Pastor Gary Wong November 1, 2020
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not allow anyone to put the yoke of slavery on you again. 2 Look, I, Paul, tell you that if you allow yourselves to be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 I testify again to every man who allows himself to be circumcised that he is obligated to do the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law are completely separated from Christ. You have fallen from grace. 5 Indeed, through the Spirit, we by faith are eagerly waiting for the sure hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters. Rather, it is faith working through love that matters.
One of the greatest blessings we cherish as citizens of the United States is our freedom. Many brave men and women have fought and died to win our freedom and preserve our freedom. Part of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty beckons to downtrodden people around the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The hope of freedom has stirred the heart of many an immigrant to the point of risking life and limb to live in America. Picture refugee families crowded on rickety, barely seaworthy boats from Cuba and Haiti trying to make it to the shores of Florida and you get an idea just how important freedom is. The Apostle Paul speaks about freedom in today’s lesson. On this Sunday that we celebrate the Reformation, Paul reminds us that we are free in Christ, and he urges us to stand firm in our freedom.
The theme of today’s meditation is the first verse of our text. Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Since Christ has set us free, logic tells us that we must not have been free at some point. Just as inmates in jail aren’t free, Paul is saying that without Jesus, we were prisoners. But prisoners of what? Simply put, we were prisoners of sin. You might ask, “How did I become a prisoner? I don’t remember being arrested, going to court, and being convicted of a crime.” Technically, you’re absolutely right. Yet, think about the convicts who are in the Brown County Jail. Each was arrested and then put on trial. He was judged on the evidence, convicted by a jury, and then sentenced to do time in prison. In our situation, our trial has already taken place, even before we had been born. Even before we had taken our first breath, we had been found guilty as charged. All the evidence that our holy, righteous God needed to convict us was King David’s confession. David declared, “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).
David’s confession of his guilt applies to all people. Because of the sin we inherited from our parents and the countless sins we commit in our thoughts, words, and actions, we stand convicted before our holy God. The only possible sentence that our righteous Judge can hand down is death. But unlike prisoners on Death Row, there is no possibility of parole. There is no plea bargaining with our holy God. There is nothing we can do to earn our freedom or convince God to commute our sentence. Because we are sinners, we don’t deserve to be free. Rather, we deserve to die and suffer in hell for all eternity.
As was said before, the only hope that a death row prisoner has is that he gets a last-minute pardon. In states that have the death penalty, the governor has the power to spare a prisoner’s life. In a similar way, our only hope is that somehow, God would be moved to spare us from the punishment we deserve. Could or would our holy God do that? The good news is, “Yes!” The Bible tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). And because of his love, God doesn’t treat us as we deserve. Moved by his grace, God found a solution that satisfies both his justice and his mercy. Because of his great love for us, God sent his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die in our place. Even though Jesus had no sin, he took all of our sins upon himself and paid for them with his holy, precious blood. Because of Jesus’ perfect life and substitutionary death, we are now right with God. Because of Jesus, our heavenly, holy judge has declared us, “Not guilty!” Because of Jesus, we are free! You and I are now free to live our lives at peace. Peace with God, freedom from the guilt of our sins, and eternal life are God’s undeserved gifts of his grace. Thank God for his indescribable gifts!
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” That’s the Good News that Paul brought to the churches in the Roman province of Galatia. Through Paul’s preaching and teaching of the gospel, the Holy Spirit created faith in the hearts of many of his listeners. While Paul had proclaimed the good news of freedom through faith in Christ, Paul also warned the Galatians that their precious freedom could be lost. In fact, that was one of the main reasons that Paul had written this letter. Not long after Paul had brought them the gospel, the Galatians faced a real threat to their freedom. The source of that threat might be surprising to us. We might have thought that the threat would come from an outside enemy. However, it was just the opposite. The precious gospel that declares freedom for all people was under attack from within the church! Specifically, Jewish believers came from Jerusalem and began to teach a gospel different from the one that Paul had preached. In his letter, Paul denounced these false teachers in the strongest possible terms. Paul warned the Galatians that if they turned away from the true Word of God and believed this false teaching, they would, in his words, “be alienated from Christ” and would “fall away from grace” (v.4).
