Galatians 5:1, 13-23
Freedom to Choose

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Galatians 5:1, 13-23

Freedom to Choose

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

For freedom Christ has set us free. I can’t think of a more appropriate word for the day as we stand on the threshold of yet another Fourth of July and the celebration of our nation’s independence.

This nation was founded on the principles of freedom and, after 237 years, freedom remains the cornerstone of the American Spirit.

It’s the principle we’ve fought for many times; first, to gain our independence from Great Britain; and again and again, as we’ve gone to war to combat tyranny and oppression in other parts of the world and, today, as we battle the threat of terrorism world-wide. It’s all about freedom …

• Freedom of speech and self-expression.
• Freedom to worship when and where we please.
• Freedom to bear arms and protect ourselves and our loved ones.
• Freedom to assemble openly.
• Freedom to elect our representatives and hold them accountable.
• Freedom to defend ourselves in criminal and civil disputes and expect to be treated justly.
• Freedom of privacy and protection from unlawful search and seizure.

This is just a short list of the freedoms we enjoy. So, as you celebrate the Fourth of July, take a moment to be thankful for the brave men and women who’ve made it possible – and say thanks to those on the front lines today who continue the fight to ensure our freedom.

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Last week Kathy and I toured the Dorcheat Museum. We were so impressed with the way you’ve captured the history of Minden and Webster Parish and are preserving it for future generations.

Among other things, we took note of the display honoring Sgt. Josh Madden, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. Seeing his uniform and hearing his story and feeling the loss for his family and this community brought home a painful reality, that “Freedom is not free.” It comes with a price, and so we sing with grateful hearts,

My country ‘tis of thee,
sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,
land of the pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside,
let freedom ring.

The Apostle Paul never knew the freedoms we enjoy today. He lived his whole life under the rule of the Roman Empire. Whatever freedoms he may have enjoyed came at the behest of the Emperor and could be taken away at any time.

He never questioned the authority of Rome. On the contrary, he advised the early Christians,

“Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities,
for there is no authority except from God….
For this reason you also pay taxes,
for they are servants of God’s service,
attending continually on this very thing.
Give therefore to everyone what you owe:
taxes to whom taxes are due;
customs to whom customs;
respect to whom respect;
honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:1, 6-7).

Peter echoed Paul’s sentiments when he admonished his readers “Fear God (and) honor the king.” (1 Peter 2:17)

So, in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul is not talking about a 1st Century Bill of Rights; he’s talking about freedom from the legalism of the Torah.

In Paul’s day, the Torah consisted of 613 laws, more or less based on the Ten Commandments. 248 were positive in nature – “do this;” 365 were negative – “don’t do that.” They covered everything imaginable – what you could or could not eat, sacrifices to show your gratitude or atone for sin, how to settle disputes, including compensation for damages … the list goes on.

While the Ten Commandments were straightforward, applying them to everyday life became increasingly complex, hence all the rules and regulations. For example: The Fourth Commandment says,

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
You shall labor six days, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God.
You shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20:8-10)

So, what is work? If you walk to the synagogue to worship on the Sabbath, how many steps can you take before it becomes work to get there? The rabbis debated the question at great length and came up with the answer: 2000 cubits. That’s about half a mile. Go beyond that, and you’ve broken the law. They called it a Sabbath’s journey.

There you have it … except that raises a further question: What about getting home? You see the problem.

Anyone here a perfectionist? If so, you know what I mean. You can clean your house all day and still go back and find dust in a corner you’ve missed. You can paint the perfect picture and still find room for improvement.

Do any of you watch reruns of the TV show, Monk? It’s about this incredibly smart detective, who’s got a bad case of OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder. He can solve a murder mystery quicker than anyone, yet he can never get his hands clean enough or get the silverware to line up just right in the drawer.

There’s actually a t-shirt with big bold letters on the front that says, “CDO.” Below the letters is the explanation: “That’s OCD in the correct alphabetical order.”

Living by the letter of the Law is a trap. You can never do enough. You’ll fall short every time. What’s worse, you’ll be tempted to judge others, who fall as far short as you. This is what Paul meant when he told the Galatians,

“But if you bite and devour one another,
be careful that you don’t consume one another” (Galatians 5:15).

Paul cut to the chase and told the Galatians they were no longer bound by the letter of the Law. He said,

“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in this:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Galatians 5:14).

Exercising religious freedom is easier said than done. For example: How much should you give to the church? Most would agree it’s not the amount that’s important, but the percentage of your income. So, what would you say is a faithful percentage – 1 percent, 2 percent, or 5 percent? The old biblical standard is 10 percent – a tithe. But is that 10 percent, before or after taxes? Does it include other charitable giving, such as the United Way? And what about all those Girl Scouts cookies you bought? Does that count?

