For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free

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An Analysis of Galatians 5:1-6

The Table Talk records of Martin Luther state: 

“I won’t tolerate Moses because he is an enemy of Christ. If he appears with me before the judgment I’ll turn him away in the name of the devil and say, ‘Here stands Christ.’

   “In the last judgment Moses will look at me and say, ‘You have known and understood me correctly,’ and he will be favorably disposed to me.”

What did Luther mean? What was his beef with Moses, and why would Moses have been happy to have the reformer speak to him in such a way? Understand that and you understand the Scriptures. 

Moses was a Christian. Thus, Luther could say elsewhere, “Christ without Moses can hardly be known fully.” Yes, Moses was a lawgiver, but the law had its place and role. He knew the impossibility of fallen sinners keeping it. He knew that it was meant to drive sinners to something else, something that could save. Moses’ law was necessary, but not the final word. 

The Judaizers wanted to bring the law of Moses into the gospel. They came to Galatia after Paul. Jews, like Paul and Jesus, they wanted to retain some of the Jewish customs abrogated by Christ. They wanted to cling to the shadows. They told the Galatians that what Paul had preached and taught was great, but it was missing something. They mixed circumcision into the gospel soup, and maybe a few dietary rules. 

To be fair, circumcision had been a big deal for a long time for the Jews. God had commanded them to practice it like the dietary rules. This was a big change. These were big traditions that had defined the Jewish people over against their neighbors. It makes sense some would struggle with letting go. And yet Christ had come to bring such freedom. And Paul rightly preached such freedom. And in opposing Paul’s preaching, by calling it incomplete, the Judaizers were opposing the gospel, whether they realized it or not. 

And yet Christ had come to bring such freedom

We are either saved by the gospel, as a gift, or by the law, as a wage. There is no in-between. The Judaizers thought they could defang the law, and in doing so, they watered down the gospel, like a teenager testing boundaries, replacing his father’s expensive whiskey with tap water. They thought the law a safe, tame thing, something sinners could play with without getting hurt. But the law does one thing when it encounters sinners: it accuses and condemns. Paul got down to brass tacks: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” It’s Christ from beginning to end. It’s Christ for us, in us, and through us.

We are either saved by the gospel, as a gift, or by the law, as a wage

Do we need the law still after faith? We certainly do this side of the grave, but not as a stairway to heaven. We need the law because we’re saints who also remain sinners in the here and now, and so we struggle. We are, but we’re also becoming. Luther puts it like this in thesis form: 

  1. To the extent Christ is risen in us, we are without law, sin, and death. 
  2. To the extent, however, he is not risen in us yet, we are under law, sin, and death.
  3. Wherefore the law is to be taught indiscriminately—as also the Gospel—to the pious as well as the impious.”

Back in the day, when I still loved myself enough to work out, I remember an older gentlemen at the gym saying to me, “You know, it doesn’t get easier as you do it, but it sure gets worse if you don’t.” It must have been leg day. I always hated leg day. This fits the Christian life well. It doesn’t get easier. We get older, and the temptations change, but sin still clings to us. And so we cling to Christ now as we did when we first believed, and so we’ll cling to Christ in death as we do today. And through all of it, we know why we do it, because we know that “for freedom Christ has set us free.”

[1] LW 54, 128.

[2] Martin Luther, Only the Decalogue Is Eternal: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations, edited and translated by Holger Sonntag (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008), 177.  

[3] Only the Decalogue Is Eternal, 135.