The Sound of Freedom

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This is the sound of freedom. The Eternal One died so that we who are dying might live eternally with him.

For the better part of three chapters, Paul treats the Galatians to a fervent and passionate defense of the gospel of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. His passion is channeled into a laser-focused dismantling of the tenets of the Judiazers, who were attempting to overthrow the faith by removing Christ altogether. He dispels every lie they employ to swindle the hearts of the Galatians by declaring the fact of God’s gracious redemption of sinners in and through the death of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:13). So far, Paul’s rhetoric has been necessarily doctrinal, as he brilliantly and unabashedly placards the truth of the gospel over against the treachery of the Judaizers. The midsection of Chapter 4, however, lets us see a different side of Paul. “In Galatians 1–3,” John R. W. Stott concurs, “we have been listening to Paul the apostle, Paul the theologian, Paul the defender of the faith; but now we are hearing Paul the man, Paul the pastor, Paul the passionate lover of souls” (111). 

The shift from powerful doctrinal diction to meaningful personal appeal is evident when Paul refers to them as his “brothers” and “little children” (Gal. 4:12, 19). These terms of endearment are reminders of his initial motivation behind publishing this letter in the first place. Paul was not writing to save his reputation (Gal. 1:10), nor was that ever his motivation behind anything he did throughout his ministry. He put “pen to paper,” so to speak for one reason: the gospel was on the line

The shift from powerful doctrinal diction to meaningful personal appeal is evident when Paul refers to them as his “brothers” and “little children”


Paul lived and breathed the gospel, so much so that he was willing to lose everything if it meant that the gospel would go forth. He preached it because he knew he was the one who needed to hear it the most. He was the “chief of sinners” whom it addressed. He defended it because he knew it was not his gospel or anyone else’s. This was God’s good news about God’s redemptive initiative that was conceived before the foundations of the world (Gal. 1:11–12). However, Paul’s heart wasn’t only concerned for the doctrine of the gospel to be known. Rather, his heart was for sinners; his concern was for people — for souls. Paul wrote and preached as he did because he knew that souls were on the line. Eternity was at stake. This, of course, is why Paul makes a personal appeal to the Galatians: because he knows the gospel is on the line for them. They’re at risk of losing it, rejecting it, and abandoning the truth of it altogether. 

The congregations in Southern Galatia had been led by the Judaizers into believing that their justification was a combination of Jesus’s work and their works. In addition to believing in what Jesus did for them on the cross, they had to add to that strict devotion to the law and all the ordinances of Moses, including circumcision (Acts 15:1). Only then would their right standing before God would be made certain. This is nothing but a confused mingling of faith and works, and leaves the gospel in shambles. The gospel is nothing other than the announcement that sinners are made right with God by nothing but the work of God’s only begotten Son. 

Paul is sure to personalize this weighty declaration by reminding the Galatians of who they were before God rescued them by his Word and Spirit: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal. 4:8–9).

They were slaves, living in subjection to the only gods they knew — namely, the lifeless deities of their own invention. The Galatians, of course, were Gentiles, which meant that their religious upbringing was enamored with the myths of ritualism and haunts of paganism. As Paul says, these were nothing but the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world.” The world’s notions of religion and faith are nothing but poor and pathetic imitations of the real thing. They can’t save, they only enslave. Interestingly enough, Paul connects the pagan idolatry of their past with their newfound acceptance of Jewish legalism. “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world,” he interrogates, “whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years!” (Gal. 4:9–10).

These “days,” “months,” and “seasons” are a reference to the festivals and ceremonies prescribed in the laws of Moses, which Paul also characterized as an oppressive and enslaving force (Gal. 4:3). Despite how alarming this parallel might sound at first, the apostle is not meaning to suggest that God’s law is no better than paganism. As Paul would later affirm in his letter to the Romans, the law is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). But, as he says elsewhere, “The law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). The point is that using the law as a means of justification is not using the law “lawfully.” Considering the codes of Moses as the way to be made right with God is a scheme of Satan. If one hopes to be made right with God Almighty, one is not going to be helped by following the regulations of the law any more than the rituals of paganism. 

In that sense, by embracing the deceitful doctrines of the Judaizers, the Galatians had simply traded one form of slavery for another. They had put themselves back into bondage and locked the prison bars on themselves. This is why Paul is so fired up. Who would want to exchange their freedom for slavery? Who would willingly put chains back on after being freed from them? Paul is so “perplexed” (Gal. 4:20) that he even wonders whether he has wasted his time with them. “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain,” he rails (Gal. 4:11). This, of course, is somewhat tongue-in-cheek since it’s doubtful that Paul would ever consider any time spent laboring for the gospel as a waste of time. 

But by the same token, the Galatians were now at a real crossroads and a legitimate crisis of faith, which is why he reminds them of the conditions in which they came to faith in the first place: “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me” (Gal. 4:13–15).

He jogs their memory to recall the circumstances of his first visit with them (Acts 13—14), which, as he says, was “a trial.” Apparently, Paul had developed a “bodily ailment” of some kind that made his time with them more than a little burdensome. Some scholars insist this “ailment” was the same infirmity as the “thorn in the flesh” from 2 Corinthians 12. Others have theorized that he had contracted a bad case of malaria that had forced him to adjust his travel plans. Whatever the case, Paul’s testimony shows us how God had sovereignly intervened so that the Galatians would receive him and his gospel. Instead of turning away a weak, sickly, and unimpressive preacher, they welcomed him as an authoritative representative of God. They were so “blessed” by his visit that they were ready to pluck out their own eyes as a demonstration of their love and affection for him.

Paul’s hyperbolic illustration of the Galatians’ ocular sacrifice serves to magnify their recent withdrawal from his friendship and tutelage. “What gives?” he seems to say. “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal. 4:16). Within his exasperation, we’re given a glimpse at just how effective the Judaizers were at turning the Galatians against him. They had successfully sweet-talked their way into being favored and admired by these emerging congregations. But as Paul proceeds to proclaim, the Judaizers’ success amounted to little more than concealing their duplicity. “They make much of you,” he says, “but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (Gal. 4:17). Even though they had given everyone the impression that they were invested and that they cared, Paul exposes them as nothing but a bunch of narcissists. 

The Judaizers were persuasive and zealous, but “for no good purpose” other than their own gain. They had maneuvered their way into the lives of the Galatians only to then “lock them up” from hearing the truth of Paul’s gospel. The only ones with the answers were the Judaizers, or so they were made to believe. However, for all their enthusiasm, their chief aspiration was for others to “make much of them.” After swindling the role of “sole authority” for the Galatians, they surreptitiously strove for their own adulation. Their teachings were not only unbiblical but also self-interested and self-serving, driven by a bloated sense of self-importance.

The work of the gospel wasn’t dependent on Paul’s presence but on the Spirit’s presence; because it wasn’t his work, it was God’s; because he wasn’t the point, Christ is.

This narcissistic ministry mentality is put in stark contrast with what we learn about Paul: “It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you” (Gal. 4:18–20).

Whether Paul was physically with them or not, the “good purpose” of the gospel prevailed, because the work of the gospel wasn’t dependent on Paul’s presence but on the Spirit’s presence; because it wasn’t his work, it was God’s; because he wasn’t the point, Christ is. Paul’s words show us just how at odds he was with the Judaizers. Their motivations could not be more opposed. Case in point, this is the only instance in the Pauline letters where the term of endearment “my little children” appears, which lets us understand how much he loved and cared for them. But as much as the Galatians were his spiritual offspring, this recent ordeal has put Paul in such torment that he feels as though he is in the “anguish of childbirth” all over again. By illustrating his affection through the lens of a mother in labor, he wasn’t pulling on their heartstrings nor was he playing with their emotions. Rather, he was articulating his deep regard for their souls. 

Besides the cross and a battlefield, delivery rooms are, perhaps, the ultimate scenes of self-sacrifice on this side of eternity. Moms go through all kinds of pain, agony, and inconvenience, and that’s putting it mildly. But it’s all worth it because that’s how much love moms have for their little ones, so much so that they willingly go through all of that all over again. Likewise, Paul says he had agonized over them before and he’s in agony for them again. His sincerest desire was for the Galatians to become as free in Christ as he was (Gal. 4:12). He wasn’t out for himself; he wasn’t zealous for applause, acclaim, or accolades. His supreme concern was for sinners to be set free — and that freedom is only possible through Christ; through God’s Son absorbing all of our sin, guilt, and humiliation for us on the cross. This is the good news. This is the sound of freedom. The Eternal One died so that we who are dying might live eternally with him. The Christ of God has put himself through agony and torture so that he might give us himself. And having him, we have everything.