Galatians 5:1-2 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to keep the whole law.”
“Defend your freedom! Reject slavery!” Paul says. In the context of this letter, the slavery here involves accepting circumcision as a requirement for salvation. People with Jewish background had come to these congregations somewhere in ancient Eastern Turkey and told them, “Jesus is good, yes. You should follow him. But faith in Jesus isn’t enough. If you really want to be saved, you need to be circumcised just like Abraham, and Moses, and the prophets all were.”
That might not sound like such a bad deal at first. All that is standing between you and heaven is a little surgery. It won’t take but a minute. Look at all giants of faith, the heroes of God’s people, who did this before you. Never in your life have you been offered so much for doing so little.
Have you ever signed up for a great deal without reading all the fine print? You thought you were getting the bargain of the century. “Sign up for our cell phone plan and we will give you the smart phone for free.” But there’s an asterisk next to the word “free.” You will walk out of the store without paying for the phone today. But over the next few years you are going to lay down $500 or even $1000 for your “free” phone.
Salvation for circumcision works a lot like that. Paul warned these people, “…do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Again? What did that mean? These Christians in Galatia were Gentiles. They had never been circumcised before.
He explains a verse later: “Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” There’s the fine print. Today you submit to circumcision. Tomorrow you will be eating only kosher foods, putting yourself through a hundred and one cleansing ceremonies, and offering all kinds of animal sacrifices for special holidays. In fact, the “law” doesn’t stop there. While you are “doing something” to save yourselves, you can throw in the ten commandments. And don’t you dare make any mistakes. Don’t think this contract for heaven is any good if you disobey your parents, use God’s name as a cuss word, get frisky with someone you aren’t married to, or develop a little envy and covet something that belongs to your neighbor, not even once. Now you are obligated to keep the whole law. It’s a package deal.
This is the kind of slavery with which the Galatian Christians were all too familiar. The details were different in their old religion, but the principles were the same: Make God happy by the quality of your personal performance. Base your relationship with God on how well you behave. Do and do, and do and do, and when you are tired of that, do some more. It never stops, and it is never enough. It is a slavery that covers every waking and sleeping moment of your life. It is not the way of Jesus. Defend your freedom, Paul says. Reject the Law’s slavery.
That fight isn’t over. Christians in our time still try to make salvation Jesus plus something else. It is Jesus plus abstaining from having a drink. It is Jesus plus worshiping on Saturday as the true Sabbath. It is Jesus plus using enough water at your baptism or blabbering on in some language you never heard before.
Don’t think we Lutherans are immune to the temptation. Five hundred years after the Reformation we have developed plenty of fine traditions. Make any of those traditions a binding rule, an unchangeable requirement laid on the consciences of God’s people, and we cease to be the church of grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone.
Defend your freedom, Paul urges us today. Reject the Law’s slavery. You can never legislate your way to freedom. More laws only increase our bondage.
This call to freedom isn’t an encouragement to embrace immorality. It’s a reminder of our limitations, an admission of our incompetence, and a defense of Christ’s honor. We cannot save ourselves, or even contribute. Only Jesus saves, and he has. All that’s left for us is a life lived in the freedom he already won.