Freedom of the Believer

5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free – reminding us that Christian liberty is of primary, not secondary, importance. It is a basic privilege of the gospel. It was to secure our liberty that Christ died.


A man lived in a foreign country in which the law was that one could not walk out after 6.00 pm. Eventually this man moved to this country. Soon after arriving he decided to see the sights and so went for a long walk. Suddenly he realised that it was getting dark and he was far from where he was staying. In desperation, he stopped a man who was getting into a car and in halting English said, “Please, sir, help me! It is almost six and I am too far from my hotel to walk back before I will be arrested. Can you give me a lift?

The stranger was at first confused but then, realising that the man was from another country said, “Sir, let me assure you that in this country we do not arrest people for being out after six.”

This man knew he was in England, but he had not cast off his obedience to the laws of his old country and so was still being controlled by what no longer had any jurisdiction over him. He was a free man, needlessly bound to the rules and regulations of his former life. (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 210f, adapted)

A yoke of slavery – ‘The fact that household slavery, which is the only kind referred to in the NT, was generally governed by feelings of goodwill and affection, is implied by its figurative use in the ‘household of God’. (Eph 2:19) The apostles are regularly God’s stewards (1 Cor 4:1 Tit 1:7 1 Pet 4:10) and even plain servants. (Rom 1:1 Php 1:1) The legal character of ‘the yoke of slavery’ (Gal 5:1) was not forgotten, however, and the idea of manumission and adoption into the family itself was a proud conclusion to this train of thought. (Rom 8:15-17 Gal 4:5-7) Thus, whether in practice or by analogy, the apostles clearly branded the institution as part of the order that was passing away. In the last resort the fraternity of the sons of God would see all its members free of their bonds.’ (NBD)

5:2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! 5:3 And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.

‘The false teachers in the Galatian churches…were saying that Christian converts had to be circumcised. You might think this a very trivial matter. After all, circumcision is only a very minor surgical operation on the body. Why did Paul make so much fuss and bother about it? Because of its doctrinal implications. As the false teachers were pressing it, circumcision was neither a physical operation, nor a ceremonial rite, but a theological symbol. It stood for a particular type of religion, namely salvation by good works in obedience to the law. The slogan of the false teachers was: ‘Unless you are circumcised and keep the law, you cannot be saved’ (cf. Acts 15:1, 5). They were thus declaring that faith in Christ was insufficient for salvation. Circumcision and law-obedience must be added to it. This was tantamount to saying that Moses must be allowed to finish what Christ had begun.’ (Stott)

Submission to the initial act of circumcision implies a commitment to keep the entire law.

‘The substance of Paul’s words is this, that a man’s faith rests on Christ either entirely or not at all. God’s Anointed One must be recognized and worshiped as the one and only Savior. Since the Galatians were already yielding to the Judaizers in the matter of observing “days and months and seasons and years” (4:10), the danger was great that they would yield also in the matter of circumcision, and that, as a result, their whole religion would be reduced to ritualism with a slightly Christian tinge. It is for this reason that the apostle uses such incisive language. If they accept circumcision, thinking that this is necessary for salvation, or at least for a full measure of salvation, Christ will be of no advantage to them whatever. A Christ supplemented is a Christ supplanted.’ (Hendriksen)

5:4 You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! 5:5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight—the only thing that matters is faith working through love.

You have fallen away from grace – As the overall tenor of the epistle shows, Paul is speaking here not of a fall from inward spiritual grace, but from the doctrine of grace. The verse cannot therefore be used against the doctrine of perseverance. Cf. 2 Cor 6:1.

In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries in weight – ‘Circumcision in itself was a matter of indifference in Paul’s eyes (Gal 5:6; 6:15; cf. 1 Cor 7:19).  But the trouble-makers of Galatia wee pressing the necessity of circumcision upon the believers there, and Paul sa clearly that this was the beginning of a system of legalism which undermined the gospel of grace.’ (F.f. Bruce, Answers to Questions, p104)

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love– This is ‘one of the most important statements in all of Paul’s letters: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” The phrase “expressing itself” translates the Greek verb energeō, “to work, be effective.” It is evident that in opposing faith to the works of the law, the apostle does not view faith as a passive idea. On the contrary, true faith is at work through love.’ (EDBT)

As Lightfoot says, these words of Paul ‘bridge over the gulf which seems to separate the language of St. Paul and St. James.  Both assert a principle of practical energy, as opposed to a barren inactive theory.’

