The Letter of Liberty
Philippe R. Sterling
Justification by grace through faith alone in Christ alone apart from the works of the Law is the foundation for spiritual liberty and successful Christian living by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the true gospel revealed to Paul by God.
Paul addresses the letter to the churches of Galatia. Galatia was a Roman province in Asia Minor. The churches were formed during Paul’s first missionary journey recorded in Acts 13:13–14:26. False teachers who substituted law for grace had infiltrated the churches. Paul writes to defend justification and sanctification by grace and to promote spiritual liberty.
Literary Structure and Content
The winner of best song in the 1966 Academy Awards was Born Free. The song makes use of the phrases born free, stay free, and live free. We can use these phrases as headings for the main points of Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia.
I. Born Free: Believers are born free in Christ (1:1-5).
A. Address: The Apostle Paul writes to the churches of Galatia (1:1-2).
B, Invocation: Paul invokes grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave Himself
for our sins so that we might be rescued from the present evil age (1:3-5).
Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty. It teaches that the grace of God in Jesus Christ enables us to escape the curse of sin and the Law and live a new life in the power of the Holy Spirit. The message of Galatians is a message of liberation.
Paul concludes the opening paragraph with a statement concerning the liberating power of the work of Christ, Christ gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. The gospel of grace is an emancipating message.
II. Stay Free: Believers should defend their freedom in Christ (1:6–4:31).
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty! Wendell Phillips said that at a Massachusetts antislavery meeting in 1852. It is valid not only in the realm of the political but even more so in the realm of the spiritual.
A. Distortion: The good news of grace may be distorted by men or angels (1:6-10).
1. Occasion: Some have deserted Christ for a distorted gospel (1:6-7).
Paul gives the reason for writing his letter to the churches of Galatia in verse 6. He is shocked that so soon after he has been with them, they are deserting Him who called them by the grace of Christ for a different gospel. Paul blames false teachers, but he does not excuses the churches of Galatia for going along with them. Paul says that they have accepted a different gospel, a counterfeit gospel. This counterfeit gospel distorts the gospel of Christ by adding the works of the law, thus mixing law and grace. Grace is a basic theme of the letter (see 1:3, 6, 15; 2:9, 21; 5:4; 6:18).
2. Imprecation: Paul calls for a curse of God upon people or angels who distort the good news of Christ (1:8-9).
The English word “accursed” translates the Greek word anathema. This does not refer to eternal condemnation but to the here and now judgment of God. False teachers under the curse of God should not receive financial support (see 6:6).
3. Motive: Paul’s motive is to please God not people (1:10).
We may be tempted to compromise in order to attract and please people. Paul was not a politician. He was an ambassador. His task was not to play politics but to proclaim a message as a bondservant of Christ.
B. Defense: Believers should defend the good news of grace (1:11–4:31).
News analyst Elmer Davis in his book But We Were Born Free said, “This will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.” Paul was willing to contend for spiritual liberty. We are commanded to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
1. Paul provides a personal defense of the good news of grace (1:11–2:21).
Paul uses a twofold approach in his defense of the gospel of grace. His first approach is personal. He reviews his own personal experience with Jesus and the message of the gospel. He points out that he had received the gospel independently from the Lord and not from the apostles, but that they had approved his message and ministry. Furthermore Paul had defended the gospel of grace when Peter, the leading apostle, had compromised his earlier stand.
a. The gospel of grace Paul preached is the true gospel given to him by the direct revelation of Christ
b. The apostles in Jerusalem approved of Paul’s presentation of the gospel of grace (2:1-10).
c. Paul’s rebuke of Peter on the matter of freedom from the Law vindicated his understanding of the
gospel of grace (2:11-21).
