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Galatians 5:13-15

September 19, 1999

Text Comment


  • 13 “called to freedom” Paul means, as we have seen already at v. 1, freedom from bondage to guilt, freedom from the futile necessity of earning one’s peace with God, freedom from the fear of his judgment. But the tendency to turn this freedom into a license for sin is deeply engrained in fallen humanity. We find specie of the same tendency at work in our culture. In the USA today “freedom” now means the absence of moral constraints, no one telling you how to live, liberty to do anything and be anyone you please. That is no more the Bible’s view of freedom than it was the view of freedom entertained by the political fathers of our country.
  • “sinful nature” is, of course, the NIV’s typical translation of Paul’s “the flesh”, the corrupt, sinful nature of man, which remains a powerful force even after regeneration and the new creation.
  • 14 In v. 3 we have read that anyone who embraces the legalistic spirit must face the implication that he is obliged to keep all the commandments of God to be right with God. He can’t pick and choose the easy ones only. Here the thought is different: the “whole law” refers to the law as a whole, the spirit and intention and direction of all the commandments of God’s law put together. The OT already summarized the law of God with the two great commandments to love God and one’s neighbor and Jesus reiterated that summary in his own teaching. Paul says a similar thing about love fulfilling the law in Romans 13:8-10. It is interesting to note, of course, that Paul obviously does not regard the authority of the law diminished by anything he has said about the law not being the means of our justification. It is still the rule of our life and its obligations still must be met, however much it is not the means of our peace with God.
  • 15 For the first time we learn that there were divisions and conflicts in the Galatian church. We can well imagine this, of course. When new teaching is introduced, good teaching or bad, usually some embrace it and some do not and the result is controversy and quarreling and the inevitable sins of temper that go along with controversy. Paul’s image is a racy one that gives us a good picture of what really happens when Christians attack one another: here we have a picture of wild beasts charging at one another, biting, tearing at one another’s flesh in hopes of making the other prey. Here we have, in a Christian church, no less, “nature red in tooth and claw.”

Doctrines are dangerous; all doctrines are. The Bible doesn’t teach anything that Christians haven’t misapplied. And, when doctrines are polemically and so emphatically asserted, as Paul has asserted justification by faith alone and apart from works here in Galatians, there is a special danger that the Bible’s teaching will be misshapen and corrupted precisely by readers of the Bible taking points further than the Bible writers take them. In some ways, it is surprising that the Bible teaches its doctrine in this way, as it seems almost to invite a one-sided overemphasis. We might have expected Paul, all along the way, to remind his readers that, of course, he did not mean in asserting justification by faith alone that they were not obliged to keep the commandments of God. But he did not and the Bible characteristically does not.

This is the dialectical or polar pedagogy we encounter everywhere in the Bible. The truths at each end of any continuum of truth are taught, often without any qualification and emphatically, and usually there is no effort to reconcile them or to ease the tension created by the assertion of both things. Truths are juxtaposed, set side by side, but they are not synthesized or harmonized. We have sovereign grace and election on the one hand and the freedom of the human will on the other, but we are never taught precisely how to believe both at the same time or how to understand the relation between the two. We have salvation by grace set beside the judgment according to works on the last day (isn’t it interesting to you; hasn’t it bothered you at one time or another, that none of the judgment day scenes in the Bible are written the way they ought to be! Never do we hear the Lord separating the righteous from the wicked by the means he ought to use: viz. who believed in Jesus Christ?). We have the doctrine of the continuing sinfulness of Christians set beside their new holiness of life. Paul says at one point that, even now long a Christian he is still a bond-slave of sin. John says that Christians, real Christians, don’t sin! At point after point of biblical teaching, we find this same juxtaposition of what can seem to be opposite messages. They are not opposite, they are not truly in conflict with one another – the truth of God is one – but they are difficult for us to harmonize. That is the point. Living with that tension is healthy, spiritually necessary, even.

Otherwise, we will be one-sided, a great spiritual danger for us all. Most errors are simply a one-sided assertion of the truth, uncorrected by, unbalanced by other truth. And so here. Preach justification by faith alone and apart from works and many will take you to mean that they are free to live as they please, after all, their peace with God has nothing to do with the way they live and the works they perform. Preach the obligation of obedience and many will fall into legalism, for keeping the commandments will be all they think about. So, the Bible does both. It preaches justification by faith so starkly as to leave the impression that the Bible is antinomian (Lloyd Jones once said that if a minister has preached through Romans 1-5 and his congregation doesn’t think he is an antinomian, he should go back and preach it again more faithfully, for when Paul had finished Romans 1-5 he assumed that his readers would be suspecting that he meant that, being justified so completely by Christ’s righteousness and not their own, they were free to live as they pleased); and it preaches the law so starkly as to leave the impression that works are necessary for our justification and peace with God. Both are true, of course, but in very different ways.

Here Paul has been so long engaged in the defense of justification by works and not by faith that he fears, as he did at Romans 6:1, that people will misapply that emphasis and think themselves no longer obliged to live a holy life of love. After all, to live in love for God and man is a very difficult thing. Anyone who has tried it knows how difficult it is. If you don’t have to, won’t we all relax sooner or later?

