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“The Freedom to Serve”

Galatians 5:1-7
Bob DeGray
October 6, 2002

Key Sentence

The only satisfying use of our freedom in Christ is to serve one another.


I. Not freedom for legalism (Galatians 5:1)
II. Not freedom for license (Galatians 5:13)
III. But freedom to serve (Galatians 5:13)


        ‘Farmer Boy’ is the only part of the Little House series that doesn’t focus on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood. Instead its about a year in the life of nine year old Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s future husband, who grew up on a prosperous farm in New York. He had two older sisters, Eliza Jane and Alice, and one older brother, Royal. There wasn’t a lot of leisure in their lives, as the family worked to tend the farm, plant the crops, harvest them, and use every scrap of ingenuity to provide for their needs. But life was full of simple pleasures for Almanzo and there was no shortage of what for him was the greatest pleasure of all - the good food provided by his mother.

        About halfway through the book, as summer is ending but before the work of harvest has begun, Father and Mother take a rare vacation. They go to Uncle Andrew’s farm, a whole ten miles away, leaving the children to care for the farm and themselves for a week. Mother is still giving instructions as their buggy pulls away “Don’t eat all the white sugar.” For a few minutes the responsibility they’d been given daunted the children, but then they realized “they could do anything they liked. There was nobody to stop them.” The chapter is really about how they handle this freedom. “We’ll do the dishes and make the beds,” Eliza Jane said, bossy. “Let’s make ice cream!” Royal countered. Eliza Jane loved ice-cream. She hesitated, “Well–”

        And so it goes. The whole first part of the week is taken up in doing things they would not normally be allowed to do. After the ice cream - made with white sugar, of course – Alice and Almanzo decide to go to the garden and get a watermelon, ignoring Eliza Jane’s demands about the breakfast dishes. While it cools, Almanzo gets in trouble by spooking the colts. Then he decides to bring Lucy the pig into the front yard to eat watermelon rinds. Then they decide to make candy - with more white sugar, of course - but since it’s summer, the candy won’t set, and after they go to bed the pig gets it and glues her mouth shut. They chase her through the vegetable garden, ripping Almanzo’s shirt before they catch her.

        Later in the week, when the sugar is 99 percent gone and they’ve had their fill of cake, things change. One morning at breakfast Eliza Jane said: ‘Father and Mother will be here tomorrow.’ They all stopped eating. The garden had not been weeded. The peas and beans had not been picked. The henhouse had not been whitewashed.”

        Suddenly they went from freedom to bondage - they worked twice as hard as they’d ever worked to try to make up for all they’d left undone. Now Eliza Jane was in her element, working madly and telling them all what to do - especially Almanzo. Late that afternoon she put him to work blacking the stove in the parlor, the fanciest room in the house, off limits except when there was company.

        Almanzo thought he knew well enough how to black a stove, but Eliza Jane insisted on telling him how to hold the polish, how much water to add, how hard to rub and how fast to go. In the face of all that, Amanzo muttered under his breath, “Whose boss are you?” Eliza Jane asked “What’s that you say?” “Nothing” Almanzo said. Eliza Jane came to the door. “You did so say something.” Almanzo straightened up and shouted, “Whose boss are you?” Eliza Jane gasped. Then she cried out: “You just wait, Almanzo James Wilder! You just wait till I tell Mother!”

        Almanzo didn’t mean to throw the blacking brush. It flew out of his hand and sailed past Eliza Jane’s head. Smack! It hit the parlor wall. A great splash and smear of blacking appeared on the white-and-gold wall paper. Eliza Jane screamed. Almanzo turned and ran all the way to the barn. He climbed the haymow and crawled back into the hay. He didn’t cry, but he would have if he hadn’t been almost ten.

        The point of this extended illustration is simple. Sometimes freedom leads us to do things we regret. The story illustrates two dangers of freedom. First, it can be used as an excuse to sin - to sicken yourself on ice cream and watermelon and candy. Or freedom can be used to create slavery - to impose every rule you know on everyone you can reach in an effort to force right behavior. Both can lead to disaster.

