The Personal Application
And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. (4:28–5:1)
Again addressing the Galatian believers as brethren (cf. 1:11; 4:12), Paul tells them that, like Isaac, they are children of promise. Every believer, like Isaac, is supernaturally conceived, miraculously born, and the offspring of God’s promise to Abraham fulfilled in Christ. Those who have begun to sink back into the trap of legalistic Judaism must remember that they are children of promise, who owe their life not to their own effort but to the miraculous power of God, just as Isaac did in the physical realm. God’s sovereign power of grace gave them life, and to fall back under law was to deny that divine work and to dishonor God.
In 4:29–5:1 Paul mentions three results of being a spiritual Isaac, a redeemed child of promise through Sarah. First of all, just as in that time, when there was resentment of Isaac by Ishmael, the spiritual descendants of Isaac, who was born according to the Spirit, can still expect persecution by the spiritual descendants of Ishmael, who was born according to the flesh.
When Abraham held a feast to celebrate Isaac’s weaning, Ishmael mocked the occasion (Gen. 21:9). He hated Isaac just as his mother hated Sarah (16:4–5). So it is now also, Paul told the Galatians. Throughout history, and still today, the physical and spiritual descendants of Hagar and Ishmael have, respectively, opposed and persecuted the physical and spiritual descendants of Sarah and Isaac. Those who hold to salvation by works, trusting in their own performance of the law hate those who proclaim salvation by grace without works.
In their own minds, the Judaizers thought of themselves as the legitimate, God-honored descendants of Abraham through Isaac. But Paul was saying something that would infuriate them more than anything else, namely, that they, and all other unbelievers, are as much the spiritual descendants of Ishmael as the Arabs are his physical descendants. “If you are Abraham’s children,” Jesus told the protesting Jews in Jerusalem, “do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do” (John 8:39–40). Paul wrote the Romans, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:28–29).
Whether within Judaism or Christianity, legalists have always been persecutors. Those who trust in God have always been persecuted by those who trust in themselves. True believers have always been more mistreated and oppressed by religionists than by atheists. It is the false religious system of Revelation 17:6 that is “drunk with the blood of the saints.”
Second, the spiritual children of Sarah and Isaac will receive an inheritance that the spiritual children of Hagar and Ishmael will not. Just as the Scripture says, “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” The persecutors are going to be thrown out, and the persecuted will receive their promised and rightful inheritance. As Sarah had Hagar and Ishmael cast out of Abraham’s household (Gen. 21:10–14), so will their unbelieving descendants, those who live by works of the flesh, be cast out of God’s household (cf. Matt. 7:22–23; 25:41). No one outside the covenant of grace will receive anything from God.
Third, although believers are brethren in Jesus Christ and therefore not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman, they are nevertheless under obligation to live faithfully for their Lord. It was for freedom that Christ set us free, Paul says. Therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery to the law and its impotence.
In light of what Paul has been saying throughout the letter, he also here implies a disturbing question: “Why, then, do some of you want to go back to being like Ishmael, who was a slave, an outcast, and separated from God?” It made no sense at all.
“Thanks be to God,” Paul exclaimed to the Roman church, “that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (Rom. 6:17–19).
Paul says emphatically that God’s stated purpose for redemption was for freedom of the believer. Christ set us free from the “guilt-establishing and deadening power of the law” through His death and resurrection. Going back into a yoke of slavery is absurd. Yet the believers in Galatia were being duped by the Judaizers to consider doing just that.
The spiritual descendants of Sarah and Isaac should live as they lived, by faith. “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11), and “by faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come” (v. 20).
Keep standing firm is the positive, and do not be subject again (lit., “do not subject yourselves”) is the negative warning for believers to persevere in freedom. Like an animal loosed from pulling a plow, we should not seek to be hooked up again.
On the human and personal level, Galatians 4:21–5:1 continues to contrast the way of the Judaizers and the way of Paul. But on the immeasurably more important level of doctrine it is an extended series of contrasts between the way of law and the way of grace, the way of works and the way of faith, the way of man and the way of God. Following that same pattern, we also explicitly or implicitly see the contrasts of Hagar/Sarah, Ishmael/Isaac, children of Satan/children of God, commandments/promise, wrath/mercy, bondage/freedom, Old Covenant/New Covenant, Sinai/Zion, present Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, fleshly/spiritual, rejection/inheritance, and lostness/salvation. Throughout this letter, and indeed throughout all of Scripture, such contrasts reflect and demonstrate the contrast of the ages: the way of Satan and the way of God. But in God’s ultimate and unchangeable plan, Satan and his way will be destroyed, and only the way of God will remain, forever and ever. Vacillating between the two is unacceptable.
