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IV. Freedom to Love, and Walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5:1–6:10)


IV. Freedom to Love, and Walking by the Spirit (5:1–6:10)

5:1 Sometimes people miss the obvious, so Paul sums things up for the Galatians: For freedom, Christ set us free. Why did Christ set them free? So that they could be free! Spiritual freedom is deliverance from the power and bondage of sin so that we can serve the living God as well as his people. It is freedom from legalism and the control of the flesh so that we can experience the substitutionary, resurrected life of Christ. It’s living a “thank you” life and a “want to” life (relationship), rather than a “have to” life (law). But to submit to the law as the Judaizers were telling them to do—to live by a legalistic mentality of trying to be justified and/or sanctified by obedience to the law—was to submit to slavery or to seek to prove their justification by their works.

Freedom allows and enables the believer to obey, not to gain acceptance, but because of the acceptance we already know we have in Christ through grace. We are to seek to please God and gain approval for our obedience because of our acceptance—not to earn it. Grace is accessed by faith to both motivate and empower our service (see Eph 2:8-10; 1 Cor 15:10).

5:2-4 The Judaizers tried to compel the Galatians to be circumcised. But Paul explains that you can’t pick and choose which laws you want to obey. If they insisted on getting circumcised, they would be obligating themselves to do the entire law (5:2-3; see 3:10). To attempt to keep that would cut them off from experiencing the power of the substitutionary life of Christ in their lives (see 2:20; Rom 5:10). For believers to be alienated from Christ and to have fallen from grace is (5:4) not a reference to losing salvation. The phrase refers to ceasing to operate from a grace standard and adopting a works-based mentality rather than a relationship-driven one. Doing so leads to nothing but a life of slavery and spiritual defeat—a life lacking joy, love, true obedience, spiritual intimacy, and the power that only grace can provide.

5:5 As a result of the Judaizers’ deceptive teaching, the Galatians were being taught to obtain their own righteousness through the law, which is really the work of the flesh. But Paul has insisted that justification only comes by faith in Christ (2:16). Moreover, it was by faith that Paul and his fellow believers eagerly awaited the hope of righteousness—that time when righteousness will flow throughout the earth during the millennial reign of Christ. The life to which God calls us is by faith from beginning to end (see Rom 1:17).

5:6 The Judaizers had told the Galatians that they needed to be circumcised. But Paul counters: neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything. Such adherence to the Mosaic law has no value in the Christian life. The law had served a function, but its time was past (see 3:19-26). For those who are in Christ Jesus . . . what matters is faith working through love.

Love for God and for others is both the outgrowth of faith and God’s method for our sanctification. God’s love for us brought us to faith in Christ. Thus, love is to be the motivation that compels us to minister to fellow believers and meet their needs. God is not looking for obedience through law keeping; he’s looking for obedience motivated by love that naturally comes from faith.

5:7-9 The Galatians had been running well after Paul had preached the gospel to them, taught them, and ministered to them. But they had encountered opposition from those who were opposed to the truth (5:7). Paul was trying to help get them back on course so that they didn’t lose any of their reward. The negative influence on them had not come from God (the one who calls you) but from Satan working through the false teachers (5:8). A little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough (5:9) implies that small things can have a huge impact. The believers in the Galatian churches may have outnumbered the Judaizing teachers, but it only took a few people pushing false doctrine to produce destructive results among the flock. Legalistic teaching was permeating churches and turning people from faith to law.

5:10 In spite of how bad things looked, Paul was optimistic that ultimately they would not accept any other view but the right one. He believed the truth would prevail: the Galatians would adopt God’s view of justification and sanctification by grace, and the false teachers would pay the penalty—that is, they’d be judged.

5:11 Paul was being persecuted by Jews because he didn’t preach the need to keep the law, illustrated through circumcision. The fact of his persecution demonstrated that he was truly preaching the cross. The message of the cross—that we are justified by faith alone in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice alone—is an offense or stumbling block to those who proudly insist on pleasing God through their own efforts. It is also the cross that is the basis and foundation for believers to live the victorious Christian life, since it has broken the power of Satan, sin, and the world.

5:12 Paul’s intense anger at the Judaizers’ attempt to undermine the gospel causes him to use graphic language: I wish those who are disturbing you might also let themselves be mutilated. Since the Judaizers wanted the Galatians to be circumcised, Paul wishes that the troublemakers would just go ahead and emasculate themselves. It’s as if he’s saying, “You think circumcision is important, do you? Well, why not go all the way and complete the operation?” Paul wanted to see their heresy cut off so that they could no longer win followers to their false religion. As sure as emasculation would make a man unable to reproduce physically, Paul wanted the Judaizers to be unable to reproduce spiritually.

