Over the last five and a half chapters, Paul has systematically established that the Christian gospel is about the fact that salvation is a completely free gift. This gives every Christian freedom. Freedom from the penalty of sin. Freedom from a guilty conscience. So Paul went on to say “it was for freedom that Christ set us free”. But Paul knows that his words can be twisted, because one could interpret the word “freedom” in different ways.
For example, India celebrated our freedom from the British on August 15, 1947. Indians felt that British colonialism was oppressive, and so celebrated their freedom in independence. There are economists who believe in free trade, and the lifting of tariffs. Capitalists hate constraints from central controls because they hinder free enterprise. Communists desire freedom from capitalistic exploitation.
Paul’s point becomes clearer when we think of those who want “free sex” or “free love”. These are people who do not like the constraints society puts on our behavior and think that to break out of these social norms is freedom. A teenager may have considered themselves free when he or she left the home, but ended up becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. Is that really true freedom? Whatever other kind of freedom this may be, we can say clearly, that this is not Christian freedom.
Jesus said “anyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Slavery is not freedom. So the discerning reader may ask, “What is true Christian freedom”? So Paul spends the rest of Galatians chapter 5, to clearly define for us the meaning of true Christian freedom.
Before we dig in, let me give you a thousand foot view of Paul’s answer, by way of an illustration. Consider a railway train. It is free to go to any part of India it pleases. But suppose the train were to think: “I hate being forced to only go on these railway tracks. It is so constraining! Oh to be truly and completely free! I am going to break train etiquette and go wherever I please, in the fields and over the hills”. What would happen to the train? We would have a train wreck! A train is truly free, when it does exactly what it was designed to do by its maker, and that includes only moving only on the tracks designed for it. For the same reason, we would call the addicted teenager described earlier, as a “train wreck”! This is because human beings are truly free and can flourish, only when we stay within the boundaries God has designed for us, that Paul describes as “fulfilling the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). James describes this as the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25).
Freedom, legalism and license (Gal 5:13-15)
We can think of human behavior on a linear scale. On the one end is the bondage of legalism. On the other end is “license” – doing whatever we feel like doing. Somewhere between these two extremes, lies Christian freedom. This is what we saw last week:. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Here Paul says “you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13). So if you picture a Christian in a state of true Christian freedom, he needs to guard against once again submitting to the yoke of slavery of legalism, and he also has to guard against making this an “opportunity for the flesh”, i.e. licentiousness. He goes on to say: “through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:13-14).
Paul is referring to the moral law – i.e. the last 6 commandments – honoring parents, not murdering, committing adultery, not stealing, not lying about people, and not coveting other people’s goods. All of these are covered if we truly love others. In other words, God’s law had a purpose. It has the effect of being our “railway tracks”. The problem was that the law cannot save us, as we have seen. However, once we are saved, the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts, and empowers us to actually “fulfill” the law. Otherwise we would “bite and devour one another”, and be “consumed by one another” (Gal 5:15). He also says: “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal 5:26). How could this be freedom?
Before we move on, I would like to make an important observation about this verse: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The most common error is to assume that this is a command to love yourself and that self-love means self-esteem. Both of these assumptions are wrong! As we read the explanation by Moses (Leviticus 19:18) and Jesus (Luke 10:27), they assume that all people love themselves; so they don’t command it. We should understand it to mean “You shall love your neighbor in the same way as you already love yourself.” And the self-love they assume is not self-esteem but self-interest: all people want to be happy, even if they often don’t know what will really make them happy. We know that this is what it means, because Paul says so explicitly in Ephesians 5:28–29. “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church.” In other words, self-love means the strong interest you have in your own health and safety and happiness. To take this command to mean “you need to love yourself first”, you are stripping this verse of its power.
