A Commentary by John Stott
‘Freedom’ is a word on everybody’s lips today. There are many different forms of it, and many different people advocating it and canvassing it. There is the African nationalist who has gained ‘Uhuru’ for his country – freedom from colonial rule. There is the economist who believes in free trade, the lifting of tariffs. There is the capitalist who dislikes central controls because they hinder free enterprise and the communist who claims to set the proletariat free from capitalist exploitation. There are the famous four freedoms first enunciated by President Roosevelt in 1941, when he spoke of ‘freedom of speech everywhere, freedom of worship everywhere, freedom from want everywhere and freedom from fear everywhere’.
What sort of freedom is Christian freedom? Primarily, as we saw in the previous chapter, it is a freedom of conscience. According to the Christian gospel no man is truly free until Jesus Christ has rid him of the burden of his guilt. And Paul tells the Galatians that they had been ‘called’ to this freedom. It is equally true of us. Our Christian life began not with our decision to follow Christ but with God’s call to us to do so. He took the initiative in His grace while we were still in rebellion and sin. In that state we neither wanted to turn from sin to Christ, nor were we able to. But He came to us and called us to freedom.
Paul knew this from his own experience, for God had ‘called’ him ‘through His grace’ (1:15). The Galatians knew it from their experience too, for Paul complained that they were so quickly deserting Him who had ‘called’ them ‘in the grace of Christ’ (1:6). Every Christian knows it also today. If we are Christians, it is not through any merit of our own, but through the gracious calling of God.
‘Called to freedom’! This is what it means to be a Christian, and it is tragic that the average man does not know it. The popular image of Christianity today is not freedom at all, but a cruel and cramping bondage. But Christianity is not a bondage; it is a call of grace to freedom. Nor is this the exceptional privilege of a few believers, but rather the common inheritance of all Christians without distinction. That is why Paul adds ‘brethren’. Every single Christian brother and sister has been called by God and called to freedom.
What are the implications of Christian freedom? Does it include freedom from every kind of restraint and restriction? Is Christian liberty another word for anarchy? Paul himself was being criticized for teaching this, and it was an easy jibe for his detractors to make. So, having asserted that we have been called to liberty, he immediately sets himself to define the freedom to which we have been called, to clear it of misconceptions and to protect it from irresponsible abuse. In brief, it is freedom from the awful bondage of having to merit the favour of God; it is not freedom from all controls.