In the first four chapters of Galatians, Paul goes to great lengths to remind his readers that Christians are saved only by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus – and not in any way by our adherence to a written code of conduct.
Our standing before God is based solely on the merits of Christ, which means that from God’s perspective, we are holy, sinless, blameless…righteous! But that raises the question: Can Christians do anything they please? Without guidelines? It’s essentially a question that asks how we as children of God are to live and put our “freedom” into practice.
That’s where Paul is going in Galatians 5.
Christ Has Set Us Free
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not 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. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified[a] by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
We’ve clearly seen that for Jews, ceremonial regulations governed every phase of life: diet, dress, social customs, public life, and worship, among others. Circumcision was certainly a part of this, and Paul uses that practice in chapter 5 as being representative to adherence to all Jewish rituals and regulations. For Gentiles to see circumcision as a requirement shows that they are submitting to all of the other regulations. And Paul is telling us that this negates Christ’s sacrifice, obligating us to then keep the whole law, and in falling for this, depriving ourselves of God’s grace.
Let’s focus in on that last verse (6): For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Faith is not a static or lifeless. It’s active, expressing itself in love. This is where Paul is taking us for the remainder of the entire epistle to the Galatians. Yes, we are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is NEVER alone. It’s always expressing itself in action.
There’s an old BBC film from 1983 on the life of Martin Luther called HERETIC. In it, there’s a great scene with Luther talking to his students about what constitutes true Christian living. Here’s a clip that speaks to exactly what’s going on in Galatians 5 and beyond:
While there’s no evidence that Luther ever had this exact conversation with his students, he certainly could have, because it articulates precisely the motivation for a heart redeemed by Christ – to do that which pleases God. Paul writes in Romans 7: “4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” And in 2 Corinthians 5:15: And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
As was stated in the video, you may do as you please. Now…what pleases you? Because we have regenerated hearts through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, what we truly want to do is to please God. But because we are still in this body of sin, we are given to sinful actions. The question is, how do you feel about those sins. Back to Romans 7 with Paul’s words in verse 15: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
A true Christian hates his sin. He’s angry about it, frustrated and repulsed by it. Years ago, the band DC Talk had a song called In the Light. Here are the opening lines from that song:
I keep trying to find a life
On my own, apart from You
I am the king of excuses
I’ve got one for every selfish thing I do
What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicions
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior
Keep in Step with the Spirit
13You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Sanctification produces two impulses in us that go hand-in-hand: 1) a repudiation of our sin, and 2) a deep desire to be obedient to the will of God. This happens gradually over our entire life as we draw closer to God through encountering Him in His Word, worshiping Him authentically, and communing with Him in intimate prayer. And the driving force behind all this change is God Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
So if you’re frustrated with your performance as a child of God – it’s a good sign! It’s part of the process of you being conformed into the image of Christ. Like the final line of that Luther clip said, “You think faith is easy?” The Scriptures liken us to be clay in the hands of the potter. And clay gets stretched, pinched, chiseled, and baked. None of those things sound pleasant, but they’re necessary to turn something useless into something beautiful.
The Fruits of the Spirit
Do you need a list of behaviors that please God? Paul gives them to us in verse 22-25. But dont’ see them as a menu from which to choose. Rather, see them as true consequences of a heart that loves Jesus and seeks to imitate Him.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
And this is where the necessity of Christian community plays such a huge role. We’re called to be a disciples of Jesus within His body the Church, holding one another accountable – being unified to sharpen and equip one another, as it says in Provers 27:17: As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
Questions to Consider
- How did the Luther clip help you in your understanding of what a true repentant life looks like?
- As expressed in the lyrics to In the Light, do you find yourself despising your own behavior? If so, how is that a good thing?
- What temptations exist for you to abuse your freedom in Christ?
- As you run your race for Christ today, how can you free yourself of unnecessary rules and regulations that hinder your progress? What needs to change?
- Who can you come along side to “sharpen” in their walk with Jesus? Who could come along side you?