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The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? Chapter 5 – “Firm in Freedom”

The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel?

Chapter 5 – “Firm in Freedom”

Paul is elaborating on his concern for the Galatians. The essence of the gospel is freedom.  Any attempt to bring in the Law, or any part of the Law, is a denial of the gospel itself.  The idea that the Law will keep people from sinning is simply not true (II Kings 21:15; Rom. 7:7-25).  The Christian life is a matter of “faith working through love” (Galatians 5: 6).  The love that comes from Christ and is a gift of the Holy Spirit cannot be used to justify self-indulgence.

  1. “Called to Freedom” – Galatians 5:1-15

Paul cannot be more emphatic.  If the Law of Moses or any part of it is presented as being essential for salvation, then “Christ will be of no benefit.”  It would appear that the position of the Pharisee Christians might have modified a bit since the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).  There the emphasis seems to have been on a requirement for Gentile, as well as Jewish, Christians to keep the whole Law (Acts 15:5).  It appears that what the Galatians had been told was that they didn’t necessarily have to keep the whole Law.  They did, however, have to observe the requirement of circumcision.  This was the defining mark of the people of God going all the way back to Abraham as we have seen.  The Pharisees could insist that his was an everlasting sign (Gen. 17:13).  This however was an example of their completely literal approach to the Law.  Paul would insist that Christ is our circumcision. Even the Law itself spoke of circumcision being a matter of the heart. The Law was not now (nor had it ever been) the sole authority for the people of God.  God, for example, spoke through the prophets (Jer. 1:4).

For Paul there is no middle ground.  Salvation is all of grace through faith in Christ or it is nothing.  Paul would not object to circumcision as a choice.  However, it could never be made a command.  Paul is clear that the “only thing that counts is faith working through love”.  Love will do no harm to the neighbor (Rom. 13:10).  For Paul the Law is both fulfilled in Christ and set aside by him (Col. 2:13-14).  This is the double meaning of Paul’s statement that Christ is the end (goal) of the Law (Rom. 10:4).  For Paul if we are under the Law the offense of the cross has been removed.  What is striking about Christ’s death is that the Law has been both fulfilled and set aside.  According to Paul, to insist on any part of the Law as a requirement means nothing less than cutting yourself off from Christ.  Paul goes so far to say that those emphasizing circumcision should castrate themselves!  This is the equivalent of an expression we would never use in church.

This teaching has been difficult for Christians throughout history (John 6:60).  The Pharisee position has been replicated by Christians picking up a particular aspect or even inference of the Law and making it the identifying mark of what it means to be a Christian.  This list includes pacifism, slavery (for or against), alcohol, women in ministry, spiritual gifts, divorce, abortion, homosexuality and sex in general.  All of these are valid concerns.  However, when any of them become divorced from the freedom we have in Christ they become a punishing and inflexible law.  Faith active in love drops out.

When we return to the law we inevitably become judgmental.  We fall into the trap of what Paul calls biting and devouring each other.  This violates our call to freedom.  It negates the love we need to have for each other.

  1. The Flesh and the Spirit Galatians 5:16-26

Paul knows that his critics will insist that his strong emphasis on freedom will lead to indulgence and even immorality (this indeed had happened in the church in Corinth).   Paul is certainly aware of this danger.  He knows that there is a constant warfare going on in all of us between our “flesh” (our sinful nature) and the Holy Spirit which is in us by virtue of our faith in Christ.  He admits that the desires of the flesh are still with us as long as we are in this earthly form.  Paul’s major point is that any attempt to bring in the Law will not aid us in this conflict.  In fact, the Law only makes our sinful nature worse (Rom. 7).

Paul, however, believes that we can and indeed must depend on the power of God’s Spirit within us.  The Spirit gives us the strength to resist the demands of the flesh.  Paul adds that for the Christian we do not need the Law to tell us what sin is.  He says the works of the flesh are obvious.  Simply put, they are expressions of total self-indulgence. His list, which he admits is not exhaustive, includes sexual indulgence, pursuing false gods (these often went together in the ancient world), conflicts based on pride or jealousy, drunkenness, carousing “and things like these”.  He gives the solemn warning that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Such behavior, certainly as a style of life, is completely alien to the life we have in Christ.

Paul will emphasize that we are free from the power of sin.  We are in a struggle and we should not be discouraged when we fall.  However, in Christ our desire should be to demonstrate his love. What strengthens us is the “fruit of the Spirit.”  This is sometimes incorrectly referred to as “fruits.”  It is not plural.  This is all one fruit.  It has these characteristics: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control.  These traits not only offset the works of the flesh.  They expose the false Christianity of Paul’s opponents who end up in condemnation, guilt and self-righteousness

Paul reminds us that Christ in his death freed us from the power of “the flesh with its passions and desires.”  We will struggle with the desires of our sinful nature.  However, we don’t have to give in to those desires.  Paul’s final word is a warning about being conceited.  The minute we make progress in the Christian life, the instant we turn away from a temptation, we experience an element of spiritual pride.  This leads us to an attitude where we compare ourselves to others, either favorably or unfavorably.  We can envy other Christians whom we can think are doing better than we are or, at least, seem to be receiving greater recognition.  We need always to be guided by the Spirit to keep us from falling into these kinds of traps.

Paul next will address the issue of what do we do when we fail in our life as Christians.

Questions for Discussion –

  1. What are some of the ways that we are tempted to give up our freedom in Christ?
  1. How do we know when we exercising freedom or only being self-indulgent?
  1. Are you experiencing the fruit of the Spirit in your life? Why or why not?

Next Study – Chapter 6 – “Bear One Another’s Burdens