1 Paul calls on the Galatians to act on the freedom they have in Christ. He appeals to them not to allow themselves to be persuaded to take up “again” the yoke of slavery. Whereas in their recent past they had been enslaved to “those who by nature are not gods” (4:8–9), in this instance Paul has in mind slavery to the Judaizers’ interpretation of the law (cf. 3:23). The verse begins grammatically in a rather abrupt manner, with no transitional phrase or particle connecting it to what has preceded. But Paul’s statement about freedom here echoes the expression “of the free woman,” which occurs throughout the latter portion of chapter 4 (cf. 4:22, 23, 30, 31). And in fact, Paul has emphasized freedom throughout Galatians (1:4; 2:4, 5; 3:26–28), so much so that freedom has been called the “basic concept underlying Paul’s argument throughout the letter” (Betz, 255). In a bold declaration of the result of the gospel, then, Paul exhorts the Galatians fully to appropriate the new identity they have in Christ.
Since it is true that they are free in Christ, the Galatians are now told to “stand firm” in that freedom. The means of achieving this “standing firm” is to resist being ensnared by the “yoke” of the law (cf. Ac 15:10–11), and thus having their freedom compromised by returning to slavery. The Galatians were in danger of doing just that if they continued to follow after the message of the Judaizers (cf. Martyn, 446–47).
5:1 / The means by which the Gentile Galatians have become children of the free woman is through Christ. This is another way of saying what Paul said earlier—that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (3:13). Paul declares that the purpose of Christ’s work was for freedom. The concept of freedom, which is a basic theme of Galatians, is connected throughout Paul’s letters primarily with freedom from: freedom from the law (Rom. 7:3–4), from sin (Rom. 6:18–22), or from death (Rom. 8:2). Freedom is also equated with the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17) and is used as a way to describe the Christian life (Gal. 2:4). In an expansive command, Paul directs his readers to stand firm against the influence of the rival evangelists. Underscoring the point he has made repeatedly, Paul charges his converts not to put themselves in a position of submitting to a yoke of slavery. To such a fate, Paul warns, his readers’ attraction to the alternative gospel leads.
Throughout the letter Paul has described the adding of law to faith and the Galatians’ former life (4:8–9) as enslavement, which is why he can warn that the Galatians’ attraction to the rival evangelists’ message will mean that they are slaves once again.
1. For freedom Christ has set us free. There is every reason to agree with modern versions when they print Gal. 5:1 as a little paragraph all by itself, the first paragraph of a new chapter. That something new begins here is clearly evident from the contrast between the argumentative style of the earlier chapters, including the immediately preceding context, and the hortatory language that begins here in 5:1. Having been taught that in Christ we are free, we (here specifically the Galatians) are now encouraged to maintain that freedom (verse 1) and to interpret and apply it properly (verse 13 ff.). But this very statement also indicates the close connection between chapters 4 and 5. The truth stated and vigorously defended in the preceding chapters is applied to life in chapters 5 and 6.
That the idea of freedom is very much in the foreground is clear not only from verse 1 but also from verse 13 ff. The question arises: Just what does Paul mean when he speaks of freedom? It implies first of all deliverance. This deliverance is sometimes conceived of as rescue from the guilt and power of sin (Rom. 6:18); hence, from an accusing conscience (Heb. 10:22), from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:1; cf. Heb. 10:27), and the tyranny of Satan (2 Tim. 2:26; cf. Heb. 2:14). Nevertheless, although all of this is probably implied in Paul’s use of the term here in Gal. 5:1, 13, the context indicates that he is thinking particularly of freedom from “the law,” that is, deliverance from the curse which the law pronounces upon the sinner who had been striving—unsuccessfully, of course—to achieve his own righteousness (Gal. 3:13, 22–26; 4:1–7), but has now, by grace, turned to Christ and salvation in him. Cf. Phil. 3:4–9. For God’s chosen one this freedom includes rescue from the results of the law’s inability to make alive what is dead (Gal. 3:21). Implied is also freedom from fear, the fear that arises from a. the erroneous idea that both the moral and the ceremonial law must be strictly obeyed if one is to be saved, and b. the oppressing awareness of inability to meet this demand (Gal. 3:23; 4:21–31; Rom. 7:24–8:2).
Deliverance is, however, a negative concept, though the positive is clearly implied. Freedom is more than deliverance. It is a positive endowment. What the law could not do God has accomplished through Christ and the Spirit (Rom. 8:3, 4). Positively, then, freedom, as Paul sees it, is the state in which a person is walking and living in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25), so that he produces the fruit of the Spirit (5:22, 23), and with joy and gratitude does the will of God (5:14; Rom. 8:4), in principle fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), even “the law of liberty” (James 1:25). This liberty amounts to delighting in the law of God in one’s inmost self (Rom. 7:22). The person who is truly free no longer acts from constraint but serves his God willingly, with cheerfulness of heart. Freedom of access to the Father is implied, of course, for the blessing of which Paul speaks is enjoyed by sons (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15).
