Christian Liberty an Incentive to Holiness of Life. Gal. 5, 1-26.

Christian liberty opposed to legal bondage: V.1. Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. V.2. Behold, I, Paul, say unto you that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. V.3. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised that he is a debtor to do the whole Law. V.4. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace. The concluding verse of chapter 4 is incidentally the transition to the hortatory part of the epistle. Because the Christians are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free, because they are no longer under the Law, but under grace, therefore they should remember: Unto freedom Christ has liberated us. Stand firmly, then, and be not held again in the yoke of bondage. Christ has redeemed us from the servitude of the Law by fulfilling the Law in our stead; the Law, therefore, as such has no power over us as believers, since we are not under the Law, but under grace, Rom. 6, 14. Ours is the true freedom of the children of God, who are not under the restraint of injunctions and prohibitions, but find their greatest joy in showing their appreciation of the liberty which has been given them by a life in accordance with the will of the Lord. The Gospel freedom in no way imposes upon us restrictions, since it is a gift unto faith. But since it is such a great blessing, a blessing, moreover, which men are ever endeavoring to take from us by every form of persecution, therefore it is necessary that we stand firm and unmovable lest some one ensnare us by enticing and plausible arguments and bring us into subjection again under the yoke of the Law.

With solemn emphasis Paul calls to the Galatians: Behold, I, Paul, say to you that, if you are circumcised, Christ will benefit you nothing. That was one of the objects of the Judaizing teachers, to introduce all the forms and ceremonies of the Jewish law into the Galatian congregations as obligatory and binding also under the new dispensation. And so the former sacrament of circumcision, now a mere rite and in itself pertaining to things indifferent, became a very serious matter indeed. To the Galatians that gave heed to the words of the false teachers and believed the rite essential for salvation, it was anything but a thing indifferent. They were placing their trust in a ceremony which Christ had abrogated by His fulfilling the Law; they sought righteousness and salvation in circumcision, and therefore rejected the merit of Christ. As a mere hygienic custom Paul would not have thought of rejecting the act of circumcision, but as a religious ceremony necessary for salvation he did reject it, most emphatically, telling the Galatians that under those circumstances the work of Christ no longer had any value for them.

And not only that, but, as Paul writes: I testify again to every person that is circumcised (namely, with the intention just indicated) that he is a debtor to the whole Law. The work and merit of Christ, on the one hand, and man’s own fulfillment of the Law, on the other, mutually exclude each other. If a man believed circumcision necessary for salvation, he thereby placed himself under the Law as a whole, laying himself under the obligation of fulfilling all its precepts, ordinances, and injunctions. He cannot evade the issue by stating that he wishes to accept only this one point; it is either all or nothing. All that are of the works of the Law are under the curse, chap. 3, 14.

The consequence is: You are separated from Christ, as many as are justified by the Law; you are fallen away from grace. Paul uses strong language, but intentionally so. He applies the figure of a severance from the source of life and power, by which the severed members are made subject to death and destruction. By their course of seeking the righteousness before God by means of circumcision they had severed the connection, the fellowship, the union with Christ. Their sincere opinion as to being justified through the Law would avail them nothing; by this very means instead they had fallen away from grace, they had spoiled their own chance of salvation. “If you hold that by the observance of the Law you merit to be accounted righteous before God, Christ will profit you nothing; for what need of Christ have those who hold that they are righteous by their own observance of the Law? God has set forth Christ with the promise that on account of this Mediator, and not on account of our righteousness, He wishes to be propitious to us.” 27)

Paul warns against the leaven of false doctrine: V.5. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. V.6. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love. V.7. Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? V.8. This persuasion cometh not of Him that calleth you. V.9. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. V.10. I have confidence in you through the Lord that ye will be none otherwise minded; but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be. In a beautiful summary of some of the main points of Christian doctrine the apostle here, first of all, reminds the Galatians of the spiritual benefits which are theirs by virtue of their Christian faith. Instead of placing our trust in the righteousness of the Law and hoping to obtain salvation by observing Jewish rites and ceremonies, we believers, through the Holy Spirit, through faith, expect the hope of righteousness. Faith in Jesus Christ is wrought by the Holy Spirit, by whom it is also nourished and maintained, who gives the pledge of its fulfillment, 2 Cor. 1, 22; Eph. 1, 14; Rom. 3, 11-23. By this faith we not only possess the righteousness of Jesus Christ here in time, but we also have the certain hope of being justified on the great Day of Judgment. All those that remain in faith by the power of the Spirit are sure of their gracious acceptance by God at the final judgment.

