CALLED TO LIVE IN FREEDOM

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NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES

CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson XLIX)

Martin Luther’s concept of freedom is our conscience. This is borne out in his expanded rendition of this verse. It reads: “It is for such freedom that the Anointed One set us free. Therefore, make sure that you stay free, and stop becoming slaves to your consciences, connecting it with God’s Law.”[1] This same thought may have been in Paul’s mind when he spoke about the renewing of our minds in overcoming any temptation to become once more conformed to or taking on the yoke of the world.[2] So we can say that Paul is talking here about the difference between laboring for God as a slave and serving Him as a son.

Another great Reformer, John Calvin, gives his defense of a renewed confidence in adhering to the Gospel instead of the Law. He leaves no doubt that this liberty obtained for us by the Anointed One, with its blessings on the cross, is bestowed on us through the Gospel. Paul does the right thing to warn the Galatians not to become entangled again with the worldly yoke of bondage – that is, not to allow a trap to be laid for their consciences. For if a person has a burden laid on their shoulders, even one that is not necessarily right for them to carry, they can decide whether or not to do so. However, if there is an attempt to burden their conscience with unnecessary rules and regulations, they are to resist with all their might, even to death.

Once we allow others to control our conscience, we will be deprived of the invaluable blessing in deciding what the Spirit leads us to do, and at the same time, we insult the Anointed One, the Author of our freedom. So, what is the purpose of Paul’s admonition here for the Galatians, not to be entangled again with the legal yoke of bondage? As far as the [Gentile] Galatians who never lived under the Law are concerned, it simply means that they were not to become entangled since they were redeemed by the grace of the Anointed One from such slavery. And although the Jews received the Law, not the Gentiles, yet, apart from the Anointed One, neither the Jew or Gentile enjoys any freedom, but absolute imprisonment to the Law’s demands.[3]

English Puritan theologian Matthew Poole (1624-1699) makes an important point in understanding what “liberty” should mean to the believer. Liberty is a right which a person has to do what he or she wants to do without any interference or censure by critics as long as it doesn’t impose on the rights of others. This is what we find in those things of a civil or social nature. But that’s not the “liberty” Paul is speaking of. He clearly says there “the liberty with which the Anointed One set us free.”

So, what did Jesus the Anointed One set us free from? It was not the lawful commands of the government, or children to be free from the laws of their parents, or employees to be free from the rules of their employers. There is no book in the Final Covenant where obedience of this nature is proposed. Nor is it exemplified as a believer’s duty in union with the Anointed One and those over them in the Lord. The liberty that Paul speaks of here is that freedom from the Law’s demand for obedience in order to secure salvation, of which the Apostle has been speaking all along this Epistle.

This includes trusting in moral laws and ceremonial laws to justify a right standing before God. This is the liberty which the Anointed One purchased for us, and in which the Apostle Paul desires all believers to stand fast; not being again burdened with a legalistic yoke which God lifted off their necks. The Apostles agreed that this same yoke was on their forefather’s necks, and was so heavy that even they could not carry it without falling.[4] [5] So why would the Galatians want to be tied up in that? Paul shook his head in bewilderment at the very thought of such foolishness.

Scottish minister and theologian James Macknight (1721-1800), in his new translation, has Paul saying this here in verse one: “…be not again held fast in the yoke of bondage.” He intends to point out that Paul was saying that they were once before held under such domination, the Jews by trusting in their ceremonial laws for salvation, and the Gentiles by their heathen worship to please and appease their angry gods.[6] It’s not like they were encountering anything new. It would be like an animal being set free from a trap by a compassionate human being, only to turn around and run back into the same trap. No wonder Paul was so upset and despondent when he heard the news of their turning around and going back to the same old way of earning salvation. Think of it this way, the word “conversion” means to “turn around,” which they did upon accepting the freedom offered by Jesus the Anointed One. Therefore, by “turning around” again and going back to the prison of rites and ceremonies, they are not unconverted or reconverted, but falsely convinced they were going the wrong way.

As Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke (1760-1832) points out, what Paul is not saying is connected to what he just said in the last chapter. Since the Galatians believers are not children of the slave woman, they are children of the free woman, they should now think, act, and behave like they are free. To go back into Judaism meant spiritual bondage to the Law. So, they should hold fast to their newfound life in the Anointed One who came just for that reason, to set them free. This should not have been shocking news, even to the Jews. After all, even they believed that when the Messiah came, He came to liberate them.

