Galatians 5:1, 13-25


In chapters 3 and 4 Paul had used argument after argument from Scripture to bring out clearly the doctrine of justification by faith alone, apart from the deeds of the Law. Chapters 5 and 6 have been called the practical or parenetic section of Galatians. These chapters speak about the necessary consequence of justification which is sanctification. Luther rightly said: "Faith alone justifies but faith is never alone." Good works are not necessary for salvation but they are necessary as a fruit and proof of faith. Faith without works is dead. Strictly speaking the parenetic section of Galatians does not begin until verse 13 of chapter 5.

Galatians 5:1 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.

The RSV reads: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." The NKJV reads: "Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage." Either reading has the same intended sense.

Verse 1 and verse 13 are speaking of the same kind of freedom.

Luther: This is the freedom with which Christ has set us free, not from some human slavery or tyrannical authority but from the eternal wrath of God. Where? In the conscience. This is where our freedom comes to a halt; it goes no further. For Christ has set us free, not for a political freedom or a freedom of the flesh but for a theological or spiritual freedom, that is, to make our conscience free and joyful, unafraid of the wrath to come, Matthew 3:7. This is the most genuine freedom; it is immeasurable . . . . The freedom, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and life that we have through Christ are sure, firm, and eternal, provided that we believe this.

The Gospel and only the Gospel gives freedom from the guilt and power of sin, the power of death, and the power of the devil. The Law (the third use thereof) obligates. We shall come to that later.

In verses 2-12 Paul is not condemning circumcision. He is condemning the use of circumcision in the service of works-righteousness. All who try to save themselves by their own works are forthrightly told that they have cut themselves off from Christ and have fallen from grace, verse 4. And Paul is so vehement in his condemnation of the Judaizers that he says in verse 12: "I just with that the people who are disturbing you would go and castrate themselves." These are hard words, indicating the danger of synergism and works-righteousness.

Gal 5:2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Gal 5:3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. Gal 5:4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. Gal 5:5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. Gal 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Gal 5:7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? Gal 5:8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. Gal 5:9 "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." Gal 5:10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be. Gal 5:11 Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. Gal 5:12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

Galatians 5:13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature ; rather, serve one another in love.

The last word of verse 12 was "them." The first word of this verse is "you." There is a sharp contrast between verses 12 and 13. Note the passive form of the verbs which eliminates any and all possibilities of synergism.

Luther: I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, etc.

Paul still calls the Galatians "brothers." He still considers them children of God. Then there follows a semi-colon. This indicates that the two thoughts are so closely united that a period should not be used.

"There's only one thing to guard against." And "there's only one comprehensive command." THE antidote.

The believer in Christ constantly faces two dangers:

  1. using his own works to justify himself before God, verses 2-12; and

  2. misusing his Christian liberty to live in sin.

Verse 13 prohibits a conscious misuse of Christian liberty and commands a conscious selfless service toward others, the only antidote to misusing liberty for license.

Luther: As we have said, therefore, the apostle imposes an obligation on Christians through this law about mutual love in order to keep them from abusing their freedom. Therefore the godly should remember that for the sake of Christ they are free in their conscience before God from the curse of the Law, from sin, and from death, but that according to the body they are bound; here each must serve the other through love, in accordance with this commandment of Paul. Therefore let everyone strive to do his duty in his calling and to help his neighbor in whatever way he can. This is what Paul requires of us with the words 'through love be servants of one another,' which do not permit the saint to run free according to the flesh but subject them to an obligation.

The Gospel frees me from sin, death, and the devil. The Law obligates me to love my neighbor.

Galatians 5:14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Verse 14 explains verse 13. This is similar to a parent saying to a child: "You will do this." Note Leviticus 19:18 and Romans 13:8-10. "Own no one anything except to love one another." Love is an obligation, not a freedom.

Lenski: The marvel is the fact that the very law, from which the Christian believer is free, should substantiate this very freedom. . . . What the law demands, the Gospel gives. From one viewpoint the law and the Gospel are direct opposites; hence the only salvation is freedom from the law. Yet from another viewpoint these two correspond, the one dovetails into the other, although they lose their identity; hence the very love produced by the Gospel freedom stands as the fulfillment of the law's demands, which is love. Theologically expressed, this is called the third use of the law.
Luther: It is necessary that faithful preachers urge good works as that they urge the doctrine of faith. . . . With this commandment Paul not only teaches good works but condemns fanatical and superstitious works . . . . No one can find a better, surer, or more available pattern than himself; nor can there be a nobler or more profound attitude of mind than love; nor is there a more excellent object than one's neighbor. Therefore the pattern, the attitude, and the object are all superb.