To summarize, we see:
- Christian freedom is not freedom to indulge in self-centered desires
- Christian freedom is not freedom to exploit my neighbor
- Christian freedom is not freedom to disregard the law
This is why even though the gospel says that our salvation does not require us to keep the demands of the law, our salvation “frees” us to fulfil the requirements of the law through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The battle within (Gal 5:16-18)
Paul goes on to say “But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16).
What does Paul mean by the phrase: “the desires of the flesh”? When Paul uses the term “flesh”, he does not mean our physical bodies. He means “our fallen sinful nature”. So this phrase includes all the natural sinful desires and tendencies that we have”. More simply “the flesh” refers to everything we desire due to our natural birth, and “the spirit” refers to everything we desire through our new birth in Christ. The Bible never says that by nature we are morally neutral by default so that we can choose a path either towards good or towards evil. Rather, the Bible teaches us that in our natural state, our desires are all opposed to God.
In contrast, the indwelling Holy Spirit within us gives us new desires – “the desires of the Spirit” (Gal 5:17). These desires are in direct opposition to the desires of the flesh, and that causes an intense inner struggle, that will never ease up all our lives. In a similar passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God”. (Rom 8:5-8). However, the purpose of the gospel and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit is given “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom 8:4).
Thus every Christian is in the middle of an internal civil war. This battle is unique to Christians. It is not that non-Christians do not sometimes wrestle to make good moral choices. However, because the Holy Spirit plants completely new desires within us, our sinful nature opposes it actively, and the battle has an intensity and ferocity that only Christians experience.
The works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21)
Paul starts off by saying “the works of the flesh are evident” (Gal 5:19). In other words, it is pretty obvious because this behavior is clearly wrong.
Sexual indulgence (public and private)
The first three sins Paul lists are “sexual immorality, impurity and sensuality” (Gal 5:19). The word for immorality is sometimes translated “fornication”. It means sexual intercourse between unmarried people, and includes any kind of “unlawful” sexual behavior. We could translate “impurity” as “unnatural vice”, and “sensuality” as “indecency”, alluding to an open and flagrant contempt of propriety. These words together include every kind of sexual sin, whether a person is married or unmarried, whether it is done in public or in private, and whether it is “natural” or “unnatural”.
The next two sins listed at “idolatry” and “sorcery” (Gal 5:20). First of all note, that these sins are no less serious than the sexual sins. Idolatry is the flagrant worship of other gods or idols, and sorcery involves dabbling with the powers of evil. Both of these kinds of sins are highly displeasing to God.
Let us not be too quick to say that we are not idolaters. You can think of an idol as any person or thing that takes the place of our allegiance that only God deserves. Calvin said “the human heart is an idol factory”. Vanita and I have shared elsewhere how God used our circumstances to shatter some idols in our lives that we may not have recognized – idols of social status, and of our childrens’ success that we craved. God severely disciplined me to shatter the idol of intellectual pride and spiritual arrogance that I had. He allowed my own illusions of righteousness to come crashing to the ground, to expose my morality as a house of cards, and therefore not as a fruit of the spirit, but a work of the flesh. I think many of us middle class Christians need to evaluate our lives, and ask God to show us our own idols so that we “know our enemy” and can fight against them.
Sorcery includes witchcraft, tarot cards, etc., and also superstitious practices we may have that do not honor God.
The remaining sins listed are “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal 5:19.20). As you can see, these things are the exact opposite of loving our neighbors the way we are supposed to.
A strong warning (Gal 5:21)
Paul gives a strong warning here. “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who practise such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21). Living according to the flesh means we will not go to heaven! Since God’s kingdom is one of godliness, righteousness and self-control, those who indulge in these things are excluded from it.
How do we reconcile this with the truth of the gospel we have been studying all these weeks? If there is nothing we need to do except trust Jesus for salvation, how is Paul saying that if we indulge in the deeds of the flesh we will not inherit the kingdom of God? The answer is that when the gospel truly takes root in a person’s heart, and the Holy Spirit comes to take up residence, we “cannot” continue indulging in the works of the flesh. He says it this way in Romans: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom 8:13-14). To be a Christian is to be led by the Holy Spirit, and He will never lead us to indulge in the deeds of the flesh.