Works of the Law, ceremonies of the Jewish ritual, are therefore entirely ruled out, as well as any merit in man: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision has any power nor uncircumcision, but faith active through love. In the sphere in which Christ is active, in which He rules with His grace and mercy, all human activity cannot be considered as having any merit. God’s acceptance of a sinner is not influenced by the fact that he has received circumcision,- that rite has nothing to do with his justification; nor could one pride himself upon the fact that he had not received the Jewish rite, -a Gentile Christian that presumed to boast against his Jewish neighbors was making a very foolish mistake. For it is faith, and faith alone, faith that accepts the righteousness of Jesus Christ, faith that therefore is operative and active in works of love, which avails in the Christian hope. By faith the believers obtain the salvation earned for all men by Christ’s atoning work; and this same faith shows its life in the manifold deeds of love which are praised so highly in Scriptures. As Luther writes: “He that hears the Word of Christ in all sincerity, and adheres to it in faith, will also soon be clothed with the spirit of love.” 28) And again: “Oh, but faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing, so that it is impossible that it should not always be doing something good. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before one asks, it has done them and is always active in doing them.” 29)

Having shown what glorious blessings are in the possession of the believers, the apostle next describes the backsliding of the Galatians: You were running splendidly. They had just reached that stage in their spiritual life and its manifestations where Paul could feel a measure of satisfaction over the fine showing which they made; they seemed to be on the road to Christian perfection, as he concluded from the eagerness with which they pursued their course in holiness. Therefore it is a matter of such great concern to him: Who placed an obstruction in your way not to be obedient to the truth? Just as a runner is diverted from the path or prevented from continuing in the race by some unforeseen obstacle, so the Galatians had suddenly been hindered in their course of faith and sanctification. They were no longer yielding an attentive ear to the truth of the Gospel as preached by Paul; they were forsaking the way of righteousness by faith. Paul answers his question himself: That kind of persuasion does not come from Him that called you. It was God who had called them in the first place, through the Gospel-preaching of Paul, to which they had given ready heed at that time. But the present persuasion had a different source; this willingness to listen to false teachers had its origin in a far different place, which Paul’s tactful way of speaking here indicates: it was the work of the devil, the arch-enemy of the Gospel.

Warningly the apostle therefore calls out to his readers: A little leaven leavens the whole mass. Cp. 1 Cor. 5, 6. Just as the slightest bit of yeast, or leaven, when introduced into a mass of dough, will soon penetrate the entire lump and cause it to partake of its own nature, thus any false doctrine will quickly influence all the other doctrines of the Christian Church and work moral and spiritual corruption. The suggestions of the Judaizing teachers might seem harmless enough to the Galatians, but the principle underlying their teaching was of a nature to subvert the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. This holds true for all times; for, as Luther says, one word of God is all, and all words of God are one; all articles of Christian faith are one, and one includes them all; if we therefore give up one, then all the rest will fall away singly, for they all are connected and belong together. 30) If a person gives up the inspiration of the Bible, he will soon have no passage to stand on; if a minister teaches wrong in the doctrine of conversion, he thereby opens the door to all manner of legalistic and heathenish doctrines. To resist the entering wedge of false doctrine, therefore, is a matter of prime importance to every Christian.

Although the false teachers felt confident that they had shaken the allegiance of the Galatians, Paul, nevertheless, had not given up all hope with regard to them: I, for my part, am persuaded in regard to you in the Lord that you will not be otherwise minded in anything. Paul was fighting for the souls of the Galatians, and he was confident in the Lord that the designs of the false teachers would not be consummated. He was sure that the Christians to whom he had brought the Gospel amidst so many difficulties would not alter the conviction of their hearts, would not really yield to the false doctrine. The real fault lay on the other side, the blame for the present condition would attach to the offenders, to the disturbers of the spiritual peace in Galatia, every one of whom, no matter what his standing, would be obliged to bear his condemnation. The sentence of God by which He expresses His disapproval and judgment upon such offenders would be found a galling burden.

