Galatians 5:1 says “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit yourself again to a yoke of slavery.” A yoke is an instrument placed on an animal to keep it in line.
Many Jews in the time of Jesus and Paul saw the law as a yoke that produced righteousness in the obedient. Pharisees ritualistically observed the law. They invented hundreds of rules in addition to the law and ritualistically observed them as well. As a result, they saw themselves as sinless.
For many others, the law and the rules were great burdens. They could not obey them all; they could not live up to the standards. They were miserable, either living in fear of breaking a rule or giving up, believing themselves to be under judgment. Peter described it as a yoke on their neck that neither their fathers nor they had been able to bear. (Acts 15:10)
Martin Luther, under the yoke of the law, lived in misery. Scripture had convinced him of his sin and God’s holiness. He was terrified of judgment. He worked hard to be good enough. Luther said “If ever a monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it”.
However, he was never good enough. He said “I cannot and dare not come to God until I am a better man; I have not yet repented sufficiently”. He remained in misery. He hated the phrase in Romans 1:17, “the righteousness of God” because it led to God’s punishment of the unrighteous sinner.
Luther came to understand the righteousness that comes by faith and was saved. He found it to be a glorious relief, as if he had “entered paradise through open gates”.
It should not be surprising that Luther wrote a commentary on Galatians. He wrote that believers were free from the wrath of God, from the law, sin, death and the power of the devil. The terrors of conscience were assuaged by looking to Christ, who purchased our liberty with his blood.
Having this freedom, Paul exhorted the Galatians and us to stand firm and not submit again to the yoke of slavery. As Jesus said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. (John 8:36) There will always be those who seek to impose rules on you that Jesus does not impose. They will say they are for salvation, or to please God after salvation. That is legalism. Adding to the requirements of the Lord is an arrogant presumption and an insult to the Lord. Stand firm against it.
There will also be those times when the accuser accuses you, or when your conscience does. You will be reminded of past sins and failures, accompanied by the message “you are not good enough”. If you give in to this, you will be crippled in service, joyless in worship, and fearful of death.
Instead, say “you are right; I am not worthy. But I do not have to be. I believe in Jesus’ death on my behalf and have received his forgiveness and righteousness”. Turn misery to joy, for he has accomplished this for you.
Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.