This passage is consistent with the rest of the New Testament. This is why Jesus often talks about looking at our fruit as evidence of salvation. This is also James’ point in his letter. It is easy to externally profess faith. True evidence of saving faith is seen by our behavior.
The fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23)
Paul has so far described our natural desires apart from Christ. We are being encouraged not to indulge in them.
However, our salvation does not just enable us to resist the “deeds of the flesh”. It enables us to actually make positive choices through the power of the Holy Spirit, that Paul describes as the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). The Holy Spirit is mentioned no less than nine times in the fifth chapter of Galatians.
The fruit of the Spirit is singular. The things described here do not exist in isolation, so that we get some but not others. Think of them as parts of the same cluster of fruit.
God-ward (love, joy, peace)
These first three parts of the cluster come from our relationship with God. Our love is our love toward God. Our chief joy is the joy we have in knowing God. Our deepest peace is our peace with God. These are an anchor to our souls in the midst of the most difficult circumstances.
Other-ward (patience, kindness, goodness)
Patience refers to putting up with one another’s faults and failures. The Bible says: “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13) and also, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2). Kindness is the way we treat others, and goodness is our words and our deeds.
Inward (faithfulness, gentleness, self-control)
Faithfulness refers to the reliability of a Christian, and gentleness refers to an attitude of humble meekness that we see exemplified by Jesus. Both of these require self-control.
Finally, Paul says “against such things there is no law” (Gal 5:23). The purpose of the law is to curb, to restrain, to deter. None of these have to be done when one has the fruit of the Spirit.
The way of Christian victory (Gal 5:24-26)
As we have seen, Christians have a unique internal struggle. We are in civil war within ourselves. Paul is very careful to ensure that he does not say we need to strive hard and beat the flesh. Why, because the truth of the matter is, it is impossible.
Paul describes this battle in Romans. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:15, 18-19).
So where does this leave us? Are we just to be helpless and say that we cannot help continuing to do wrong things? The answer is “no”! We are not left on our own to fight this battle. We have the Holy Spirit living within us. And the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to win battles though we may lose some. But His Presence in our lives will enable us to eventually win the war. How do we go about this?
We must “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24)
Paul says “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). What does Paul mean? Paul is just using the same words Jesus used when he said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Paul is expanding on this metaphor. We should not only take up our crosses and walk with it, but we need to ensure that the execution takes place. We are actually to take our wilful and wayward selves and nail them to the cross.
This metaphor enables us to say that it will be painful, but that this is a choice we need to make. The secret of our holiness is in how decisive our repentance is. If we are plagued by besetting sins, it means either we have never really repented, or that we did repent, but have then ceased to take it seriously.
When we are tempted to have a sinful thought, we need to consciously kick it out of our minds, and stop indulging in it. Or to stay with the metaphor, we need to crucify our flesh and leave it there on the cross.
We must “live by” or “keep in step with” the Spirit” (Gal 5:25)
There are two things Paul says about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. First, that He is the one leading us (Gal 5:18). However, it is a mistake to think that all we need to do is to surrender to His leading. Paul says second, that we are choosing to walk with Him as He leads (Gal 5:16).
If “crucifying the flesh” is to choose to reject what is wrong, then “walking by the Spirit” is to choose to do what is right. This requires discipline and self-control (which is one of the fruits of the Spirit).
This passage is very relevant to us today. It helps us clearly understand the relationship between “liberty”, “license”, “law” and “love”.
There is a real battle within us. However, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, who enables us to experience real victory. Victory is within our reach. As we fight this war, we will gradually start winning battles and progress in holiness and become more godly in our character. That is the fruit of the Spirit living in us.
So the challenge for each of us is, to persevere with this fight, and to prevail because of the indwelling Holy Spirit in our lives.