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The Threat of License: Galatians 5:13-21

THE THREAT OF LICENSE

Galatians 5:13-21


Central thought: freedom in Christ yields service in love, not lawlessness.

The Setting

The problem with the Judaizers was a legalistic one. They wished to add circumcision to God's conditions of salvation for the Gentiles. Paul rebutted this Judaizing doctrine throughout the whole of the epistle to the Galatians. For Paul Christians are free from a legalistic method of salvation, that is, they do not have to keep the whole law perfectly to be saved. To be saved one need only accept God's forgiveness on the conditions he has set. To add to those conditions is to revert to a subtle form of legalism.

However, Paul's teaching is open to misrepresentation and misinterpretation. There were groups within the first century who interpreted their freedom from legalism as a freedom from obedience to law altogether. They reasoned that if they were free, they were not bound to obey God's law (see Rom. 6:1-2). Whether or not such a group existed among the Galatian churches is uncertain though improbable. Paul is simply guarding against a possible misunderstanding of his doctrine of grace.


The Text


Verse 13. One of the most important terms for Paul in this section is the word "flesh" (translated by the NIV as "sinful nature"). The term does not refer to human skin or to the physical body. If that were the case, then everyone who ever had a physical body would be a sinner. But Jesus himself possessed "flesh" in the physical sense. On the contrary, Paul uses the term to refer to man as sinner. To be in the flesh is to live as a sinner (see Rom. 8:5,9,12). Nothing good dwells in it (Rom. 7:18) and it cannot please God (Rom. 8:8). Man through his own habits of sin and the practice of sin has warped himself. Paul's term "flesh" refers to this condition: man as sinner. It is sinful man or man's sinful nature which he has produced in himself. He was not born with this sinful nature, but rather acquired it through his own perverse habits (see Eph. 2:1-3).


This flesh is a temptation for our freedom. It is possible that some could use this freedom as an opportunity to exploit the leanings of their sinfulness. Indeed, the term "opportunity" may refer to a military base of operations from which an offensive action is launched. If we misunderstand our freedom, then we may wrongly go on the attack with our flesh. But this is to abuse the freedom we have in Christ. The real essence of this freedom is paradoxical. Yes, we are free, but we are free only to serve others in love. Our freedom motivates us to become enslaved to others by serving their needs out of the love we feel for them. Christian freedom, then, finds its true outlet in loving Christian service. We are free only as we are enslaved to others.

Verses 14, 15. Instead of disregarding the law of God, freedmen in Christ are expected to obey the law. The law can be summarized in two commands: to love God and love your neighbor (see Matt. 22:37-40). When one loves his neighbor he fulfills the demands of law, and love shows itself by obedience to God's laws. Instead of exploiting his neighbor by sinning against him, the Christian freedman loves him by obeying God's statues. This love is the fulfillment of the law itself (see Rom. 13:8-10). Consequently, where love is present, bickering and gossip are absent. The problems in the Galatian churches had no doubt caused some terrible infighting. Paul warns them that this is a violation of the law of God, and encourages love within the churches.

Verses 16-18. These verses summarize in a succint way Paul's point in Romans 7:7-8:17. The Christian does not live without struggle. It is only the one who does not have the Spirit of God within him who does not struggle since he gives in to the desires of the flesh easily. The Christian, however, feels the tension between his old sinful habits (his flesh) and the new regenerating power of God (the presence of the Spirit). Sometimes the flesh wins when we do not lean on the strength of the Spirit. Sometimes we do not do what we know we should. However, if the Spirit is the dominate influence in our life, if he leads us and we live by him, then we can overcome the influence of our flesh and live acceptably before God. The burden of perfect obedience has been lifted (we are not under the law in that sense), and consequently we can lean on the grace of Christ's forgiveness and the strength of his Spirit to aide our life in him. God provides a cure for both our guilt through forgiveness and our weak sinful flesh through the power of the Spirit.

Verses 19-21. The works of the flesh are contrasted with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 3:22). The terminology is important. The flesh works unrighteousness without any help, but the fruit of joy, love, peace, patience, etc. cannot arise within us without the productive work of the Spirit. These are products of the Spirit and not products of the flesh. The flesh produces sexual immorality, idolatrous allegiances to things other than God, and sinful attitudes toward others. The freedman in Christ is not permitted to indulge in these works of the flesh. These are legally forbidden--it is against the law to commit these acts of the flesh. It is clear, then, that the Christian is still bound to law. He has a responsibility to obey God's will. He is not free to act as he pleases. Those who committ these acts of the flesh are excluded from the eternal kingdom of God.

The Lesson

First, each Christian struggles with the flesh. The war within us between the Spirit of God and our flesh is a normal part of a Christian's life. The war is not a sign of spiritual immaturity, but a sign of spiritual vitality. Whoever does not sense this war nor feel the tension has lost his genuine spirituality. His arrogance will be his downfall (see 1 Cor. 10:12).


Second, the role of the Spirit of God in a Christian's life is too often underestimated or even negelected. While anyone may produce sinfulness in his life thorugh the energy of his own flesh, no one can produce the fruits of righteousness except the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit of God who wars against our fleshly tendencies. Without his strength and energy, the Christian is left to himself to produce righteousness in his life. That is a futile effort since we cannot do anything without the strength of God (Phil. 4:13). Our prayer ought always to be for God to provide us with the strength of the Spirit (see Eph. 3:16-17).

Third, it is important to note that the Christian is obligated to obey the law of God. To be free from sin does not mean we are free to act as we please or disregard God's will. It is true that we are not saved by perfectly obeying the law of God since we are saved through an obedient faith in Christ (imperfect though that obedience is). However, this does not release us from the obligation to obey that law and to approximate it as closely as possible in our lives. In a nutshell: freedom from legalism is not a liscense to disregard the law of God. Rather, freedom from the burden of legalism is the opportunity to serve others in love.

Questions

1. Define what Paul means by "flesh"?

2. In what sense is the NIV translation of "flesh" as "sinful nature" right or wrong?

3. Discuss the paradoxical nature of our freedom in Christ.

4. In what sense are not "under law?"

5. In what sense are we obligated to obey God's law?

6. Does a Christian ever do what he knows he should not? How does the Spirit help in this struggle?

7. Does the struggle between flesh and Spirit within us show how immature we really are?

8. Think about each of the works of the flesh--define each.

9. Why do you think Paul chose to mention these when there are many others he could have chosen?

10. Discuss the different image that is reflection in Paul's terminology: "works of flesh" vs. "fruit of Spirit."





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