Galatians 5:15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Paul is not saying that the Galatians are biting and devouring each other. The metaphor is one of vicious dogs destroying each other. They are to examine themselves. If they are doing these things, only one thing can result: mutual destruction. No one ever wins a battle like this.

It will be one or the other. When the vacuum is not filled with deeds of love, mutual destruction takes over.

Luther: It is difficult and dangerous to teach that we are justified by faith without works and yet to require works at the same time. Unless the ministers of Christ are faithful and prudent here and are 'stewards of the mysteries of God, 1 Corinthians 4:1, who rightly divide the Word of truth, 2 Timothy 2:15, they will immediately confuse faith and love at this point. Both topics, faith and works, must be carefully taught and emphasized, but in such a way that they both remain within their limits. Otherwise, if works alone are taught, as happened under the papacy, faith is lost. If faith alone is taught, unspiritual men will immediately suppose that works are not necessary.

Galatians 5:16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

We could start a sub-paragraph at this point. Paul goes back to the though of verse 13. "I repeat with the positive application." "What I am saying is this." "Let me put it like this."

To walk or live in the Holy Spirit means to trust in the Gospel promises. The words express a promise.

"Sinful nature" is our sinful nature, not our human nature. Jesus has a human nature but have has sinned. God created human nature sinless and holy but it became thoroughly sinful in the fall.

Verse 16 says that if we really take justification seriously we will not fulfill sinful desires. To be tempted is not wrong. But to yield IS wrong.

Luther: Thus he has not forgotten the matter of justification. For when he commands them to walk by the Spirit, he clearly denies that works justify. It is as though he were saying; 'When I speak about the fulfilling of the Law, I do not intend to say that we are justified by the Law. But what I am saying is that there are two contrary guides in you, the Spirit and the flesh. God has stirred up a conflict and fight in your body. For the Spirit struggles against the flesh, and the flesh against the Spirit.

Galatians 5:17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.

We reject the translation of the TEV: "For what our human nature wants is opposed to what the Spirit wants, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to what human nature wants." Paul is not speaking about human nature, but about sinful human nature. That is why he calls it the flesh. Look at Romans 7:7-25.

The Christian, and especially the Christian pastor, ought to be aware of his own sinfulness. That will put him into a good position to preach to others.

Paul is saying that the result of this conflict within the Christian is that you cannot do the things that you wish to do. Paul is not saying that the Christian does not do good works. Nor is he saying that it is all right to live in sin. But he IS saying that the sinful flesh is a burden, a hindrance, to the Christian. It is because of the conflict within the Christian.

Luther: Thus there is a great comfort for the faithful in this teaching of Paul's, because they know that they have partly flesh and partly Spirit, but in such a way that the Spirit rules and the flesh is subordinate, that righteousness is supreme and sin is a servant. Otherwise someone who is not aware of this will be completely overwhelmed by a spirit of sadness and will despair. But for someone who knows this doctrine and uses it properly even evil will have to cooperate for good. For when his flesh impels him to sin, he is aroused and incited to seek forgiveness of sins through Christ and to embrace righteousness of faith, which he would otherwise not have regarded as so important or yearned for with such intensity. And so it is very beneficial if we sometimes become aware of the evil of our nature and our flesh, because in this way we are aroused and stirred up to have faith and to call upon Christ. . . . In fact, the godlier one is, the more aware he is of this conflict. This is the source of the complaint of the saints in the Psalms and throughout Scripture. . . . A believer's sin is the same sin and sin just as great as that of the unbeliever. To the believer, however, it is forgiven and not imputed, while to the unbeliever it is retained and imputed.

Galatians 5:18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

Verse 17 ended on a somber note. The reader needs comfort at this point. "But" despite the burden of the flesh, which constantly hampers the Christian, the Christian is to be comforted.