5:13 Though the Judaizers were trying to keep the Galatians in bondage, Paul tells his brothers and sisters in the faith that they were called to be free. Of course, “freedom” can be a slippery word. Many people think it means having the freedom to do whatever you want. But biblical freedom is liberty from illegitimate bondage so that you can enjoy the responsibilities of a new relationship with God and fulfill your divinely ordained purpose. Thus, the Galatians (and we) are not to use our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Fulfilling the desires of the flesh, after all, is what got us into our messes in the first place! To be a slave of sin is to be chained to your own selfish desires. Christ came to free us from this.

Spiritual freedom is not the absence of boundaries. Suppose a football player catches the ball and wants to play the game without restrictions. He proceeds to run out of bounds and into the stands to avoid being tackled. Eventually, he re-enters the stadium and crosses into the end zone from the opposite direction. He’s no longer playing football but creating chaos. Football can only be football, in fact, when played within the boundaries of sidelines.

What, then, does Christian freedom look like? Serve one another through love. Remember: biblical love is the decision to compassionately, righteously, and sacrificially seek the well-being of another. Just as Jesus loved us, we are to love one another. For by such love everyone will know that we are his disciples (see John 13:34-35). In this way, we make Christ look good. We also foster our vertical fellowship with God when we show love in our horizontal relationship with fellow believers: “the one who remains in love remains in God” (1 John 4:16). And let’s not forget that the supreme act of service was rendered by Jesus Christ (see Mark 10:45); this was also the supreme act of love (see John 3:16). Therefore, since the Son of God served us through love, why would his disciples expect to do anything less?

5:14-15 Paul tells these Christians who were being tempted to submit to the law that the whole law is fulfilled in what Jesus identified as the second great commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself (5:14; see Matt 22:35-40, quoting Lev 19:18). But if instead of neighbor love they chose self-love—if they chose to bite and devour one another—they were not to be surprised to find themselves consumed by one another (5:15).

When crabs are cooked, they’re placed in a pot of water. As the water temperature within the pot starts to rise, the crabs attempt to climb out, only to discover that their fellow crabs pull them back in as they likewise attempt to escape. When church members assume an “every-man-for-himself” mindset rather than a “serve-through-love” mindset, they will claw and grab one another until all are roasted in the pot.

5:16 What’s Paul’s counsel for living in freedom, serving one another in love, and loving your neighbor as yourself (5:13-15)? What’s the fundamental principle for spiritual victory, maximizing your spiritual life in Christ, and bringing the most benefit to other believers? Walk by the Spirit (i.e., pleasing God over pleasing self) and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh (i.e., pleasing self independently of God). The flesh and the Spirit are two different spheres. Just as you can’t turn fat into muscle in the human body, you cannot use the flesh to live spiritually.

When Scripture talks about our “walk,” it’s talking about the conduct of our lives. To “carry out the desire of the flesh” is to live life based on a sinful human viewpoint. To “walk by the Spirit” is to discover God’s view on a matter, decide to act on that divine perspective, and depend on the Holy Spirit to empower your obedience. Notice that walking by the Spirit doesn’t mean resting while the Spirit does all the work. We’re not to be passive but active. We are called to walk while trusting in the Spirit’s empowerment. It’s much like walking on a moving sidewalk at the airport. You are walking in dependence on a power at work underneath you.

It’s also important to note that Paul does not say we won’t have desires of the flesh. It’s just that walking by the Spirit keeps us from yielding to those desires. Notice that you don’t seek to address the sinful desires of the flesh first. You focus on walking by the Spirit first, and he overrides—not necessarily cancels—the desires of the flesh. To flip that order is either to lose the battle or to settle for flesh management rather than true spiritual transformation.

5:17-18 Paul observes that there’s a civil war happening in every Christian, a battle between the flesh and the Spirit. At times we may think that the flesh and the Spirit can work together in our lives, but Paul reminds us that this is impossible: they are opposed to each other (5:17). The two ways of living are based on different perspectives, have different goals, and will lead to different outcomes. The good news for the Galatians (and us) is that those led by the Spirit are not under the law (5:18).

The life of faith is the life of walking by the Spirit. Since in the Greek text there is no article before “law,” Paul is not only speaking of the law of Moses but the “law principle,” which is seeking to use our own strength (the flesh) to have victory or to motivate God to do something. While the law principle may temporarily work to manage the impulses of the flesh, it ultimately dooms us to failure and frustration because of the gravitational pull of sin. The difference between law and grace is the difference between utilizing a battery that you must keep recharging versus being continually plugged-in to an electrical outlet. Being led by the Spirit is like following the lead of a dance partner. You are moving, but you do so in response to what the Spirit is doing.

