Freedom has always been purchased at a high cost. For years, I listened to a dear friend and Elder share his experiences of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge during the July 4th holiday. He spoke of the terror. He reminded us of the blood-stained water. He talked about surviving the biting cold of a brutal winter. He spoke of the weariness, worry, and despair as ammunition and food ran low right at Christmas. He reminisced about the hard nights sleeping on the cold hard ground so far from home.
For us as Christians, we must use every opportunity to reawaken our hearts to the high price paid for our spiritual freedom. Jesus' coming, his life, and his death all testify to God's incredible and sacrificial love to redeem us. At great cost, Jesus purchased us from law-keeping, sin, and death. So we shouldn't be surprised by the apostle Paul's biting words, sharp toned warnings, and urgent pleadings in his letter to the Galatians to hold on to their freedom.
Paul spoke specifically of two great dangerous temptations back toward slavery for Jesus' followers:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. ... For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another (Galatians 5:1; Galatians 5:13 NRS)
The first of these temptations is to use law-keeping as the basis for our personal sense of righteousness. This process is sometimes called legalism. This practice is not to be confused with Christian obedience, which arises out of our sense of love and appreciation for the salvation given us by grace.
Law-keeping becomes our way of identifying ourselves as better, more saved, more holy, and more righteous than others. We choose the laws that are most important to keep and define our righteousness by those laws. The problem with law-keeping, Paul told the Galatians, is that if you break any law, then you are a lawbreaker and guilty of all the law. While the Mosaic Law was good and holy because it pointed to the character God was seeking in our lives, the law could only help us see how we failed to measure up to God's holiness. We needed a Savior to pay for our sin. We needed the Holy Spirit to empower us to a new way of life. This new way of life is the way of the Spirit — not the written code — and is built on the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:1 and 2 Corinthians 3:1-18). To go back to trying to justify ourselves by keeping the Law, any law, is to fall from grace and abandon the justification that comes only through the sacrifice of Christ (Galatians 5:4). Paul went ballistic with those who were trying to make law keeping the basis of their Christian faith in the book of Galatians.
The second form of slavery is to say that we are saved by grace and then get caught up again in immoral and unrighteous living because we know that grace will cover that sin. If the first form of slavery is called legalism, the second is called license. Jude warned about such teaching and such people (Jude 1:4). While doing what our desires lead us to do can feel like freedom at first, it is actually another form of slavery. Jesus warned that if we sin, then we become a slave to that sin (John 8:34). The Lord came to liberate from sin — not just our past sin, but from a life of sin in the here and now. We must not think we can go on recklessly sinning and nonchalantly depending on grace to cover our sin (Romans 6:1-2). In fact, when the Spirit is at work in us, the power of sin is broken (Romans 6:11-14) and the fruit of God's character comes to life in us (Galatians 5:22-26). To go back to our old sin, Peter warns, is like a dog returning to its own vomit (2 Peter 2:22).
For me, one way to understand the differences between grace, license, and legalism is to look at a kite. A kite may decide it wants to be free — not bound by a string, but free to go anywhere the wind takes it. After all, isn't this true freedom? The problem is a kite can't sail or soar without the string that ties it to the kite master. Instead, it is at the mercy of the wind. Blown in whatever direction any ill wind wants to take it. It will not rise to the skies. It will be bounced along the ground and torn by all sorts of obstacles until it is destroyed or shoved under a mound of wind-blown debris.
At the same time, legalism can be understood as trying to fly a kite without the aid of the wind. We can try all we want to make the kite fly and soar. However, any flight is temporary. We are not strong enough and fast enough to keep our kite in flight by our own efforts. Sure, the kite is tethered and controlled. Yet without the wind, it cannot soar, dart, and dance as it was designed to do in the wind.
If we understand the wind in this analogy to be the Spirit of God, the ill wind to be the desires of our flesh, the true Kite Master to be our Father in Heaven, and the string to be the link to the righteous will of God, then we get a glimpse of what God has made us to be by his grace.
The freedom we have in Jesus was purchased at a high price. That freedom is not just from the past life of sin that enslaved us. It is also the freedom to use us for a life of righteousness that displays the character and compassion of God. Let's not give up our spiritual freedom for any reason. Let's let God's Spirit help us soar in the freedom of his grace while our lives display our Father's character and compassion.