The reader of hearer is to examine himself: "But if you are led by the Spirit." Note the verb is passive. How is the Christian led by the Spirit? By his faith in Jesus. If the individual can answer "yes" Paul assures him: "you are not under the Law." That means: "You are not under bondage and curse." To be led by the Spirit means to be free from the guilt of sin, the power of death and the devil. God is not angry with the believer, with the one who is being led by the Spirit. This person has a renewed will which strives to obey the will of the Lord.

Luther: Why do you say, Paul, that we are not under the Law? 'Do not let this bother you,' he says. 'Only concentrate on this, that you be led by the Spirit, that is, that you obey the will which is opposed to the flesh and that you refuse to gratify the desires of the flesh; for this is what it means to be led and drawn by the Spirit.'

Christ redeemed those who were under the Law, the condemned, the cursed, see Galatians 4:4-5. They are still sinners but their sins are constantly forgiven. They are constantly being tempted to sin but they battle against these temptations.

Luther: You can give powerful comfort to yourself and to others who are experiencing severe trials. It often happens that a man is so fiercely attacked by anger, hatred, impatience, sexual desire, mental depression, or some other desire of the flesh that he simply cannot get rid of it, no matter how much he wants to. What is he to do? Should he despair on this account? No, he should say: 'My flesh is battling and raging against the Spirit. Let it rage as long as it pleases! But you do not give in to it. Walk by the Spirit, and be led by Him so that you do not gratify its desires.'

Galatians 5:19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;

"Obvious" means well-known. All men have a flesh. And, therefore, the products of the flesh are well-known. Furthermore, these works are rampant in society.

"Sexual immorality" is fornication, and means association with prostitutes.

"Impurity" denotes moral uncleanness, here especially sexual uncleanness.

"Debauchery" is the condition in which people throw off all restraint and simply enjoy deliberate sin.

Luther: A saint is one who has been baptized and who believes in Christ. Such a saint will also abstain from the desires of the flesh by means of the faith through which he is justified and through which his sins, past and present, are forgiven; but he is not completely cleansed of them. For the desires of the flesh are still against the Spirit. This uncleanness remains in him to keep him humble, so that in his humility the grace and blessing of Christ taste sweet to him. Thus such uncleanness and such remnants of sin are not a hindrance but a great advantage to the godly. For the more aware they are of their weakness and sin, the more they take refuge in Christ, the mercy seat, see Romans 3:25.

Galatians 5:20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions

"Idolatry" is every form of religion which worships God without His Word and command. Luther says all forms of worship and religion apart from Christ are the worship of idols.

Bruce: The worship of idols -- not only the graven images but of any substitute for the living and true God.

Here the "idolatry and witchcraft" includes the idea of the use of drugs to poison people, and Greek word comes from the word "pharmacy."

Luther: Among the works of the flesh Paul numbers sorcery, which, as everyone know, is not a work cause by the desires of the flesh but is an abuse or imitation of idolatry . . . Thus idolatry is really spiritual sorcery.

"Hatred" is the exact opposite of the primary fruit of the Spirit, love.

"Discord" is the opposite of the Spirit given fruit of peace.

"Jealousy" can be used, and is used, in an honorable sense, but here when it appears in a list of vices, it is plainly used in a bad sense, of selfish jealousy.

"Fits of rage" denotes uncontrolled outbursts of rage. Look at Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:43-44 and Saul in 1 Samuel 20:30-31.

"Selfish ambition" denotes a mercenary spirit, and suggests the rivalry and contention to which such a spirit gives rise.

Luther: What he is denouncing here is not chiefly the party spirit that arise in the household or in the state on account of physical or mundane matters; it is the kind that arises in the church on account of doctrine, faith, and works.

The last three nouns in verse 20 overlap in meaning. The use of synonyms brings out two points:

  1. The viciousness of the flesh;

  2. The danger of division, cause by the flesh, even among Christians.

Galatians 5:21 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.

"Envy" is the grudging spirit that cannot bear to contemplate someone else's prosperity.

"Drunkenness, orgies" go together.

Luther: Those who are addicted to such debauchery, which is more degraded than the behavior of animals, should know that they are not spiritual, regardless of their boasting, but that they are following the flesh and are performing its works . . . Even a sober flesh must be held in control, lest it gratify its desires.

The words "and the like" show that it is neither necessary nor possible to enumerate all the works of the flesh.