We have a Mennonite community in Southwest Arkansas. They’re old school. The men wear bib overalls and let their beards grow; the women cover their heads and wear long dresses. They excel in just about everything they do: Cooking and canning, farming and ranching, sewing and cleaning, carpentry and plumbing … you name it … and, of course, they’re very religious.

But they live in the 21st Century. Therein lies the problem. We hired a Mennonite to repair the leaky roof on our church in Hope. My job was to show him the damage and get an estimate. It took forever because he kept getting calls on his cell phone. “Excuse me,” he’d say, “I need to take this call.” He’d step out of the room, then come back a few minutes later only to get another urgent call. This went on forever. Finally I asked, “Is everything O.K.?” He explained rather sheepishly, “It’s my broker. I buy and sell cattle on the futures market.”

I said, “So, let me get this straight … it’s O.K. to use a cell phone and play the market, but it’s not O.K. to shave?” He smiled and said, “It’s complicated!”

“For this freedom Christ has freed us.” (v. 1). By his death and resurrection, Jesus has broken the bonds of our slavery to the Law. You get to make up your own mind whether to wear a dress or a pants suit to church; whether or not to cook Sunday dinner or go out to eat; whether or not to have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.

It’s up to you. We don’t live by rules and regulations, except those we impose on ourselves and those we try to impose on others. Instead, we live by faith.

But, as my Mennonite friend would remind us, “It’s complicated.” That’s because we’re human and we tend to rationalize – on the one hand, to make life more legalistic than it needs to be; on the other, to stretch the boundaries of freedom until freedom in Christ becomes a license to do your own thing. Paul hit the nail on the head when he said,

“…Don’t be entangled again
with a yoke of bondage (to the Law)….
Don’t use your freedom (from the Law)
for gain to the flesh.” (Galatians 5:1, 13b)

Here’s the bottom line: You’re free to choose. But the onus is on you. Christ died for the forgiveness of your sins, but it’s up to you to accept his sacrifice and respond in faithful obedience.

To help you choose wisely, Paul spells out what you can expect. He says,

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious,
which are: adultery, sexual immorality,
uncleanness, lustfulness,
idolatry, sorcery,
hatred, strife,
jealousies, outbursts of anger,
rivalries, divisions,
heresies, envyings,
murders, drunkenness, orgies,
and things like these;
of which I forewarn you, even as I also forewarned you,
that those who practice such things
will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

To be a slave to sin is to be driven into oblivion by the works of the flesh; to be a slave to Christ is to be filled with the fruit of the Spirit, which includes …

“… love, joy,
peace, patience,
kindness, goodness,
faith, gentleness, and self-control.”
(Galatians 5:22-23)

I’ll always remember what my New Testament professor said about this passage. He said, “You can be a slave to sin or a slave to Christ. One leads to destruction; the other, to eternal life. It’s your choice. Just remember: There is no middle ground. You can’t have it both ways.” And I would add: You get what you choose.

There’s a paradox here: To follow the ways of the world is to be a slave to your own sinful nature – if you choose to eat, drink and merry you’ll be consumed by your own self-indulgence. To be a slave of Christ is to be free to live in peace and harmony with God and all creation. As Jesus told his disciples,

“There is no one who has left house,
or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother,
or wife, or children, or land,
for my sake, and for the sake of the Good News,
but he will receive one hundred times more now in this time,
houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land, with persecutions;
and in the age to come eternal life.”
(Mark 10:29-30)

In closing, I’d like to make three quick points:

1. Freedom in Christ knows no boundaries. You can be just as free in a concentration camp as lying on a beach in Waikiki. No one knew this better than Paul, who wrote from prison,

“We also rejoice in our sufferings,
nowing that suffering works perseverance;
and perseverance, proven character;
and proven character, hope:
and hope doesn’t disappoint us,
because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

2. Freedom in Christ is forever. While other freedoms can be bestowed and taken away just like that, freedom in Christ is lasting. Once you have it, it’s yours to keep. Jesus told his followers,

“If you remain in my word, …you will know the truth,
and the truth will make you free…
(and) if the Son makes you free,
you will be free indeed.”
(John 8:31-32, 36)

3. Freedom in Christ comes with a price. The freedoms we enjoy in this great nation of ours was bought by the precious blood of soldiers on the battlefield; freedom in Christ was bought by the blood of a dying Savior on the Cross.

He died for you to set you free for a life of service and devotion to him. To accept his gift is to walk in his footsteps, follow his example and taste the fruits of eternal life.

Let us pray: Gracious God, you have given us the freedom to choose; now give us the courage to choose wisely – to honor Christ, and Christ alone, as the Lord and Savior of our lives, for we ask it in his name. Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2013, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.