The service of love as opposed to the service of the flesh: V.11. and I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? Then is the offense of the Cross ceased. V.12. I would they were even cut off which trouble you. v.13. For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. V.14. For all the Law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. V.15. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. Paul here finds it necessary to deny a charge of the false teachers that he himself was still preaching circumcision. It may be that the resolution of the meeting at Jerusalem was deliberately misconstrued, Acts 15, or the opponents were making the best of the fact that Paul had circumcised Timothy, Acts 16, 3. But the apostle finds little difficulty in refuting the charge: If I am still preaching circumcision, if that be true that I am insisting upon this rite as a prerequisite for salvation, why is it that I am yet persecuted? Why should the Jews and the Jewish teachers continue their attacks upon him? What reason would they have for such behavior? Then the offense of the Cross has been entirely removed; or: Has the stumbling block of the Cross, then, been put away? No Jew would then have to be offended any more at the Savior’s death on the cross, at the message that Christ’s death was the only ground of salvation, for Paul’s own preaching would have been retracted, then he would have admitted that the Jewish ceremonies were still necessary for justification.

But so offensive is this very thought to the apostle that he cries out: Would that they had even made themselves eunuchs that cause you to rebel! Since they overemphasized the rite of circumcision, Paul wishes that they might go a step farther and proceed to the mutilation of the flesh like that practiced by many heathen in that region of Galatia, who made this a practice in honor of the goddess Cybele. For then they would be excluded from the Jewish community, Deut. 23, 1, and there would be some hope of their accepting the gracious liberty of the Gospel, or at least of no longer hindering such as put their trust in the Gospel. 31)

But as for the Galatian Christians, Paul reminds them: For you were called to liberty, brethren; only (use) not your liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but through love serve one another. The condition of the false teachers was that of servitude to the Law, and their endeavor aimed at foisting this bondage upon the Christians; for them, therefore, the apostle has only a malediction. But the condition of the believers is that of liberty, of the freedom of the Gospel, to which they have been called, into which they have been brought. It is the glorious liberty of the children of God. But liberty is not identical with license. And so the believers will not place their liberty into service in such a way as to offer an opening for sin. The freedom of the Gospel does not permit a person to do as he pleases, does not sanction indulgence in sinful lusts. The liberty which the believers enjoy should rather be treated as an opening for loving service toward one another. A true Christian will subordinate all selfish desires to the eager desire to be of service to his neighbor; a true Christian is the freest person in the world, and yet, by his own free will, he is never without service. And thus, as a believer, as a partaker of the freedom of the Gospel, the Christian is enabled to do what he could never have done while in bondage to the Law: he can practice love, which is the fulfillment of the Law: The entire Law is fulfilled in that one sentence, namely, in this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, Love is the substance of the Law, and therefore by showing perfect love we fulfill the Law. The precept of Lev. 19, 18 gives a summary of the Law, showing that the keeping of the Law must proceed from the right condition of the heart; for then the external works will follow as a matter of course. “For that reason we are called to liberty, we fulfill the entire Law, when we, in case our neighbor needs it, serve him alone through love.” 32) But if, on the other hand, people calling themselves Christians bite and devour each other, as Paul expresses it, then they may well take heed lest the result be that they consume each other. If the spirit of Christian love does not prevent believers from preying upon one another, they are in danger of utter destruction. This may well have been the case in the Galatian congregations, when the contrast between Jewish and Gentile Christians was brought out by the agitation attending the message of the false teachers. Note: This is always the result of factions and divisions within the Christian congregations; if no party is willing to act according to the great principle of love and all are disposed to supplant the rest, the end often shows a wasting away of the entire organization.

The works of the flesh: V.16. This I say, then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. V.17. For the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. V.18. But if ye be led of the spirit, ye are not under the Law. V.19. Now, the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, v.20. idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, v.21. envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like; of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. The apostle here develops the topic which he announced in v.13. His first point is a general exhortation to walk by the Spirit: Now I say, Walk by the Spirit, and the desire of the flesh you will not fulfill. The entire conduct of the believers is controlled by the power of the Spirit; He enters into their hearts and works in them by impelling and determining their walk. To walk by the Spirit, therefore, means to follow His leadership gladly, to put no obstacles in His way. By heeding the voice of the Spirit at all times and under all conditions, the believers will avoid doing the desire of the flesh. Christians indeed have their old evil nature to contend with at all times, their flesh being active to incite them to sins of every kind. But they do not yield to these temptations; they suppress every evil desire and inclination toward sin.

