acts of self-mutilation by people who believe they are possessed. Participants can pierce themselves with anything, even bicycles [picture below] to shift evil spirits.

Now that's what I call religious!

So these are the kind of things that pop into my head when people ask me "are you religious?" . And what I want to answer is "No, I'm not religious, I'm free! Gloriously free! I don't need to be religious because Christ has set me free."

True Christianity is the perfect opposite of religious observance, or religiosity if you prefer: Galatians chapter 5 verse 1: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slaveryref.

We're going to be looking primarily at this one verse this morning, which actually turns out to be a fair summary of the Paul's point in the whole of the letter to the Galatians, so we shall be bringing in some material from the rest of the letter and from this chapter, and it would be useful if you could keep your Bibles open. David has scheduled two more sermons looking at themes from chapter 5, and I want to leave him with something to say, so I'm not even going to attempt to be thorough this morning.

I'm sorry to say that I've only got two main headings, and I'm afraid they don't alliterate: should I just stop now? My two main headings from this verse are getting free, where we shall look at how God has set us free from religion, and staying free, where we shall look at how we can avoid falling back into religious behaviour.

Getting free: trust in the death of Christ to become free from slavery to religion

When Paul declares us free in verse one, we need to understand what he means by the word "free" here. Taken out of context we can make the word mean whatever we like: some would like it to mean freedom from sexual constraints, free love; for others it is about political liberation; or perhaps you'd like it to be about freedom from an abusive relationship, or freedom from addiction, or freedom from debt. But here, to do justice to what the Bible is teaching us at this point in Galatians chapter 5, we must understand the freedom as being in contrast to the slavery Paul talks about at the end of the verse.

In this letter to the Galatians slavery is slavery to the law, specifically the Jewish law laid out in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. We see that at the end of chapter 4. Paul describes two covenants—that is, legal contracts—and two peoples who come under the respective covenants. In chapter 4 verse 24 and following Paul says that those who are under the Mount Sinai covenant, i.e. the Jewish law, are in slavery.

The freedom Paul talks about here, then, is freedom from having to keep the Jewish law, with all its rituals, sacrifices, observances and demands. So far so interesting, you say, but surely irrelevant to us, isn't it? Hands up if you ever felt the need to subject yourself to the entire Jewish ritual system.

But before we dismiss this as irrelevant have a look again at the second half of verse 1. Paul tells his readers not to let themselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Now, Paul's audience for this letter were Gentiles, that is non-Jews, like most, if not all, of us. There are many clues to this in the letter, but perhaps the biggest give-away is in verse 2 of this chapter. "Do not let yourselves be circumcised!" he says. If they were uncircumcised they can never have been Jews, can they?

So when Paul speaks of slavery he must be talking about more than slavery to observing the Jewish law. He must be talking about slavery to religious practices in all their various forms. Although not Jews, the Galatian Christians had nonetheless been slaves to religion before they came to Christ. And before we came to Christ we were slaves to religion as well. Let me explain what I mean.

Life outside Christ means complete slavery to religion and sin

Religion is man's answer to the answer to the question "How can I know God?" And it's the only answer available in a world without Jesus Christ.

The problem that we are faced with is that God is holy: He is the consuming fire of moral perfection; He is the blinding light of absolute goodness; He is the righteous judge with perfect justice.

How can we ever please such a God? In a world without Jesus Christ there is only one answer to this question: If we are not to be destroyed by His perfection—rightly condemned for our imperfection—then the only thing we can do is to become perfect ourselves. And this is the work of religion.

In the language of Galatians: without Christ, we are slaves. In fact we are slaves twice over.

On the one hand, we are slaves to the law, because we must keep it if we are to know God. It's our only way to perfection. As Paul said in chapter 3 verse 10, quoting from Deuteronomy, Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Lawref.

On the other hand we are slaves to sin because we are unable to keep that law: we find that we just cannot do what we want to do. In verse 17 of chapter 5 Paul spells it out, the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want.ref That's the definition of slavery, isn't it? We are unable to do what we want to do. We can't keep the law of God, even if we want to.

This is a hopeless situation, isn't it? I don't know about you, but I can't even keep a New Year's resolution. I might just as well try to walk to the moon as try to keep the perfect law of God. Yet try to keep the law I must if I want to have a chance of knowing God.

Life outside Christ means complete slavery to religion and sin. Now for the good news.

