A couple days ago, I shared Part One of a two-part post about Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. In this letter, he combats a destructive heresy spread by Jewish legalists in the early church. If you haven’t read that post yet, you’ll want to start there before you continue reading.
I like writing these “Crash Course In …” posts because it’s so important to look at context when figuring out what passages of scripture really mean. With Galatians, it’s easy to misinterpret if you don’t look at the whole of Paul’s purpose for the argument he makes in this letter. It also helps to look at some of Paul’s other letters, like we did last week by comparing Romans to Galatians.
Truly Fulfilling The Law
Now that he’s laid the ground work for his argument, Paul starts to clarify what it means to walk by faith as people who are no longer under the law. It’s kind of a weird balance to wrap our minds around. Much of Galatians 5 parallels Romans 12-13 in showing how walking in the Spirit means we’re fulfilling the true meaning of the law. However, Paul also makes it quite clear that we should not seek “to be justified by the Law” (Gal. 5:1-6). To say that we could earn salvation by our own works introduces a harmful doctrine that spreads like leaven and corrupts the truth (5:7-12).
For you, brothers, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh, but through love be servants to one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” … But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, that you may not do the things that you desire. (Gal. 5:13-14, 16-17)
Being free from the law doesn’t mean we’re free to break it (i.e. does not grant us license to sin). Rather, we’re released from the curse of being under the law. Now the law is written inside our hearts. Being filled with God’s Spirit and transformed to be like Him will turn us into a person who naturally does the things we’re told to in God’s law. The law’s not our schoolmaster anymore, though. We’re taught directly by God through His spirit inside us.
If we want to be more godly, we must seek a deeper relationship with Him. That’s how our righteousness will exceed that of those trying to keep the law as their primary focus (Matt. 5:17-20). Instead of starting out from the position of trying to make ourselves better, we begin by recognizing that God is the only one who can make us perfect and by listening to the guidance of His Holy Spirit.
Purpose of the Law
The best known passage in Galatians is the fruit of the spirit. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” — those are the fruits a godly, spirit-led life bears (Gal. 5:22-23). Before Paul talks about the positive fruits, though, he gives us a contrasting list:
Now the deeds of the flesh are obvious, which are: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these; of which I forewarn you, even as I also forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit God’s Kingdom. (Gal. 5:19-21)
God will not let people who violate His law — which is a revelation of His divine character — into His kingdom unless they repent and change. It is true that those who are led by God’s spirit “are not under the law” (5:18), but because they are becoming like God they don’t do things that oppose Him either. Though we’re not under the Law we are held to an even higher standard — to become perfect as the Lawgiver is perfect.
Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit. (Gal. 5:24-25)
Our goal should be to walk in the Spirit, gently correct those who are at fault, “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (6:1-2). We need to recognize that “the goal of this command is love, out of a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Those who don’t recognize this central purpose of God’s Law miss the mark.
The law isn’t made to condemn righteous people, but “for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane” (1 Tim. 1:5-11). Turning to God requires repentance, which only comes from a realization that we’ve fallen short of a divine standard. The Law tells us about this standard and points those who would be condemned by it to the Lord for salvation.
Reaping What We Sow
Recognizing the value of living by God’s standards doesn’t stop at salvation. Rather, we’re supposed to be transformed so we become like God and therefore live as He would. But we don’t reach this goal all that once and we need to make sure we stay on-track. In keeping with this, Paul tells the Galatians they need to take a good look at themselves and make sure they don’t fall into the same faults they’re correction others for. We must be careful not to deceive ourselves about ourselves (Gal. 6:1-5).
Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up. (Gal. 6:7-9)
We can’t practice the works of the flesh from Gal. 5:19-21 and expect to inherit God’s kingdom. Nor can we earn our way to perfection by keeping just the letter of the law. True righteousness and obedience go deeper than just doing what God says. It involves a complete transformation of our hearts and minds. When Christ says He came to fulfill the law the Greek word means that He filled it to the fullest extent. Rather than doing away with the law He elevated it to a heart-based, spiritual level and told us to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:17-48).
As Paul starts to wrap-up this letter, he says that those who were pushing circumcision on the Galatians were motivated by a desire to make a good impression on other Jews — not by a desire to serve Christ (6:12-13). We are new creations under a new covenant, and being faithful to this covenant requires inward change rather than the outward sign of male circumcision. And even though that specific issue is no longer so contentious today, Paul’s main point stands firm. Following Jesus Christ means living a spiritual life (6:15-18).
God cares about how we live our lives and what we believe regarding Him. He wants us to follow Him in spirit and in truth, not to get distracted by perverted version of the gospel. For the Galatians, and for us today, Paul reminds us that the inward condition of our spirit (which will manifest in outward fruits) matters more to God than how righteous we manage to look from the outside.
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