Note the stern and harsh warning which follows these words. Paul says that he is constantly repeating his warning. Likewise the modern preacher must constantly warn his parishioners. And if they laugh at his constant warnings, they reveal an impenitent attitude.

Luther: This is a very harsh but most necessary sentence against the false Christians and smug hypocrites, who boast about the Gospel, faith, and the Spirit but meanwhile go on smugly performing the works of the flesh.
Bruce: While good deeds in themselves do not admit one to the kingdom, evil deeds of the type mentioned certainly exclude one.

To lose the inheritance means the same as saying they will be damned.

Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

Luther: Paul does not say 'works of the Spirit,' as he had said 'works of the flesh'; but he adorns these Christian virtues with a worthier title and calls them 'fruit of the Spirit.'

Luther rightly assumes that the text speaks of the Holy Spirit. In the final analysis it is not my new man but the Holy Spirit who produces the good works of fruits.

It would have been sufficient to only list the word "love," for this expands into all the fruits of the Spirit. Paul is likely referring to the love mentioned in verse 14.

"Joy." The joy of a Christian is a total mystery to the unbeliever. Look at Matthew 5:11-12.

Luther: When this is a joy of the Spirit, not of the flesh, the heart rejoices inwardly through faith in Christ, because it knows for a certainty that He is our Savior and High Priest; and outwardly it demonstrates this joy in its words and actions.

"Peace" with both God and man, so that Christians are peaceful and quiet. An entire sermon could be written on this one word. Consult a concordance [or use the search capabilities of your computer] to find the many applications of this word.

"Patience" is when someone waits patiently for some improvement in those who have harmed them. Meditate on how the father in the parable patiently waited for the return of the Wasteful Son. This word is applied to both God and Christians in the Bible.

"Kindness," again a quality applied to both God and the believer. This is gentleness and sweetness in manner and in one's entire life.

"Goodness" has a range of meanings. It is similar to love. The meaning of the two words overlap. It is wonderful when someone says of a Christian: "He's just a good fella."

"Faithfulness" here means the faithfulness of a Christian toward a fellow Christians.

Luther: Faithfulness means that one man keeps faith with another in the matters that pertain to this present life.
Bruce: Because God is faithful, because he can be relied upon, his people are to be faithful too, and the Spirit enables them to be so.

Galatians 5:23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Bruce: Moses was 'very gentle' in Numbers 12:30 in the sense that, in the face of undeserved criticism, he did not give way to rage but rather interceded with God for the offenders.

Gentleness is the quality of a forgiving spirit which does not insist on its own rights. But it does not mean permissiveness, allowing people to live in their sins.

"Self-control" refers to sobriety, temperance, or moderation in every walk of life.

Bruce: The works of the flesh are disruptive of fellowship, whereas the fruit of the Spirit fosters it.

In the final sentence in this verse Paul means when these mentioned qualities are in view, then we are in a sphere with which law has nothing to do.

Luther: For the just man lives a though he had need of no Law to admonish, urge, and constrain him; but spontaneously, without any legal constraint, he does more than the Law requires.

There is the added thought that no one would think of enacting a law against such fruits of the Spirit. They are unprohibited and spontaneous fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Galatians 5:24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.

The Christian looks back to Jesus' crucifixion for forgiveness and strength to fight the flesh along with its passions and desires. The words "passions and desires" denote the intensity of the activities of the flesh. Christians are severely tempted by desires of materialism, earthly fame, sex, etc.

Luther: As long as they live in this world, therefore, the faithful crucify their flesh; that is, they are aware of its desires, but they do not yield to them. Dressed in the armor of God, with faith, hope, and the sword of the Spirit, Ephesians 6:11-17, they fight back at the flesh; and with these nails they fasten it to the cross, so that against its will it is forced to be subject to the Spirit.

Galatians 5:25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

This verse obviously denotes source and direction. NEB:  "If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct our course."  Apply Romans 6:6 to the first part, and Colossians 3:5 to the second part. The new man needs constant evangelical nudging. The spontaneity does not come mechanically but through the Spirit. And He comes only through the Word. Living by the Spirit is the root; walking by the Spirit is the fruit.

Note that both the first part of the verse, as well as the second part, contain a present tense verb. It is a constant way of life for the Christian. The first part talks about the Christian's faith, the second part about his works.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1985, pp. 28-33. Used with permission.

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