Life in Christ means complete freedom from religion and all its demands

Paul is emphatic, isn't he? It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. We are not out on bail. We are not on parole. We are not electronically tagged. We are not on day-release. We are free! Completely free.

If I have made Jesus Christ my Lord I am free from the burden of DIY religion because Jesus has done it all for me. I no longer need to try to please God because Jesus has done it all for me.

That's what we learnt from Galatians chapter 3, isn't it? I read verse 10 earlier, Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Lawref. That's our situation without Christ. But read on to verse 13 of chapter 3, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree" ref.

We are cursed through our inability to keep God's law. But Jesus Christ—the only man ever not to be under that curse—took the curse for us. He was cursed in order to bless us. If we are in Christ then it is as if we never failed to keep the law. We share the freedom Christ enjoys to enter the very presence of God.

In perhaps more familiar terms, we can liken the law to an exam paper we have to take and pass before we are qualified to come to God. But God's holiness is such that only achieving 100% on every question, not skipping a single one, would qualify us to enter his presence. And which of us can do that? Without Christ we are slaves to taking and retaking that exam again and again, and doomed to failure every time.

The only way we will ever qualify to come to God is if someone else's paper gets substituted for ours: someone who managed to get that perfect 100% score. And that is the glorious mystery at the heart of Christianity: that Christ, the holy one of God, shares his holiness with us. On the cross he substituted his paper for ours: he took our failure; we take his success. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree" ref. Now we are free to come to God, to enter his holiness, but only because we come in the name of Christ.

Hebrews chapter 10 puts it beautifully when it says we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened up for us through the curtainref. If we are in Christ then God has an open door policy towards us. We can enter his presence with utter confidence: there is no longer any need for rituals, special prayers or special words. We don't need to wait until we have been especially good or we are feeling especially holy. God's door is open to us all the time. This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free.

There may be some here who have never enjoyed this freedom for themselves. You feel that God is an unapproachable figure. You try hard to be good, but you never quite manage to connect with God. You try to please him, but you are never sure you have. Religion seems hard work, joyless and unrewarding, more burdensome than beneficial. How did you feel about coming to church this morning? "Oh, I'd really rather not bother, but God will be angry with me if I don't go" ?

Religion without Christ is slavery, isn't it? Only in coming to Christ, the one who has done it all, and in saying to him "not my way but yours" is the freedom to know God is to be found. If this is something you'd like to hear more about, then please come and talk to David or me or the prayer team after the service.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.ref

Others of us here know well the freedom that we have. The joy of being unburdened by Christ of all our guilt and sin. The pleasure of being able to come to God whenever, wherever and however. The delight in being not slaves but sons.

Well, Paul's warning for us is "don't be complacent" . Stand firm and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.ref Which brings me to the second main heading. The first was Getting free: trust in the death of Christ to become free from slavery to religion. The second is,

Staying free: continue to trust in the death of Christ to stay free from slavery to religion

The problem is that we are not content to admit that we cannot do for ourselves what Christ has done for us, are we?

As we've seen over the past few weeks, the Christians in Galatia whom Paul was writing to so urgently were being persuaded that it was not enough simply to trust in the death of Christ for them, but that they needed to add various religious works to their faith as well. They were being told, "yes, yes, the cross of Christ is all very well: it's a good start but it's not really enough, is it? To really please God you just need to do a few more things. For example, you can't properly join the people of God unless you are circumcised like the Jews" .

The Galatian Christians were in danger of forgetting the free gift of God's grace in Jesus Christ, and reverting to trying to save themselves by their own religious efforts.

It's a natural human tendency to want to do things for ourselves and not to rely on others, isn't it? And if you have children you'll know that it reveals itself at a very early age. One of the very first phrases Hannah, our daughter, learnt was "Me do it!" . Let me help you put on your shoes: "Me do it!" . Let me help you with your food: "me do it!" . Of course, her determination to do things herself was generally in inverse proportion to her ability to do them.

The same is true with us and religion. We have a deep resistance to admitting our utter inability to save ourselves. It's hard to become a Christian in the first place because it means saying to God, "I am an utter religious failure; I've tried to save myself and failed; all I can do is trust in Jesus to rescue me" . And it's hard to go on as a Christian because it means making the same confession every day.

So our natural tendency is over time to find ways to add to the Christian gospel; ways in which we can somehow add to what Christ has done for us. Then we needn't be quite so humble need we? We can start to congratulate ourselves on our religious performance, and congratulate God on having us on his team, such fine, good and upstanding religious people, not like those terrible heathens.

