Galatians 5: Fulfilling the Law

In the last article, we saw that God’s will is for Christians to be free from bondage. For the first century Galatian believers, that primarily meant freedom from performing the Law. But as we will continue to see in Galatians 5, freedom from bondage is more than just freedom from the Mosaic Law. Freedom from bondage includes being free from sin and free from any works-based, outward religious observance. As we progress through this section of Galatians, we will see that instead of routinely following the Law of Moses, we as Christians are to fulfill the Law of Christ.

Galatians 5:1-4 (ESV)

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.

I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Paul made an incredibly clear argument here: if a Christian attempts to be justified by the Law of Moses, then that “Christian” will fail. It’s really as simple as that. True Christianity is accepting God’s free gift of grace and receiving justification from sin. This means that, for the Christian, the Law of Moses is outdated. And let’s be clear by what we mean by “outdated.” Paul gave the example of circumcision, which, interestingly, was the sign of the covenant made with Abraham, not Moses. Circumcision was the sign that an Israelite male was separated from men of other tribes. It was an outward, flesh-based observance. Circumcision was seen as the “sign of righteousness” that Abraham received after he received true righteousness—see Romans 4:10ff. Such outward works are no longer necessary for the Christian to be justified before God. That’s why the modern Christian does not need to offer sacrifices upon the altar, offer firstfruit offerings, slaughter an animal for a sin sacrifice, or worry about certain dietary restrictions. However, the Christian can still learn from, and apply, the major commandments from the Law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments. (Jesus referred to the “weightier elements of the law,” and those are the commandments and principles that are still in effect. Smaller laws, called “ordinances” throughout the Bible, are not still practical. In a future article, we will distinguish more completely between the various types of commandments and how the modern Christian can apply them). Christians are to be set apart from the world, sanctified, not in rules-based, works-based religious observances. Christians are to be set apart from the world on the basis of love, power, respect for God and His Word, our faith in action, uprightness, and righteousness.

Galatians 5:5-6 (ESV)

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

When we live in Christ Jesus, circumcision and other outward works of the flesh amount to nothing. When we live in Christ Jesus, faith working through love is what matters. The Christian is to absolutely be sanctified in his or her behavior. However, while in the Old Testament that meant circumcision, offerings to God, Sabbath day observance, and so on, in the time of Grace it means something different. Christ taught his disciples that others would know their true discipleship through the love that they showed to one another (John 13:35); God says that we show others about Him through the love that we manifest (I John 4:12). The Christian walk, in many respects, basically consists of faith, hope, and love (I Corinthians 13:13). And all three of these are mentioned here in verses 5 and 6.

Galatians 5:7-10 (ESV)

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?

This persuasion is not from him who calls you.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.

Paul lamented the fact that these formerly strong Christians were digressing from their walk of freedom in Christ to the outward legalism of the Mosaic Law. God did not want the Galatians to practice their faith in this manner. Verse 9 is a reference to the culture surrounding the Passover celebration. During the Passover, the children of Israel were to bake their bread without any leaven in it. Passover was called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. If there was any leaven in the bread, then it was no longer unleavened. The figure of speech is clear here: any amount of legalistic Judaizing would corrupt the Galatian church. They could not allow any of this negative influence into their thoughts, beliefs, and actions! Paul believed that these Galatian Christians would return to their previously successful course of being free in Christ. Those who taught them incorrectly will face some penalty.

Galatians 5:11-12 (ESV)

But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.

I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

Verse 11 appears to indicate that Paul, at one point, taught circumcision as necessary or desirable. We know from Acts 16:3 that Paul had Timothy circumcised because of the Judeans in the area of Lystra and Iconium, even though this was after he demonstrated that he no longer thought circumcision was necessary (see the discussion in Acts 15:1ff). Perhaps Paul had in mind his pre-Christian days here? The key here is that Paul no longer taught circumcision as necessary to salvation, which irked some of the Judean converts to Christianity. Those Judaizing Christians who Paul is confronting here were the same ones who persecuted him. However, conformity to the Mosaic Law is not sufficient for salvation for the Christian. Only the cross is sufficient to pay for the redemption of mankind. In verse 12, Paul’s words have one of two meanings. Either he is instructing those who teach circumcision to “finish the job” and remove the rest or he is asking for their removal from the local Church body.

Galatians 5:13-15 (ESV)

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.

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

Paul was quick to keep the Galatians believers from the opposite mistake from legalism. The opposite of legalism is hedonism. God has called us to amazing liberty in Christ. The ordinances of the Mosaic Law are irrelevant (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:14). Now we have the freedom to love God, love Christ, love each other as Christians, and love outsiders in the world. That love is manifested many times in service. In verse 14, the word translated “word” is the Greek word logos, and it could be translated “idea” in this context. The whole Law of Moses could be summarized with the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (here Paul just mentioned “love your neighbor” but “love God” is already assumed—see Jesus’ words from Matthew 22:36-40). The opposite of serving one another in love is seen in verse 15—biting and devouring one another. Christians want to avoid that completely. In light of the possibilities, it is amazing to think that we, as imperfect humans, can theoretically perform the perfect Will of God! How is that possible?

