Notes for teaching on Galatians 5:1-26, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 6.
Paul argues that the Galatians should protect and live into their freedom by choosing the life of the Spirit instead of adherence to the Law.
The passage is applicable today because it invites us to consider the nature of Christian freedom and the centrality of the Spirit in the Christian life.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Remember that Paul has been arguing that the Galatian Christians have been set free from the basic or elemental principles of the world, of which the Mosaic Law is a part. The last part of his argument in chapter 4 drew on the story of Sarah and Hagar to make this point again. Now, in v 1 of chapter 5, Paul issues a compact application of all this discussion concerning freedom. Christ, he says, set his people free that they might be free from idols and the law and whatever else belongs to the realm of the “basic principles.” If this is true, the Galatians should stand firm in that freedom, thereby refusing to return to slavery.
2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
The compact application having been stated, Paul now draws it out as it relates to the Mosaic Law. Here we need to understand that circumcision was the first step to an acceptance of the Law as authoritative and necessary to the Christian life. Paul’s argument against circumcision, therefore, is an argument against the Law in its entirety, as is apparent in v 3. In this argument, Paul doesn’t pull any punches in telling the Galatians what is at stake. If the Galatians accept circumcision and therefore accept the Law:
- Christ will be of no value to them at all.
- They will be obligated to obey the entire Law.
- They will be alienated from Christ.
- They will fall away from grace.
All of these results of accepting the Law boil down to a choice between two systems of approaching God: (1) the Law and (2) Christ. As McKnight explains in his discussion of vv 3 an 4:
This restatement simply contends that those who opt for the law’s system opt out of the Christ system or the grace system. Put differently, they are choosing another way of becoming accepted by God, and the one they are choosing (the law of Moses) will not do the job. So the issue is which system are they relying upon: how is a person accepted by God and how shall people live as God’s people?
Paul’s opponents in Galatia have been arguing for a “Jesus and the Law” approach to acceptance before God. Paul argues that attaching the Law to Jesus is impossible. Rather than being complementary, the Law and Christ are mutually exclusive approaches to God. You either accept the Law and are graded by your adherence to it, or you accept Christ and grace. This is an either/or decision, and there is no middle ground. Accepting the Law means turning from Christ, just as accepting Christ means turning from the Law. Which system will the Galatians choose?
Ultimately, Paul’s statements about alienation from Christ and falling away from grace are explained by this “system” approach. Choosing the Law means alienation from Christ and falling away from grace because choosing the law means that a person turns his/her back on these things. Hence the alienation and falling away. What about the salvation of those who make this choice, though? Here let’s note that Paul is speaking rhetorically to make a point. Imagine that a Galatian heard these words after being circumcised. Were they now forever boxed out of grace because they misunderstood how Christ and the Law relate? Absolutely not! Paul would tell that person that circumcision isn’t the issue. Rather, one’s relationship to the Law is the key. Yes, the person started down the wrong road by accepting circumcision, but that doesn’t mean they must stay on it. No, they should abandon the Law and cling to Christ and grace! In these verses, then, Paul is not pronouncing anyone to be beyond grace.
The question then turns to those who hear Paul’s words and still opt for the Law. This is a tougher question that various faith traditions tackle differently. What everyone agrees on is this: perseverance is necessary in the Christian life. It therefore really matters whether the Galatians choose to adhere to the Law or persevere with Christ. The Baptist tradition will argue that the person who turns away from Christ for good was never truly converted in the first place.
Yet another argument against the Law having been made, Paul moves in v 5 to speak about the Christian’s true grounding. As NT Wright explains:
[Verse 5] throws the emphasis towards the future. Paul speaks of the time when God will declare publicly and completely that all those in Christ really are his people. This is ‘the hope of righteousness’, the longing for the time when God’s vindication and justification of all his faithful people will be made manifest, the time of the new creation (6:15). And, he says, we await this great event, the conferring of this public status, ‘by the spirit’—in other words, not by the ‘flesh’, the marks of circumcision made in the human body. In other words, if you want evidence here and now that our future hope is not in vain, you should find such evidence not in the status you attain through having a minor physical operation but in the new life you have in the spirit.
In v 6, Paul sums up what truly matters to the Christian. Rather than circumcision, which is really of no value, faith expressing itself through love is the key. Wright says of this faith, “it is not a bare faith, simply giving credence to a set of beliefs. It is a faith that works—but not with ‘the works of the law.’”
7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. 11 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 abolished. 12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
Paul now turns his argument toward his opponents. Who, he asks is leading you astray? Be careful of these people, he says, because a little bit of yeast affects the entire ball of dough. This statement is reminiscent of Jesus speaking to the twelve about the yeast of the Pharisees. The point is that one point of argument is not what is at stake. Rather, these teachers will affect everything about the faith community in Galatia. Because Paul believes this, he makes two very strong statements against his opponents: (1) they will pay the penalty and (2) he wishes they would emasculate themselves. With number 1, Paul makes a statement of theological fact. His opponents will be accountable to God for their actions, and they will receive their due. With number 2, Paul lets his listeners know that he is dead set against his detractors. His language is purposefully inflammatory to get the Galatians’ attention. This business about circumcision is serious, and he is totally set against it.
