Verse 13 marks the beginning of the intensely ethical section for Galatians. For about four and a half chapters Paul insists in the strongest possible terms on the principle of faith alone. Justification is for the ungodly; no man, however virtuous, can merit salvation; human works, obedience to the aw, are of no avail. But from 5:13 onwards he warns his readers against the abuse of freedom. They must not suppose that they have the right to do anything they might choose.
Here we come to the practical Paul. His mind may fly to the heights of theological discussion, but it is always for a practical purpose. Theology for him was not an end in itself; it was always a means to an end. “To Paul,” a theology was not of the slightest use unless it could be lived out in the world. This is also true in the book of Romans, where in the first 11 chapters he present a masterly and complex argument on sin and salvation for both Jew and Gentile. But in chapters 12 through 15 he brings his teachings down to earth as he presents how transformed church members can live the life of love.
Paul does the same thing in Galatians. In the first four and half chapters he argues complex theory, but in the last chapter and a half he presents its implication for everyday living in the church. Here is where many modern church members part company with the apostle. They are good at talking theology but poor at expressing God’s love in their community. That, of course if nothing new. According to Gelatins 5:15, the church members in Galatia suffered from the same spiritual disease.
The apostle sets forth the great resounding truth of Galatians in chapter 5 verse 13, in which he tells us that Christians “were called to freedom.” Please note once again that it is not we humans who initiate our personal salvation. Rather, it is God who first begins it. All we can do is respond positively or negatively to His call.
It is freedom to which we are summoned. But one might not guess that by looking at some church members. All too many appear despondent and depressed. I find such types to be the strongest argument against Christianity. The tragedy is that they apparently don’t know what they have been called from and what they have been called to. Some have merely left the bondage of sin for that of legalism. They act as if God is watching them with an intense desire to nail them if they step out of line in the slightest. Such church members are anything but free.
But those who have been justified by God’s grace accepted through faith are free indeed. However, we need to ask, what has the lord liberated them from? Several things, including a conscience burdened by guilt, the condemnation of the curse of the broken law (Galatians 3:10), and the need to get right with God through endless rounds of law-oriented behavior. Such freedoms are good reasons for Christians to rejoice. They have been justified in Christ and accepted as children of the promise.
But they can lose that freedom in at least two ways: legalism and license. Paul covered the first of those possibilities in Galatians 5:2-12. He treats the second in verses 13_24.
The man who sets out to express his freedom by following nothing but his own pleasure will find himself bound to himself, the slave of his own lusts and passions. Jesus spoke of such people when He told the Jews, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), and Paul in his letter to Titus describe “those who were slaves to various passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3). Modern social scientist refers to such people as addicts.
Thus, freedom of which Paul speaks is not absolute. While it is freedom from some things, it is not a license to do whatever we please. Someone has said that it is a freedom from sin, not a freedom to sin.
That is where some people get confused with Paul’s theology. Here lurks the danger facing those who don’t listen to him carefully. They hear the part about the freedom and conclude that they can follow their bodily or other inclinations wherever they may lead. After all, they assume, they don’t have to keep the law to get right with God, and grace ensures forgiveness. Paul encountered that challenge in Romans 6:1. His answer was the Christians cannot live a life of sin because they have died to sin and been born to walk in god’s ways (verse 2-11). In Romans 12 he refers to the same experience as a transformation and a renewal of the Christian’s mind (verse 1, 2). The plain fact is that save Christians don’t want to sin, and they repent when they do. They are free from the rule of their flesh but under the direction of the Holy spirit. Thus, they should not view their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh (Galatians 5:13).
Rather – and here is the paradox of Christian freedom – they are “through love” to “serve one another” (verse 13 NASB). Christians are those whom God has rescued from slavery to the flesh but who have become slaves in love to their neighbors.
And they are not free from the law. Rather, they have a new relationship to it. They no longer see the law as a ladder to get to heaven but as an opportunity to love God and other people. Paul makes that clear in verse 13 and 14. They no longer obey the law in an effort to get saved. Instead, they keep God’s law because they are saved.
But their observance if it is on the basis of love rather than legal obligation. Echoing Jesus (Matthew 22:37-40), who was following the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18), Paul summed up the entire law as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14).
Earlier we spoke of “faith working through love” (verse 6). Paul’s theology displays a definite conflict between legalistic law-keeping and faith, but not between faith and love. Rather, faith expresses itself in love.
The opposite of flesh is love; and love means serving one another. This becomes clearer as Paul goes on in Galatians 5:14, to quote the commandment of love for neighbor. Flesh, therefore, defined by its self-opposite, means self-centered existence, egocentric existence; not specifically a proclivity to carnal sins (as we call them), but a concern focused on oneself. Again we see from a different angle how faith and love cohere. Each has equally turned away from self; Faith looks away from the self and its achievements to God as the center of its trust; love looks away from the self and its wishes, even its real needs, to the neighbor, and spends its resources on his needs.
In this way, the paradox is not as confusing as it first appears. The slavery of faith is a painless one for converted Christians. Their faith, under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, naturally flows out in love to other.
Paul’s theology has as its foundation free grace accepted by faith, but it is not a lawless theology. For him every Christian always has two obligations. The first is their duty to love God, and the second is to love other people. Beyond that, the apostle directly ties those responsibilities to the Ten Commandments in Romans 13:8-10, in which he explicitly links love to one’ neighbor with the commandments on the second table of the Decalogue. As noted above, the way of faith means that a Christian is free from keeping the law as an avenue to salvation, but the way of faith also means that a Christian for the first time has the liberty and the power to live God’s law of love from the right motive.
One of the problems with the Galatians was they were not living the law of love through faith. To the contrary, they were being and devouring one another (Galatians 5:15) – words used tin classical Greek to suggest wild animals engaged in deadly struggle. One of the great problems of legalist is that they are essentially self-centered – focused on themselves and their achievements and on the other side, the faults of others. As a result they are in conflict with one another and show absolutely nothing of the love that is demanded by the law to which they want to commit themselves.
The end result of the law-obedience orientation rather than a faith-grace orientation down through church history has been bickering and destructive church members. So as in Galatia and so it is today.
If so-called Christians would put Paul’s admonitions about law in verses 13-16 into practice, the church would be a more delightful place. Every congregation has its “pious members” who act as if they can love God while being rude to other people. Beyond that, we continually encounter those who are extremely careful about how they keep the Ten Commandments and/or what they eat but who are meaner than the devil himself. All such need to study verses 13-15 carefully and come to grips with the unity of faith and love as they relate to law and salvation