        Our passage this morning is found in Galatians 5, specifically in verses 1 and 13. I was originally going to preach verses 13 to 15, but because this is a communion Sunday, I wanted to be able to focus a bit on Christ and his work, so I added verse 1. These verses give us the opportunity to think about the implications of the freedom we’ve found in Christ - the freedom we’ve just celebrated in sharing the Lord’s supper. In verse 1 Paul mentions one of the ways freedom can be abused - by the descent into legalism. In verse 13 he mentions the other abuse of freedom - taking it as freedom to sin. Then at the end of verse 13 he mentions the third use of freedom, the righteous use of freedom - that we are freed to love and serve each other. The only satisfying use of our freedom in Christ is to serve one another in love.

I. Not freedom for legalism (Galatians 5:1)

        Galatians 5:1 asserts our freedom in Christ: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. When he died on the cross Christ set us free from the law of sin and death. We had been slaves to sin. It was our master. We couldn’t disobey it, and only rarely did we try. But then, like the Jewish slaves in Egypt, we cried to the Lord, and he set us free. Earlier we read Romans 6, which makes this point: “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our slavery to sin led to death, but we’ve been set free, and our freedom leads to life.

        The thing Paul wants the Galatians to notice is that this freedom ought to be part of their daily Christian experience. He says “it is for freedom Christ has set your free.” By repetition he implies he wants them to experience this freedom. What use is it if you’ve been given freedom, but you continue to sit in the dungeon with unlocked chains on your wrists and your open prison door ignored. That would be a poor sort of freedom, wouldn’t it? The verse we sang from “And Can It Be” says: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and natures night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray: I woke, the dungeon blazed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose, went forth and followed thee.” – the right response to freedom.

        The only way freedom can make a difference is if we are clear about what we have been freed from, and use our freedom to live differently. The New Testament teaches that we were freed from three things: sin, death, and the law. Jesus said in John 8 that anyone who sins is a slave to sin, but that he himself sets us free from that slavery. The book of Hebrews says Jesus died as a ransom to set us free from the sins committed under the first covenant. The first chapter of Revelation calls Jesus ‘the one who loved us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” We have been freed from the penalty of sin, the guilt of sin, and the separation caused by sin.

        Second, we are freed from death. Hebrews says that Jesus shared in our humanity “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death__that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” The fear of death has been a driving force in the lives of men and women since the fall. From the Egyptians who mummified themselves in the hope of new life to the moderns who pursue every health kick and avoid every danger to prolong their existence, the fear of death has held people in slavery. But those who claim the promise of eternal life need not fear death. It is still a sad event, even for believers, but it is not final. It is a preface to resurrection and a doorway to eternal life.

        Third, we are freed from the law. This may surprise us, but it was central to Paul’s faith. In fact he says the law showed us what sin and death were all about, as it expressed and then imposed God’s standards of righteousness on us as slaves. But when we were freed from sin and death we were also freed from their taskmaster, their standard keeper, the law. This is the message of Galatians and is also a key thought of Romans 8: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”

        Christ has set us free from sin, from death, and from the law. Now we are to live as if we have been set free. But the foolish Galatians, and many foolish people since them, have responded to this freedom by setting up a new law, a new taskmaster, making themselves slaves again. The name for this is legalism, and it is nearly universal. Before Christ came the Pharisees practiced legalism. In almost every religious system apart from Christ there is legalism, a set of rules and requirements that must be followed in order to obtain salvation. Islam, the religion most in the spotlight these days, is a religion of requirements, a religion of legalism. More significantly, the church from the earliest days, has struggled with legalism. At times it takes root, at times it doesn’t, but it is always there, waiting to burst forth.

        So the question we’re asking is, have we responded to our freedom in Christ by becoming legalistic - imposing a list of rules and regulations on ourselves or on others? I was thinking about it this week, and it seemed to me the book ‘Animal Farm’ was a perfect example of this. The animals rebelled against the drunk despotic human farmer and swore they would never again serve anything that went on two legs. But immediately tyrants began to arise from among them, to put them back in slavery. The pigs that led them became indistinguishable from the humans they had replaced - wearing their clothes, sleeping in their beds and exercising their tyranny.

