MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 5, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 5:13-14
This week, we return to our study of Paul’s letter to the churches of
For Paul, the Old Covenant of Law God established with Moses had come to an end. Jesus has begun a new way of relating to God through the New Covenant in his blood. Within this covenant, Christ’s perfect righteousness is reckoned to anyone who places their trust in him. Within this New Covenant in Christ, his sin-atoning death is applied to anyone who looks in faith to him alone for their salvation. This gospel of both Christ’s righteous life and his sin-atoning death, applied to the life of a sinner, liberates us from the tyranny of trying to meet the demands of the law in order to be acceptable to God. That is the freedom from living under the law we have in Christ.
Paul is zealous for the spiritual freedom of these Galatians as we saw last time. This week, we will see why he is so zealous for that spiritual freedom. We will also begin a section where Paul gives some very practical teaching about how our freedom in Christ is to be expressed and how it is not to be expressed. We could state the major idea of these two verses this way: We must live in and be zealous for genuine, other-centered freedom in Christ. Now, let’s see how we get that from these two jam-packed verses. In verse 12, which we looked at last time, he strongly attacks the false teachers. He says of the false teachers who wrongly sought to compel the Galatians to receive circumcision, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves.” He explains why he feels so passionately about this in verse 13. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
I see three major truths that together communicate that truth. The first is in the first sentence of verse 13 that explains Paul’s motive for the explosive statement in verse 12. It’s clear from these verses that what incites such passion for our freedom in Christ is the fact that God has called us to freedom. The first truth is: God intends that our zeal for living free in Christ should be grounded in part in an understanding of God’s call for us to be free. Hear how God-centered this passion should be—we are zealous for freedom because of what God has done—he called us to freedom. If you were looking over Paul’s shoulder as he writes his wish that the false teachers would go castrate themselves for their freedom-robbing teaching, some might be tempted to ask, “Paul, isn’t that just a bit over the top?” If you were to say that, from the rest of his writings we can safely predict what his response would be. It would be something like, “By no means! When you ask me why I am so hard on the false teachers, it’s clear you don’t understand why God hates their enslaving distortions of the gospel so much. You don’t understand that when God calls lost sinners through the gospel, included in that call is a specific call to be free from the enslavement of living under the law. Living in freedom from the tyranny of life under the law is not optional! When God calls someone to himself through the gospel, their spiritual liberty in Christ is included in that covenant relationship—this freedom is their birthright as his child. Just as God called us to out of the spiritual darkness of this fallen world into the light of his Son (1 Pet 2:9), just as he called us out of spiritual death into spiritual life in Christ (1 Tim 6:2), so too he called us out of the spiritual slavery of living under the law into the liberty found in Christ. It’s all part of the same call through the gospel. If you remove the call to freedom from being under the law implicit in the gospel, you don’t have the gospel.”
Paul here is simply voicing God’s indignation at these false teachers whose message was not simply inaccurate or incomplete—it was an attempt to enslave believers God had liberated through the gospel. More specifically, they were trying to put into bondage through the law believers whose freedom God had purchased with the blood of his Son on the cross. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us...” [3:13] God the Father cursed God the Son to purchase this liberty that the Judaizers were trying to steal through their false teaching. The Judaizers were telling these Galatians they needed to add to the cross of Christ the observance of Old Testament law in order to be saved and in so doing, they had rendered the cross meaningless.
Remember also, Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit as he writes this and the Spirit’s ministry, according to John 16:14, is to glorify Christ—to lift him up—to make much of Jesus. Given that, what do you think the Holy Spirit would say about those who taught that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was incomplete and that it needed to be completed by a minor surgical procedure to the male sex organ? Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit, zealous for Christ’s glory, would inspire Paul to say of those who spread such a blasphemy, “I wish those who unsettle you would cut it all off!” That’s not an extreme statement at all when you understand what is at stake here. God called you to freedom through the cross-centered gospel. When we think about the truth here, it should motivate us to fight to stay free from the seductive lie that we could ever do anything to commend ourselves to God. Our zeal for living free in Christ should be grounded in part in our understanding of what is involved in God’s sovereign call to be free through the gospel.
A second truth pertaining to our freedom in Christ is in the second part of verse 13. Paul writes, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,” What does Paul mean here when he says, “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh?” He is simply saying: God intends that our freedom in Christ must not be abused. Our spiritual freedom in Christ from living under the tyranny of the law is what opens the door to living by faith and without faith there can be no fruit. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” [Heb11:6] It’s as we declare bankruptcy on any alleged ability we might have to be acceptable to God, but instead through faith run to the cross and Christ alone for our justification, that we can through Christ live vibrant, fruitful lives. Freedom opens the door to faith that allows for the growth of spiritual fruit. You can remember that: freedom, faith, fruit. But our spiritual freedom can also be abused. Paul says that our freedom can also open the door or give an “opportunity” for the flesh.
