“For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
I can still remember one of the first dilemmas of tension I ever faced in my life, at six years old. Without a doubt, this is one of my clearer memories of Ruskin, Florida at the house I grew up in until the age of eight. They were on the counter, piping hot after having come out of the oven that I was never allowed to touch, and their aroma saturated the space in that old, rural home, leaking outdoors. It was as if I was walking into the land of milk and honey as I made my way from the small backyard to the kitchen counter and looked up at them, the smell of peanut butter and chocolate growing stronger with every inch of ground I took. I admit, I was weakened by that smell as a young boy, and am still weakened by it today. I didn’t know who the cookies were for, or what they were for, but I knew I was certainly for them.
And then I experienced it - this dilemma of tension. I knew there were two options: Take them or leave them. I knew I could take a cookie and get away with it. There must have been a few dozen, and my mother wasn’t around. I also knew that even if she caught me, I could certainly get away with one cookie without a punishment - and even if she did catch me, I knew I could just say I’m sorry, look at her with my adorable six year-old eyes, and probably be not only forgiven but given another cookie! I knew that if I took them, I could get away with it. I also knew I could leave them - or, at least, assumed that I was probably supposed to leave them. It was the right thing, even if it wasn’t the thing I wanted. I could deny myself the pleasure of the cookie, while forcing myself into a dutiful denial even while the ever intensifying aroma plagued my soul - or, at least, my nose. I could deny myself and follow what I thought was probably right, and perhaps I might even earn a cookie if I just sucked it up did the right thing. Shoot - what if this was All just a trap? What if they put the cookies out and we’re watching me, seeing if I would take one and disappoint them by breaking their trust?
Long story short, I absolutely ate a cookie.
I also exemplified that I really didn’t know, at six, what it meant to be a son.
And today, at 25, I think I know a little more about what it means to be a son to my parents - and now, after following Jesus for seven years, I’m learning more about what it means to be a son of God - especially when it comes to these dilemmas of tension. If there is one such tension that I have experience, seen experienced, heard about being experience, or read about being experienced, it is this one - the tension between Law and License, when it comes to living a life unto God.
Often, we think of the tension linearly, like this:
In essence, the way of living under the law is often seen as being akin to my attempt to reject the cookie - dutiful denial in hopes of doing right. Often, it can cause one to hyper-analyze and fear that in not meeting the standard, that you have disappointed God. Further, one can start to feel like it’s all just a trap, and I need to do right so I don’t fall in. Ultimately, it steps from this idea that if I follow the law, then I’ll get the cookie. I justify getting the gift of Salvation from God being given to me by my good, obedient works.
We see the Galatians suffer from a similar condition throughout Paul’s letter to Galatia, but looking to this section of the letter in Chapter 5, after telling them that for freedom He has set them free, he looks at those who live by the law and says, in verse 4, that “you who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ: you have fallen from grace.“ This is about the most Paulish thing Paul could have done, at this point in the letter. He then reminds them that “what matters is faith” and this faith in the “hope of righteousness”, a justified standing before God in which we are not only innocent but good in the sight of God, because we are seen as those sons and daughters of God who are in Christ.
However, when you pull a rubber band so far one way, there is the absolute risk that when you let go, it will almost instantly pop the other direction, and the pendulum of living quickly swings to a second way of living - license.
This is like me trying to take the cookie. I feel like I can get away with it - after all, my parents love me enough to let me get away with it; doesn’t God love me even more than they? And even if I get caught, or feel bad, won’t I be able to just apologize, look up at him with my adorable, 25 year old eyes, and He’ll give me a cookie anyways because it’s not what I do that matters, but what’s been done for me in Christ? If I’m covered by him, and made both innocent and good in having the righteousness of Christ which comes through faith, can’t I just live as I please, knowing that I’m covered?
Paul also addresses this shortly after in Galatians 5, almost as if he knew this is where humanity would feel they could swing to when he says, in verse 13, “for you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…” Paul is incredibly clear - don’t use this freedom you have from the slavery of the law to enter another slavery - the slavery of your flesh, of your volitional sin, of your innate wickedness.
Rather, we are to walk in freedom.
Only, what is this freedom? If the Law says “I use the law to justify myself, and am a slave to the law” and License says “I no longer have to follow the law at all and I can do whatever I want, even if it is sin, and am a slave to my flesh” then what is liberty?
I think, often, we look at it like this:
We think that somewhere on the line between Law and License, we will find liberty. We follow the law just enough to not find ourselves justified by it, but also know we have a get out of jail free card when - I did not say if but when - we sin. That somewhere in that spectrum exists a liberty in Christ, a freedom in Christ that we are to walk in.
We think that freedom will come in between two forms of slavery.
We can think that somewhere between two ways of living that have everything to do with us, that we will find a freedom that has everything to do with Christ.
I would submit to you, humbly, that this simply is not so.
We see this so clearly in Exodus, as Law and License meet at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses brings the tablets holding the commandments of God for the people of God, and the people have given themselves over to a license to worship whatever they please, being freed by God from the Egyptians, yet enslaved to themselves and their idols. The tablets are broken. Blood is shed. Brother kills brother. Freedoms is not found in between the tension of law and license, rather violence is.
We need something completely other - and in this we discover a beautiful truth: The Christian life actually crushes this tension by making it small, divorcing us from it, and leaves us with one word, wholly ours in Christ, by Christ, and through Christ:
Liberty is not even on the same line as Law and License. The liberty we have in Christ is altogether different. It is the freedom of a son or a daughter in the household of their parent to know that before they do or don’t do anything, they are wholly their parent’s child. It is knowing that the DNA of the parent is shared with the child, and the culture of the family is adopted by the adopted! That we have a freedom from the slavery of the law because Christ fulfilled all the requirements of it in himself, and all the sin that we’d commit, have committed, or are committing on the Cross, we have a freedom from the draw of License, because In Christ we have an example of obedience to His Father - and ours - of what human flourishing looks like in following God!
This is Paul’s words to the Galatian church, in verses 16 and 18 where he says to “Walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh...but if you were led by the spirit you are not under the law.” The liberty we have in Christ is altogether different from the slavery of either the Law or of License, and it is experienced in walking by the Spirit of Christ each day.
Consider these, likely familiar, verses in Galatians 5:22-25 “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
In this life by the Spirit we know this freedom for which we have been set free! We experience the obedience to God that we try, and fail, to find through following the law and we experience the flourishing that we think will come through doing whatever we please! It is a new way of living, a better way of living, and a free way of living.
Oh, might we be those who live by the Spirit, and also keep in step with the Spirit. (5:25)
Questions to consider:
- Have you thought of freedom as a tension between Law and License? Which do our find yourself trending toward more often (Law or License)?
- How can you preach the Gospel to yourself when you trend toward either Law or License?
- How can you remind yourself of the liberty you have in Christ by His finished work?
- How can you keep in step with the Spirit? What does following the Spirit look like for you, in light of Galatians 5?