        Paul says that we are to stand firm in freedom, not burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Unfortunately each of us, in our fallen nature is a legalist. We feel, as every child does, that if we’re just good enough God will accept us. So we always add some kind of good works to God’s actual salvation scheme, which is entirely about trust in his grace. We add some good thing to faith alone and say ‘real faith must include . . baptism, taking mass, great remorse over sins’, a particular kind of devotional life, a specific set of behaviors. We add something, some work that becomes the mandatory evidence of faith. But even good things are not mandatory evidences.

        In the same way we create a list of things-to-do for the Christian life, and presume that someone is not saved, not growing, or certainly not mature as a Christian unless they’re doing these things. And sometimes we’re right. But we need wisdom and grace desperately so that we, one, impose only those standards on our own behavior that God convicts us with through Scripture, and two, don’t force standards on other believers except as necessary to avoid clear sin or doctrinal error.

        Do you remember this hymn? “There's a wideness in Gods mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There's a kindness in His justice which is more than liberty. // For the love of God is broader than the measure of man's mind, And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” The third verse describes many of us when it says “But we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own, And we magnify His strictness with a zeal He will not own.” May we never diminish God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice by saying that by some good work you can pay for it.

II. Not freedom for license (Galatians 5:13)

        Paul is adamant that freedom should not lead to legalism. In verses 2 through 12 he is very adamant, finally concluding in verse 12 with an extreme statement toward those who believed that salvation required circumcision. But someone with a strong conviction against legalism can drift toward the opposite, license, being soft on sin, giving a license to believers that permits them to sin. Paul was accused of that, but the accusation was never true. Paul hated the idea that anyone would use their freedom as an excuse for sin. Listen to the first part of verse 13: You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.

        There is a huge difference between saying ‘I am free to do this’ on morally neutral issues and making the same statement about clear sins. One is freedom, the other is a catastrophe. Yet if we rebound from the trap of legalism, the trap of license is right there to grab us. Our deceitful heart, which Paul calls our old nature, our flesh, our sinful nature is always ready to make an excuse for sin in our case. Not necessarily in everyone else’s case, but in our case. We tell ourselves things like “I’ve been so tired, people will just have to excuse my anger.” “I’m particularly weak in this area, and a this little thing will keep me away from real sin.” “If so and so hadn’t had this attitude or done that I wouldn’t have done what I did. It’s not my fault.”

        This has often been taken to extremes, so that some, claiming to be spiritually mature, have tried to justify the removal of all moral standards. That’s why so many cult leaders and even well known Christian leaders have fallen prey to the temptations of sex, money and power. They get an attitude that says, ‘I’m special, I’m different, I’m more free than others, this indulgence is not sin, it’s not even pleasure, it’s just what I have to have to compensate for the burden of ministry I carry.”

        The pigs in ‘Animal Farm’ took to drinking and eating and clothing themselves in ways forbidden to their followers, imposing legalism but practicing license. But at times whole groups cast off restraint. Do you remember The Lord of the Flies? It’s the story of a group of British schoolboys whose plane is shot down during World War II and who find themselves on an uninhabited island with no adult presence. Some of them try to lead the group into right behavior, to preserve them and get them rescued. Then one leader begins to rebel against their morality. He takes some followers and forms his own tribe. They violently pursue the wild boars of the island, making them food, sacrifice and ultimately idol. In the process they drop all semblance of civilization, resorting to ever more casual murder to maintain their sinful ways. The freedom in which they found themselves became a license to sin.

III. But freedom to serve (Galatians 5:13)

        This is the way of human nature - either to impose morality or to depose morality. But Christ did not set us free from sin and death and law so that either of these things would happen. He did not die on the cross so that we could become tyrants and slaves to an artificial list of rules for salvation and Christian living, nor did he die so that we might continue in sin after having received grace that frees us from sin. There has to be a third way, a right response to freedom. What is it? The text gives us the answer. Verse 13: You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.

