A Bible Lesson on Galatians 5

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Paul has defended his apostleship and has defended the Gospel itself, insisting that we are justified through faith and faith alone, not through human works. He’s been unyielding that it is by grace and not by rule-keeping that we are brought into right relationship with God. In the last two chapters he must now make the point that the liberty into which believers are called is not license. Rather, it is a mature state, in which guided and empowered by the Spirit of God, the believer lives in holiness and love. It is service to God and to others.

Galatians 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Christian people are free from the condemnation that comes from our failure to behave perfectly. We are free from the misery of being unable to by rote follow a set of rules in the futile hope of gaining God’s favor and forgiveness. Christ has perfectly fulfilled the whole will of God and taken our just punishment for coming short of God’s glory. Through gratefully and humbly accepting His offer of unmerited forgiveness, we’ve been set right with God. Christ’s purpose in doing this is that we now live in that great freedom from despair and condemnation.

So, stand firm. Don’t knuckle under. Galatians, don’t let yourselves slip back into a mindset that rule-keeping is what saves you or keeps you saved. If you do that, you’re right back where you started. Christ plus anything is not the Gospel. Christ plus anything is heresy that not only won’t save you, but will damn your souls. That’s the glorious and wonderful truth of the Gospel. It is our reliance on, faith in, clinging to, trusting in God, His great mercy and provision in Christ that makes us right with Him. That and nothing else.

The Jew of Paul’s day spoke of “taking on the yoke of the law.” Paul says “Don’t knuckle under again to a ‘yoke’ of bondage.” Don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.

2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.

Circumcision was initiation into Judaism and taking on the yoke of the law. If you accept that your salvation turns on keeping the law, the sacrifice of Christ is of no avail. Biblical religion never has any place for mixing and matching. You can’t have both justification by faith and justification by being good enough. They are mutually exclusive.

3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.

Believe that you must join up with Judaism in order to be right with God, and you believe that you must keep the whole of the law. When one becomes a naturalized citizen, he or she doesn’t then get to choose which of US laws will govern him or her. They come with the naturalization. Paul declares that it’s a legal matter that if you want to add circumcision, you in fact replace Christian faith with the keeping of the entire law.

4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

This is genuinely serious business. There is no mixing of grace with works. Want to claim that your meritorious behavior helps save you, or that it keeps you saved? If so, you’re canceling grace, and Paul has already argued that you are then in a world of hurt. There’s no adequately keeping the law in order to make one righteous. We don’t have it in us. Go that route and you are “severed.”

5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.

Paul contrasts attempting to keep the law as a means of establishing righteousness to a life lived through the Spirit by faith. The freedom he’s talking about is a life indwelt by God’s Spirit, trusting in, relying on, cleaving to Christ. A life spent not desperately trying to WORK and build a case for acceptance on our own merits, but WAITING eagerly. Biblical hope is that which is certain, but not yet fully realized.

6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Paul’s hope is in Christ. It’s not in the fact that he has been circumcised. Neither could it be in lack of circumcision if he weren’t. Paul is evenhanded. Keeping the rules, one way or the other is not the basis of any hope. Rather it is “faith working through love.” That’s a beautiful phrase. If my reliance is upon the completed work of Christ, who stood the just penalty for my sin because of His great love for me, how could the genuine article be anything other than a faith that loves? This faith loves God and genuinely loves people.

7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?

Paul has been talking about the Galatians and himself. Now he turns again to the Judaizers. The Galatians are foolish, but there is an agent or agents who have been instrumental in derailing them. The Galatians started well, by faith but someone has brought in this heresy, and caused them to turn aside from the Gospel to that which is not the Gospel.

8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you.

This is a politely worded statement. Paul could have said “this stuff is from the pit of hell” and he would have been right. He’s already said that these folks are in danger of being severed from Christ. Clearly, this is not the work of the God who originally called them out of darkness.

9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

Paul has no choice but to write forcefully. This heresy is not from God, and it is infectious. It spreads. It needs to be quarantined and eradicated. Bad doctrine is not a light matter.