Our flesh shares and absorbs the sinful value system of this world. Think of the flesh this way. Satan is ultimately the source of the lies that reside behind and empower all sin. This sinful, fallen world, with its satanic value system, is the spiritual transmitter through he broadcasts his lies. Our flesh, with its sinful desires is tuned to the same frequency as this fallen world and anxiously receives those lies and if we allow it, our flesh will compel us to act on them in opposition to God. That’s the flesh. So our sinful flesh takes note of the spiritual freedom we have in Christ and seeks to use that freedom as a beachhead from which he can deploy his lies in order to bring us into sin. The flesh is always, always, self-centered. The flesh is always seeking to indulge itself in selfish, self-centered pleasures. As the flesh smells out our freedom in Christ it responds something like this—“You can never be acceptable to Christ by what you do anyway, so what does it matter all that much what you do? Christ has given you his righteousness—you don’t have to earn it—it’s not based on your performance anyway. He has forgiven all your sin past, present and future—so go ahead, indulge your desires—you are free, aren’t you?” If we buy into that lie and sin, then we have used our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh and Paul says, “Don’t do that.”
Whenever the free grace of God in the gospel is preached, certain people will use that freedom as an excuse to sin. Martin Lloyd Jones said (and I’m paraphrasing) that if you preach the gospel and no one ever either misunderstands that freedom, or intentionally abuses it, then you aren’t preaching grace. One reason for that is because when our sinful flesh smells genuine freedom from being under the law, it will always try to use it for its own sinful, self-centered purposes. So if you are giving the gospel and some people are not tempted to abuse that freedom, it’s because your gospel isn’t free, which means—you’re not giving the gospel. The flesh is intensely opportunistic and can be relied upon to earnestly seek to abuse the freedom of the gospel. We can count on that, but we must not indulge or give in to that abuse of our freedom.
One reason we mustn’t do that is--the moment we abuse our freedom and sin, we have at that moment surrendered our freedom. The flesh never tells you that part, but it’s true. It just says, “You’re free, so do it.” It doesn’t tell you that when you, in the name of freedom wander into sin--you are walking into a spiritual jail cell. The grand irony of this lie of the devil is—whenever we use our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, we have just given up a measure of our freedom. Jesus says in John 8:34, “…Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That means, when we use our freedom to sin, we become enslaved to the power of sin. Even more importantly, when we were under the law, we were in bondage to the power sin because we couldn’t keep the law. Paul says in Romans seven that the law actually arouses our sinful passions. God set us free from the law and the sinful passions it arouses, so that we might be free from the power of sin. If we use our freedom as an opportunity for the sinful flesh, then we have taken what God gave us to set us free, and instead used it to enslave us to sin. That is a gross perversion of the gospel and we must seek God for grace to never do that.
In the third section of verse 13, after Paul warns the Galatians not to use the use their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, he tells them how God intends that they use our freedom from the law. He says, “but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is so much here. In these few words, Paul exposes the essence of all Christian ethical teaching. The basic truth communicated here is: God intends that our freedom in Christ should be expressed through love for others as revealed in God’s moral law. To begin to unpack this, our spiritual freedom through the gospel can be expressed, broadly speaking, in two ways. One way, as we have seen, is through the flesh. This is always a self-centered expression of freedom. Paul will later tell us in verse 19, “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.” One of the main qualities these incredibly diverse sins have in common is—they are all self-centered because all sin is self-centered. That is—all of them in some way express our selfish desires. This is the wrong way to express our freedom—through the flesh.
The other way our freedom in Christ through the gospel can be expressed, as we will see later in the chapter, is through the Holy Spirit. Just as our freedom is a base of operations for our flesh, it is also the spiritual venue through which the Spirit of God operates within us. Second Corinthians 3:17 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” As we will see later in the chapter, the central expression of the Holy Spirit, from which every other expression derives, is love. And Biblical love is not self-centered; it is essentially, at its core--other centered. It is expressed through service to others. The flesh is self centered; Biblical love is other-centered and ultimately God-centered. The flesh takes, love gives. The flesh is self-serving, love is other-serving. The flesh is that part of us that is unredeemed and belongs to this fallen world. The Spirit within us points to the truth that in Christ we have been ushered into another age, another kingdom. The flesh uses spiritual freedom for sin if we allow it to do that. The Spirit uses our freedom from the law through the gospel for God and his glory. The flesh seeks to use our freedom to bring us back into the misery of spiritual bondage. The Spirit gives us a freedom that brings great joy. Those truths are behind Paul’s admonition, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
That word Paul uses for “serve” literally means, “make yourself a slave of.” Don’t miss the paradox here. Paul is saying in effect, don’t use your freedom to become a slave to sin, use it through love to make yourself a slave to others. We may wonder how is that freedom…to be a slave? Remember that humanity as a race was created to be a slave race to serve God on this planet. We are hard wired to be slaves, but the kind of slavery God calls us to in Christ is not a tyranny that grates at our souls. It is a slavery that liberates us to know joy unspeakable. We are slaves, but our slavery in Christ is paradoxically liberating. We are never more free than when we are living as a slave to Christ. Remember Isaac Watts' great hymn, “Join all the Glorious Names.” The last verse in our hymnal reads, “My Savior and my Lord, My Conqu'ror and my King, Thy scepter and Thy sword, Thy reigning grace, I sing: Thine is the pow'r; behold I sit in willing bonds beneath Thy feet.” This is a willing, joy-filled, self-imposed slavery. No human being was more free than Jesus Christ, yet when he came to this world he said in Luke 22:27, “…I am among you as one who serves.” That’s what Biblical love does—it serves. Jesus came as the suffering Servant. For humanity, there are only two choices—enslavement to sin through the flesh that brings death and misery, or enslavement to loving God and others through the Spirit that ultimately brings us liberty and joy.
In verse 14, Paul gives Biblical supports to his call to serve one another in love. He says, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, if you have followed Paul’s reasoning for the last three chapters, his mention of the law here may give you a headache. Perhaps you are thinking—“I thought we were free from being under the law! Why does Paul, in a letter where he spends three chapters teaching us that we are not under law, support one of his commands by citing the law? How do those things fit together?” Paraphrasing one commentator, “Is Paul, after shoving the law out of the front door, bringing it back in through the back door?” The answer is a resounding “no.” We must understand that Paul’s call for us to be free from living under the law is not at all inconsistent with him using the law to teach us how to live. Let me explain.
We know that the Mosaic Covenant of Law is no longer in force. But the reason for that
is not because there is anything wrong with the law. Paul tells us in Romans
7:12, “So the law is holy, and the commandment
is holy and righteous and good.” The problem was not with the law, but with us who, in our fallen condition found the law impossible
to keep. Tom Schreiner is helpful when he says of Paul, “He is not suggesting that believers
are free from all moral norms, as if life in Christ is free from any moral requirements. His
purpose is to argue that the old era of redemptive history under the Mosaic covenant has come to an end.
Paul is writing to people who are assumedly believers—he calls them “brothers” in verse 13. They have the Spirit of God who is transforming their hearts. These are people who have the Spirit of God within them and that means they have the power to keep the law. Paul says in Romans 8:3-4, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Believers are able to fulfill the law in the power of the Spirit, but what is the fulfillment of the law? What does it look like when a person fulfills the law? Paul tells us beginning in Romans 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandment, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” What that tells us is that the moral law of God is still in force and it is fulfilled by love. All the moral law of God points to love. That means, if you are showing mature, Biblical love, you will de-facto be keeping the law. This is what Paul calls elsewhere the “law of Christ.” Later in 6:2 Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” That is the law of love or the law of Christ. Old Covenant food laws and circumcision laws and laws about Sabbaths and sacred holidays are not part of God’s moral law—they were part of the Old Covenant that came to an end.
So don’t miss the line of thinking here. As believers we are not under the law in the sense that we need to keep it in order to be acceptable to God—that Old Covenant way of relating to God is over. Christ fulfilled the law for us through his perfect life and God has credits his righteousness to us in justification. But God continues to call his people to live holy lives. The difference now is—under the New Covenant, we can actually live holy lives because the Holy Spirit enables us to do that as we walk by faith in what God has done for us in Jesus. We can fulfill the law and the law is fulfilled through loving service to others. That means the law is very precious and valuable to us, not because our observation of it is necessary for salvation, but because the law helps us to know how to love God and others—how to express love. Paul says in verse 14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word [not ten words but one word]: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean to love your neighbor? According to Paul in verse 13 it means—serve them in love.
In the power of the Spirit, we love through serving others. If we use our spiritual
freedom as a base of operation for the flesh, we see the result in verse 15. “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not
consumed by one another.” This fleshly freedom
ends up destroying relationships with others and evidently that was happening in the churches in
Page last modified on 10/12/2008
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