In verse 4, Paul characterizes the two sides of this argument in an illuminating way. The “false brothers” who had infiltrated the Gentile churches wanted, he says, “to make us slaves”, preventing them from enjoying “the freedom we have in Christ Jesus”. Paul is saying that the biblical gospel gives freedom, while his opponents’ “earn-your-salvation” message would lead people only into slavery.
This is a theme he’ll return to throughout his letter (especially in 4:21-31). So how does the gospel give freedom?
First, the gospel leads to cultural freedom. Moralistic religion tends to press its members to adopt very specific rules and regulations for dress and daily behavior. Why? If your salvation depends upon obeying the rules, then you want your rules to be very specific, do-able and clear. You don’t want: Love your neighbor as yourself, because that’s an impossibly high standard which has endless implications! You want: Don’t go to movies or Don’t drink alcohol or Don’t eat this type of food.
But rules and regulations like this get into the area of daily cultural life. If the false teachers had had their way, an Italian or African could not become a Christian without becoming culturally Jewish. Christians would have to form little cultural ghettoes in every city. It would mean far too much emphasis on external cultural separation rather than on internal distinctiveness of spirit, motive, outlook and perspective. Elevating cultural propriety to the level of spiritual virtue leads Christians to a slavish emphasis on being culturally “nice” and “proper”, as well as promoting intolerant and prejudiced attitudes.
Second, the gospel leads to emotional freedom. Anyone who believes that our relationship with God is based on keeping up moral behavior is on an endless treadmill of guilt and insecurity. As we know from Paul’s letters, he did not free Gentile believers from the moral imperatives of the Ten Commandments. Christians could not lie, steal, commit adultery and so on. But though not free from the moral law as a way to live, Christians are free from the it as a system of salvation. We obey not in the fear and insecurity of hoping to earn our salvation, but in the freedom and security of knowing we are already saved in Christ. We obey in the freedom of gratitude.
So both the false teachers and Paul told Christians to obey the Ten Commandments, but for totally different reasons and motives. And unless your motive for obeying God’s law is the grace-gratitude motive of the gospel, you are in slavery. The gospel provides freedom, culturally and emotionally. The “other gospel” destroys both.