10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.

Nevertheless, Paul expresses the confidence that God will work in these Galatians and pull them back from this error. There is apparently a kind of play on words running through verses 7-10 that is hard to capture in a literal English translation. It might be paraphrased roughly something like “Who hindered you from being persuaded as to the truth? The kind of persuasion they used is not from Christ. But I am still persuaded of better things of you.” The passage is more cohesive if we could hear that repeated use of the notion of “persuasion.” The situation is bad, but God is not powerless. He’s sovereign and Paul is confident that He’ll work in the Galatians.

11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.

It’s not completely clear what the first part of this verse is about. It may be that in keeping to the narrow path, Paul is getting criticism in Galatia from “both sides.” Maybe some have criticized his circumcision of Timothy (that was done not so that Timothy could be qualified for salvation, but so that there would be no natural social barrier when Paul brought Timothy into Jewish circles). In any case, clearly Paul isn’t preaching (and never would preach) the addition of anything to the Gospel. If he did, he’d be popular, not suffering as he is.

The offense of the cross (has been removed). This is the “skandalon,” the stumbling block, the scandal. Why is the cross a scandal/stumbling block? It is because we fallen humans can’t honestly look at it and not know that outside of the mercy of Christ, we’re undone, and we hate that. We want to think that somehow, we have some merit of our own to add. The cross cuts through that baloney and shows us our lost condition.

12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

There were apparently pagan priests in or near Galatia that actually did this to themselves, in a vain attempt to work themselves into an OK position with some false deity. This sounds indelicate to our ears, but Paul’s argument is sound. If you’re going to add circumcision or Jewish law-keeping to the Gospel, you might as well add all other pagan practices. You’ve destroyed the Gospel.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

It is a reflection of our fallenness that we seemingly inevitably want equate freedom with license to follow whatever whim enters our pointed heads. We are free from guilt, we are free from condemnation, we are free from the necessity of following our sinful nature and inclinations. And still, what the old man wants to hear in the word “freedom” is the right to do as he pleases. Paul, as he said in Romans, says here “NO, freedom doesn’t mean license!!! That’s crazy!!! God doesn’t pardon us so we can go on doing our own thing! What He does require is that we love and serve Him and love and serve one another.”

The word the ESV translates “opportunity” could be rendered “beachhead” or “staging area.” Don’t use freedom as a place from which the old nature could launch an invasion.

We are freed from slavery to our selfish nature to serve one another. The “love” here is the New Testament “agape” love, the love that is a matter of the will. This is the love that will doggedly and determinedly do the best for another, whether or not it is appreciated. It is the kind of love that sent Christ to the cross for rebellious humanity.

14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our freedom in Christ saves us from living under the constant worry about whether we’re making it, whether we’re keeping enough rules to please God. It is freedom not to indulge our sinful desires but to control them. It frees us to love God and love people. And in the end, as we do that, as we love God and love people, we find that far from discarding or contradicting the law as a guide for what is good and right, we will have fulfilled its real essence. The law is fulfilled in both the sense that we keep it and in the sense that its heart is that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

NOTICE that this is NOT saying (as modern relativists want to imply) that love allows the breaking of the moral law. It says that love will lead to fulfilling of the moral law. Christian liberty expresses itself in self-control, loving service of our neighbors, and a comfortable/natural obedience to the law of God.

15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

On the other hand, here’s something that is contrary to love. Paul says that if we habitually participate in it, it will be our undoing. This is biting and devouring, making cutting remarks, nurturing petty differences that have no real basis, keeping hard feelings alive. We don’t know the circumstances in Galatia that prompted Paul to give this warning, but this is poison for the soul.

The “bite” is a word usually used of snakes and animals. Paul says “Watch out that you are not consumed, eaten up till nothing remains.”

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

This is the Galatians short version of Romans 6-8. Paul is saying that there are two principles at work in Christian people. There is the old nature, the flesh, the sinful nature, the selfish nature, whatever you want to call those inclinations we inherit from our earthly parents and that stand opposed to and outside the rule and reign of God. There is also the new nature, the new man, God’s rule in us instituted and sustained through the work and constant presence of God’s Holy Spirit. And those two are at war in us … outside of the work of God, there is only the first of these.

