Paul likes to repeat himself. He likes to make the same statement twice, both with different ways of stating and different contexts. By somewhat progressing from this subject, to that subject, and then to that one, and then tying them together with similar wording and phraseology, Paul helps us to build a larger view than to be stuck assuming that it all has the exact same meaning, or that he is speaking in regard to completely different subjects.
We’ve examined the justification through faith (3:1-9), the eternal covenant (3:10-18), the purpose of the law (3:19-25), sonship and adoption (3:26-4:7), the principalities and powers (4:8-20), and the two covenants (4:21-31). Notice here that we have a few subjects that are interlocking. Justification through faith and the purpose of the law seem at polarity with one another, and the eternal covenant is the subject to interlock them. We have then again the two covenants repeated later after the issues of adoption and the principalities and powers. Within the text examining how the powers of the air are at work within “law”, we find Paul explaining that we shouldn’t return to “beggarly elements”, thus being brought again into bondage. Here in Galatians 5:1, we have Paul addressing the issue of putting ourselves back in “bondage”.
It is for freedom that Christ has made us free, therefore don’t go back into the miserable principles, those “beggarly elements” that brings you into bondage. Notice again, especially if you haven’t been keeping up with these posts, that the whole point of “law” and “beggarly elements” isn’t specifically the words of the Torah (five books of Moses). It isn’t specifically the Old Testament. There is something at work behind it, a righteousness that comes from works, that because we have the “manual” of how to live (the Bible), we can attempt by our own abilities and our religious systems and institutions to be “righteous”. Yet, the whole mantra that Paul explains in every single one of his epistles is that righteousness comes by faith, and not by works.
The works are not to be what make you righteous, but simply what the righteous do. The righteous do righteously, not because the works make them righteous, but because they already are righteous, and so why would they do unrighteously? Therefore, when we read Paul’s assertion that they who become circumcised are somehow “fallen from grace”, it isn’t to mean that they who do one or two things of the law (like grow peahs or keep kosher) are indebted to the law entirely, but that they who find the necessity to do such in order to maintain righteousness are indebted. I have peahs (the curls on your sideburns), but I don’t find righteousness within my peahs. My wife and I attempt to eat kosher, just not the Leviticus 11 kosher diet. We try to eat healthy, caring about where our food comes from, and in that keep kosher. Does that mean that our righteousness comes from law? God forbid. It’s about maintaining my body – which is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Let us not forget that Paul continues to explain that both the circumcised and the uncircumcised wait for the righteousness that comes through faith. It isn’t like one is somehow more righteous than the other based upon what they do or don’t do. My walk with God is not based upon my adherence to Scripture and how well I keep the commands (even within the New Testament). My walk, and the proximity to God that I have, is totally based upon the faith in Christ Jesus, and the relationship that I cultivate through that faith.
If the Spirit tells me to not watch television because I’ll spend five hours watching shows, but I won’t spend five minutes reading and/or praying, then I need to give up watching television. That isn’t about law or commandment, but about relationship. Imagine if your best friend told you they love spending time with you, and yet every time that you ask if they’re available they give you some lame reason they aren’t available. I’m not talking about legitimate reasons, but lame excuses. If my best friend said that he can’t spend time with me because he wants to make sure that he knows his job schedule for next week, that’s a pretty lame excuse. You look up your job schedule when your at work, not when you’re at home. Who do you know that purposefully goes to work to check their schedule unless they’re coming back from vacation or something? (By the way, Jesus got at this too when he gave the reasons for why people refuse to come to the wedding at the end of the age – Luke 14:16-24.)
Our Christian liberty, as my Bible has the subtitle for this passage, is not found in our “liberty” from the law, but that in Christ we have been set free from the things that have kept us in bondage. In Romans 8:1-2, we find that there is a law of the flesh and a law of the Spirit. There is no condemnation for they who walk according to the Spirit, but for they who are working according to the law of the flesh, you stand condemned. Do you see the importance of this? It isn’t freedom from the law, but freedom from the death. It is freedom from the flesh.
In Colossians 3:1-7, Paul puts it this way (to paraphrase):
You have been raised with Christ, resurrected and no longer dead, and therefore are no longer of the earth, but now in heaven. As such, think upon and live out the things that are of God, that which is heavenly and eternal, and put off the old mindsets and lifestyles that you inherited from the death that you’ve lived in. You are no longer dead, but alive in Christ; therefore act like it.
Does that sound like freedom from law? With one breath Paul speaks about freedom from the law, and righteousness by faith, and salvation of grace. With the next breath he speaks of works, of do this and don’t do that, and of judging whether you’re truly saved by that which you do or don’t do. This is the way Paul writes, because it is exactly what I said earlier. I shall repeat it, and finish with the statement:
The righteous do righteously, not because the works make them righteous, but because they already are righteous, and so why would they do unrighteously?