You might thing that serving others is the quickest path to legalism, that Christ saves you only if you will become other people’s slave. But the truth Paul is getting at is that loving others is the ultimate expression of freedom. Someone who is no longer a slave to the law, or a slave to sin is free to love others. Legalism and sin are both ultimately selfish. Only when we are freed from those things can we love selflessly.

        This is why Scripture makes love is the ultimate value. When Jesus was asked, ‘What is the greatest commandment?’, he said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these.” Our text, in verse 14, says “The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."” The law lived right is ultimately an expression of love. Morality lived right is ultimately an expression of love. Legalism is both selfish and harmful to others. Sinful indulgence is both selfish and harmful to others. Only freedom expressing itself in love is beneficial to others and ultimately beneficial to ourselves. Selfishness won’t satisfy us: loving others will.

        So Paul says ‘serve one another in love’. The true middle way between law and license is selfless love, and Paul contends that selfless love is expressed in service. We’ve talked a lot about serving one another and serving the Lord in the course of our ministry pledge campaign. The Old Testament heroes were ‘servants of the Lord’. Jesus said that he came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The New Testament writers see themselves as servants, and call us to service. God himself equips and gifts us not for our own benefit, but so that we can serve.

        The phrase we’re studying today adds only one important insight into this subject: it links service and love. We serve one another ‘in love’ or ‘through love’. Service apart from love is probably legalism. Service motivated by love and accomplished in the strength of love is the true way of freedom. Therefore we would do well to consciously link our service to our love for others. We should have our eyes on others and attempt to make our serving personal and edifying to individuals. In other words, we should ask ‘what service can I do to show love to this person?’

        We should also motivate ourselves to serve by reminding ourselves often that in serving we are showing love, reminding ourselves that this is both the highest value in Scripture and the highest freedom we can find. It is a freedom from self that is nevertheless extremely satisfying to our selves - it becomes our delight. The middle way between legalism and sinful indulgence is love expressed in service. The only satisfying use of our freedom in Christ is to serve one another.

        When we last left our story, Almanzo felt awful about the stove black on his mother’s parlor wallpaper. His self indulgence combined with his sister’s legalism had led to catastrophe. It got worse when his mother and father came home the next day. Almanzo could hardly eat because of his dread, a situation so unusual his mother actually medicated him for it. This went on for two days, because mother rarely went into the parlor. Then some visitors came, and they were shown into that room. Amanzo “couldn’t move or speak. This was worse than anything he had thought of. Mother was so proud of her beautiful parlor. She was so proud of keeping it always nice. She didn’t know he had ruined it, and now she was taking company in.”

        But to Almanzo’s surprise, no outcry came from the parlor. In fact the guests remarked on it’s beauty. Drawn to the doorway, Almanzo could see where the blacking brush hit the wall, and he could not believe his eyes. The wallpaper was pure white and gold. There was no black splotch. Mother saw him and said: “Come in, Almanzo.” Almanzo went in and sat on a haircloth chair. Father and Mother were telling about the visit to Uncle Andrew’s. There was no back splotch anywhere on the wall.

        Next day, when no one was looking, he slipped into the parlor. He looked carefully at the place where the black splotch had been. The wallpaper was patched. The patch had been cut out all around the gold scrolls, and the pattern was fitted perfectly and the edges of the patch scraped so thin he could hardly find them.

        He waited until he could speak to Eliza Jane alone, then asked: “Did you patch the parlor wallpaper for me?” “Yes,” she said. “I got the scraps of wallpaper that were saved in the attic, and cut the patch and put it on with flour-paste.” Almanzo said gruffly “I’m sorry I threw that brush at you. Honest, Eliza Jane.” She said “I guess I was aggravating, but I didn’t mean to be. You’re the only little brother I’ve got.”

        We’ve been set free by the loving sacrifice of Christ. The right use of our freedom is not legalism, not indulgence, but love like Eliza Jane ultimately showed, love that serves our brothers and sisters in Christ.