5:7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? 5:8 This persuasion does not come from the one who calls you! 5:9 A little yeast makes the whole batch of dough rise! 5:10 I am confident in the Lord that you will accept no other view. But the one who is confusing you will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.

‘Paul loved to liken the Christian life to a race in the arena. Notice that to ‘run well’ in the Christian race is not just to believe the truth (as if Christianity were nothing but orthodoxy), nor just to behave well (as if it were just moral uprightness), but to ‘obey the truth’, applying belief to behaviour. Only he who obeys the truth is an integrated Christian. What he believes and how he behaves are all of a piece. His creed is expressed in his conduct; his conduct is derived from his creed.’ (Stott)

5:11 Now, brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 5:12 I wish those agitators would go so far as to castrate themselves!

The offence of the cross – The Oxford philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer pronounced Christianity as possibly the worst of the world’s’ religions, because it is based on ‘the allied doctrines of original sin and vicarious atonement, which are intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.’ (Q by Stott in Evangelical truth, 100)

Calvin’s comment on this verse provides evidence of his view on the scope of the atonement: ‘it is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world.’

‘Paul sets himself and the false teachers in stark contrast. They were preaching circumcision; he was preaching Christ and the cross. To preach circumcision is to tell sinners that they can save themselves by their own good works; to preach Christ crucified is to tell them that they cannot and that only Christ can save them through the cross. The message of circumcision is quite inoffensive, popular because flattering; the message of Christ crucified is, however, offensive to human pride, unpopular because unflattering. So to preach circumcision is to avoid persecution; to preach Christ crucified is to invite it. People hate to be told that they can be saved only at the foot of the cross, and they oppose the preacher who tells them so.’ (Stott)

I wish those agitators would go so far as to castrate themselves! – M.R. Vincent paraphrases: ‘These people are disturbing you by insisting on circumcision. I would that they would make thorough work of it in their own case, and instead of merely amputating the foreskin, would castrate themselves as heathen priests do. Perhaps this would be even more powerful help to salvation.’

Jervis calls this ‘a darkly brilliant’ sentiment.  They thought that circumcision qualified them before God, whereas if they made the surgery more compete, they would have disqualified themselves (Deut 23:1).

Martyn draws attention to pagan practice: ‘He may be thinking of the practice of castration among the priests in the cult of Cybele (one of that cult’s major temples was located in Pessinus, very probably a city in which one of his Galatian churches was located…). If so, Paul may mean that circumcision belongs together with castration in the sense that both are signs of a trust in the redemptive power of religion. He would then say, in effect: “I wish the Teachers would join the priests in the cult of Cybele by castrating themselves, thus showing what they really are, nothing more than men who place their trust in religion rather than in the God of the crucified Christ.”’

‘The language is bitter, but it is not merely a ‘coarse jest’, as is sometimes said. It is designed to set circumcision in its true light as but one of the many ritual cuttings and markings practised in the ancient world. True, God had once used circumcision as the ‘sign of the covenant’ in Israel; but, since he was not now using it in the Christian church, it had no more relevance to the Gentile Christians than any other of these strange customs. Indeed, the eunuch priests of paganism undoubtedly thought that they were acquiring great ‘merit’ by their action. In this sense at least, therefore, there is a real comparison. Whether the Galatians lived in the north or in the south of the Roman province, they could not fail to be familiar with these barbaric cultic practices; the point would therefore not be lost on them.’ (Cole)

The 'dichotomy' of Scripture?

Philip Gulley opines:-

‘Like Jesus, the apostle Paul was capable of great tenderness. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, even after two millennia, is still stirring and relevant. It is hard to believe that touching chapter was written by the same man who urged those who disagreed with his theology to castrate themselves (see Galatians 5:12). This reveals the dichotomy of the Christian Scriptures, whose pages justify both compassion and cruelty. Christians wishing to condemn and exclude can find justification in their Scriptures.’  (If the Church Were Christian. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.)

