In the midst of the battle the text of Scripture suffers at the hands of those who seek to mold it to their theology. Recently Paulâ€™s words in Galatians 5 have suffered egregiously. Let’s remind ourselves of what Paul actually said:
Galatians 5:1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?
Before moving on, how did the citation end? “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” Whatever Paul is saying, it is about the truth. His opponents in Galatia (Paul never addresses them directly) are seeking to pervert the gospel: that is his direct statement (1:7). They did not just have a “different tradition,” they had a different gospel. Oh, sure, they wanted it to look like the real thing, and they used the same terminology, but they twisted the message so as to bring men under their spiritual power and control. But it is the nature of this perversion that is at stake in the current discussions. But keep in mind that for Paul, this was not a matter of opinion; it was not a matter of being open to a wider variety of views. It was a matter of truth; truth that was to be obeyed, and falsehood that hindered that obedience.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore
keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
To what does Paul refer? How have we been set free by Christ? Some today suggest that this is only in reference to freedom from symbols of Jewish nationalism, but surely this is but a small portion of the truth. The key is found in the phrase “subject again to a yoke of slavery.” We know what Paul is referring to because he already explained himself. Recall Galatians 2:4-5:
But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. 5 But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.
The language of liberty, bondage, yielding in subjection, etc., are all directly related to our text in Gal. 5:1. These false teachers were seeking to bring believers into bondage, and this bondage is somehow directly related to the truth of the gospel (note the parallel to 5:7) and to the work of Christ. Christ “set us free” so that we might have freedom. Freedom from what? Nationalism? Or all concepts of merit and works righteousness? Unlike those who refuse to hear the Scriptures in fully defining their view of the Judaism that forms the background of Paul’s writings (Sanders, Dunn, Wright), the Jews, by Paul’s own testimony, did believe their actions in accordance with God’s law were relevant to their standing before God. By focusing the entire work of God in salvation in Christ, God has cut off all grounds of boasting, making faith, and faith alone, the instrument by which one stands righteous before God. To be subject once again, through circumcision, to the law is to be under a “yoke of slavery.” Christ set us free; our freedom is precious, and we are to “keep standing firm” for it is the consistent effort of unregenerate men to seek to enslave men to religious systems of falsehood and merit. [continued]