Galatians 5:13-16 – Freedom in Christ

Galatians 5:13-26 is a well known text featuring the oft-memorized the “fruit of the Spirit.”  But for Paul, this section of his letter answers the question of what a Christian community “looks like.”  The Gentile converts to Christ have left their traditional religious and social practices in the temples and want to know what sorts of things define “being in Christ.”  The agitators suggested that they keep the Jewish Law, implying that they have only partially converted when they accepted Paul’s gospel.  But Paul makes it clear in the central chapters of this letter that Gentiles are not converting to Judaism, but they have become part of something new and different, where there is no Jew nor Gentile, but rather and equality in Christ that comes from the Spirit rather than from ethnicity.  This means, Paul insists, that the one who is “in Christ” is no longer under the law, they are free to serve others in love.

This freedom is not a freedom to sin and do whatever one pleases.  In fact, this freedom is not at all to be taken in a modern sense of freedom from all restraints of law and morality!  The believer in Christ is set free from the Law, but this allows him to serve God, to re-enslave himself to a new master.

Does Paul contradict himself in Gal 5:13-16?  He says that the believer is free from slavery to the Law, but now he says that the believer ought to re-submit to slavery, this time to his neighbor, in love. Freedom from Law is not a freedom from everything – total freedom is completely impossible anyway. One always has some sort of obligation to fulfill (to the state, to a spouse, etc.)   Since the one who is in Christ is free from the obligations of the Law, they now must re-enslave themselves to the Spirit.  For Paul, there are only two possibilities, either one is enslaved to the flesh, or one is enslaved to the Spirit.

Paul will unpack what he means by flesh and Spirit in the next paragraph, but for now it is important to understand that these are the only two options for the one who is in Christ.  Based on the rest of the letter to the Galatians, the Law is not an option for living out a life “in Christ.”  Nor would be a blending of “in Christ” and some sort of Greek philosophy.  I suspect Paul would be just as critical of a Galatian church which chose to live out its new life in Christ through Stoic or Epicurean ethical thinking! (Perhaps this is a problem in Corinth more than Galatia.)

This leads me to wonder a bit about how Paul would address the modern church, especially the American church.  Do we really create a community which is “in Christ,” or are we playing around with combining our faith with social status (health and wealth gospel) or political agenda?  I think that Paul would have some stern  words for the way the modern church easily sets aside the fruit of the spirit in order to advance a social or political agenda.

5 thoughts on “Galatians 5:13-16 – Freedom in Christ

  1. How does Romans 2:29 ‘Circumcision of the Heart’ fit with Paul’s teaching of the Law here? It seems to me that Paul is not talking about freedom from the Law, but that the Law is something that we now embody. We no longer are bound to the Law, but we now should just embody the Law naturally as Christ-followers.

    • I think that (perhaps) the circumcision of the heart in Romans is an allusion to Jeremiah 4:4, or Deut 30:6 (which is what Jeremiah probably had in mind). In both cases, the context is eschatological — in the future, in the restoration of all things, God will re-create circumcision as a spiritual thing which really does something. It changes the heart.

      The physical ritual was not the point, but what it represented — for Paul the time of real, spiritual circumcision has come and the Mosaic law is not longer the covenant for the people who are “in Christ”

  2. I do not think Paul is really talking about freedom from the law in Galatians 5, As John says, The law is something that we embody. Paul is saying that although we embody the law, we do not live under the law but under grace. The only way we are not under the law is if we are led by the spirit. In v 22 Paul talks about the fruits of the spirit and if we are truly led by grace, we will not give into the evil desires of this world. I think as Christians we sometimes concern ourselves more with our “social status” rather than truly living by the spirit under Jesus Christ.

    • I think that Freedom from the (mosaic) law is never far from the surface in Galatians. The point is that the time of the Law has come and gone, God is doing something new in Christ. The Gentile Christians are the ones who are looking for some kind of social marks, mostly because they have left their pagan lives and are cut off socially from their previous lives. They need to know how to “be in Christ.”

      • “The point is that the time of the Law has come and gone, God is doing something new in Christ.” (P.Long) Just a clarifying question. The discussion in this chapter seems to be focused on living in the Spirit rather than in the flesh, because we are no longer under law but grace. Are we then comparing the law to the flesh and grace to the spirit? Because if we are then the Law promotes a lot of unsavory morals

        “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
        Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 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.”

        To be honest I don’t know if I want to be suggesting that God’s perfect Law that he gave to the Israelites (Ps. 19:7) promotes such ideas as idolatry and sorcery since there are clearly commands not to do such things. Ex 20:4;Lev 19:4,26:1,26:30;Deu 18:10. And the fruits of the Spirit are not in opposition to the law but rather the fruits of what the Law would be if fulfilled. If Christ fulfilled the Law, shouldn’t we as Christians be more like Christ daily fulfilling the Law so as to produce the fruits of the Spirit. Because Christ did not break the Law, how could he if we say that he has fulfilled it, but he portrays the fruits of which we read Gal 5. I wonder how much of our theology about Law and Grace comes from what we think the law says as compared to what it actually says, because from Paul’s description of the flesh which is somehow related to the law we think that the Law is a book filled with commands to do evil and detestable things which is not really the case. Just a question.

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