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” k 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
Having argued against the Law and against his opponents, Paul now returns to the theme of freedom. Previously, he argued that the Galatians should stand firm in their freedom and not return to slavery. Now, he tells them that they should be careful not to use that same freedom in ways that God would not approve. This statement brings the topic of freedom into focus, because Paul is clear that Christian freedom is not simply freedom to do whatever one wishes. As McKnight explains, “’Being free’ is being set free ‘to be’ what God wants us to be.” In this specific context, being free to be what God wants us to be means that the Galatians will freely choose to “serve one another humbly in love” rather than destroying one another.
V 14 is something of a confusing verse. After arguing vehemently against the Law for most of the letter, Paul sums up the entire Law in the statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In making this move, Paul is bolstering his argument about faith working itself out in love. Even the Law, which we have been arguing about, makes this point. Jesus himself summed up the Law as loving God and loving people. This love is now achieved apart from the Law through the work of the Spirit.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now we have another qualification concerning Christian freedom. To be free does not mean that we are free from temptation. Rather, the flesh (the part of us that desires what God does not) is still alive and well. Though the flesh once made us unable to please God, Christians have now received the Spirit, which wars with the flesh. In freedom, then, the Christian should choose the Spirit over the flesh. In doing so he/she will fulfill God’s will. Importantly, this fulfillment comes through the Spirit rather than the Law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
ETB offers a helpful discussion of both the vices and virtues listed in this passage. That in mind, I’ll simply offer the following thoughts:
- The Galatians don’t need the Law to know what God disapproves of. The acts of the flesh are “obvious.”
- The fruit of the Spirit is the product of the Spirit’s work within us.
- We encourage/agree with the Spirit’s work when we “keep in step with the Spirit” through obedience and Christian disciplines.
- Most of the fruit of the Spirit mentioned here (this is not necessarily an exhaustive list) is communal in nature. We love one another, have peace in our midst, are patient with those who annoy us, etc. The Spirit, then, is preparing us for right living with other people.
Notes for Teaching
While Paul up to this point has mentioned the Spirit several times, this is the first time in the letter that he explains the centrality of the Spirit to the Christian life. Paul’s detractors might ask, “If we jettison the Law, how will we know how to live?” Paul’s answer is two-fold: (1) It’s not hard to know what doesn’t please God and (2) the Spirit makes us into the kind of people who please God. The Spirit, then, and not the Law is the grounding of the Christian’s life as it is lived before God.
This said, we Baptists sometimes don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit. We sometimes seem to be afraid that too much emphasis here will lead us into charismatic territory that makes us very uncomfortable. What we need to see is that Paul’s view of the Spirit here does not take us in that direction. Here in Galatians, the Spirit wars against the flesh within us and accomplishes what the Law couldn’t by making us into people who please God. Moreover, keeping in step with the Spirit is a matter of obedience and purposeful action. When the Spirit prompts we obey, and we do the kinds of things that encourage the Spirit’s work within us like worship, community, generosity, etc.
In saying all of this, I’m not trying to be unkind to charismatics. Though I disagree with points of charismatic theology, I believe that this stream of the faith has much to teach us. I also have charismatic friends who are wonderful Christians. My point here is that we sometimes assume that talking about the Spirit takes us into uncomfortable territory. This is not the case in Galatians. In this letter, the Spirit takes the place of the Law in God’s family and makes us truly able to please God.
A further point for discussion is the theme of Christian freedom. From this passage, we can glean the following insights about freedom:
- We are free from the principles and powers of the world.
- We are free to become who God wants us to be.
- Freedom does not mean freedom from temptation. Our call is to purposefully choose the way of the Spirit rather than the way of the flesh.
- Ultimately, freedom to be who God wants us to be is a result of the Spirit’s work within us (fruit) rather than our own effort.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do we know about the Holy Spirit?
- What are your experiences of the Holy Spirit?
Freedom in Christ
Read: Gal 5:1
- What does Paul mean when he says that Christ has set us free?
- What has Christ set us free from?
- In the context of Galatians, what freedom is Paul referring to?
Read: Gal 5:2-6
- Why will Christ be of no value to the Galatians if they are circumcised?
- What does it mean when Paul says that those who are circumcised will be alienated from Christ and will fall away from grace?
- When we think of systems for being accepted by God, the Mosaic Law isn’t prevalent in modern American society. What systems do people in our culture by into today?
- How does Christ/grace differ from these systems?
Read: Gal 5:7-12
- How would you describe Paul’s attitude toward his opponents?
- What does Paul mean when he talks about yeast and dough?
- Is it appropriate for an apostle to speak this way?
- Why do you think Paul is so inflammatory in his speech?
Read: Gal 5:13-15
- What does this passage add to our knowledge about Christian freedom?
- How is it that Christians are free if they aren’t allowed to do whatever they want?
- Does freedom mean that we are free from temptation?
Life in the Spirit
Read: Gal 5:16-26
- According to this passage, what does the Spirit do in the life of the believer?
- What does it mean for Christians to walk by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit?
- How is the Spirit related to the Mosaic Law?
- How can we Christians today protect and live into our freedom in Christ?
- What are concrete things we can do agree with the work of the Spirit in our lives?
Scott McKnight’s Galatians in the NIV Application Commentary series.
NT Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians
Explore the Bible Curriculum