LETTER OF LIBERTY
By Pastor Glenn Pease
The author of a tract entitled Come To Jesus got engaged in a theological dispute, and he wrote another publication in which he cut his opponent to pieces with razor sharp sarcasm. He let a friend read it and then asked if he had any suggestions for a title. His friend said, "How about Go To The Devil by the author of Come To Jesus." The author recognized the inconsistency and responded to the rebuke by not publishing the product of his anger. Be ye angry and sin not said Paul. That is a easier thing to preach than to practice. Many men of God have failed by displaying improper anger. Moses let out a burst of rage and it cost him the privilege of entering the promised land. Jonah's character will always be marred by the fact that he was angry at God's mercy being shown to those who deserve judgment. The fact is, it is very hard for any servant of God to keep a proper balance, and be able to hate sin and love the sinner.
The book of Galatians is an example of the fact that it can be done. This is the only letter we have by Paul that was obviously written in anger. Paul was fighting mad as he dictated this Epistle. He reveals more of his emotions in this letter than anywhere. He is angry at the Judaisers for trying to get the Galatians to give up their liberty in Christ and go back under the law. He is angry and frustrated at the Galatians because they are so foolish as to even consider such a move.
Henricksen writes of the Epistle, "The spiritual atmosphere is charged. It is sultry, sweltering. A storm is threatening. The sky is darkening. In the distance one can see flashes of lightning....when each line of verses 1-5 is read in the light of the letters occasion and purpose the atmospheric turbulence is immediately detected." Every commentary points to the atmosphere of anger surrounding this letter. Paul uses restraint in the first few verses, but as soon as he gets through the introduction he lets go with both barrels, and in verses 6-9 he blasts both the Galatians for their folly in listening, and the Judaisers for their folly in preaching a perversion of the Gospel. Let them be cursed says Paul, and then he repeats it for emphasis.
Paul is angry because he loves Christ and the church too much to see it injured by the folly of man. A study of this letter will not only help us grasp better what we have in Christ, but it will help us also to see just what we should get angry about as believers. We are too often angry at the wrong things, and not angry about the things that made Paul angry. Jesus and Paul both got angry when other people were being robbed of their liberty by legalism.
Paul did not thank God for the Galatians, or for anything about them, as he does in all of his other letters. It is not only what he writes but what he leaves unwritten that tells us of his anger. There is a legitimate place for anger in the Christian life, and even toward fellow Christians. If it is handled properly it becomes a powerful blessing. Paul's anger that motivated him to write this letter changed the course of human history. We must grasp something of the background of this letter before we study its contents, or we will never come to appreciate its contents.
All of the first Christians were Jews, and as Jews they continued to live under the law of Moses even as Christians. They did not immediately throw off the Old Testament, for it was their Bible, and the law of Moses was still their guide, and the temple was still their holy place of worship. Most all of the leaders of the early church were also Jews. When Paul began to bring Gentile converts into the church, and establish Gentile churches, the Jewish leaders felt it was their duty to go to these Gentiles and make it clear to them what was required of them to be good Christians. These Judaisers, as they were called, were sincere Christians, in many cases, who wanted to make sure the Gentiles obeyed the law of Moses.
The problem was that they cast doubt on the sufficiency of Christ. They said that faith in Christ was not enough, for you must also keep the law. This was confusing to the Gentile Christians, but they had no basis to argue with men of authority. They assumed that they must know what they were talking about, and since they wanted to do what God demanded they began to conform and make their Christianity a part of the Old Testament system of law.
When Paul heard this he was angry, for this action robbed the Christian of the liberty that Christ brought, and put them back under legalism. Galatians is the great proclamation of religious liberty in Christ. G. Campbell Morgan said, "The essential message of the letter has to do with liberty." Hendriksen called Galatians, "The Christian Declaration of Independence." If Paul had not written this letter and fought against those who sought to lead Christians back into bondage to the law, Christianity may have become a mere branch on the tree of Judaism. Christians would have been just another sect like the Pharisees and Saducees. Thanks to Paul the church escaped from the bondage and limitations of the law, and launched out into the vast uncharted world of the Gentiles with a message of good news to all people.
If Christianity would have had to require circumcision and dietary regulations of the law of Moses, it never would have had a universal appeal. The whole mission and history of the church depended on Paul gaining a victory on this issue. That is why this letter is one of the most revolutionary documents in the history of mankind. We are what we are today in large measure due to this letter. Wilbur M. Smith put it, "Had the Judaisers in the early church been allowed to force the Christian Gospel into a Judaistic strait jacket, the church would have always remained weak, narrow, and small, and you and I possibly would never have heard the Gospel."