Paul perhaps has special reasons to head off an antinomian misunderstanding of his emphasis on justification by faith and not by works, or, which is the same thing, justification by Christ’s righteousness and not our own, or justification by grace and not by our own effort.

First, almost certainly the judaizers were charging that Paul’s rejection of the law as necessary for salvation would lead to lawlessness and corrupt living. People always object to justification by faith on that ground. Indeed, the new Roman Catholics object to it on precisely that ground today. I was astonished to hear them say it, but Scott Hahn and the others say just that: that justification by faith alone undermines moral living. The problem with that objection, among others, of course, is that Paul himself teaches that people would object to his doctrine of justification precisely on that ground, that it seemed to undermine moral living. If one’s obedience, if one’s morality is not the reason for one’s peace with God, then why be obedient and moral? But, surely, that means that if one’s doctrine of justification is not subject to that objection it is not Paul’s doctrine and it is not the Bible’s doctrine. If the way you understand justification does not lead people to wonder if you are an antinomian, then clearly you don’t have the same doctrine of justification that Paul did. (Just as, if your doctrine of grace does not lead people to argue that your doctrine makes God unjust and nullifies the human will, it cannot be the same that Paul taught, because he knew his doctrine would be objected to on precisely those two grounds, as he says in Romans 9. A proof that Arminianism cannot be biblical; for it is not subject to those objections; it is a theology precisely designed to avoid those objections!) The problem with the RC doctrine of justification by faith, looked at from this vantage point, is that no one would ever imagine objecting to it on the ground that it encouraged loose living. The RC scheme requires your obedience for your peace with God; indeed, it requires it each day. You have more or less justification depending upon your behavior! No one would object to that doctrine as they objected to Paul’s!

Second, Paul’s teaching about justification was a particularly dangerous teaching, however necessary, in a culture that was as morally corrupt and lawless as was the culture of these Gentile Christians, the culture from which they had come, and in which they still lived. Later on in this same chapter he is going to remind them that debauchery, witchcraft, drunkenness, and orgies are not appropriate for the people of God. We might have thought that was too obvious even to mention. You would not expect a preacher today, delivering a sermon to a congregation like this, to emphasize that you must not practice witchcraft or engage in orgies. But such admonitions were not irrelevant for these people. Not with their past and not with the sensual and idolatrous atmosphere in which they had to live.

Indeed, it may very well be the case that the judaizers case was strengthened in Galatia because of the open immorality of some of the Church members. It is easier to convince people that justification by faith is false if its advocates seem to be living worldly lives!

The true doctrine of God and salvation is a knife-edge, with refined legalism on one side and libertinism on the other. And through the ages the church can be seen falling to one side or the other and through our days we can find ourselves falling to one side or the other. And in our hearts, God forbid, we argue doctrinally, theologically to ourselves. We comfort ourselves in sinning in the knowledge of our justification in the righteousness of Christ alone. We may not often say it straight out to ourselves – it is alright for me to sin this way, for I’m justified in Christ and forgiven through his blood, but down at the bottom this is the comfort we take for ourselves. And so we turn Christ’s robe of righteousness into a cloak for our sin.

Or, on the other hand, while not at all rejecting the doctrine of justification by faith, we judge ourselves and one another and compare ourselves to one another according to our works and, for days on end, we do not really reckon with the extraordinary gift that has been given to us in the forgiveness of all our terrible sins, the mountain of our sins that crushed us under its weight and from which we could never have extricated ourselves, and continue to feel quite good about ourselves because of the paltry little things we do and the idea we have that we are better than others.


Now I find Paul’s remarks here quite striking! Do you? After all, we might have expected something else. We might have expected an application of the quite harsh condemnation Paul made of the judaizers in the immediately preceding verse. We spoke last time of Paul’s “bitter” remark, as one commentator calls it; virtually a cursing of the false teachers.

Might we not have expected Paul to go on and tell the Galatians to stamp out the false teaching in their midst, to have nothing to do with those who embrace it, to give no quarter to those who harbor error so deadly in the bosom of the church? He has at least hinted at such a response in 4:30. Perhaps you would say, “yes, but the Bible distinguishes between false teachers and ordinary church members; there is a sharpness of attack that is reserved for those who are intruding killing errors upon the church.” That is true, I think. But we also have texts where Christians are told not to associate with other Christians, not because they taught falsehood but because they believed it or received it or practiced it in some way. Paul himself says such things, as, for example, in 2 Thessalonians 3:14: “Do not associate with such a person.”

Talk about the Bible’s dialectical approach to teaching. At one moment the two sides are being set over against one another in the starkest terms and the faithful are warned against those who have embraced false teaching. In the next, we are commanded to love one another and warned that quarrels can absolutely destroy the church.

It is not easy to know how to apply all of this material in our actual experience; and it is much more difficult actually to be faithful to this double obligation of fidelity to the truth of the gospel and the love of our brethren and neighbor.