The apostle now substantiates his admonition: For the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other that you may not do what things you would. In the heart of every Christian there is a continual battle, based upon irreconcilable antagonism between the spirit and the flesh, between the new and the old man. The flesh, the old evil nature, has only one desire, namely, to overcome the spirit, the regenerated nature, and to make the believer fall back into the service of sin and every form of ungodly conduct. On the other side, the spirit, the regenerated self of the Christian, defends itself against such attacks, desiring at the same time to overcome and suppress the old Adam, that he die with all sins and evil lusts, no matter whether they appear in a gross or in a fine form. The object of these two opponents in the believer’s heart is that he should not perform what he wants to do. The flesh tries to prevent him from doing good in any form, as he desires to do in the power of the Spirit. The spirit battles against the flesh, lest the Christian do that which is evil, what he desires to do after his evil nature. Both the flesh and the spirit are straining their utmost in this combat. Cp. Rom. 7, 15-23. If the Christians now walk in the Spirit, then the victory is bound to come to their regenerated selves, and they will be able more and more to quench the lust of the flesh. This must be the final result, as St. Paul writes: But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. The side of the Spirit, by the power of the Spirit, must remain victorious, and thus Paul proves his contention that the Christians are not under the Law, that it is impossible to bring them back into the bondage of the Law. He that walks in the Spirit and is impelled and led by the Spirit will look upon the will of God contained in the Law as the great ideal of a sanctified life, and he will therefore strive to live up to this ideal, not by coercion of the Law, not out of fear of punishment, not with the hope of reward or of earning salvation, but because it is his greatest joy and desire to do what pleases his heavenly Father.

The apostle now specifies some of the vices which flow from the service of the flesh, and which therefore should not be found in Christians: Manifest, however, are the works of the flesh; they are of such a nature that they cannot escape notice and that no one will deny their heinousness. Of such is adultery, marital unfaithfulness of the one or the other spouse; fornication, carnal intercourse of people that are not united in holy wedlock; uncleanness, sexual impurity in general; wantonness or sensuality, marked by shameless impudence and exuberance, all of these being sins of voluptuousness to which the ancient heathen were addicted openly, just as the modern heathen are. Of such is idolatry, to which the Galatian Christians were tempted to return by reason of the heathen festivals and banquets; and sorcery of every kind, the secret tampering with the powers of evil, including especially the use of remedies of witchcraft, both of which sins were prevalent in the Greek cities of Asia Minor in those days, Acts 8, 9; 13, 8; 19, 19. Of such is enmity, which causes people to observe a malevolent attitude toward their neighbors; quarrelsomeness, which continually seeks occasion to begin wrangles; envy, which grudges one’s neighbor all that he has and always seeks its own advantage and benefit; anger, in which the jealousy of the heart breaks forth; quarrels, the natural result of anger; rivalries and factions, by which people separate themselves and refuse to associate with one another; hatred, which refuses to tolerate one’s neighbor; and finally murder, the taking of a neighbor’s life, - all of which are found also in the hearts of the Christians, making constant vigilance necessary. Of such is, in the last group, drunkenness or drinking bouts, the excessive use of intoxicating liquor; and revelry, or revelings, intemperance in partaking of both food and drink, bestial gluttony. And other things of the same category Paul adds; to which Luther remarks: “For who could enumerate the entire morass of carnal life?... He has indicated only a few, in order that the Galatians might not pretend to be ignorant how they might withstand the lusts of the flesh.” Note: There is a solemn warning in this enumeration of vices also for the Christians for these latter days; for it is only too evident that the boundary between Church and world is being obliterated in many cases; the world is entering the Church because the church people are no longer withstanding the world.

