God’s freedom, we saw last month, means that he does not need to seek the permission of any other being to act as he chooses. And because God is free, God loves freedom and he desires that his creatures should be free. The defining narrative of the people of Israel in the Old Testament is their deliverance from the ‘house of slavery’ in Egypt.
Moreover, when Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he announced that he was ‘sent to proclaim liberty to the captives’ (Luke 4:18). In doing so Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 61 and identifying himself as the Lord’s Messiah; but he was also alluding to the rich theme of freedom which permeates the Old Testament, seen for example in the year of Jubilee.
Freedom and its opposite, slavery, are of course vast subjects, whether looked at politically, socially, or theologically. Theologically speaking, a great deal could be written about freedom and slavery in relation to the power of sin, or in relation to the fear of death. But there is a particular aspect of these themes which is both highly topical and which is dealt with especially in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This is freedom from fear of human authorities who usurp the fear of God.
It must have been an electrifying sight in Antioch when the two most significant apostles in the church, Peter and Paul, were eyeball-to-eyeball. What was going on? Peter had been drawing away from the Gentile Christians, not eating with them, ‘fearing the circumcision party’ and acting ‘hypocritically’ along with others, including even Barnabas. Paul was constrained to rebuke Peter very publicly because he ‘saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel’ (Galatians 2:12-14).
Peter’s actions embodied an attitude that had become endemic in the Galatians: a servile submission to what Paul describes as ‘the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more’ (Galatians 4:9). Paul’s opponents, who are often referred to as the ‘Judaizers’, were teaching that it was not enough for Gentile Christians to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ; they had to submit to circumcision and a whole raft of Old Testament ceremonial legislation if they were truly to be reckoned the people of God.
Paul’s tone in Galatians – one of the greatest angst, exasperation, and perplexity – arises because he knows that the Judaizers are pushing nothing other than ‘a different gospel’ (Galatians 1:6). It is a ‘gospel’ in which the free grace of God in Jesus Christ crucified is being eclipsed; but if God’s grace is eclipsed then it is effectively annulled. The cross is not enough, the Judaizers said; something more needs to be added. Therefore Paul does not hesitate to tell the Galatians, ‘You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace’ (5:4). This is strong meat; this is ‘standing-or-falling church’ stuff.
If Peter can succumb to the fear of human authorities, then so can you and I. And there are signs in many parts of the world that some human authorities are punching above their weight, generating in Christians a spirit of nervous indecision if not outright fear. In 2021, the year of the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms, we too need to be able to say, ‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand.’
This is true freedom. The fear of man is slavery but, paradoxically, the fear of God is freedom – the best freedom, the only true freedom in fact!