“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” — Gal. 5.1
With this landmark verse, Paul lays out a concise definition of the Gospel-life. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are God’s cosmic liberation project. All of this — God’s promises, God’s decrees, God’s prophecies — has been pointed toward the freedom Christ would bring. Therefore, Paul says, believers should not willingly embrace the yoke of slavery anymore. In particular, Paul has circumcision in mind. If these Gentile Christians accept circumcision, Paul argues, then Christ will be of no advantage to them.
Circumcision was the external evidence of God’s covenant relationship with His people. In circumcision, a pledge was made to live a Torah-observant life. But now, in Christ, Paul says we are bound to greater outward demonstrations of the covenant life. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love,” (v6). Circumcision isn’t even the point, Paul says. This conversation is fruitless. What matters is faith animated by love, energized by love. What matters is connectivity to the source of life: Jesus Christ, not Torah. This is an important distinction for Paul, upon which the entire basis of the Gospel rests.
Paul reserves some of his strongest language for his opponents in this chapter. “I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is….I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (v10, 12). To those who are fixated on the validity of circumcision, Paul offers a vivid response: I wish you’d carry your convictions to their logical conclusion!
Freedom in Christ is to be treated as a responsibility, not a luxury. Paul says this freedom is not an opportunity for the flesh, but instead for service in love (v13). “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Walking according to the Spirit also entails a renunciation of certain behaviors, as spelled out in vv19-21: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, etc. “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God,” (v21). Rather, the Spirit-led mind gravitates toward these behaviors: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are the expressions of the Spirit-life of freedom.