Note the implication: Jesus would never say anything like that!  It is amazing that such writers, who set Paul against Jesus, are forced to ignore many ‘hard things’ that came from the mouth of the Saviour himself (or, alternatively, claim that he never said them in the first place).  Moreover, such picking and choosing between different biblical teachings altogether sets aside the authority of God’s word, and makes us the final arbiters in all matters of truth.

Practice Love

5:13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another.

You…were called to be free

A free world? ‘At the close of an important speech to Congress on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt shared his vision of the kind of world he wanted to see after the war was over. He envisioned four basic freedoms enjoyed by all people: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. To some degree, these freedoms have been achieved on a wider scale than in 1941, but our world still needs another freedom, a fifth freedom. Man needs to be free from himself and the tyranny of his sinful nature.’ (Wiersbe)

Christian liberty. ‘The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel, consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love, and willing mind.’ (Westminster Confession)

5:14 For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.”
5:15 However, if you continually bite and devour one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.

Biting and devouring each other

Biting and devouring each other

‘A recent issue of National Geographic included a photograph of the fossil remains of two saber-toothed cats locked in combat. To quote the article: “One had bitten deep into the leg bone of the other, a thrust that trapped both in a common fate. The cause of death of the two cats is as clear as the causes of the extinction of their species are obvious.” When Christians fight each other, everybody loses.’ (Selected)

5:16 But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. 5:17 For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. 5:18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Some interpreters (including Calvin and Longenecker) think that this passage anticipates Paul’s argument in Rom 7.  What the apostle says here does seem to confirm the view that he is dealing with the conflict that takes place in the heart and life of every Christian, the ‘great battle’ that ‘wages in the hearts of believers’ (Schreiner).  Believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and desire the good; and yet at the same time are attracted by the desires of the flesh.

Others object that Paul’s teaching here and in Romans 7 is not equivalent.  For example, in the latter passage, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned.  However, we might respond by suggesting that in Romans Paul has separated out the impulses of the sinful nature (Romans 7) and the enabling work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8), dealing in two consecutive chapters what he here covers in just one verse.

Not under law – See Rom 6:14f.  According to Gal 4:4f, Christ was born ‘under law’ in order to redeem those ‘under law’, with a view to adoption as sons.

5:19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, 5:20 idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, 5:21 envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!

‘It was truly ironic that these Christians, who were seduced by a message of law-keeping, should fall into behaviour that blatantly contradicted their faith.’ (NBC)

‘Although according to Paul’s argumentation it is not possible to gain entrance to the kingdom of God by means of what were deemed to be good practices (law-works), it is definitely possible to shut oneself out by evil practices.’ (Hendriksen)

5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 5:23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

How adversity can promote fruitfulness

The Spirit often effects greater fruitfulness in our lives in the presence of adversity, Jas 1:2-4; Rom 8:28:-

  1. Love matures when there are people who hate us, Mt 5:43-48.
  2. Joy deepens in adversity, being directed to eternal things and to him who never changes, Ps 63:3; Hab 3:27-28; Lk 6:20-23; Jn 16:33; Acts 16:25; 2 Cor 12:10; Jas 1:2.
  3. Peace is magnified in difficult circumstances. We have peace with God, Rom 5:1; peace from God, Php 4:7; and we are peace-makers, Mt 5:9.
  4. Patience is developed when we are ridiculed, opposed or persecuted.
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‘It is worth noting that the fruit of the Spirit here consists primarily of attitudes and actions that enhance personal relationships, precisely the great weakness of the Galatians. The qualities of joy and peace probably refer not to subjective feelings but to the way we deal with each other. Even the term faith could be understood as ‘faithfulness’, again in personal relationships. There is also emphasis on kindness and patience.’ (NBC)

‘Love is the key. Joy is love singing. Peace is love resting. Long-suffering is love enduring. Kindness is love’s touch. Goodness is love’s character. Faithfulness is love’s habit. Gentleness is love’s self-forgetfulness. Self-control is love holding the reins.’ (D.G. Barnhouse)

‘The fruit of the Spirit is not excitement or orthodoxy: it is character.’ (G.B. Duncan)

