I've just finished nearly three months studying Paul's letter to the Galatians. When we started out, we thought we had this letter figured out: It's about FREEDOM.
Freedom from legalism. Freedom from religious rules. Freedom to live lovingly. Freedom from a bondage to sin. Our theme for Galatians was Freedom in Christ! "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" (Galatians 5:1).
But as I studied this letter, something else started to creep into view. We can talk about freedom all we want but we will not be free until we realize the source of that freedom. We cannot experience true freedom unless we are empowered to be free. That source is the Holy Spirit.
And this is what evangelicals quickly skip over. But the Apostle Paul is clear that freedom comes only when we are fully yielded to the Holy Spirit. Sure, "freedom" is mentioned eight times in Galatians. But (get this!) the word that is translated the "Spirit" is found SEVENTEEN times!
Scot McKnight (NIV Application Commentary on Galatians) gives us an excellent overview of how prominent the Spirit is in Galatians:
(1) The Spirit of God is what the Christian receives at conversion (3:2, 3, 5, 14; 5:25), and this was evidently made known through charismatic experiences (see comments on 3:1–5). Such an experience makes the convert a “son of God” who can call God Abba (4:6). Indeed, the reception of the Spirit is what the entire Old Testament looked forward to as it came to fruition in the universal plan of God (3:13–14). To live in the Spirit is to live in the age when God inaugurates his kingdom.
(2) Those who are “in the Spirit” are persecuted by those in the “flesh” (3:4; 4:29).
(3) Those who are “in the Spirit” exercise hope for the coming establishment of God’s righteousness and their own declaration of fitness before God (5:5).
(4) Those who are “in the Spirit” are victorious over the “works of the flesh” (vv. 16–18, 19–21) and so live a life full of the manifestation of the Spirit (vv. 22–23). For this victory to occur, Christians need only submit to, or walk in step with, the Spirit (v. 25; cf. 6:8).
Galatians is about the Holy Spirit. And yet, we miss it. We evangelicals think we can live the Christian life by following our evangelical rules.
McKnight is so bold to say this:
“I know of no Christian parents or youth leaders, or for that matter any pastors, who seriously believe what Paul teaches in Galatians 5:16–26, that the sole foundation of Christian ethics is dependency on the Spirit and a life of freedom in the Spirit.”
What do you think? Do we really, really believe that all we need is the Holy Spirit to be holy, to live in harmony with others, to overcome the sinful nature, and to act righteously and justly in the world?
Most of us would say, “Sure!” But the reality is this: We don’t really trust this. Instead, we come up with rules of conduct, we tell our people how they should act, we make a list of things that either places people with the “in crowd” or casts people out because they are not “Christian enough.”
But Paul insists that all those externalities are useless to bring about godliness. The only thing that works is a completely yielding to the Spirit of God. Freedom from sin only comes from the inside out. True freedom is the result of God's Spirit producing fruit in his people - this is not through our own effort, but through the power of God. All we need to do is "walk in step with the Spirit."
Paul basically places the acts of the sinful nature in the same box as the Law and also the rules that Christians come up with to make themselves holy (in the Galatians' case, the Judaizers were seeking to force Gentiles to be circumcised). This is the life "in the flesh," which leads to bondage. But Paul says that a new era has begun in Christ, the life controlled by the Holy Spirit. When God takes over, he produces the fruit of the Spirit, allowing us to love like we should, live in harmony with others, rise above our sinful nature, and move toward the promise of Resurrection.
Here, then, is the chart I made for my group to guide our discussions, and I pray, our lives.
(click on thumbnail for full image)