It is also important to recognize that the flesh urges us to do things contrary to what we wish. This wishing comes from the Spirit’s urging us to yield to him. Our prayer, when we are challenged by the flesh, must be, “Lord, I’m trusting you to enable me to do what you want me to do because I want to please you.” The Spirit automatically leads us when we are walking according to his urges, and we no longer have to depend on legalistic rule keeping in the flesh. Rather, we are empowered by our relationship with the Holy Spirit.

5:19-21 In these verses, Paul explains what the works of the flesh look like (5:19) so that he can contrast them with “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22-23). No one has to guess at what the works of the flesh might be. They’re obvious and observable (5:19). They don’t reside only in the mind but demonstrate themselves in human deeds. They include sexual sins (summarized by sexual immorality), superstitious sins (like sorcery), and social sins (like hatreds . . . jealousy . . . selfish ambitions) (5:19-21). Paul doesn’t provide an exhaustive list. Instead, after mentioning all of these sinful works, he adds, and anything similar (5:21). The point is that such sins are the natural result of living according to the flesh and are evidence we are not walking in the Spirit. Such is not freedom (see 5:1, 13), but slavery. Believers living in the flesh will face the consequences of a loss of their kingdom inheritance (“reward”), both in this life and at the judgment seat of Christ (Col 3:24).

5:22-23 In contrast to the works of the flesh is the fruit of the Spirit. Works are something that you do, motivated by your flesh. But fruit is something produced through you by the Spirit as you respond to his urging (see John 7:38-39). The sources are different, and their outcomes are different. But just as the works of the flesh are visible to all, so also is the fruit of the Spirit. You can’t miss it. And make no mistake: fruit always bears the character of the tree that produces it. Apple trees don’t produce oranges. You don’t display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23) in your life without the Holy Spirit.

While the works of the flesh destroy, the fruit of the Spirit provides life and refreshment. It benefits others. To love is to seek another person’s good—especially when that person can do nothing for you in return. Joy is the settled celebration of the soul within us, even when circumstances don’t make us happy. Peace results when strife gives way to harmony. To exercise patience is to be longsuffering instead of short-tempered. We demonstrate kindness when we help rather than hurt. Goodness summarizes the virtuous acts and attitudes that advance the kingdom of God and benefit others. The fruit of faithfulness brings constancy, perseverance, and dependability. Gentleness is seen in the one who practices tenderness in submission to God. When we say “no” to sin and “yes” to God in the midst of temptation, we exhibit self-control. The fruit of the Spirit is primarily manifested in our relationships.

5:24-25 The Spirit bears fruit in your life when you keep in step with him (5:25). The verb for “keep in step” is different from the word for “walk” in 5:16. It means to march in step with your commander so that he can lead you, step-by-step. Therefore, the Holy Spirit must be included in every move we make if we truly want him to lead us. Live based on the divine perspective of God’s Word and pray for the Spirit’s empowerment. The result will be victory over the flesh, the production of spiritual fruit (5:22-23), and service through love (5:13).

5:26 But let us not become conceited. Remember: as you submit to the Spirit, he bears fruit through you. You can’t take credit for it. To become arrogant regarding spiritual fruit in your life is to forget its source, and it will serve as a quick way to end the Spirit’s fruit production in you. The same is true of envying the fruit bearing of another. To “love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14) is to celebrate the goodness in the lives of our spiritual brothers and sisters, just as we would desire them to do for us. Thus, the fruit of the Spirit is to be visibly lived out in the context of the community of the local church.

6:1 In chapter 6, Paul continues his exhortation to the Galatians that they should love their neighbor (see 5:14). Their submission to the law as a result of the Judaizers’ false teachings had promoted selfishness and strife (5:15, 26). Instead, they were to walk by the Spirit (5:16) so that they might bear the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23). They were to cultivate their relationship with God by cultivating their relationship to one another.

Lone Ranger Christians who are disconnected from the body of Christ are not walking in the Spirit. The New Testament frequently urges Christians to practice the “one anothers”; for example, we are to “love one another” (John 15:12), “serve one another” (Gal 5:13), “forgive one another” (Eph 4:32), and “encourage one another” (1 Thess 5:11). Such concern for each other promotes harmony in the church and ensures God’s work on our behalf.

Paul calls on Christian brothers and sisters to watch for a fellow believer who is overtaken in any wrongdoing—that is, caught in a sin from which he can’t free himself. Paul urges those who are spiritual to restore such a person. The word translated “restore” is used of setting a bone to its former usefulness. Since you is plural, it refers to more than one person being part of the restoration process.