What was the false teaching that provoked such a strong response from Paul? Basically, these so-called Judaizers told the Galatians that they had to be circumcised. Let me ask you question. How would following the Jewish custom of circumcision threaten the Galatians’ freedom? Simply this. The Judaizers insisted that a person not only had to believe that Jesus is the Savior, but that he also had to follow this OT ceremonial law in order to be saved. In other words, our salvation depends on what we believe and also what we do. The little word, “and”, makes all the difference in the world. Once we add anything to the gospel, we completely take away from what Jesus has done—that his sacrificial death on the cross wasn’t enough to pay for our sins so we have to add our own good works. In effect, we would be emptying the power of the cross and calling Christ a liar who said, “It is finished” (John 19:31).
If we depend on ourselves for our own salvation, we would be throwing away the freedom that Christ has won for us. For instance, if every prisoner in the country were to be set free by the United States Supreme Court, how many of them would you think would say, “Thanks, but no thanks—I’d rather stay in prison”? My guess would be, not a single soul. But that is exactly what happens when a person tries to justify himself before God by keeping the law. Why would anyone be so foolish? Yet, that was the real danger that these false teachers posed to the Galatians. That’s why Paul warned them, “If you let yourselves be circumcised … you will be burdened again by a yoke of slavery [and] Christ is of no value to you at all” (Gal. 5:1, 2).
There have always been threats to the gospel and the freedom from the guilt of our sin that Christ has won for us. In Paul’s day, the Galatians were being threatened by the Judaizers. In Martin Luther’s day, the gospel was buried under an avalanche of false teaching from the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church falsely taught and still teaches that our salvation depends on our faith in Christ AND our good works. Luther led the fight to restore the pure Word of God to the Church that says that we are saved by grace alone. For over five hundred years, the rallying cry of confessional Lutherans around the world has been Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia—by Scripture alone, by faith alone, and by grace alone.
We might think that with such a great heritage handed down by Martin Luther, and our Wisconsin Synod and congregation firmly grounded in God’s inspired, inerrant Word, that we would have nothing to fear. Paul, however, warns us, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor, 10:11). Please understand. The freedom that Christ has won for us and which Martin Luther helped to bring back to the Church can be lost. One of the biggest threats to our freedom and faith is complacency. If we take our freedom for granted, not only might we lose our own freedom, but we might fail to pass on the precious truths of the gospel to the next generation. That’s why it is so important that we feed and strengthen our faith by going to worship and receiving the Lord’s Supper. The more we read, study, and learn God’s Word, the better we will be able to identify and reject false teaching and defend the truth.
Preaching, teaching, and sharing the gospel are the most important things we can do. Yet, how we do it is just as important as our message. As Paul says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (v.6). That means that whatever we do, we want to do it in a loving way. Since Jesus has freed us from the power of sin, death, and the devil, we want to use that freedom in a God-pleasing way. That means that we don’t make laws where God himself has not made any. For instance, God has given us freedom in the way we worship him. Therefore, we don’t want to burden anyone’s conscience by insisting that the pastor must preach from the pulpit, wear a (pick a color) gown, or that the organ is the only instrument to lead music because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” At the same time, let’s not abandon all of the good traditions that make us uniquely Lutheran. True Christian freedom is about praising, worshipping, and serving our Savior with joy.
Dear friends, the Statue of Liberty has stood on Ellis Island for one hundred thirty-four years. It is a beacon of light, hope and freedom to the peoples of the world. For countless centuries, God’s people have looked to Jesus for forgiveness, hope, and peace. Jesus is the light of the world who shines through the darkness of sin. Through his perfect life and innocent death, Jesus has won our freedom from sin, death, and the devil. Paul reminds us that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Because of Jesus, we are free. Therefore, let us stand firm in our freedom. Amen.
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (CW 200)
Text: Martin Luther, 1483 – 1546, tr.: composite
A mighty fortress is our God,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He helps us free from ev’ry need
That has us now o’er-taken.
The old evil foe
Now means deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might
Are his dread arms in fight;
On earth is not his equal.
With might of ours can naught be done;
Soon were our loss effected.
But for us fights the valiant one
Whom God himself elected.
You ask, “Who is this?”
Jesus Christ it is,
The almighty Lord,
And there’s no other God;
He holds the field forever.
Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill;
They shall not over-pow’r us.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He’s judged, the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.
The Word they still shall let remain,
Nor any thanks have for it;
He’s by our side upon the plain
With his good gifts and Spirit.
And do what they will-
Hate, steal, hurt, or kill-
Though all may be gone,
Our victory is won;
The kingdom’s ours forever!