The "Again" of Freedom in Christ

The luxury of the unexamined life is never the luxury of the Christian. Self-examination and a preaching of the Gospel to your own heart is the duty of every Christian--always. The times during which Christians find themselves in most trouble are the times when they think that they have arrived at a new plateau of spiritual maturity--where self-examination is no longer necessary (or at least is not viewed as something as necessary as it had been in times past). These are dangerous moments for Christians. Broadly, the danger is toward any type of temptation to sin; more specifically, the temptation is to self-righteousness. The step between, “I’m doing ok before the face of God” and “I’m doing ok in the place of God,” is a razors edge. Self-righteousness is that spiritual condition in which one looks to all or any of his works in this life for his justification before God. The Gospel teaches us that justification is found in Christ alone, apart from works--merely by trusting Him and what He has done for us. This topic takes up the majority of Paul’s letter to the Galatians as he attempts to dissuade the young Galatian Christians from falling back into self-justification and self-righteousness. They had, at one time, believed the true Gospel, but now a group of agitators have come into Galatia insisting on obedience to different aspects of the Mosaic law as a requirement for true justification before God. In summary fashion, Paul begins the fifth chapter of his epistle by saying, "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).

Freedom vs. Again

I haven’t done an official survey but I’m going to guess that a majority of topical Bible memory systems include this verse. Why wouldn’t you? In a short space Paul employs irony, simplicity, parallelism and exhortation. Who wouldn’t want to be free rather than a slave? Who doesn’t wanto to hear the topics of freedom and slavery? Who isn’t drawn into the conversation by the introduction of these subjects? However, I want to argue that these themes, important as they are, actually are not at the center of this verse. “Freedom" is not the key word in Galatians 5:1--“again” is.

By adding the word “again” Paul is stating something of crucial importance for any Christian trying to avoid self-righteousness. Without knowing the context of the book of Galatians, readers might be tempted to think that Paul is warning the Galatian Christians from returning again to paganism. After all, that is precisely where they were before their conversion to Christianity. They were obeying the laws of paganism, worshiping man-made gods in whatever smattering of pluralistic religiosity they pleased. But after Paul preached the Gospel to them they gave all that up and became worshipers and disciples of the risen Christ. So Paul can summarize their conversion in the following manner:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now... you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God (Galatians 4:8-9).

While this is so, it is equally obvious, from the context of the letter, that the Galatians are not being tempted to return again to paganism. They are instead being tempted to obey parts of the Mosaic law, especially circumcision, for a right standing with God. Do you see what Paul is doing? By using the word “again,” he is lumping together paganism with the false teaching that the Jewish agitator were drawing from the Torah. Paul had not lost respect for the Old Testament (Rom 3:2), but was saying that, from it, the human heart can draw a legalism that is just as potent a soul-killer as paganism. If the Galatian Christians went to the Torah to be justified (Rom 10:1-5) they would be returning again to the same state they were in as unconverted pagans--enslaved by gods that were not gods.

The “Again” of the Human Heart

Discussions about Law and Gospel, Legalism and Antinomianism, Grace and Obedience are all supremely important. They flow out of themes that we’ve already discussed in this verse. But the passage before us primarily says something about the human heart--namely, about its tendency to self-justification. In fact it says two things along these lines. Consider the following:

First, for the rest of your life, you will struggle with justifying yourself before God by your works. The question, “Are you again returning to legalism,” is one the Christian always needs to ask himself or herself. Looking at a life of past idolatrous debauchery and avoiding such behavior thay accompanied it would make self-examination much easier; but, as we see in this passage, legalism is more subtle than that. The heart of the Christian is able to take even the Bible and use it to undermine the Gospel that the Bible has uniquely revealed throughout human history. The Christian, in this life, will struggle with ever new temptations to self-justification, time and time and time again.

Second, you won’t see that you’re doing it until you’ve already begun. We can be hard on the Galatians. We can treat them as if they were this awful anomaly in the history of the church. But they are more normative than we want to admit. If you don’t believe that, simply do a Bible search for the word “remember." My quick search yielded 237 occurrences. If God, in his word, has to say “remember” that many times, I think that we can deduce that the church is prone to forget. That means when we diagnose legalism in ourselves we have unconsiously been in it for some time. There should be a sense of normalcy to this process. We need not be surprised when we find self-justification hiding under a thought, emotion, or deed. We should expect it and do all we can to fight against it.

The Second and Last Adam

But the Christian must be careful. The solution is not in vigilance, though vigilance is required (Phil 2:12). We must choose each day, each week, each month, each year whether we will walk after the first Adam or the second and last Adam, Jesus (1 Cor. 15:45; 47). The first Adam lived before God and before the fall, presenting his works as a means for justification (Hos 6:7; Rom 5:12-21). But this way to life was closed after Adam’s failure, though the human reflex to works righteousness remains. Now God calls everyone everywhere to repent and place their faith in Christ alone for salvation. Salvation is only in the work, the merit of the second Adam, the one who got the job done (Rom. 5:12-21). The Christian's righteousness is "the righteousness of Christ." Our solution is not in a hyper-focus on our actions but rather a hyper-focus on Christ, the author and finished of our faith (Heb 12:1-2; Col 3:1-4).

By looking at him by faith we see in Him all the mercy and grace that we need for redemption. By finding our identity in Him as our second Adam, we lay down our empty attempts at self-justification. By looking to Him, we find obedience as a consequence of conversion and as a response of love. By looking to Him, we find the blessed freedom of those who are bondservants of Christ, slaves to righteousness, and controlled by Christ’s love.

The focused worship of Jesus, our second Adam, is the antidote to creeping legalism. As we are more captivated by Him, we are less the captive by our own self-righteousness. With every again of self-righteousness we have the great joy of returning again to Christ.


Related Resources

J. Gresham Machen Notes on Galatians

Phillip Graham Ryken Galatians (Reformed Expository Commentary)

Eric Alexander Sermon Series on Galatians

Nick Batzig "The Grace of Remembering"

Joe Holland