Galatians 5:16 (ESV)

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

The alternative to the dual dangers of legalism and hedonism is simple: it’s walking by the spirit. God has given every Christian the way of communicating with Him: holy spirit. If any two people could have walked perfectly using solely head knowledge of the Scriptures, it would have been Jesus and Paul. But Jesus had to have holy spirit (see Matthew 3:16 as one example of Jesus’ baptism) and so did Paul. Let’s look at what Paul said about that exact thing in Romans 7. Keep in mind that Paul was describing life before he had the spirit.

Romans 7:14-25 (ESV)

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.

So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,

but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Paul wanted to do what God wanted him to do. But no matter how hard he tried, how much he studied, and how much he memorized the Scriptures, it didn’t matter. He was only flesh and blood—thus, he could not do what God wanted him to do. But, when Paul received the spirit, his life changed, and now he had a free choice to do what God wanted him to do.

Galatians 5:17-24 (ESV)

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

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. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Christians have a choice to make: will we allow our old nature (sin nature) rule our decisions and actions? Or will we believe and act as if our old man has been crucified and allow ourselves to be led by the spirit of God? Being led by the spirit goes beyond robotically obeying the mandates of the Law of Moses. And believe me, there is a lot to learn from the Law of Moses (II Timothy 3:16). But the Christian has to discern what is profitable and practical in modern life under grace. How does the Christian do that? By attentively listening to God and mastering the Bible (both doctrinally and practically) as best as possible. On one hand, we have the works of the flesh and the fruit of the desires of the old man nature. On the other hand, we have the fruit of the spirit. The fruit of the spirit is part of the Christian’s genuine witness to the world. Others may not get a chance to read the Bible or get answers to prayer before they see your life and the fruit that it produces. One of the most humbling and honest questions that a Christian can ask himself or herself is, “Is the fruit of my life in line with Galatians 5:22-23?” If the answer is no, then one of the best remedies is found in verse 24: we are to crucify the flesh and the desires that result from the flesh. Notice that the list of desires given in verses 19-21 includes items from both sets of evils, hedonism and legalism. Idolatry, for example, would follow from legalism and outward religious displays, not hedonism. Paul, by revelation, handles both evils here. Also of note is that, in verse 23, the phrase “against such things there is no law” could also be translated “there is no law concerning these things.” The Law of Moses could never regulate people to the point of genuinely seeing the fruit of the spirit in their lives.

Galatians 5:25-26 (ESV)

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

The spirit of God makes Christians truly alive. We finally have the option to choose between sin and right behavior. If the spirit made us alive, then we should arrange our lives to be led by the spirit. Why would we want to return to making decisions using our fallen nature? Verse 26 shows one of the ways that the Galatians could have moved the wrong direction.

So what is the big picture understanding from Galatians 5? In the past few chapters, Paul dealt with the dual sins of legalism/idolatry (external religious practices) and hedonism. Repeatedly, Paul contrasted the true walk of liberty in Christ with the oppressive slavery of walking by the old man nature. For the Christian, this prompts an important question: how can we walk more like Christ? How did Christ walk? If we want to imitate the actions of Christ, then we must know how he handled various situations. Did he mechanically quote and uphold the Law of Moses or did he walk by the spirit?

Jesus Christ always did the Father’s Will. He fulfilled the Law, but he didn’t always do it in the ways that the religious leaders expected him to. For example, he plucked grain on the Sabbath day.

Matthew 12:1-2 (ESV)

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.

But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”

The Pharisees were the ones concerned about the absolute letter of the Law of Moses (and additionally, their commentary and additional rules about the Law). Jesus saw a need and one righteous solution. And let’s be expressly clear: the disciples were not violating property rights (Deuteronomy 23:25). Jesus was more concerned about the needs of the people than he was about potential conformity to the Law of Moses (and especially the most rigorous interpretations of the Law of Moses). That’s a signature component of walking by the spirit. When walking by the spirit, the believer primarily cares about what God is instructing him or her to do. We endeavor to maintain peaceable relationships with others, but ultimately, obeying God is the first priority.

Matthew 8:1-3 (ESV)

When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.

And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

It certainly appears that Jesus touched the leper before the leper was healed. This could have been a violation of the Law (Leviticus 13:3). Again, Jesus was more concerned about taking care of the needs of the individual than he was about rigorously and religiously interpreting the Law of Moses.

Matthew 23:23 (ESV)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

Jesus Christ saw the Law as a series of principles that were to be held above the ritualistic observance of the Law. And he is clear: the Israelites were to obey the Law. However, ritualistic obedience of the smaller ordinances was less important than cultivating a lifestyle in accordance with the “weightier matters of the law,” principles like justice, mercy, and faithfulness. As Christians, now that the ordinances have been eliminated, we can still cultivate the principles of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Those larger spiritual principles of the Law carry over to the time of Grace.

Jesus Christ most likely memorized the entire Word of God that was available to him, the Old Testament. But even more importantly, he had the spirit of God directing his paths. Similarly, we now have the ability to walk by the spirit and experience the joy of fulfilling the Law of Christ. God by way of Moses gave Israel a Law that was designed to keep them safe until the Messiah could come. God by way of Jesus gave the spirit, the way out of bondage. With the spirit, we can fulfill the Law “love thy neighbor as thyself,” we can navigate life the way that God intended, we can exhibit the fruit of the spirit in our lives and attract others to God, we can avoid the bondage of manmade rules and sinful desires. Moses gave the Law; Jesus gave us the ability to experience freedom via the spirit.

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