‘Every virtue is a form of obedience to God. Every evil word or act is a form of rebellion against him. This may not be clear at first; but, if we think patiently, we shall find that it is true. Why were you angry? You will probably find that it was because you were not willing to accept the world as God has made it, or because you were not willing to leave it to God to deal with the people that he has made.’ (Stephen Neill, The Christian Character)

The pre-eminence of love

  • Joy is love exulting
  • Peace is love in repose
  • Longsuffering is love on trial
  • Gentleness is love in society
  • Goodness is love in action
  • Faith is love in endurance
  • Meekness is love at school
  • Temperance is love in discipline

(Source unknown)

‘The Christian should resemble a fruit-tree, not a Christmas tree! For the gaudy decorations of a Christmas tree are only tied on, whereas fruit grows on a fruit-tree. In other words, Christian holiness is not an artificial human accretion, but a natural process of fruit-bearing by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 219)

‘The mere recital of these Christian graces should be enough to make the mouth water and the heart beat faster. For this is a portrait of Jesus Christ. No man or woman has ever exhibited these qualities in such balance or to such perfection as the man Christ Jesus. Yet this is the kind of person that every Christian longs to be. This, then, is the portrait of Christ, and so – at least in the ideal – of the balanced, Christlike, Spirit-filled Christian. We have no liberty to pick and choose among these qualities. For it is together (as a bunch of fruit or a harvest) that they constitute Christlikeness; to cultivate some without the others is to be a lopsided Christian. The Spirit gives different Christians different gifts… but he works to produce the same fruit in all. He is not content if we display love for others, while we have no control of ourselves; or interior joy and peace without kindness to others; or a negative patience without a positive goodness; or gentleness and pliability without the firmness of Christian dependability. The lopsided Christian is a carnal Christian; but there is a wholeness, a roundness, a fullness of Christian character which only the Spirit-filled Christian ever exhibits.’ (Stott, Baptism and Fullness)

Faithfulness– ‘This may possibly mean that the Holy Spirit produces saving faith within the believer, but it is much more likely that in this list the word denotes faithfulness, the quality of complete reliability.’ (DLP)

Gentleness – ‘[G]entleness is essential to Christian living. It is not an add-on. It is . . . one of the few indisputable evidences of the Holy Spirit alive and well within someone. Gentleness is not just for some Christians, those wired in a certain way. It cannot merely be an inherent character trait, a result of personality or genetic predisposition, because it is listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Looked at another way, nowhere in the New Testament’s lists of spiritual gifts is gentleness identified as one such gift. It is not a gift of the Spirit for a few. It is the fruit of the Spirit for all. To be gentle is to become who we were meant to be; that is, to return to who we once were, in Eden.’  (Dane C. Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Crossway), 91).

Self-control – ‘Self-control is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands – and then eat just one of the pieces.’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 325)

‘It is a serious mistake to suppose that to be filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ is a kind of spiritual inebriation in which we lose control of ourselves. On the contrary, “self-control” is the final quality names as “the fruit of the Spirit.” Under the influence of the Holy Spirit we do not lose control; we gain it.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 81)

5:24 Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 5:25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also behave in accordance with the Spirit. 5:26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another.

Spirit…Spirit – This may be taken either as a general reference to ‘spirit’ (‘by the spirit’ = ‘spiritually’), or as a reference to the Holy Spirit.

Keep in step with the Spirit gives a good sense of Paul’s meaning; a more literal translation would be, ‘walk in line with the Spirit’.

‘It is a great mistake to suppose that our whole duty lies in passive submission to the Spirit’s control, as if all we had to do was to surrender to His leading. On the contrary, we are ourselves to ‘walk’, actively and purposefully, in the right way. And the Holy Spirit is the path we walk in, as well as the guide who shows us the way.’ (Stott)

‘Notice how this passage helps us to understand a little better Paul’s teaching about the law. Although he earlier spoke very strongly against the use of the law as a means of gaining the inheritance, he does not question the value of the law as a revelation of what God’s will is for us. If our life is ruled by the Spirit, we are not subject to the condemnatory power of the law and thus we need not fear it. It is, therefore, right for us to ‘fulfil’ the law (14), to perform those acts that the law does not condemn (23). Here is freedom indeed.’ (NBC)

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