“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. ” (Galatians 5:1, ESV)
At first glance this verse might seem redundant. Why has Christ set us free? So that we’ll be free. Is Paul just repeating himself? What’s his point?
The first thing I note is that “freedom” is a noun and “set free” is a verb. The noun version specifically refers to a free person as opposed to a slave. Why has Jesus set us free? So that we will live life as a free person. This brings us to the overall context of Galatians and this particular section. Paul is addressing people who have been set free but are somehow managing to live like they’re still in slavery.
In the previous chapter, Paul clarifies this by refering to a familiar story from the Old Testament.
“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. ” (Galatians 4:21–5:1, ESV)
This story illustrates that the real distinction between Law and Grace is a choice between self-reliance and God-reliance. Hagar (who represents the Law) was Sarah’s maidservant. She gave birth to Ishmael. Sarah (who represents Grace) was Abraham’s wife. She gave birth to Isaac. Ishmael was conceived when Abraham decided to trust in what he could do without God. Isaac was conceived when Abraham decided to trust God to do what only God can do. Law depends upon my ability and strength. Grace depends on God’s ability and strength.
So when Paul exhorts us to live as free men rather than as slaves, he is exhorting us to abandon self-reliance. The life of grace is a life that rests in the strength of God’s work. Whenever I live in a way that ultimately relies upon my own strength and ability, I am living as a slave. Only when I choose to rely upon God for that which only he can do in my life am I truly free. Slavery is about working. Freedom is about rest.
“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. ” (Hebrews 4:9–10, ESV)