Jesus pushed no to-do lists but insisted on the heart. He demanded no do-good CV but spoke of faith. His message was freedom, one of the central themes in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
One day, late in October 1886, the giant Statue of Liberty rose over Liberty Island, New York. Frederic Bartholdi designed it and the French gave it to the American people as a monument to the democracy and freedom the Americans won on 4 July 1776. The statue stands 93 metres tall and at her feet lays a broken chain proclaiming the American victory in the battle for freedom.
Galatians is also a declaration of freedom—a confirmation that the battle is won! A battle not won by guns and cannons but by a person allowing nails to pierce hands and feet in order to free those bound in chains. Freed not from power-hungry generals or cruel masters but from Satan’s prison and the fetters of sin.
The Message: A Freedom Worthy to Defend
Sometime around 48-49 AD, Paul sailed from Antioch in Syria to the province of Galatia, carrying Jesus’ freedom message. He ends his first sermon, which we find in Acts, preaching: “I want you to know, my very dear friends, that it is on account of this resurrected Jesus that the forgiveness of your sins can be promised. He accomplishes, in those who believe, everything that the Law of Moses could never make good on. But everyone who believes in this raised-up Jesus is declared good and right and whole before God.” (Message) Here Paul identifies the peace, the grace and the freedom God offers sinners who trust Jesus to forgive them.
But many in Galatians did not want to hear any of it, no such freedom message for them. These sticklers for religious observance wanted to keep their stranglehold on people, not let them hear the freedom message. They called themselves Christians but insisted on Jewish rule keeping as well. They added their own rules to Moses’ law, laying heavy burdens on people against God’s will. They were entangled in good works, held down by dead rituals and tied up by their own views on what is right and wrong for everyone else. This was the religious system they’d built and it robbed people of joy and freedom. This was salvation as faith in Jesus plus good works. It lead to a hard, judgmental and graceless religion bound up in external practices, not in deep communion with God. Obedience was turned into frightful coercion, not rooted in a yearning to love God.
But Paul opposed these lovers of religious rules and called the Galatians back to the grace, freedom and truth preached by Jesus. The freedom message was a gust of fresh air that burst open prison doors. Fear and guilt were set aside, and they followed Jesus in love and joy. Instead of handing out a “to-do” list of good works, Jesus spoke of the heart. Instead of asking for an exhaustive CV of accomplishments, Jesus spoke of trust. The new message proclaimed freedom. Jesus had after all said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free!” Religious rules, rot and unhealthy traditions were swept away. And freedom, grace and deep communion came in their place. Jesus followers loved it. But his enemies, the sticklers for rules, hated it and Jesus himself!
Imagine: Perhaps your Neighbour is a Killer
Imagine your neighbour is a murderer. The truth is many murderers walk freely about. They are killers of grace, slayers of freedom. The problem is, we don’t see it when we meet them. They don’t tell you who they are, they are not marked as murderers.
Rather, the opposite is the case. Many, Bible in hand, walk around as good and upright citizens. They spend much time in church, some of them in leading positions. Many are highly esteemed, their neighbours simply cannot believe they live next-door to a killer.
They do away with freedom, grace and whatever is creative. They are killjoys, cutting down any bright idea or achievement. They kill with words and, sometimes simply with a haughty look. Their whole personality is bent on destruction fuelled by their unbending prejudices. Their pontificating is never checked, their clever ploys always hidden, slithering below the surface. And their short-sightedness is rationalised or justified. The fetters they put on people would be illegal hadn’t it been woven into religious and spiritualised rot.
Today—at this very moment—many Christians live in fear, shame and a sense of being less-than, though they should be living in freedom, peace and joy. And not somewhere far off but right in your own backyard. The tragedy is they believe this is as it should be. They have lost truth’s taste, the truth that truly makes them free. They are victims, living as if they await execution, though they should be enjoying the freedom and grace Jesus holds out to everyone who want to follow him.
Likely, there is no church, mission organisation, Christian school or neighbourhood where these killers don’t lurk in the shadows. So yes, you probably have a murderer as neighbour, a grace killer.
The Challenge: Freedom Responsibility
What then is the challenge? The big question is: Will you take full responsibility for the freedom that Christ has given you and resolutely deny the killers to destroy it? One who does not take responsibility for freedom will be robbed of it, and it will be abused, hurting many.
In the US, the Statue of Liberty hovers over the East Coast, a constant reminder of the freedom won. For balance sake, some call for the erection of a monument to responsibility on the West Coast—without responsibly, freedom is shipwrecked. Freedom dies or is abused if one does not take full responsibility for it, remembering whence it came and what it cost. The Statue of Liberty reminds Americans of freedom and democracy. Paul lifts a bright torch of liberty in Galatians, calling us ever back to our freedom in Jesus. Paul paints truth in sweeping strokes:
Sticklers for religious rules ask: what shall I do? Freedom proclaims what God has done.
Sticklers for religious rules look at how good I am. Freedom points to the goodness of God.
Sticklers for religious rules compare people. Freedom is seeing how God sees me.
Sticklers for religious rules proclaim self-justification. Freedom is to rest in the God who justifies me in Jesus.
Sticklers for religious rules note how terrible those other people are. Freedom shows how God is good to those who are no-good.