Merrill C. Tenney wrote, "Few books have had a more profound influence on the history of mankind... Christianity might have been just one more Jewish sect, and the thought of the Western world might have been entirely pagan had it never been written." No wonder Luther loved this book so dearly. It was the battle cry of the Reformation. The battle Paul fought was fought all over again, and thanks to Paul's letter Christian liberty won out again over legalism and bondage to law. Luther said, "The Epistle to the Galatians is my Epistle. To it I am as it were in wedlock. It is my Katherine." I don't know how Katherine his wife felt about this competition, but thanks to Luther's love of Galatians. We are under Protestant liberty rather than legalistic bondage.
The value of this background is that it makes this letter exciting to study because it has already been a major influence in our lives, even if we have never read it. The truth of this letter has benefited us even without us knowing it. It becomes even more precious, however, as we enter consciously into its riches. In our study we are not trying to understand something that is irrelevant, but we are trying to gain a deeper appreciation of what is highly irrelevant to our lives so that we can apply it more fully and personally. A knowledge of this book will add greatly to the joy and liberty that is ours in Christ. It will protect us from getting sidetracked in a world of many voices, and it will make us more effective communicators of the Gospel of grace.
There are two extremes that people fall into in their search for the ideal life. The one is legalism and the other is license. The first says touch not, taste not, handle not, and the second says eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Neither of them represent the biblical path to the abundant life. Paul in this letter shows us that the way to get the best of both of these extremes, and avoid the dangers of both, is by liberty in bondage to Christ.
If you are a slave to anyone or anything but Christ you are in bondage, but if you are a slave to Christ, you are the most free of all people. If the Son shall make you free you are free indeed. You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free. This is what the Galatian letter is all about. It is the Christian guide to the balance life of liberty. Charles Erdman divides the book into three sections of two chapters each. The first two deal with the Apostle of liberty; the second two with the doctrine of liberty, and the last two with the life of liberty. We have then in this letter a personal, doctrinal, and practical perspective on Christian liberty.
Paul begins with the personal, and he exposes his soul for all to see. We get to see Paul as never before. We get to see him when he is angry and frustrated, and in a state of shocked bewilderment. In the letter to the Philippians all is peace and joy, but in this letter we see him on the battlefield engaging the enemy. His whole ministry is at stake, and the foundation of the Gospel is at stake, and he fights with all the weapons at his disposal. The very fact that this letter exists teaches us plenty. It destroys completely the idea that the saints of God are meant to be happy little islands isolated from the turmoil of the world. This letter shatters that myth and shows us that Christians are to be right in the middle of the battlefield. There are always forces trying to move Christians off center and get them to go to one extreme or the other, and so we must constantly fight for liberty and balance.
One of the paradoxes of life that stands out here is the fact that it was other Christians who caused Paul his grief and heartache. Paul could glory in his sufferings at the hands of unbelievers for the sake of the Gospel, but there was nothing to rejoice about when Christians perverted the Gospel and tried to ensnare others, and destroy his work and authority. The Judaisers accused Paul of getting so involved with the Gentiles that he had gone astray and had forsaken the law of Moses. They cast doubt on Paul's authority and threatened to undermine all he had done in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles.
All of this was done by sincere Christians who disagreed with Paul and his approach to the Gentiles. We see the paradox of Christian history here. Most men of God have their greatest problems, not in relation to the world, but in relation to other groups of Christians who disagree with their emphasis. Being stoned and blasted by the world is almost pleasure compared to the criticism and folly one has to endure from others within the kingdom. Paul would have been able to say amen to this poem:
To live above with the saints we love
Oh that will be glory.
But to live below with the saints we know
That's a different story.
Galatians is a record of just how serious and harmful the battles can be within the body of Christ when any portion of the body gets off center and begins to teach anything that robs Jesus of His sovereign role as all-sufficient Savior. Liberty in Christ means that there is only one requirement to be a Christian, and that is faith in Christ. Any other requirement is imposed by men and is a threat to both our liberty and the sufficiency of Christ as Savior. It is sad but it is a fact of life that the fight for Christian liberty and balance is as much a fight with other Christians as it is with the world.
As Christians we are constantly facing appeals to jump on the bandwagon of other Christians and go off the deep end of one extreme or the other. Satan knows there is great power when the church is united and that it becomes weak and ineffective when it fights itself and create division. That is why the church is constantly being broken into divisive groups who have their own pet theology, and that is why it is so important to study this letter of Paul that will help us stay on the right track and maintain our liberty in Christ.