George Haydock (1774-1849), a Catholic commentator, links this bondage to what Paul speaks of here to what he wrote back in chapter four, verse nine. But on this occasion, says Haydock, Paul’s language is not as precise. Remember, the Galatians converted from paganism, and of course, never were subject to the Law of Moses. But the Apostle, by these words here in verse one, entreats them not to begin now to serve these weak and useless elements, (as he calls the Jewish rites).[7] So it appears that Haydock took this freedom to be one wrought by works, not by faith in the liberator, Jesus the Messiah.

Look at the way English academic John Edmunds (1801-1874) paraphrases verse one: “For freedom has the Anointed One enfranchised us. Stand fast, therefore, and be not again enthralled in a yoke of bondage.”[8] He feels that verse one actually should be the last verse of the preceding fourth chapter. It accounts for the free condition in which we find ourselves and is a sure motivation for us to remain free. As free Christians, it would make no sense to give up that liberty brought by God’s grace and sell our souls to Satan and the world.[9] That would be like being pulled out of the quicksand and saved from death, only to walk back in because we were told it wouldn’t harm us.[10]

Professor of Ancient Languages at Wesleyan University Daniel D. Whedon (1808)-1885) agrees with Edmunds that the separation of this verse from the previous chapter is unfortunate because the “therefore.” at the beginning of the verse is key to understanding the freedom of which Paul is speaking.[11] And Scottish theologian John Eadie (1810-1876) agrees.[12] Also, English theologian Charles Ellicott (1819-1905), says that verse one gives us the logical conclusion of Paul’s persuasive argument in the preceding chapter.[13] George Whitefield Clark (1831-1895) defines verse one as the connecting link between the doctrinal and practical portions of this Epistle, as well. That’s because it contains the conclusion of the preceding discussion and the start of Paul’s practical application of those principles of Christian liberty in contrast to the restrictions of the Law.[14]

Charles J. Vaughan (1816-1897), presents his thoughts in a very academic way to inform us that it is necessary that we first see in general what “liberty” Paul is talking about here in verse one. No one can be “free,” so long as their own conscience locks them up into the prison of fear, punishment, and death. There are subjects that the mind is afraid to touch; it cannot expound on everything and cannot explore all things. Therefore, it is never “free.” It is the sense of being pardoned that provides a person’s perception of liberation. Have we not all felt the difference in doing our work in order to be loved, or doing our work because we are loved; to be motivated by circumstances, or be moved by conscience; to be distracted by anxiety, or to be attracted by affection?

But, again, says Vaughan, to obey only one law, no matter how good that law may be, and however we may admire and love the Lawgiver of that Law, it may still carry with it a feeling of being limited and restrained when it comes to doing His will. Whether we do or not do any small part what our Lord commanded us to do is not enough, we must surrender our will to His will, because it is the will of the One we love – to have understood His mind, to breathe His Spirit, to be bound up with His glory – that has in it no littleness; with no limiting confinement there, and these are the freedoms of unshackled abilities to match our God-given purpose and destiny.

And yet, once more notes Vaughan, we are talking about the soul of mankind who on all they see on their horizon falls within the scope of time, however long – or of a present life however full – that person’s circle being small, compared to their consciousness of their capability. Because of such an imbalance, they feel restricted in their ability to comprehend their present status in light of eternity. But let a person once look, as they may, and as they must, on that great world which lies beyond them as their scope and their home, and all that is here as only the discipline and the school-work by which they are being trained, and immediately everything contained in its entirety.

Still, that person will be free among those who have died because their faith will carry them out above the smallness which surrounds them, to the great, and to the absorbing, and to the satisfying things to come. It will not be difficult to carry out these principles and apply them to the right performance of any of the obligations of life. It needs no words to show that whatever is done in this freedom will not only be itself better done, but it takes from that freedom a character which fits well with a member of the family of God; and which at once makes it edifying to Him, and acceptable and honoring to our heavenly Father.[15]

[1] Aiyer, Ramsey, The Contextual Bible Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[2] Romans 12:2

[3] John Calvin: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[4] Acts of the Apostles 15:10

[5] Poole, Matthew: On Galatians (Annotated), op. cit, p. 656

[6] James Macknight: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 191

[7] George Haydock: Catholic Bible Commentary, Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[8] See John 8:36; Romans 8:2

[9] See 2 Thessalonians 2:15

[10] Edmunds, John: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 71

[11] Daniel D. Whedon: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 238

[12] John Eadie: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 377

[13] Charles J. Ellicott: Critical and Grammatical Commentary, On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 116-117

[14] George Whitefield Clark: On Galatians, op cit., p. 109

[15] Charles J. Vaughan: The Biblical Illustrator – Vol. 48 – Pastoral Commentary on Galatians (Kindle Location 14112).

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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