Summary: If we try to be justified by keeping the Law, we’ve abandoned grace as our means of salvation. And having been set free, liberated by Christ, what will we do with our freedom? Jesus grants us an opportunity to live and love like never before!
Introduction: According to news reports, criminal gangs have tried to infiltrate the ranks of Scotland's police force, to obtain information and undermine law enforcement. You can just imagine the awful consequences. Paul was also dealing with infiltrators--in the church--people who insisted that non-Jewish believers in Christ must keep ceremonial rules and regulations, changing Christianity into a performance-based religion. These infiltrators were preaching a counterfeit Gospel. And so Paul responds; he cannot remain silent. His message is one of freedom. He tells us to be free (1-6), stay free (7-12), and grow free (13-15).
Be free, verses 1-6: Paul thunders out in verse one, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” This Independence Day weekend we celebrate the freedom we enjoy. Yet so many people aren’t free; they’re controlled by fears, desires, hatreds, addictions, and they serve these things. They’re in bondage. But we’ve been set free to live for Christ. Let’s claim our birthright! Jesus liberates us from the triple slavery of sin, death, and the devil. So be free--never let anyone put a harness of slavery on you!
Self-justification will only get us “alienated” (4); literally, “cut off.” Jesus is the great Restorer, not us. To be justified by keeping the Law--to seek to earn salvation--is to depart the realm of grace, and it’s impossible. It is like throwing away a life preserver. We have something more powerful than the Law to keep us in God’s will--we have the internal leading of the Holy Spirit. Only through the Spirit do we attain righteousness (5), and not our own. Jesus, though sinless, was made sin for us (our sins were placed on Him) “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:21).
By faith we are liberated, free to become what God wants for us. A word of caution: freedom is not license to do whatever we like, without constraint, total self-indulgence. We are free from the penalty of the Law and free to be part of God’s family. We’re no longer enslaved by sin, self, or the enticements of the world.
I remember having lunch with a fellow-chaplain at Fort Hamilton. He picked up a beer and said to me, “Bob, I couldn’t get through the day without this.” I was too stunned to say anything! Later I thought maybe I should’ve asked, “Have you tried Jesus?” I don’t think this guy was free! When we’re walking with Jesus, we don’t need a crutch. In Christ we have all we need for this life and the next.
Verse 6 tells us that with faith, we are free to love--“the only thing that matters.” “If it is not visible that we love one another, it is doubtful that we love one another” (John Neuhaus). We do not truly believe if works of love do not follow our faith. We have a built-in discipline of love that regulates our lives.
Conversion to Judaism--the occasion for Paul’s letter--is not necessary for Gentiles to become Christians. Circumcision was minor surgery but it became a major issue. Paul warns that circumcision (or any other ritual) is not the answer to the question: “What must I do to be saved?” Adding circumcision was not a “minor adjustment” but a major step backwards. Believers in Christ have a new identity, marked by a new ritual--baptism. However, we are saved by grace, not sacraments. Our standing before God depends entirely on what Christ has done, not on anything we can do. Self-help is no help at all. We come empty-handed to the cross.
Stay free, verses 7-12: In track-and-field events, every now and then a runner will cut off another runner, causing a fall. I’m reminded of American track star Mary Decker Slaney, who was inadvertently tripped by South African runner Zola Budd at the 1984 Summer Olympics. I still remember the look on her face as her dream of winning Olympic gold ended in tearful anguish. The Apostle Paul knew that false teachers had been running some interference in the Christian race. Spiritual progress had been impeded by ideas that contaminated the gospel. We’re in a race, and God wants us to finish well.
Paul warns in verse 9 that false teaching is like yeast; even a small amount can have a major affect. Deceptive doctrines have a way of corrupting and spreading. The “yeast” here was to add works to faith as the means of salvation. Christ’s death alone is all that is needed to pay for our sins.
Paul then points out that the persecution of the church is proof that the cross was an “offense” to Rome, not circumcision (10-11). The Greek word “offense” is where we get our word “scandal.” The Empire wouldn’t let its own citizens be crucified, and the very word “cross” was regarded by Romans as a swear word. Yet in His work on the cross Jesus did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The cross is where wrath and mercy meet.