Paul says “choose to walk by the promptings of the Holy Spirit and you will not be driven by your old, fallen, corrupt and selfish nature.” Paul is talking (as he does in Romans 8:5-8:8) about 2 mutually exclusive realms, governing powers, or authorities here. We live, either apart from God, in rebellion and attempting to make our own way, or we live under His gracious rule and reign. We are at any time living in one realm or the other. We are either living under God’s rule and reign, or we are going our own rebellious way. These realms are in conflict, and the fact is that on occasion we choose wrongly and find ourselves doing what we really hate. At those points we’ve pulled ourselves out from under the rule of God.

The last sentence of verse 17 is the Galatians version of last part of Romans 7.

18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Paul says, “Look Galatians, living a life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is a much different matter than trying to keep a set of rules. A life led by God’s Spirit is not one where you are attempting to approve yourself to God or maintain your salvation by your own righteous rule-keeping.”

Paul now proceed to get very concrete. What he’s talking about is not some mystical, intangible kind of thing that has no consequences that can be seen. The fruit of living according to our sinful natures, outside of the rule and reign of God can be seen and identified. So also can the fruit of living according to the leading of God’s Spirit. Paul makes these plain for us. First the former.

19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,

Our rebellious human natures tend, for one thing, to sexual immorality. Judaism and Christianity brought into the world the virtue of chastity. That was foreign to the pagan ancient world. “impurity” connotes that which soils our lives and makes us unfit to come before God.

“sensuality” is translated “wantonness” in some versions. The idea is that one is so far gone in desire that he or she no longer cares about what anyone thinks or about the consequences.

20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,

“idolatry and sorcery” are sin where something else has taken the place of God and the playing around with powers of darkness, supposedly manipulating them so as to get what one wants.

“hatred/enmity” concerns being characteristically hostile to people.

“discord/strife” is rivalry which leads to quarreling and wrangling.

“jealousy” is the desire to have what is not ours. It is the desire for someone else’s XXX.

“fits of anger/bursts of temper” can literally make life hell on earth in a family.

“rivalries/selfish ambition/self seeking” is wanting an office not to serve, but for what can be gotten out of it.

“dissensions” is literally “a standing apart.” This is the opposite of brethren working together in harmony and cooperation. This is descriptive of a society like 21st century America, that is coming apart rather than coming together. This too is the work of our unrestrained fallen natures.

“divisions/factions’ are crystallized dissensions. This is drawing up sides on an issue and then turning it into a permanent contempt for people on the other side.

21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

“envy” is truly a base/mean word. It is grief at a neighbor’s good fortune. It is a bitterness that doesn’t necessarily want what the other has, but doesn’t want the neighbor to have it.

“drunkenness” is a work of the flesh. This was not a common vice in the ancient world, in spite of the fact that they drank much wine. Christians and pagans alike recognized this as a vice.

“orgies/carousing” is unrestrained revelry, enjoyment that has degenerated into license.

These are all things that come from our old man, our selfish nature. They are incompatible with a life that is led by the Spirit of God.

Liberty is not license. License is this kind of stuff in verses 19-21. It is contrary to sane life. It is contrary to the character of the one true and living God. It is the stuff of hell on earth. How could we possibly think that God would save us to abandon us to license? This is life in slavery to the old man, slavery to fallen human nature! In contrast, Paul now goes on to say what life is like in the true freedom of the Spirit of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

Paul speaks of “the fruit.” This is the mutli-faceted wonderful harvest of life led by God’s Spirit. Recall Jesus’s words

Matthew 7:16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

True spirituality has visible consequences.

“love” is agape/unconquerable benevolence. This is deliberate effort to never seek anything but the best even for those that seek the worst for us. Truly, this is possible only through the power of God’s Spirit.

The Spirit gives “joy.” Indeed. With real forgiveness, relationship, and freedom from bondage to sin comes great joy.

