13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. – Gal 5:13-15 NASB
Squandering the Lottery
A woman named Evelyn Adams is one of the luckiest people on earth. In 1985 she won the lottery, and she won it again in 1986. In total she won over 5.4 million dollars! She took her money and moved to Atlantic City and later Las Vegas and gambled all her money away in a very short time. She was a compulsive gambler and she quickly lost everything.
However, this was her freedom. There is no law that says you can’t waste your lucky fortune with gambling! In perhaps a similar way, in Christ we have gained something far greater than the lottery. We have the free gift of eternal life! It is a one-way promise based, not on our own wisdom or faithfulness, but rather the wisdom and faithfulness of God. We have the freedom to live as we wish – otherwise it isn’t freedom. This is exactly what Paul means by freedom in the context of Galatians 5.
It is important to notice that as an overall observation, Paul recognizes that when we speak about freedom in Christ, he means business. If your freedom doesn’t include your ability to use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, then it isn’t real freedom at all. He is not writing to curtail their freedom. Our freedom isn’t going to be taken away if we misuse it. If it were so it wouldn’t really be freedom any more. There is no threat here that says your assurance of salvation is in jeopardy if you misuse the opportunity. That would in fact be the very kind of thing that he is writing against. So, in sharp relief in this passage, we have the question raised: under genuine grace, how are we to understand the New Testament imperatives?
The Nature of Our Sin
In order to answer this question, I want to review the fall of man in Genesis 3.
6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. – Gen 3:6 NASB
I seem to be perpetually battling my weight. I see an ice cream sundae, and maybe I shouldn’t, but I think it looks GOOD. On the other hand, if I resist the temptation and refuse the ice cream sundae, I am being GOOD. I have a split understanding of the word “good” – there is an aesthetic sense of the good, and a moral sense of good. I believe that this fracture in our understanding of the good is at the heart of humanity’s troubles, and is the singular thing which the gospel addresses.
I believe that this split in the our understanding of the good is exactly what we have inherited from Adam (Romans 5:12-14). There was a singular point in time, “When the woman saw”, that she observed that something that was forbidden could be in some sense good. Before this point, this was not so. Before this conversation with the serpent, they had the happy mindset that everything they could possibly want was also permitted by God, and everything that God had forbid was disgusting. There was no division for them between the moral good and the aesthetic good. Eating the forbidden fruit would have seemed akin to eating wood or eating your own hair. This conversation with the serpent opened up the idea for the first time that the forbidden thing, the thing which was morally bad, could be aesthetically good. Eve had now realized that the forbidden could be desirable. And that is when the floodgates opened. This is the original sin: seeing the forbidden as good.
Now the question opens up at every turn for everyone born of Adam: is this morally good thing desirable? Is this desirable thing moral? Which kind of good am I looking at? Every thought and every decision is now subject to judgment. Before this, there was no such thing as moral fortitude, because there was no need. Every morally acceptable thing was delicious and wonderful, and every forbidden thing was disgusting. But we have a split existence now. The strange thing is, it isn’t that we sometimes actually want the thing that is right. We seem to always want what we shouldn’t want, and we always seem to dislike what we should like. Once we see the desirableness of the forbidden fruit, all those other fruits become uninteresting. Our hearts go after the wild forbidden thing. We want the food that is bad for you. We want the wisdom and sophistication of the forbidden. We see the right thing as being colorless and tasteless and dutiful.
The Human Response to Our Condition
Notice that from the very start the law had this two-way covenant kind of formula: eat this fruit, and you will die. By inference, abstain from this fruit, and you will live. As such the law attempts to enforce obedience by a threat. We are judged by this in our parenting and work: did you lay down the law? Did you enforce it? Also notice that the power of temptation is to downplay the threat, and to play up the pleasure. That is how it worked in the beginning, and that is how it works to this day. This is our condition: we have a fondness for the forbidden, and we either remember the punishment and heed the law, or we downplay the punishment and heed the pleasure. But in both cases, we are responding to an innate fondness for the forbidden. Even so-called “righteous” people easily understand this innate fondness in themselves, which they fight successfully against.
People respond to this condition in two ways. There are the people who are “libertine” – they do as the wish – and screw the “law”. They would rather be true to their heart, to be free, to be real, than to live a colorless existence striving to be moral in a way that is insincere. On the other hand, we have the upright people who heroically sacrifice their own desires to do what is right. Most of us have feet in both camps in ways that upon examination make very little sense. But our actions and thoughts and desires and emotions all stem from this fundamental place: our concept of the “good” has split in two, and we are faced with this tension to either choose desire or choose what is right at every turn.
