The Freedom For Which Christ Sets Free
Coffee mug verses are almost always taken out of context. Usually these out-of-context verses are used by a particular cultural moment for a particular cultural theme, having nothing to do with the meaning of Scripture but rather the mood of the reader. In our self-care society, you can be sure to find snippets of rich, doctrinally sound, life-giving passages used for passing moments of superfluous excitement. One such passage is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians:
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
The misinterpretation of this verse does not usually happen in the words, “Christ set us free.” Those are self-explaining. Rather, it is the idea of freedom that is thrown around like a rag doll in the hands of an careless toddler. Christ setting us free is clear, straight forward, understandable. Freedom, by itself, could mean anything to anyone. It can be interpreted as a liberty from strict rules, allowing for licentious living; a freedom from all traditions—even the helpful ones; freedom from psychological fears; or freedom from anything which impedes on perceived human flourishing.
Paul means something quite different than the modern interpreters imagine. When the context of the letter—even the immediate context of the verse—is considered, it is clear Paul is speaking of freedom from a works-based righteousness. This, of course, is not the oppression we readily supply to the text, nor is it the oppression Paul physically faced from the culture or the circumstances of his day. Rather, it is the universal, cosmic oppression transcending time and culture. The problem Paul was in the process of addressing plainly displays its oppressive nature. They claimed they were saved by grace (all is good and well), but continued on proclaiming that certain works of the law acquired that saving grace more expeditiously. This was not the gospel. This was not freedom. This was far from that.
Plainly, what the Galatians were doing was binding themselves to the law after finding freedom in Christ. It was the story of the Israelite’s freedom from Egypt replayed—they insisted that enslavement was much better than freedom. Paul minced no words for these leaders: those who preach the law are to be damned (1:8, 9); those who believe the law to add to salvation are "foolish" and "bewitched" (3:1); they are imprisoned (3:22); they are not justified in the sight of God (2:21). A similar problem arose in the Corinthian church, and in the second letter to that church, Paul wrote likewise: those who teach this, teach a ministry of death (3:7); a veil covers their hearts (3:15); and their hearts are hardened so that they do not love Christ (3:14).
A while back, I found myself discussing religion with an atheist. He told me he had left religion and the worship of God for three reasons. Out of the three, the last two stuck out to me. He believed it was insane for God to give us laws we cannot keep. He also believed, alongside the philosopher John Locke, that man did not need God to guide in creating laws for the flourishing of humanity. Essentially, this man had, at the same time, understood and misunderstood the law. The law is given to us to show us the grace of God—for our benefit and enjoyment in life. Further, without God, any law we create has no eternal binding power upon us. Put these together and we have a law, graciously given to us for our flourishing, yet impossible to keep. The underlying answer this atheist needed to hear (if he would listen) was Christ. The law is not for us to keep, but to guide us to the One who kept it for us.
We are not left to our own reasoning to figure out how this works because Paul explained it to the Galatians:
“Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:19-24).
The law is our great enemy because it condemns us before God. If we do not deal with its demands, all the freedom in this world will not help us one bit. We must have this freedom from a works-based righteousness if we are going to be truly set free by Christ.
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” — Romans 8:1-4