“peace” is tranquility of heart, but more than that. It is all-pervading awareness that our times and situation are in the hands of God. This is all that makes for the highest good of mankind, good order, wholeness, well-being, shalom.

“patience” is a word that concerns not things, but people. It is “long-temperedness.” This is a kind of conquering patience. It is the grace of the person who could revenge himself or herself, but does not. It is often used in the New Testament of God with regard to man. (Indeed, if God was a man, we’d have all been history long ago!)

“kindness” has a mellowness about it. It is a goodness that doesn’t chafe. It’s sweetness.

“goodness” is virtue equipped at every point. This quality might rebuke and discipline. Kindness could only help. There are times for both kindness and goodness.

“faithfulness” is fidelity. It is the characteristic of a person who is reliable.

23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

“gentleness/meekness” is apparently nearly untranslatable. It was used by the Greeks to describe a powerful horse that had been trained for riding. It carries the ideas of 1) being submissive to the will of God, 2) being teachable/not too proud to learn, and most of all 3) being considerate.

“self-control/self-mastery” is the Spirit’s work in a Christian person’s life will make that person anything but erratic and capricious.

All of these things are products of God’s Spirit in us. Obviously, if the function of the law is to restrain wrong behavior, there is no law against these works of God’s Spirit (in keeping with the freedom we have in Christ). This comment makes sense when we remember that earlier Paul answered the suggestion that freedom would lead to law-breaking. No, freedom and the work of the Spirit lead to these wonderful things, against which there clearly is no law.

24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we are to avoid the works of the sinful nature and allow the Spirit to produce His fruit in us, we must maintain the correct attitudes toward both. Verse 24 prescribes our attitude toward the sinful nature, verse 25, our attitude toward the Spirit of God.

We have crucified the flesh/sinful nature/original nature. In this passage the emphasis is not on what has been done to or for us, but on what we do. We, if we have repented, have nailed the old man to a cross. Our subsequent business is to leave him there. We are to willfully see that he finishes dying. We are to see to it that our willful, wayward, selfish self is put completely to death. We are to be merciless about it. Only the foulest of Roman criminals were crucified, the lowest of the low, that no one would have thought of sparing. We ought to be merciless with our foul and selfish self. Doing so will be painful. Crucifixion was the worst of all deaths, and the old man is going to scream and beg to be let down. But crucifixion was also decisive. Once the Romans nailed someone up, the person was as good as dead. Guards were posted and no one dared help the person survive. Our job is to ruthlessly and decisively determine to keep the old man on the cross till he’s not kicking at all. That’s how we should view the wishes and desires of the old nature. They are not something to be played with, fondled, or given brief reprieves.

On the other hand

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

It is the Spirit of God that gives us life. That being the case, we should keep in step with the Spirit. The phrase translated here “walk by the Spirit” has a somewhat different color to it than the phrase in verse 18 translated “be led by the Spirit.” Being led by the Spirit sounds passive. It could sound like a farmer herding cattle or a shepherd herding sheep. This phrase is more active, and puts much more responsibility on our heads. (For Example, the NIV renders it “keep in step with the Spirit.”) We are to keep in step actively and purposely. We are to “walk in line with” or “be in line with” the Holy Spirit. We are to “walk the line He lays down.” We crucify the flesh, repudiating what is wrong and set ourselves to follow what we know is right. We must be ruthless in turning away from the old nature and disciplined in turning towards the things of God. This must be our whole life.

26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

The practical results of our keeping in step with the Spirit will (for one thing) be seen in our relationships with people. When the Spirit leads, we will not be conceited. We will not have a wrong opinion of ourselves. Stott’s commentary points out very effectively how the provoking and envying follow naturally from conceit. If we are controlled by our fallen nature and think wrongly about ourselves, thinking too highly, we naturally “provoke” others. The thought behind “provoking” is to challenge with the expectation of showing someone up. On the other hand, if we are driven by our selfish selves and think too little of who God has made us, we envy. We want someone else’s place or situation. Rather than either, let us walk by the Spirit.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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