2. Paul provides a doctrinal defense of the good news of grace (3:1–4:31).
Paul’s second approach is doctrinal. Paul uses eight lines of reasoning to develop a theological defense of the gospel of grace.
a. The Galatians began by faith, and their growth in Christ should continue to be by faith (3:1-5).
b. Abraham was justified by faith, which applies for all who believe (3:6-9).
c. Christ has redeemed all who believe from the curse of the Law (3:10-14).
d. The Law does not nullify the promise made to Abraham (3:15-18).
e. The Law was given to drive people to faith, not to save them (3:19-22).
f. Believers in Christ are adopted children of God and no longer under the guardianship of the Law
g. The believers of the churches of Galatia should recognize their departure from the gospel of grace
and turn back to their original freedom in Christ (4:8-20).
h. Abraham’s two sons allegorically reveal the superiority of the Abrahamic promise to the Mosaic Law
III. Live Free: Believers should live free in Christ (5:1–6:18).
A. Freedom from Law: Believers have been set free in Christ and are not to subject themselves to the Law
1. Exhortation: Stay free (5:1).
2. Explanation: False teacher will seek to steal your freedom (5:2-12).
B. Freedom for Life in the Spirit: Believers should not abuse their freedom for life in the flesh but should use
their freedom for life by the Spirit in their personal and social spheres (5:13–6:10).
1. Exhortation: Do not turn liberty into license but in love serve one another (5:13).
Some think “free” means free to do as they please. Christian liberty is freedom from sin and freedom to serve. We are not to take liberties with our liberty.
Patrick Henry shouted, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Someone observed that the next generation shouted, “Give me liberty.” The present generation shouts, “Give me.”
2. Explanation: Love fulfills the Law (5:14-15).
The Holy Spirit enables us to fulfill the law of love. The fruit of the Spirit is love (5:22).
3. Application: Live by the Spirit in your personal and social life (5:16–6:10).
a. Personal Life: Live by the Spirit so as not to fulfill the lusts of the flesh (5:16-24).
Since we still have the sinful nature indwelling us, we may fall to the sins that nature produces if we do not live by the Spirit. The Spirit enables us to overcome the flesh.
The sins of the flesh fall into four categories. First, Paul mentions three sexual sins: immorality, impurity, sensuality. He then cites two religious sins: idolatry and sorcery. He then lists eight social sins: enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying. Two sins associated with alcohol fall in a fourth category: drunkenness, carousing. Finally to show that this long list is only representative and not exhaustive, Paul adds the words “and the like.”
Paul warns that those who habitually indulges in these fleshly sins will not inherit the Kingdom of God. This does not say that a believer loses his salvation if he lapses into a sin of the flesh, but that he will lose his inheritance or reward in the Kingdom of God if he continues in that sin.
The Spirit enables us to produce fruit. By the Spirit’s power we can produce a nine-fold fruit cluster of three triads. The first triad concern inner qualities of the heart: love, joy, peace. The second triad reaches out to others: patience, kindness, goodness. The final triad guide our general conduct: faithfulness, meekness, self-control. The word “fruit” is singular indicating that these qualities are unified and should all be found in a believer who lives under the control of the Spirit.
b. Social Life: Live by the Spirit so as to fulfill the law of Christ (5:25–6:10).
We are free from the Law of Moses and possess liberty in Christ, but we are to fulfill the law of Christ in the power of the Spirit. Such a life involves sharing the burden of other believers and supporting the teaching of the word.
1) The law of Christ involves sharing one another’s burdens (5:25–6:5).
2) The law of Christ involves supporting the teaching of the word and doing good (6:6-10).
C. Freedom Brand: Willingly bear the brand-mark of Jesus (6:11-18).
The teachers of a distorted gospel sought to compel circumcision for all believers. Paul exclaims that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything for the believer. What is important is that we are a new creation in Christ. He invokes peace and mercy upon those who follow this rule and upon the Israel of God. The Israel of God are the faithful believing Jewish remnant which make up the church with believing Gentiles.
In Paul’s day followers of a god or goddess were sometimes branded with the mark of that idol. Paul was “branded” for Jesus, but he did not receive his brands in the usual way. They were the physical marks of suffering for declaring the gospel of grace.
Theological Reflection and Application
We are born free in Christ to live free in Christ. Break free by believing the gospel of grace. Walk free by continuing in the gospel of grace. In Christ we are free. Such freedom is priceless. Never, never give it up.