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“For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free.” But What Is “Freedom”?

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A story is told of a prisoner who had been locked away for decades. One morning, the warden came to his cell and told him his sentence was complete. The warden opened the door and allowed the prisoner to walk free. The prisoner walked out of the cell, crossed the block, and, seeing another cell open, ran in and slammed the door behind him.

That is an absurd picture, but it illustrates the danger that Paul warns against in Galatians 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Christ did not set us free so that we might put ourselves in bondage again. He set us free so that we might live free.

Because Christ has set us free, we’re meant to enjoy this freedom. We’re not suppose to back into the cell again. Indeed, we’re supposed to, in Paul’s words, “stand firm.” This language evokes a tug-of-war, where you would make a divot in the ground in which to plant your feet. You dig your heels firmly in so that when the pull comes from the other end, you will have the means to keep yourself in place. Paul says, “We’re going to dig in our heels, and we will not allow ourselves to be burdened again by a yoke of bondage.”

On the rope is the doctrine of justification—the question of how we gain acceptance with God. In Galatia, people were pulling at the other end with words like these: “We profess faith in Jesus Christ. We believe what Paul preached. But we’ve got another part to it: you need to go and do something for God to accept you.” Paul dug in his heels and said, “No! It is what Christ has done, and only what Christ has done, that gives us acceptance with God.”

There was no room for compromise on this, because, as William Hendriksen has put it, “a Christ supplemented is a Christ supplanted.”1 Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone, or it is nothing at all. If we add to Christ’s gift a requirement of works rather than knowing and trusting that God-honoring works are an inevitability for those with true faith, then we will put ourselves in slavery again to sin, since the law merely reveals the sinful nature of our hearts. Only Christ, the Righteous One, who became sin for us, can make us into the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13).

Yet the rope is also pulled by those who use freedom as “an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). They say, “We are free now to indulge ourselves. We don’t need to worry about the consequences of sin.” This is the so-called “freedom” of “Me and Bobby McGee”: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”2

“A Christ supplemented is a Christ supplanted.” —William Hendriksen

Those who see freedom as the freedom to do as the old self pleases are ultimately no different from those who add works of the law to the gift of Christ: they are oriented to the flesh, not to the Spirit. They are not walking in Gospel freedom because they are not walking with the Spirit who gives that freedom by applying the work of Christ and bearing the fruit of righteousness in the believer’s life (Gal. 5:22–23).

The freedom the believer seeks is the freedom from sin and wrath that makes it possible to do what we were created for: “to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”3 There is a sincere joy to be found in walking in the way of the Lord (which believers know to be freedom), even as we abandon forever the countless paths of world. To be bound to Christ is to be free in all the ways that matter—free from the power of sin (Gal. 5:16) and free from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). It is to eagerly await the hope of righteousness as our faith works itself out through love (Gal. 5:6). As the hymn writer puts it,

Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free;
Force me to render up my sword,
And I shall conqueror be.4

If anybody is free in our world today, it is you, Christian, as you are bound to Christ.

This article was adapted from the sermon “The Only Thing That Counts” by Alistair Begg.

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  1. William Hendriksen, Exposition of Galatians, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), 112, 195. ↩︎

  2. Fred Foster and Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee” (1969). ↩︎

  3. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Q. 1. ↩︎

  4. George Matheson, “Make Me a Captive, Lord” (1890). ↩︎

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