With great emphasis Paul therefore says: Of which I now tell you in advance, just as I have said before, that they who make it a habit to do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God. The apostle had given them this warning when he was present with them, and he here repeats his warning lest the judgment of the Lord come upon them for committing such crimes. Paul was not afraid to raise his voice in the endeavor to rouse the sinners before it might be too late. Because the flesh of the Christians is always active, therefore the warnings must always be repeated. Mark that he does not refer to such as are tempted to perform such heinous sins, but to such as actually give way to the temptation. All those that yield to the flesh and its desires, and live and walk in its sins, have their sentence of condemnation in advance: they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Glory, heaven and salvation. Hell and damnation is their lot as children of wrath.

The fruits of the Spirit: V.22. but the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, v.23. meekness, temperance; against such there is no law. V.24, And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. V.25. if we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. V.26. Let us not be desirous of vainglory, provoking one another, envying one another. In contrast to the sins and vices which the apostle has enumerated above, he here offers a brief, but comprehensive list of Christian virtues, calling them fruits of the Spirit, since they, through the power of the Spirit, grow forth out of true faith in Christ. Cp. John 15, 1-6. As the first fruit of the Spirit Paul names love, the highest of all Christian gifts and works, the supreme virtue, which includes all the rest. 1 Cor. 13. Out of this love flows joy over the neighbor’s welfare, the very opposite of envy and jealousy. He that loves his neighbor and rejoices in his good fortune will furthermore live in peace with him, always showing a peaceable disposition, avoiding all quarrels. And in order that a Christian may exhibit this desire for peace with all men, he himself shows patience, even under provocation; he is long-suffering and gentle. Yea, more: he shows kindliness and generosity, he meets his neighbor more than half way; he is always benevolently inclined, never harsh. He exhibits faithfulness, not only in positions of trust, but whenever his word is pledged. Instead of being eager for revenge, his behavior is characterized by gentleness; and instead of giving way to voluptuousness and impurity, the Christian always practices chastity, being chaste and decent in thoughts, words, and deeds, guarding also against all intemperance in food and drink and all other forms of physical indulgence, lest he defile the garment of holiness which is supposed to adorn him. Of all these virtues Paul says: Against such the Law is not, for such works agree fully with the Law of God, they are in accordance with His holy will. He that is found walking in such fruits of the Spirit will not come under the condemnation of the Law, will be free from the coercion and curse of the Law. Cp. 1 Tim. 1, 9.

In summing up the characteristic attitude of the Christians, the apostle writes: They that belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and lusts. They that are Christ’s, that belong to Jesus Christ, are those that have entered into fellowship with Him, that have become His own. When the Holy Spirit wrought faith in their hearts, they crucified their flesh, they renounced the old Adam, their sinful nature. They are now living and walking in the Spirit; that is the sphere in which they live and move. Their crucified flesh may sometimes attempt to break away from the cross, but in the end it must die, and with it all the evil affections, passions, and desires. No matter how bitterly it hurts the flesh that it can no longer gratify its lusts, it must submit. It means a great deal of self-denial on the part of the believer; there is no lack of suffering and battling. As with Christ, so it is with the Christians: through tribulations they go to glory.

In close connection with this thought the apostle writes: If we live in the Spirit, in the Spirit let us also go forward. Let us not become desirous of vainglory, to provoke one another, to envy one another. The life which is in the believers by the power of the Spirit should also be impressed and stamped upon their entire conduct, should cause them to make progress in their spiritual life. They should turn neither to the right nor to the left, but follow the norm of the Spirit, in the strength given by the Spirit. And one way in which the Christians should show their progress in spiritual life is this, that they should not be seekers after vainglory, that they do not strive for personal honor and glory, as every man is inclined to do by nature. Every one wants to be more than his neighbor, in ability, in social position. False ambition has brought untold misery upon the Church of Christ. For it is due to that attitude that men provoke one another, assume a challenging position, question the ability and the motives of one another, are jealous of one another’s success in any line of effort, seek to minimize real accomplishments by adverse criticism. If the desire for vainglory rules in a person’s heart, the result will be the rapid loss of brotherly love, followed by dissension, quarrels, jealousy, and hatred. 33)

Summary. Paul admonishes the Galatians to hold fast their Christian liberty, to avoid the leaven of false doctrine and the works of the flesh, and to walk in the Spirit, bringing forth the fruits thereof.