According to Scripture, there are two kinds of people in the world: the free and the enslaved. The categories are not physical but spiritual. The free are those who, by faith in Jesus Christ, are no longer under the dominion of sin, guilt, condemnation, and death. Jesus purchased an eternal redemption from this spiritual thralldom by his atoning sacrifice on the cross. And this glorious freedom is for all who put their trust in Christ: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
On the other hand, those outside of Christ are in a state of spiritual bondage. This describes the natural condition of all of us. Because of sin, we are helpless to make ourselves right before God and escape his just judgment. Nothing we can do can atone for our past sin, and we are unable to do anything meeting God’s perfect standard of holiness. And so we cannot flee the dreadful prospect of condemnation and hell. This is the bleak reality Jesus taught. “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).
God’s grace is wonderful because it liberates the enslaved. The gospel is the gospel of freedom, an eternal deliverance from sin and the power of the Evil One who works to keep us bound in his diabolical chains. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). “The LORD sets the prisoners free” (Psalm 146:7).
The apostle Paul tells the Galatians that, because God sent forth his Son into the world, they are no longer slaves but sons of God (4:4-7). And they have come into this freedom not on the basis of the good works they have done, but because they put their faith and trust in Christ as their Savior. Our justification, which is true liberty, is by faith alone.
But because false teachers have crept into the churches and have persuaded the Galatians they need to keep Jewish laws in order to be saved, Paul fears the Galatians may be losing the very freedom that the gospel promised. They seem to be returning to their former bondage. And he makes a startling suggestion: that the Galatians actually want to be enslaved again (4:9)!
What?! Who in their right mind would want to become a slave all over again? What kind of demented person, who has tasted the sweetness of freedom, decides he really prefers the bitterness of bondage?
But if we take an honest look at our own hearts I think we’ll find there is something perversely attractive about the kind of spiritual enslavement Paul is talking about.
First, let’s understand Paul’s reasoning. For him, any sort of religion that promises life or salvation on the basis of keeping rules and rituals is bondage. Whether it was the Jewish legalism of the false teachers or the pagan worship of the Gentiles, both were religious systems whose blessings depended on external human activity and works. Paul calls the spiritual dynamic at the heart of these grace-less religions the “elementary principles of the world” (4:3, 9).
And these works-based religions keep people in bondage because they cannot make a sinner right before God. Those in the shackles of human religion have no hope of forgiveness or obtaining true righteousness. They are still in the “domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13).
Now what makes such a religious system attractive to us, though it is truly slavery, is this: it focuses only on external behavior and doesn’t touch the heart. It tells me: “as long as you keep these rules, perform these rituals, and so on, you can be right with God, you can be saved.” It leaves the domain of my heart to myself. I can still be the very thing every descendent of Adam desperately wants to be: my own master. I can still live for myself, chart my own course (or so I think), and answer to no one but myself. I can even indulge in all manner of pride, lust, greed, and covetousness. The heart remains my own, as long as I just keep the rules of the religion.
This is why legalism so often creeps into the church. People would rather be told what rules to keep than to walk by faith. My inherently sinful nature would much rather keep a list of rules (what to wear, how to talk, what to watch, what to listen to, etc.) than answer Christ’s call to take up his cross.
The way of faith in Christ is truly demanding. Jesus requires not just that I behave a certain way, but that I submit to his Lordship even over my heart. Faith in Christ means dying to my self-oriented life, surrendering my self-centered plans and agenda, having a heart that desires above all else to serve, worship, and obey Christ.
Religion (that is, works-based religion) is all about what I do. Faith in Christ is all about the heart. Religion appeals to my inherent pride and self-sufficiency. Faith in Christ means humbling myself and relying on a Savior. Religion is freedom from Christ, which is the most abject slavery there is. But faith in Christ is freedom from sin and death, which is the most glorious liberty imaginable.
I’m grateful for the message of Galatians. It is truly the charter of Christian freedom – only faith in Christ breaks the shackles of sin and death forever.
Soli Deo Gloria!