Galatians 5:1, 13-25
July 1, 2007 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Belief in human free-will is not exactly a given in Christian doctrine. One long tradition of theology, beginning with Augustine, denies that we have free-will in the ordinary sense that we have the power to choose other than what God chooses for us. The Augustinian tradition so emphasizes the sovereignty of God that there can be no allowance for genuine free choice on the part of humans. So theologies like Calvin’s or Luther’s, which build heavily upon Augustine, place great emphasis on God’s freedom and choices, His predestining of those who will be saved or lost. They do so to the point even of denying that humans have free-will.
Yet many Christians do believe that biblical anthropology, the Bible’s account of human beings, assigns at least some free-will to us. This seems apparent even in the second chapter of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are given a command, and, it seems clear, the choice whether to obey it or not. This choice exists because God holds the man and woman responsible for their disobedience. If they had no choice, they would not be responsible. If human action is completely determined by God, then no one could justly be held responsible for his or her behavior. We do not hold people accountable for that which is beyond their control (this is what pleas of insanity in legal cases are about).
So another strain of Christian theology is what has been labeled the “Arminian” tradition, named after Jacob Arminius in the sixteenth century. Arminians believe that God has made human beings capable of at least one genuinely free choice: God has made us able to choose to love Him or to reject Him. More broadly, He has made us able to choose between doing good and doing evil.
Belief in free-will refuses to make God the author of much of the evil in the world. Instead the blame is squarely fixed on our misuse of the gift of freedom. Because God endows us with free-will, human choices matter and have consequences. Many of our choices are wrong and the consequences are disastrous, from the Holocaust to 9/11, from an unkind remark to an adulterous affair. Free-will means that human beings are responsible for such things, not God.
Belief that human beings can accept or reject God’s grace makes a significant difference in our Christian practice. It makes evangelism imperative and elevates the importance of our ministry as individual Christians. To believe in free-will is to believe that God allows us to make a real difference for good in our world. Our choices matter.
Yet most of all, the doctrine of free-will means that God has confronted us all with the opportunity for a very happy choice. He offers to us the grace and love of His Son, Jesus Christ, and allows us the freedom to accept or reject His gift. And when we accept that gift we step into a freedom that is even larger, a freedom of eternal blessing in His love.
You stand at the Subway counter. You order a sandwich, say… turkey. Let’s be healthy, after all. But then the choices begin. First the bread: ciabatta, Italian, hearty Italian, Italian herbs and cheese, honey oat, wheat, Monterey cheddar, roasted garlic, parmesan oregano, sourdough, or, a wrap. Sauces and dressings: mayonnaise, light mayonnaise, mustard, brown mustard, honey mustard, chipotle southwest, sweet onion, or oil and vinegar. Cheese: American, cheddar, Monterey jack, provolone, Swiss, or pepperjack. Vegetables: lettuce, tomato, cucumber, green peppers, banana peppers, jalapeño peppers, pickles, olives, and onions. And of course, finally, toasted or not?
We make choices, we exercise free-will all the time. It’s God’s gift to us. God Himself is free. He didn’t have to create our universe. He chose to. He didn’t have to create this universe, where the speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second and the cosmological constant is very small, a universe where life can exist. He could have made a universe where light travels 10 miles per hour and the constant is huge and where no life exists. He had choices, lots of them.
So making us in His image, God passed on the power of choice to us. He made us different from plants which must grow according to their DNA, and animals which must follow instinct, again based in DNA. We decide, we make choices, from an early age. 18 months old and she sits in her high chair before a bowl of Cheerios. She may eat them with her spoon. She may pick them up one by one in her fingers. She may just pick her nose. Or she may pick up the bowl and turn it over on her head. Free-will. The gift of God.
The gift of free-will explains, in part, why there is so much evil in the world. God wants our love and devotion to Him and to His goodness to be free and not forced. He doesn’t want a world of biological robots blindly obeying their DNA programming. He wants us to love Him and love each other freely, because we want to, not because we have to. And so He gives us free-will, allows us to make choices, and deals with the consequence that so many of our choices are bad ones.
Yet even with all our choices, we constantly struggle to be free. This week on Wednesday we celebrate the great historical battle for political freedom that began our nation. We remember another battle that freed slaves in our country. We think of the additional freedoms gained for women and minorities in America during the past century. In our country we have a great heritage of cherishing, nurturing and fighting for personal liberty.
So the message of much of the New Testament may feel a bit irrelevant to us. We read here in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” In our call to worship, we heard Jesus’ great words that His truth will make us free. In Romans 8:21, Paul speaks of the natural world itself waiting for liberation, waiting for us to attain the “glorious freedom of the children of God.”
But we’re Americans. We have free-will and we live in a free country. Many of us can do pretty much whatever we want in all sorts of situations. We make our free choices at Subway, at Blockbuster, and at Walmart. We click up whatever we like on the Internet, on our television screens, and now on our iPhones. We have all kinds of choices. We’re already free. Jesus and Christianity is just another choice we make. We’re not waiting for freedom, we’ve already got it.