I was reminded just this week of how the spirit of contention can poison a church. These are not theoretical problems. One of the disadvantages of larger churches, in my judgment, is precisely that this disunity can be so easily masked, never seen or faced or dealt with when a church is large. A congregation of thousands absorbs a great deal of disharmony and no one is the wiser, because no one knows everyone, no one knows anywhere near everyone. In a smaller congregation the cracks show up and we see the truth that Paul is speaking of here much more often and much more easily: all that about biting and devouring.

But, let me give you another illustration. Apropos of Paul’s remarks here, I think, given the pagan background of these Galatian Gentile converts. I read recently some very harsh criticism of a PCA pastor I know by a man in another denomination for this PCA man’s remark to the effect that he and his wife would go out with a homosexual couple of an evening in order to get to know them and befriend them and gain a hearing for the gospel from them. Apparently sexual immorality was still a problem in the Galatian churches and some people, in all probability, were disgusted with others for engaging in it and biting and devouring them on account of their sin, as well as doubting justification by faith on the grounds that it was producing immoral not holy lives among those who believed in it.  But it is against that backdrop that Paul tells these believers to love one another.

And, notice the true dialectic here. We began the letter with Paul saying that anyone who brought another gospel was anathema, eternally condemned. Now he is telling these believers, riven with this doctrinal controversy and taking both sides in it apparently, to love one another. And, what is more, this love, he says, is not simply a part of the Christian life, it is the fulfillment of the entire law! More than anything else is the definition of the Christian life, this life of love, forbearance, tenderness, forgiveness, believing and hoping the best, sympathy, self-sacrifice on behalf of others – all that we mean by love. Though, as one commentator beautifully put it: “…would it not be easier to count the glistening beads in the descending chains of rain than to catalogue all the elements that enter into that mysterious force which causes many hearts to beat as one?” [Hendriksen, 211]

But if love is what God supremely desires in us and from us, then “the flesh” will be the contrary of that: selfishness, hatred, pride, suspicion, envy, feelings of superiority. And controversy, of course, exacerbates all of that more than almost anything else in the world.

Not so long ago I read J.N.D. Kelly’s Jerome, a magnificent study of a very great man. But Jerome, for all his gifts and graces, was an absolute disgrace as a controversialist and never, I dare say, has anyone more completely forgotten the Lord’s admonition: “…the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone…. He must gently instruct those who oppose him in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth…” Whenever Jerome was writing about people who had criticized him, or people who hadn’t support him as fully as he thought they should, or people he didn’t like, his letters drip with sarcasm, insinuations, mistrust, self-defense, cantankerousness, and, sometimes, amazingly inappropriate malice. And, alas, he reserved much of his most embarrassingly harsh, intemperate, and crude attack for fellow-Christians. Even Ambrose and Augustine felt his lash.

If great Christians struggle to heed Paul’s warning here, how much more you and I. How careful we need to be that there is love in our hearts for one another, perhaps especially for those about whom there is something that otherwise might divide us: we envy them, or we harbor a grudge for something they did or said long ago, or they represent a different viewpoint than our own.

And how are we to keep a pure heart toward our neighbor, so that we can love them even if there are these impediments? Well, we ought to pray for them. It is hard to despise someone at the Right Hand! And we ought to remind ourselves frequently that nothing else matters in the Christian life – not even the things we pride ourselves on doing well, or better than others – if we are not possessed of love. Love is the main thing, the central thing, without which the rest does not count. That is a scary thought! But what does Paul say: If I have faith to move mountains, if I give up all my money for the poor, if I can communicate the gospel better than an angel, but don’t have a loving heart toward my fellow man, I am nothing; a zero!

And, then, we ought to keep the Lord’s love for us constantly before our view. Justification by faith, rightly understood, is the death of pride and pride is the death of love. You noticed that way of speaking: “serve one another in love.” What did that remind you of except the Lord himself, the night of his betrayal, with all the weight of the world and of hell itself descending upon his soul, after he had eaten the Supper with his disciples, took a basin and a towel and began to wash and dry their feet. And then he said, “As I have done for you, so you do for one another.” If you would be like Christ, if you would be his faithful disciple and follower, then do what he did in serving one another.

And, then, finally, there is this. You don’t want to live an inconsequential life, do you? You want your life to matter for Christ’s sake, don’t you? But you and I are not going to do great things as the world measures greatness. We aren’t likely to found a great company or lead a great movement or write a book the whole world reads or dazzle the world with some skill or ability of ours. Ours is the way of ordinary life.

But, then, even the great, even the Jeromes of this world, do not love and serve others well. They are, perhaps, distracted by their gifts and accomplishments. We will not have that problem! But, if we love, if we become more and more the servants of others, if we do that, we will fulfill the whole law. And that will be a most remarkable thing, the more so because it is so rare. And, it lies in your hand to do it! You have God’s grace and you have your own will: love your neighbor by serving him or her. And stand back to see what comes of that! You will be amazed at the power of true love!

Make it your goal and your effort this week to love and serve your neighbor for Christ’s sake. Make it your goal that the biting and devouring you will have nothing to do with, not in your thoughts and not in your words even in private and in the family circle and among your close friends. You are going to be instead a washer of feet!