Are We Slaves or Not?

Recently a friend posted a picture on Facebook containing a scripture and asked me to explain a portion of it. Instead of writing my response on Facebook I figured it would be better to use this blog for my explanation. The post is a quote that reads, “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don't get tied up again in slavery to the law. Galatians 5:1”. My friend wrote, “I get the first part not the last.”

The quote is a paraphrase or loose translation of what Galatians 5:1 states. The text in the New American Standard Bible reads, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” What does Paul mean by not being subject again to a yoke of slavery? The theme of Paul's letter to the church in Galatia is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus as opposed to following the Law of Moses as the means to salvation. It seems that in the ancient church in Galatia there were Judaizers–people telling these new gentile Christians that believing in Jesus isn't enough, they must also follow the Law of Moses. Paul is so angry over that false teaching that he chastises the church for believing it. Galatians in the only letter of Paul that doesn't start with a note of thanksgiving; he finds nothing there to be thankful for! He writes concerning those who are teaching that these new Christians must be circumcised according to the Law, “Why don't these agitators, obsessive as they are about circumcision, go all the way and castrate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12, The Message). This is no minor matter of differing opinions. Paul writes, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4, NIV). This is serious stuff. Paul says that if someone who has become a follower of Jesus, who has put his trust in him, returns to an attempt to earn God's acceptance by carefully following the Law of Moses, that person has fallen away from grace; he is no longer saved!

ball and chainSo how do we avoid becoming subject again to a yoke of slavery (i.e., the Law of Moses)? By continually admitting to ourselves and God that we are sinners saved only by the grace of God. We haven't earned his acceptance, and we will never be able to earn his acceptance. The good news is that we don't have to earn his acceptance because Christ has justified us, making us right with God.

Being subject to the yoke of slavery isn't limited to the Law of Moses. I grew up in a church where I often heard people speak of “the old law” and “the new law.” They would say that we are no longer under the old law but now we are under the new law. By “the new law” they meant the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. They were taking the teachings of Jesus and turning them into a law code to which a person must meticulously follow to be saved, or remain saved. The ironic and frightening thing is that they were doing the very thing that Paul warned against and would result in a person falling from grace.

When we become a follower of Jesus we are set free from having to submit to and keep a set of rules (laws) in order to become or remain right with God.  Whether the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, or distorting the teachings of Jesus into a law, we are free from law-keeping as the basis of our standing with God.

But here's the rub. Elsewhere Paul writes, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18, NIV). In one letter Paul says we are no longer slaves; in a different letter he says we remain slaves, just to a different slave owner. So which is it? Both!

In Galatians the context is how a person is made right with God, what is called “justification.” In Romans chapter 6 Paul is dealing with how to live as a follower of Jesus. He is not talking there about the means through which a person is justified. He uses an analogy of slavery concerning the way we are to live. Not as slaves to a law, but as slaves to righteousness (i.e., right living). He goes on to admit that his analogy has weaknesses. He writes, “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves” (Romans 6:19, NIV). In other words he's saying his analogy isn't perfect but it makes the point, as long as we don't misread too much into it.

What we must avoid is thinking we follow the Bible in order to be declared righteous by God. We can't; that's why we needed a savior. At the same time we must avoid thinking our freedom in Jesus permits us to live a sin-filled, self-focused life. Putting one's faith in Jesus means believing he is Savior (the one who can do for us what we cannot do on our own) and Lord (the one we submit to and follow as our Master).

These two concepts are held in tension with each other. For 2,000 years Christians have struggled to do that without emphasizing one to the exclusion of the other. Some people focus on Jesus as Savior such that recognizing him as Lord is optional. Others focus on Jesus as Lord to the point of thinking they are earning God's acceptance. It's not something that can fit neatly into clear-cut, black-and-white categories. We must learn the principles behind each side of the tension and apply them the way Paul intended.

Curtis Williams