If you are trapped in something that doesn’t please God, you need help from someone who can work on God’s behalf. This is one of the reasons, in fact, why believers are to be united with a local church. If you need help, a faithful church is where you can find those “who are spiritual.” Think about it. When you’re sick, you don’t want a quack doctor prescribing bad medicine. Likewise, if you are “overtaken in any wrongdoing,” you need someone who can provide God’s assessment of the problem according to his Word and counsel you with God’s solution.

When you help a fellow Christian in trouble due to a sin from which they can’t free themselves, you must do so with a gentle spirit. Gentleness doesn’t mean soft-pedaling the diagnosis or the prescription. We’re not to compromise the truth. Instead, we are to treat the person as we’d want to be treated—with patience, care, and kindness, restoring him or her with the least amount of pain possible. But be careful. Watch out that you aren’t tempted as well. The tempter who wreaked havoc in your brother’s life has his eye on you too.

6:2 To restore a sinning brother or sister is an example of carrying one another’s burdens. But burdens don’t necessarily imply sin. The burdens of life can include all sorts of weighty problems: physical, relational, financial, and emotional. Believers are to serve one another like spotters serving those who are lifting weights. When the strain of a burden becomes more than an individual can bear, a spotter helps lift the weight off of his chest. Carrying the burden of another can take an unlimited number of forms, including prayer, making time for a person, providing practical assistance, giving financial assistance, and providing a listening ear. Such burden bearing will fulfill the law of Christ, the law of love (5:13-14; see John 13:34).

6:3-4 Any Christian who considers himself above the responsibility to serve others in this way is thinking too highly of himself. He considers himself to be something when he is nothing (6:3). He’s self-deceived. No one is too good to serve and carry burdens. After all, the Lord Jesus served his disciples by washing their feet (see John 13:2-15). If the Master didn’t consider himself above service, how can we? He gave us an example of how we ought to treat one another, so let us not compare ourselves with someone else (6:4). The only one to whom you should compare yourself is Jesus. Do that, and you’ll never think more of yourself than you ought.

6:5 Though we are called to “carry one another’s burdens” (6:2), Paul reminds believers that each person will have to carry his own load. Everyone needs help with his burdens from time to time, but this gives no one the right to absolve himself of responsibilities and shift them completely to others. Feeding those who are in need is commanded and expected. But, as Paul told the Thessalonians, “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Helping with burdens doesn’t mean carrying someone’s full load for them so that they are alleviated of all responsibility. Each must be willing to carry his own backpack.

6:6 Let the one who is taught the word share all his good things with the teacher. Paul places a high value on spiritual ministry because he knows that internalizing the Word of God is what makes a person “spiritual.” Such a person is then able to “restore” someone “overtaken in any wrongdoing” (6:1). It’s right and good to invest materially in that which brings you spiritual life and growth. Reciprocity in ministry keeps believers from becoming selfish and self-centered.

6:7 God has established certain laws that govern the universe he has made. This is true in the physical world (e.g., the law of gravity). But it’s true of the spiritual world as well. Paul articulates an important spiritual law or principle when he says, Whatever a person sows he will also reap. A farmer harvests exactly what he plants. If he sows potatoes, he won’t be looking to harvest green beans. Decide what you want to harvest spiritually, and let that control what you decide to sow.

This law is universal (it applies to all people everywhere) and inviolable (it proves true without fail). Therefore, Paul warns, Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. We mustn’t dupe ourselves into thinking that we can embrace sin without effect. Don’t kid yourself into believing that you can rebel against God without consequence.

6:8-9 There are only two places where you can sow or invest spiritually: the flesh and the Spirit. The one who sows to his flesh (i.e., pleasing self over pleasing God) will reap destruction from the flesh. To sow to the flesh is to perform “the works of the flesh” that Paul has identified (5:19-21). Sooner or later, it will bring a harvest of destruction. But the one who sows to the Spirit (i.e., pleasing God over pleasing self)—walking by the Spirit (5:16) and bearing the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23)—will reap eternal life from the Spirit, which is a reference to a higher quality of spiritual fulfillment and victory. The one who sows to the Spirit is living to please God. We must not grow weary of doing good. So be patient. At the proper time, the harvest will come. Keep sowing. Remember that there’s an appropriate seasonal time gap for the purpose of development between sowing and reaping.

6:10 Therefore, Paul tells the Galatians, let’s do good while we have opportunity. While we wait for our time of reaping, we are to sow in the Spirit by busily doing good works that benefit others in God’s name. As he told the Ephesians, pay attention to how you live, “making the most of the time” (Eph 5:15-16). Don’t throw in the towel. Reward is coming! So do good to everyone, but especially . . . to the household of faith. We are called to show love to all people, but we are to have a special love for the people of God.