Such true freedom is therefore always a freedom plus. It is with freedom as with justification. See p. 98. When an accused man is declared not guilty, he is free. Likewise when a slave has been emancipated, he is free. But the judge or the emancipator does not, as a rule, adopt the acquitted individual as his son. But when the Son makes one free, he is free indeed (John 8:36). He then rejoices in the glorious liberty of sonship, with all that this implies as to “access,” right to the inheritance, etc.
Paul emphasizes that it was Christ himself—not our own merits or our own deeds—that set us free. He did it by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13); hence, by his blood (Heb. 10:19, 22); and he did it and is constantly doing it through his Spirit (Gal. 3:2, 3, 14; 4:6, 29; cf. Rom. 8:4). Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Cor. 3:17).
The thoroughly human Paul expresses himself in a manner which could almost be described as containing a bit of humor when he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” as if to say, “Is it not ridiculous to imagine that Christ would have opened for us the gate of our prison—at such a cost!—merely to transfer us to another prison? Surely, he set us free in order that we might indeed be and remain free!” Continued: continue to stand firm, therefore (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15). Perseverance in the fight against re-enslavement is here prescribed. The Galatians had been running beautifully (5:7), but they had failed to carry on. They had, in fact, reversed their course. What Paul is saying, then, is that over against the opponents they should stand firm and should so continue. This standing firm is not that of a well-nigh unassailable fenced-in statue, but rather that of a tree firmly rooted in the midst of the raging storm. Even better, it is that of the soldier on the field of battle, not fleeing but offering stout resistance to the enemy and defeating him (Eph. 6:10–20). The very fact that it was no one less than Christ himself who had set the Galatians free, so that by standing firm, they are voluntarily continuing in the sphere of his activity, should encourage them; hence, “Continue to stand firm, therefore.” The crown of valor is victory (Matt. 10:22; Rev. 2:10).
Paul adds: and do not be loaded down again with a yoke of slavery. Peter had spoken about an unbearable yoke (Acts 15:10). He was referring to the yoke of the law, including its many regulations, augmented subsequently by man-made “traditions.” Under that yoke Israel had groaned. The Galatians, mostly of pagan origin (4:8), had been similarly subjected to rules and regulations pertaining to their former pagan religion. Ramsay speaks of “a highly elaborate system” of such burdensome stipulations, prevalent in Galatia. Hence, what the apostle is saying is that those who were delivered from this unbearable yoke of paganism should certainly not try to shoulder another similar yoke, that of Judaism. See also on 4:9. Having escaped from one ritualism are they now going to bow before another? Rather, let them flee for refuge to him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light (Matt. 11:29, 30).
5:1 The last verse of chapter 4 describes the believer’s position—he is free. This first verse of chapter 5 refers to his practice—he should live as a free man. Here we have a very good illustration of the difference between law and grace. The law would say: “If you earn your freedom, you will become free.” But grace says: “You have been made free at the tremendous cost of the death of Christ. In gratitude to Him, you should stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made you free.” Law commands but does not enable. Grace provides what law demands, then enables man to live a life consistent with his position by the power of the Holy Spirit and rewards him for doing it.
As C. H. Mackintosh says, “The law demands strength from one who has none, and curses him if he cannot display it. The gospel gives strength to one who has none, and blesses him in the exhibition of it.”
“Run, John, and live,” the law commands,
But gives me neither legs nor hands;
Far better news the Gospel brings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings.
4:31–5:1 So then represents the conclusion of the previous section, while therefore signals that Paul is going to apply this spiritual truth to the lives of the Galatian believers. To be children of the bondwoman is to be enslaved to the covenant from Mount Sinai (4:24, 25), the Law of Moses. To be of the free is to follow Abraham’s example of faith (3:6–9), to be “born according to the Spirit” (3:2; 4:29), and to be destined for the “Jerusalem above” (4:26). Understanding such realities, the believer in Christ must continually stand fast in the liberty of not having to keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. The Galatians were on the verge of becoming enslaved to the law again.
5:1 — Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
In some ways, it’s a lot easier to live by a set of rules. “Do this, don’t do that; sit here, don’t sit there.” But while living by rules may seem easier, in fact it’s not living at all: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).
 Rapa, R. K. (2008). Galatians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 620–621). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1890). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Stanley, C. F. (2005). The Charles F. Stanley life principles Bible: New King James Version (Ga 5:1). Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles.