Liberty and the Law – Galatians 5

Read the Passage: Galatians 5

Liberty and the Law (5:1–6)

After having illustrated the difference between works- and faith-based righteousness in Gal. 4:21–31, in Gal. 5:1 Paul exhorts the Galatian believers to hold fast to the gospel of justification by faith alone. Here Paul reminded the believers in Galatia that the law is an entangling “yoke of bondage.” As he continues in Gal. 5:2, using circumcision as a metaphor for legalism, Paul noted that attempts at salvation thought law-keeping actually undermine the work of Christ, and in so doing, pervert the gospel. This is because to attempt to add anything to grace necessarily nullifies it. Paul reminds those tempted by law-keeping that if they chose to pursue such a course of action, they will be indebted “to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3); for, as James would later write, “Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10; cf. Gal. 3:10).

In light of his previous comments, “I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain. . . . I have my doubts about you” (Gal. 4:11, 20; cf. Heb. 2:1–3; 6:4–6; 10:26–29; 12:15–17), in Gal. 5:4 Paul notes that if the Galatians chose to follow a works-based righteousness scheme. they would “become estranged from Christ . . . you have fallen from grace.” Here the apostle is not declaring that the Galatians are not believers, nor is he saying that a temporary lapse into works-righteousness is a sure sign of apostasy. Rather, he is saying that an informed and prolonged attempt at works-based salvation, which constitutes a de facto denial of salvation by grace through faith alone, is tantamount to desertion of Christ. Paul notes that genuine believers “through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (Gal. 5:5).

Love and the Law (5:7–15)

In Gal. 5:7–10 Paul makes several statements about the Galatians’ faith. In short, the apostle observes that his readers’ faith was progressing well until they were confronted by the false teachers. Using the illustration of a race, which he used frequently in his epistles (cf. Gal. 2:2; Rom. 9:16; 1 Cor. 9:24), Paul noted, “You ran well” (Gal. 5:7). In contrast to some of his earlier statements (cf. Gal. 4:11, 20; 5:4), the apostle writes here, “I have confidence in you” (Gal. 5:10). Then, perhaps trying to avoid the claim that his teaching did not differ from that of the Judaizers, Paul notes that he had “suffer[ed] persecution . . . [because of] the offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11). Such persecution was evidence that Paul’s message was not of the world. Further, employing sarcasm, Paul wrote, “I . . . wish that those who trouble you would . . . cut themselves off!” (Gal. 5:12).

In Gal. 5:13–15 Paul reminded the Galatians that the gospel message of justification by faith alone ought not to be understood as a license to sin, nor should it result in rabid personal autonomy or church anarchy. Rather, the gospel ought to promote love of others, for the gospel message inherently makes one self-disinterested. In contrast, works-righteousness tends to produce legalism, pride, and segregation. Indeed, the more works-based one becomes in regard to salvation, the more fragmented the church becomes. In appealing to Lev. 19:18 Paul notes that true liberty, as well as law-keeping, ought to produce love for one another. The point is this: the law was not given in order for man to distinguish himself from others, but rather in order to bring believers together in the unity of the gospel. True, correct doctrine creates unity, while false doctrine creates disunity.

Living and the Law (5:16–26)

In Gal. 5:16–18 Paul exhorts his readers to rest upon grace, not law-keeping. Then, in Gal. 5:19–21, Paul lists seventeen different “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19) that range the entire gamut of sin and moral failure. Paul’s vice list here is not intended to be all-inclusive, which is evident as he ends with “and the like” (Gal. 5:21). Following this list of works of the flesh, in Gal. 5:22–26 Paul gives a list of nine effects of walking in the Spirit. Note that Paul does not label these effect or traits “the fruit of the sanctified believer.” Rather, these are labeled “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22), for they are the natural result of those who “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). In concluding his argument, Paul exhorts the Galatians, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:26).

Application Questions:

  1. What is the concept of Christian liberty? How is has concept been stifled or abused by Christians? In what sense does the gospel provide liberty?
  2. If believers have already been declared righteous in Christ, what is “the hope of righteousness by faith” (Gal. 5:5) for which we wait?
  3. What is the “offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11)? Why is it offensive? How does works-based righteousness make the cross not offensive?
  4. Does doctrine divide or create unity? Is it ever right to use our abilities, preferences, and practices to distinguish ourselves from others in the church?
  5. How do we explain our continued sin as believers? What is your reaction when you see one who is excelling more in the fruit of the Spirit than yourself?