Galatians 5:13-16 – Freedom in Christ

The fact the believer is free from the Law should not necessarily lead to the view that the believer may indulge in sinful behavior (Galatians 5:13). Does Paul contradict himself in this verse? He has consistently argued in Galatians that the believer is free from slavery to the Law, but now he says the believer ought to re-submit to slavery, this time to his neighbor. Freedom from Law is not a freedom from everything. There is always some sort of obligation to fulfill, whether to the government or family, etc. Here in Galatians 5, Paul has in mind our obligation to serve God by serving one another.

Galatians Freedom in ChristSince the one who is in Christ is free from the obligations of the Law, they now must voluntarily 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 these are the only two options for the one who is in Christ.

Based on what Paul says in Galatians, the Law is not an option for living out a life “in Christ.” Nor is it acceptable to blend a life “in Christ” with something else, such as a Greek philosophy or worship of another god. Paul would be just as critical of the Galatian churches if they chose to live out a new life in Christ through popular Stoic or Epicurean ethical philosophy as he is with the Gentiles trying to keep the Law.

The fact we are free from the Mosaic Law is not to be used as a reason to indulge in sinful behavior. The noun here refers to a starting point, like capital for a business venture or a military base from which an assault is launched. By the first century, the word was used for “pretext” or “occasion, opportunity.” In 1 Timothy 5:14 it is used for an “excuse” for Satan to slander unmarried widows for moral lapses.

Since the believer in Christ is free from the Mosaic Law, it is possible some people took Paul’s gospel as a license to sin. Paul must deal with this problem here and in Romans 6:1-1-4 since there were people who did take their freedom too far. Some of the problems described in 1 Timothy and Titus are a result of people “sinning so that grace might abound.” The letter of Jude deals with people who “pervert the grace of our God into a license to sin” (Jude 4). If someone is free from all restraint of the Law, what keeps them from indulging in all sorts of sin?

Someone might say, “If election and preservation means I cannot lose my salvation, then I can behave any way I would like and still be saved.” Paul would never agree with this statement. This is an issue of spiritual maturity. For example, imagine the first taste of freedom a teen has when they go to college. Mom and Dad are not watching them all of the time so they have the freedom to do whatever they want. As a result, many college freshmen get into trouble (or at least the freshman fifteen….or twenty!)

While it is possible for a person to understand their freedom in Christ in this way, Paul says it is inappropriate for the one who is “walking by the Spirit” to indulge the sinful nature.

What is an example of a Christian using their freedom as an excuse for sin? Based on Galatians, how would Paul respond to that sort of misuse of one’s freedom in Christ?

Love Your Neighbor (Galatians 5:14)

Paul alludes to Leviticus 19:18: the Law is fulfilled in one commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). This verse is the most quoted verse from the Pentateuch in the New Testament, despite the fact it is almost never referred to in first century Jewish texts. Perhaps this is because Jesus himself stressed love of neighbor as a fulfillment of the law.

There was a lively debate in the first century on how to sum up the Law. When a teacher of the Law asks Jesus what the greatest command is, he responds “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:34-40). Jesus says the Law and prophets “hang” on these two commandments.

Love Your NeighborHowever, defining just who was included as a neighbor was also a hotly debated topic. Prior to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus is asked by an expert in the Law to define “neighbor.” The man likely understood the word “neighbor” to refer to his fellow Jews, since that is what neighbor means in Leviticus. But Jesus expands “neighbor” to include anyone who is in need.

It is possible Paul has fellow-Christians in mind here, given the context of factions within the church (5:15, 26), but he will expand the doing of good in 6:10 to everyone, but especially the “household of faith.” Paul’s point is not, “if you want to keep the Law, love your neighbor.” He has said repeatedly that the age of the Law is done and over with and the one who is in Christ is free from the Mosaic Law.

After arguing that Gentiles do not have to keep the Law, it is ironic Paul now says when they love their neighbors they “fulfill the Law.” It is as if Paul is saying, “If you really want to keep the Law, love your neighbor.” Like a prophet from the Old Testament, Paul tells his readers their observance of rituals do not mean anything if they do not do the heart of the Law, namely, love of God and love of neighbors. If one is loving one’s neighbor, then they are already doing the “spirit of the Law.” By walking by the Holy Spirit, the believer is already fulfilling the whole law.

The reason the Galatian believers are to submit to the Law of Love in Christ is that their current behavior is going to destroy the church. They are biting and devouring one another (5:15). Paul describes the factions in the Galatian churches as wild animals. They are like “mad beasts fighting each other so that they went up killing each other” (Betz 277). Wild animals are commonly used as metaphors for bad behavior in the Greco-Roman world, so this is a metaphor the Galatians would have immediately understood.

There is a danger in keeping the Law, but Paul says here there is also danger in factionalism. The body of Christ functions best when there is unity in local churches (Phil 2:1-4). The problem Paul must address is therefore “how do I serve my brother and sister in love?”

How does Paul describe the life of service to one’s neighbor in Galatians? What does this “look like” in a contemporary setting?