The Galatians were falling for it because it is flattering, isn't it? We love to be able to justify ourselves; we hate to cast ourselves on the mercy of another. And we love to be able to point to what we've done, don't we? It is so much more real and concrete to rely on something that we've done than to rely on nebulous and difficult concepts like faith and trust.

The problem is that starting to trust in ourselves and our own works again is simply a return to the slavery from which Christ has rescued us. do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slaveryref. Jesus said my yoke is easy and my burden is lightref. But when we move away from reliance on him towards reliance on ourselves and our works we take up again the heavy yoke and burden of slavery to the law, and all the drudgery and misery that entails.

Last week I heard an item on the radio about the real life characters on whom the movie The Great Escape was based. During the war they had been placed in a maximum security Nazi prison camp specially reserved for those who had already escaped from elsewhere. Naturally, a bunch of them managed to escape, and the film is the only slightly sensationalised account of how it all came about. Anyway, it occurred to me that when the escapees eventually got back home and could enjoy the freedom of life outside the camp again, I bet that not one of them was tempted to go back and knock on the door and say, "I say, old chaps, would you mind awfully letting me back in again?" It would be absurd, wouldn't it?

Yet every time we try to add something to what Christ has done it is a return to the prison camp. When we revert to trying to save ourselves we take on again the heavy yoke of slavery.

Paul wants to emphasise that trust in Christ is all or nothing. Either we are relying entirely on him or we are relying entirely on ourselves. That's what he means in verse 2 when he says, if you let yourselves be circumcised,—that is, if you start to live by religious practices again—Christ will be of no value to you at allref, because, verse 3, if we take on one aspect of the law again, we must take on the whole of it. Either we are trusting completely in Christ or trusting completely in ourselves. There is no middle ground.

Jesus' final word from the cross was "it is finished!" . His work is a completed work. There is nothing I need to add to it; there is nothing I can add to it. You can never add to Christ without subtracting from Christ.

To imagine that I can add to Christ's work by my own feeble efforts is to imagine that I can improve on the Mona Lisa by getting out my paintbox and adding a few touches of my own. I won't be left with something better: instead of a masterpiece all I'll have is a worthless, ruined piece of canvas.

So Paul's plea is an urgent one for those of us who enjoy the freedom that life in Christ can bring: do not go back to slavery to having to keep the law! Keep on trusting in Christ alone!

Practically speaking, the way in to the Christian life is the way on in the Christian life. It is to keep on trusting in Christ alone. Whenever we find ourselves losing the freedom that we once had to come to God, then we need to go back to the cross and remind ourselves that Christ's work is finished: there is nothing I can add to it.

The problem is that religious behaviour is one of the subtlest threats to our faith because it looks so close to godly behaviour. But the reality is that it is the destroyer of faith.

So, how can we spot when we are in danger of relapsing into religious behaviour? Here's one suggestion of how to spot it: godly behaviour becomes religious behaviour at the point when "I should" or "I could" becomes "I must" . It is the difference between freedom and compulsion.

It is the difference between "I should go to church today" and "I must go to church today" .

It is the difference between "I should give some money to the church" and "I must give 10% of my gross income to the church" .

It is the difference between "I should read the Bible before I go to work today" and "I must read the Bible for 20 minutes before I go to work today" . (Note that religious religious practices often have numbers attached to them: that's a good giveaway.)

It is the difference between "I could pray kneeling down" and "I must pray kneeling down" .

It is the difference between "I could have a glass of wine" and "I must not have a glass of wine" .

The point at which "I should" or "I could" becomes "I must" is the point at which we have forgotten that we are saved by the finished work of Christ alone. The point at which, in the words of verse 4, we have fallen away from graceref and we need to come back to God in repentance and faith.

Incidentally, note that the point at which "I must" becomes "you must" is the point at which religion becomes legalism. But that's the topic for next week's sermon.


Let's finish by going back to that question:

Are you a religious person? Well, if anybody could mistake you for a religious person then perhaps it would be good to take stock: am I genuinely coming to God relying on Christ's work alone, or am I really relying on myself? it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

Are you a free person? Well, if you are, don't be complacent: stand firm and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Religion is subtle and it will trip us up. Keep coming to Christ and never forget that the way in to the Christian life is the way on in the Christian life. We never move away from the cross.