Again, what’s going on here in Galatians seems awfully irrelevant. Paul is writing to people who are being told that in order to follow Jesus they must follow Old Testament law. In particular, they’re being told to follow the command given to Abraham in Genesis 17:10 that all males must be circumcised. To be a good Christian you have to obey the Law of Moses, circumcision, kosher food, Sabbath and the whole bit. That’s what they were teaching in the churches of Lystra and Derbe and Iconium there in the region of Galatia. To be a Christian, first be a Jew.
What’s that got to do with you and me? Circumcision is no big deal these days in America. Parents make a decision about it by checking a box on a form in the hospital every time a little boy is born. You want it for your child? Fine. You don’t? That’s O.K. too. What’s all the fuss about? It’s your choice, just like everything else. Do what you want. Be yourself. Follow your heart. That’s freedom, and we’ve got lot’s of it.
We carry that same sense of freedom over into how we practice our faith. It’s not law, it’s grace, just like Paul was trying to tell the Galatians. It’s all up to us, it’s our choice: work, play or come to church on Sunday; put whatever you like in the offering; read whatever part of the Bible is meaningful to you; pick out whichever Christian music you like most; even select the church that best meets your own wants and needs. We hear you Paul! We are free from the Law, and so we will just go ahead and make our choices. We don’t really need to read this Galatians stuff, we’ve already got this whole freedom deal wired!
But in the midst of our contemporary American Christian Fourth of July celebration of spiritual independence, Paul brushes our firecrackers aside and sets off a bomb. After arguing vehemently for our freedom in Christ, he says in verse 13, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.” Then in verse 17, he tells us “For 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 are not to do whatever you want.”
The big theme, the big concern of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the loss of Christian freedom if we start thinking we are bound to the Law. But just for a moment, here in this portion of Galatians, Paul mentions what he knows very well from his dealings with the Corinthians. There is more than one way to lose your freedom. You may be a slave when someone else tells you what to do. But you are also a slave, Paul says here, when you merely tell yourself what to do, when you do whatever you want. Then you become a slave not to Law, but to your own evil heart.
Law can produce slavery and Christ came to set us free from such bondage. But He also came to set us free from ourselves, from what the TNIV translation calls in these verses our “sinful nature.” That sinful nature is always in us, even when we are Christians. We are set free in Jesus, but we can’t just cast off law and do what we please, because what we please, what we want, is so very often not good at all.
When we choose to follow Jesus our choice is free, and we are given even greater freedom. But following Jesus also binds us, places demands on us. Look at the demands made of three would-be followers of Jesus in our Gospel lesson from Luke 9. One wants to follow Jesus and is told that if he does, he won’t have any place to live. Another wants to follow and is told that he can’t go home even to bury his father. Yet another is not allowed to go home even to say goodbye.
Jacques Ellul tells us, “The glorious liberty of the children of God is not the happy fluttering of a butterfly from one attractive flower to another. It is joyous, but it is also radical, hard, and absolute.”
Jesus’ freedom for us is radical and hard, because He wants us to be truly free. He gave us free-will and He gives us the freedom of grace because He does not want us to be animals. Paul says in verse 15, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Biting and devouring is what animals do. They do it naturally. It’s their nature. It’s what they want. If you’ve ever had an aquarium, you know that big fish eat little fish. Your cat kills birds. Dogs get into fights. Nobody is surprised, because that’s just how animals are. They’re following their hearts. But that’s not how you and I are meant to be. Jesus means to lift us above slavery to our hearts and set us free into His love.
Paul tells us in verses 13 and 14, “But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Law is not gone. It’s been transformed and renewed, all under one great command to love.
So it’s not that Law just disappears for Christians, leaving us to do what we please. Instead, all those details of observance and sacrifice are caught up into a greater, deeper, even more demanding Law of love that binds and constrains in a way that still leaves us gloriously free, free even from our own sinful nature.
Freedom is not just doing what you want, and neither is love. In Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, David painfully learns what real love is. As he reflects on his foolishness about what he thought was love, he uses more than once the phrase, “my undisciplined heart.” He discovered that when his heart was undisciplined, was unbound by any constraint or wisdom or guidance, that following his heart was not necessarily the path to love, but only to a kind of bondage.
I submit to you that despite Independence Day arriving on Wednesday, that despite a myriad of choices we make all the time, that despite our freedom from all sorts of religious rules and regulations, we are often not very free at all. We are, I am, people of undisciplined hearts. Thinking we are free to follow those unruly hearts, we are actually slaves, slaves to some, if not many, of the kind of ugly character traits Paul names here in verses 19-21. Certainly, at least, sexual immorality and impurity; hatred, discord and jealousy; selfish ambition, dissensions and factions. These forces of our own souls hold us hostage just as powerfully as any terrorist might. We’ve experienced them right here among us in our church family.
The only way out, the only path to freedom is what Paul offers. Live in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. In His Spirit we discipline our hearts to grow fruits which begin with love and end with self-control. These fruit growing in us are real freedom. They will constrain us, forcing us against our own hearts of ambition to be patient, compelling us against our own desires to be faithful, ordering us against our own wrath and anger to be gentle. No, we don’t get to do what we want. But as we do what the Spirit of Jesus wants, we will be free. Paul says in verse 23, “Against such things there is no law.”
Be free. Be free in a love which binds you hand and foot and heart and mouth to God and to each other in the love of Jesus Christ. Choose to be free in the bonds of His love. Any other choice is just slavery.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj