OUR LIBERTY IN CHRIST
Readings: Galatians chs. 3 and 4
Our position in the Truth is beautifully expressed by those words of Paul which concluded our readings for today; “So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.” This is a very profound statement and is productive of much valuable exhortation. Let us therefore ponder upon it in order to prepare our minds to partake acceptably of these emblems on the table. “We are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.”
That does not mean, of course, that we are free to do as we like. Our contemporaries, especially those who know something of our way of life and our principles, would feel this to be a very peculiar claim to make ,that we are of the free, when we surround ourselves and control our lives with what they would look upon as irksome restrictions. What did Paul mean, then, when he said: “We are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free”? Well, in order to understand this, and. to draw the lessons and exhortations applicable to ourselves, we need to take the statement in its context and consider what Paul is actually writing about.
In this epistle to the Galatians Paul was refuting heresy, and heresy which was very prevalent in his day. We read of it in Acts 15 where it is recorded: “And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” It was a difficult time for the ecclesias in the first century. The Law of Moses had been done away in Christ, yet it was still a very cogent force. The ecclesias were predominantly Jewish. The Law of Moses, originally Divinely given, had been in existence for over a thousand years. Christ had been born under it, as his mission “to redeem them that were under the law” required. The whole nation of Israel was zealous for its maintenance, in a very punctilious and hypocritical form for the most part, it is true, but they were zealous for it.
It is ironical and a true reflection of human nature that because of Israel’s neglect of the law they were in the position in which they then found themselves, a servile nation; yet when the time came for it to pass away they were fanatically zealous for it. Therefore, for the majority of the early converts the keeping of the Law of Moses was a normal way of life, and there was no reason why it should not continue to be so; but this did not apply to the Gentile converts. So that when men arose who tried to impose the Law upon the Gentile converts and contended that it was necessary to keep it in order to obtain salvation, that was heresy; it undermined the work of Christ, and Paul and the other apostles resisted it strongly.
Now the brethren in Galatia had been affected by this pernicious teaching. This was peculiar because the Galatians had never been under the Law of Moses. It was predominantly a Gentile ecclesia. Therefore although we can appreciate that it would come naturally to a Jew to fall for this pernicious doctrine it is difficult to understand how Gentiles should be deceived by it. Paul was apparently puzzled by it, which would explain how he expressed himself in this epistle. For example, in Gal. 1.6 he wrote: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:
which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” Paul said “I marvel.” He was astonished that they of all people, being Gentiles, should be led away by those troublers.
Again, in that well-known 3rd chapter, which we have also read this morning, Paul exclaims: “0 foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth,” and later in verse 3: “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” In Paul’s eyes they were foolish. These troublers had come along and had, as it were, bewitched them, cast a spell over them, For Jews, though equally wrong, it was understandable; but for Gentiles it was the height of folly, and so in this epistle he sets about refuting this heresy.
Paul points out that salvation cannot be obtained by the works of the Law, it needed the hearing of faith, and in order to support his contention he quotes the case of Abraham, particularly in this 3rd chapter. We all know the value of this 3rd chapter, how frequently we use it in proclaiming the Truth to the stranger, how invaluable it is in explaining the covenant to Abraham, but that was not its main purpose. Paul was not here giving an exposition of the covenant to Abraham and the fact that he has done so is quite incidental. He was really refuting the error of the Judaizers. How providential this is, that out of evil good has come. Had Paul not been compelled to refute this heresy then we would have been deprived of the wonderful teaching and explanations of the Abrahamic covenant. How often this has happened. Some of the finest writings of Dr. Thomas and Bro. Roberts have resulted from their contentions against error. How often it has happened that when wrong teaching has been promulgated and consequently has had to be resisted it has resulted in a much clearer understanding amongst us of the true scriptural teaching. These contentions are indeed bitter experiences to go through at the time, but they can have good results if we use them aright.
So, returning to this 3rd chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul is showing that Abraham was a faithful man, the friend of God. He will be justified, he will obtain salvation—how? By keeping the Law of Moses? Of course not; he lived over four hundred years before the Law was given; he never kept it, he did not even know of it. How then was he justified? By faith, and Paul supports that contention by quoting from Genesis 15—verse 6 of our chapter: “Even as Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” The apostle continues in verse 7: “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel under Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.”
Yes, faith—faith and obedience, of course, to the commandments of God—that will bring salvation, not the keeping of the Law. Verse II: “But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith:
but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.” The Law could not bring life because no-one could keep it perfectly. Life could only come by the grace of God, through faith by our Lord Jesus Christ as set out in this chapter which we know so well. The Law had its purpose, it was a schoolmaster to bring to Christ, but Christ having come it had fulfilled its purpose.
Paul next supports his teaching bytaking the incident of Sarah and Hagar. which he tells us in the next chapter, Gal. 4.24, was an allegory. These two women each had a son, Isaac and Ishmael. Both were sons of Abraham but one (Isaac) by Sarah was born as the result of a promise when Sarah was past child-bearing age, and the other (Ishmael) by Hagar, a bondwoman, as the result of a mere marriage of policy, entered into through the mistaken idea of saving the promise of God from failure, and both sons had a difference of disposition corresponding to their origin.
The whole incident, Paul points out, is a type of the two covenants under which God has proceeded in His dealings with Israel: first, the Mosaic covenant which convicted every man under it of sin, and demonstrated to him his utter helplessness; and secondly, the covenant of forgiveness through faith in Christ, by which men are reconciled to God and constituted heirs of eternal life. Sarah, the free woman, stands for the latter, and Hagar, the bondwonian—a slave—for the former, hence Paul’s concluding words in this chapter:
“So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.”
Where is the exhortation for us? The immediate controversy which prompted this declaration has, of course, long since died out. Not for a long time have there been any in the ecclesias who have advocated that it is necessary to keep the Law of Moses in order to obtain salvation. Jews are now almost non-existent in the brotherhood; there have never been more than one or two at anytime, despite the fact that the gospel was first preached to them. The question now is not as to whether we desire to belong to the bondage under the Law of Moses or the freedom that belongs to the gospel of Christ, but whether we shall attain to the freedom which Christ can bring. We stand little risk of becoming entangled with the bondage of the Law of Moses, but there is still plenty of bondage in the world and connected with this life which can bind us eternally unless we take the necessary steps to let Christ set us free. We therefore have Paul exhorting us in the 1st verse of the next chapter: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
Let us therefore consider some of the bondage connected with this life from which the gospel has the power to set us free. There is that bondage of which Paul speaks in Hebrews 2 where he says that Jesus through death would destroy him that had the power of death, and he continues: “... and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” The fear of death certainly holds us all in bondage. How we fear it! How we fear when in the presence of death. The fear of death is with us every day of our lives. As we go out of this hall to cross the road we say, or think to ourselves “Be careful.” Why? Because we fear death. If one of ourchildren goesout on his bicycle we say “Be careful.” Why? Because we fear death. Before we set out on ajourney, especially if byroad, we prayfor a safe journey and Divine protection. Why? Because we fear death. If we become ill or feel an unusual pain we consult a doctor. Why? Because we fear death.
Fear was the first emotion experienced by Adam after the fall which made death necessary. “I was afraid,. . . and I hid myself,” he said to the Lord God. Yes, all our lifetime we fear death and are therefore in bondage. There is only one thing which can alleviate this fear and that is a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, but where that is lacking, where there is no certain knowledge of what comes after death, or it is an enigma, a problem, or there is confusion in the mind, death can bring nothing else but fear, but with a knowledge of the Truth, although death brings sorrow and is something we try to avoid, we at least know what lies beyond the grave and this gives us comfort and hope; the only uncertainty in our minds is the verdict at the judgment seat.
There is another bondage which afflicts us in this life and from which we shall never be freed until we are released from this body of sin. It is a mental and moral bondage which weighs very heavily upon those who are most anxious to rise up to the full stature of the man in Christ Jesus; those who, like David, thirst after God “as the han panteth after the waterbrooks” and yet they are afflicted by the weaknesses of the flesh; those who feel very much as Paul did when he exclaimed: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do... I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Captivity, that is, bondage. “0 wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
That is a bondage which all right-thinking, spiritually-minded brethren and sisters feel in the present state, and the higher the spiritual standard we attain the more we feel it. It is not a bad sign; indeed, it is a good sign. The wayward, the rebellious, the easy-going, the lax, they are not troubled with it. They go along with the stream of human inclination. But the spiritually-minded, they are pulling against the stream the whole time and that is always a struggle. The existence of this conflict of mind is distressing but it is a wholesome sign. “The spirit lusteth against the flesh, and the flesh against the spirit;” that is a conflict which is the inevitable result of the implantation of the Law of Christ in the mind.
It is when the conflict ceases, when the feelings of sin cease to distress, that danger arises. It is he who overcomes who will be rewarded, and to such the comforting words of the Psalmist are directed: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.” So in this body we groan, as Paul expresses it in 2 Car. 5:
“... earnestly desiring to be clothed upoh with our house which is from heaven ...““For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.” We shall then no longer be borne down by the infirmities of the flesh. We shall no longer have to fight sin, the constant temptations of the flesh. We shall be free. Doing the will of God will come naturally to us. Those will be the things we want to do. Yes, we shall be free, at liberty to do just what we want to do; but what we want to do will be righteous, the ways of the Lord. This is what we are related to; yes, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.
It will also be ourjoy and pleasure to teach the nations God’s ways:
“He will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Nor will the nations find it easy to depart from the law, for Isaiah again declares: “And their ears shall hear a word behind them, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when they turn to the right hand, and when they turn to the left.” This Divine discipline will largely contribute to the glorious and happy state of affairs which will then exist, but this can only be appreciated by the spiritually- discerning. They are the only ones who would be happy under such conditions. To the merely natural man it would seem a peculiar form of freedom.
There is a cry for freedom in the world today. In certain quarters there is a cry for freedom, for more liberty, and it is becoming more insistent as the days go by. There is a growing clamour to throw off the old conventions, to throw off restraint, the old and well-tried standards—a new morality they call it. It is a rebellion against the establishment. They see no virtue in morality as it is (or was) generally understood. They claim that this is mere convention and they should be at liberty to do as they please; what right has anyone to tell them what is right and what is wrong? There should be no inhibitions. They should be allowed to indulge in any whim they fancy, no matter how objectionable, how repulsive or offensive it might be to other people. The result of all this has been a deplorable lowering of standards in all directions, and this is exhibited in their behaviour, their morals, their magazines and other literature, in their dress, their speech, their amusements; in all these matters they throw off restraint, do as they please, set their own standards. This they call freedom and they despise what they call the old Victorian conventions. The fact remains, however, that lawlessness, debauchery, violence, crime and iniquity of all kinds abound and are on the increase.
To many people, especially serious-thinking people who want to maintain some sort of decency, this is all very frightening. It is frightening. The trouble is that such people are quite unable to properly diagnose the trouble because they have no yardstick by which to measure their standards of decency. They themselves probably neglect or do not properly understand the real and only source of true standards, the Bible, which most people have discarded, and this of course is the cause of much of the trouble. In the Victorian era, with all its faults, many people did recognise the Bible as an authority on such matters, but all that has gone. People consider themselves free from it.
To us in the Truth all this is not so frightening because we can take encouragement from the fact that this is what we can expect. It is all leading up to that state of affairs as in the days before the flood, as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, the state which the Scriptures say will exist at the return of the Master. Our concern must be that this state of affairs does not have its effect upon the brotherhood, that our little community will maintain its purity and will, like Noah and Lot of old, uphold the unalterable standards of God as exhibited in His commandments.
In this respect all of us need to be on our guard because, as we know from experience, the conditions in the world can easily react on the brotherhood. Indeed, there is a tendency today and an influence at work for this mode of thinking to enter our community, a desire to forsake the old standards and copy the world outside, to imitate its modes of dress, tastes and fashions. One does not hear, of course, of flagrant endeavours to refute the old standards by scriptural reasoning—that is quite impossible—but there is a tendency in some quarters to despise them, to ridicule them, to whittle them away and to advocate that we should not be too distinguishable, too different from the world, claiming that thereby people will take more notice of our teaching.
This is a dangerous theory. What people are more likely to do, if they commence to investigate the things we believe, is to detect the inconsistency. If people know that we have strong religious convictions they will not be surprised if we adopt a different comportment and appearance and lead a different sort of life from theirs, rather will they expect it. But what if they do dub us as ‘Victorian’—it is a meaningless expression so far as we are concerned. Our worthy forerunners did not set and advocate their standards because they happened to live in the Victorian era but because they were scriptural principles.
Let us remember that Bro. Dr. Thomas and Bro. Roberts, and those contemporary with them, under God’s good hand revived the Truth in its purity. They had great ability in rightly dividing the Word of Truth, not only in doctrine (and their writings demonstrate that) but in matters of practice as well. They upheld those standards because they were laid down by Christ and his apostles, and we have no right to change them or whittle them down in order to meet modern circumstances. Our conduct and manner of life todayshould be the same as theirs was.
This may well make us different from the world. They may well think that we are peculiar. It was ever thus, and the Scriptures warn us that this will be our position if we are to maintain Divine standards. Over 1900 years ago Peter wrote in his first epistle, when reminding us
that we should no longer live in the lusts (or desires) of the flesh, “wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you.” If they did that in Paul’s day how much more can we expect it in these days, if we really bind ourselves to the commandments of Christ.
This brings us back to the point we made at the commencement of our remarks, that this liberty in Christ does not mean that we are free to do as we like. We have liberty but not licence, and there is all the difference between liberty and licence. In this liberty we are controlled by the commandments of Christ. To the natural mind this isa paradox. The natural man associates law with discipline and does not usually associate discipline with happiness, but here he is mistaken. It needs law and discipline to establish true happiness and benefit. The unruly child, is he happy? No, he is far less happy than a well-controlled one. A badly disciplined army, is it victorious? Of [course not, it is soon routed by a well-trained one. A badly-run, 4nefficient business with no control over its employees or systems, is it :tccessful? Of course not, it is soon outwitted by its competitors. No, all wise men recognise that law and order are essential to operate loelety successfully; remove them and you get anarchy, and human nature being what it is, how can there be happiness under anarchy?
As we have seen, in the Kingdom of God there will be very stringent laws but they will be wise and beneficial and will create perfect happiness for all. So with the commandments of Christ, they are nothing but beneficial. If they were carried out by everybody even in these days of a curse-afflicted earth the world would be a much happier place. But that is not their object. Their object is to discipline and train the rulers of the future age, to form in them characters suitable for this great honour and responsibility. Those who aspire to that glorious prospect do not look upon these commands as irksome
or restrictive but as wise provisions, beneficial in every way, a gateway to real joy, freedom and liberty. They exclaim with the Psalmist: “0 ow love I thy law, it is my meditation all the day... Through thy i,,. ...cepts I get understanding, therefore I hate every false way.” There is no bondage here but freedom and liberty, glorious freedom and liberty, serving God and doing His commandments. If we do that, God will eventually set us free in the fullest sense—free from the fear of death, free from the trammels of human weakness, free from the power of sin, free to live, nay, more than live ,free to rule and govern in a world of liberty, glorious liberty, where there will be nothing that defileth, neither worketh abomination, nor maketh a lie:
when glory shall dwell in the land, when mercy and truth shall meet together; when righeousness and peace shall kiss each other; when truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
That is the ravishing prospect for us if we are faithful, if we now exert ourselves to the full to shake off the bondage of sin. What significance indeed, what life and meaning it gives to Paul’s words which we have been considering: “So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.” “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”:—P. Hone