The Christian Way
Now most people think that being a non-Christian involves being libertine, and that being a Christian involves becoming more moral. But these two responses to our condition are still simply carnal responses to a more fundamental level of sin. The pharisees were tremendously moral – and tremendously evil. The sodomites were tremendously immoral and tremendously evil. But both approaches ignore the fundamental problem. If you love evil and yet resist your internal desires heroically, you’re still evil. How can there be good in constantly denying your heart (Proverbs 13:12)? In fact you’re probably worse off, because you love something which you constantly deny yourself. You’re still a pharisee, and Jesus really went to war with the pharisees. He’s not impressed at all like you think (Matthew 7:22-23). On the other hand, if you love evil and succumb to its temptations, you and everyone around you have to live with the terrible consequences of your sin. Neither way is a winning formula.
The gospel is quite specifically salvation from this trap. If the blood of Christ was shed for your sin, you can relish the fact that your evil ways have been definitively judged. You can say, it pleased God to crush His Son, because my sins are so bad. You conscience can rest, because the ultimate judge has enacted ultimate justice. And so we hold the conviction that we are saved – the blood of Christ worked for us. The propitiation in His blood really did justify us. We are no longer condemned, for eternity. There is no more threat. We are free!
1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. – Gal 5:1 NASB
Does this mean we have the freedom to sin? This is what is implied in this verse (Galatians 5:13). We have this freedom in Christ, and this opens up the opportunity for the flesh. It doesn’t remove this freedom. Our freedom is true freedom. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil has been chopped down for us, and the tree of life has been fed to us. The cross is the tree whose fruit we now eat – the tree of life. In Christ we are no longer under the curse of the split of the good.
So the question is no longer – what should I do? There is no longer a should, no longer a threat of moral consequence. We are not under a two way covenant. There is nothing left which says, if you do this, you will die. We have been granted eternal life as a free gift. So the only motivation left to us is the aesthetic motivation. The moral motivation has been crucified. The greater use of our freedom is not to be isolated and selfish and to pursue desires which harm or disregard others. This is a lesser beauty. The greater beauty is to love each other, to serve each other. This is coming, not from a threat, but from love.
I have been saying that if you have two people, and the one sells all his possessions and feeds the hungry and clothes the naked and houses the homeless and visits those in prison, but does it not from freedom but from fear of hell, he is only using people to get something for himself. It is essentially selfish. But if someone from complete freedom and from simple compassion and love gives someone a glass of water, that is celebrated in heaven as the highest act of service. (Matthew 10:42)
The Theology of Play
Nimi Wariboko is a pentecostal theologian (!) who has written about the nature of grace in relation to playfulness. He writes:
The logic of grace is the logic of play. In its nature of purposelessness, play transcends the instrumental demands and constraints of the present given world in the direction of possibilities and not yet defined potentialities.
In the Pentecostal way of thinking, the ‘big,’ ‘serious’ purpose of grace is the freedom to play in salvation for freedom. Grace is characterized by play; no purpose at all. It is to exuberantly embrace the Holy Spirit as the spirit of play. http://www.mbird.com/2015/05/grace-is-play-our-magazine-interview-with-nimi-wariboko/
This conception of play is far more compelling in terms of human behavior than the seriousness of the law. It says that the only true motivation is the aesthetic motivation. We will inevitably do what our heart truly wants. If our righteous behavior isn’t as play, we will hate it and eventually forsake it completely. In fact the facade of righteousness without the element of fun and play and heartfelt enjoyment in it is less than nothing. It is sin.
And so we return to Galatians 5:13. When Paul asks us not to turn our freedom into an opportunity for the flesh. Let’s parse this a bit. The flesh is a euphemism, in context, for those who are under the law. Those in the flesh are those who are concerned with the hard work of personal holiness. They use their virtue to separate themselves, to exalt themselves, to isolate sinners away from themselves. I might go further and say that however we respond, being in the flesh is going back to the original sin of moralism, and responding to it either as a libertine or as a pharisee. Either way is still considered to be the flesh.
But the greater way, indeed the truly Christian way, is to drop all judgment and to serve one another in love. This is the greater aesthetic. We have no greater gift than each other. Since we are not being pressed to execute justice for ourselves or for those around us because of Christ’s blood, we can press into the greater playful good of love and service. We can press into the things that please and edify one another. We can follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit, the giftings that we have, in service of one another.
Notice that when we do this, we are turning our freedom into an opportunity for the Spirit. Under the law we turn our freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but that leads only to judgment and condemnation and biting and consuming one another. Under grace we have the opposite of our innate compunction under the law and under flesh. Under the flesh we want to judge. Under grace we are compelled to love and to serve. That is where the beauty is, that is where the freedom is, that is where the love is. These things are the root of the New Testament gospel imperatives. Why squander our Spiritual lottery on lesser things that have no play? We are justified, we are sanctified, we are the beloved of God! It’s party time people! Let’s get this party going!