Gal. 5:13, 16, “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.… I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

The Epistle to the Galatians is the Magna Carta of Christian liberty. Liberty must always be defended from its two great enemies—legalism and license. To this point, the apostle Paul has been fighting against legalism. This was his concern at the beginning of chapter 5: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

Paul feared that the Galatians might fall back into bondage to the law. Some teachers were trying to persuade them to keep the law instead of believing the gospel. So Paul challenged the Galatians to remain free in Christ: free from sin, guilt, and the curse of the law. He warned them to watch out for anyone who tried to take away their freedom.

License to Kill

There is another threat to liberty, however, and that is license. License is loose living. It is freedom taken to its immoral extreme. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a liberty of action, especially when excessive; disregard of law or propriety; abuse of freedom.” Whereas legalism demands responsibility without freedom, license grants freedom without responsibility.

Everyone wants to be free. “It’s a free country!” Americans like to say. In our free-market economy we enjoy free trade and free enterprise. People want to have a free hand, a free rein, and a free lunch. Then there are the four famous freedoms enunciated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The trouble comes whenever and wherever there is freedom without responsibility. Unfortunately, this is precisely what most people want. Consider the ancient Greek proverb that “the free man is one who lives as he chooses.” Or consider a more recent example: “free love.” During the 1960s, this phrase meant the freedom to have indiscriminate sexual relations. It had little to do with love, of course, because true love requires commitment. Nor did it offer real freedom, because sexual sin always brings intense spiritual bondage. “Free love” meant freedom without responsibility, which is not liberty at all, but merely license.

The apostle Paul understood that license poses as great a threat to liberty as legalism does. Hence his brotherly warning: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). The Galatians had been liberated from legalism, but they were not to use their liberty as an opportunity for license.

When Paul speaks of the “flesh,” the Greek term he uses is sarx. Spiritually speaking, “the flesh” means something more than simply the body. It is the part of me that does not want what God wants, my corrupt human nature in all its weakness and depravity. The body is part of that fallen condition, but only a part. “The flesh” refers to the unspiritual life of the whole person, which is inclined to sin.

But the Christian must resist this inclination: “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,” or as the New International Version has it, “do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” (Gal. 5:13). The Greek word for “indulge” (aphormēn) comes from the military term for a base of operations. The idea is that we must not allow sin to use our freedom in Christ as a beachhead to launch a spiritual attack against us. The fact that we are liberated from legalism must not become an excuse for satisfying our sinful desires.

When some people hear about God’s free grace, they hope it means that they can sin as much as they please. Even some people who consider themselves Christians have this attitude. If God has already accepted me in Jesus Christ, they wonder, then who cares how much I sin?

John Calvin encountered this licentious attitude during the Reformation in Geneva. He warned about the kind of man who wants to “extend Christian liberty to include everything … without any exceptions … so that nothing may hinder him or prevent him from having a good time.… These frantic people without any distinction abolish all the law, saying that it is no longer necessary to keep it, since we have been set free from it.”

The truth is that anyone who uses freedom to indulge the flesh is not really free at all. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). In other words, license is the very opposite of liberty. It is really a form of slavery. Real liberty comes when Christ frees me from sin, not to sin.

Not only is license self-enslaving, it is also self-destroying, as Paul goes on to say: “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15). This verse gives some idea what kinds of sins the Galatians were indulging. They were waging civil war against one another, only it was not so civil. There were quarrels and arguments, disputes and dissensions. Some of their differences may have been doctrinal. Scot McKnight imagines the Judaizers boasting, by virtue of their circumcision, that they were “just a cut above the rest!” Undoubtedly some of their differences were also social, as the legalistic teaching of the Judaizers exacerbated ethnic tensions within the Christian community. But whatever the Galatians were arguing about, Paul was worried that all the bickering would end up splitting the church.

Paul was also worried that the Galatians were eating one another alive. The words “bite” and “devour” suggest that they were acting like a pack of wild animals. Their behavior was beastly. Ben Witherington comments that here Paul “describes a clear progression—first the animal bites the prey, then it tears at the flesh of the victim, then finally it consumes its prey.” When the Galatians traded liberty for license, it turned out to be a license to kill. Conflict in the church is a kind of spiritual suicide. Sin is always self-destructive, and the sin of divisiveness inevitably leads to the destruction of the church. It means the death of Christian witness and fellowship.

Sadly, the history of Christianity includes many tragic stories of factions and divisions, splits and schisms. In his commentary on these verses, John Calvin pleads with us to remember, “when the devil tempts us to disputes, that the disagreement of members within the Church can lead to nothing but the ruin and consumption of the whole body. How unhappy, how mad it is, that we who are members of the same body should voluntarily conspire together for mutual destruction.”

A Free Spirit

The only way to be free from fleshly desire is to be sanctified by God’s Spirit. His influence alone can prevent liberty from degenerating into license, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). The third member of the Trinity, one might say, is a “free” Spirit. He helps us hold on to our liberty without becoming either legalistic or licentious.

Paul uses several different expressions to describe this liberating work of the Holy Spirit. In verse 16 he says, “Walk by the Spirit.” One English word that comes from this Greek verb for walking (peripateō) is “peripatetic,” which means “going from place to place.” Aristotle’s philosophy students were called the Peripatetic School because their teacher typically taught them while he was on the move. Similarly, the way to learn the Christian life is to walk with the Holy Spirit every day, “to order our lives according to the direction, and motion of the Spirit.”

Then in verse 18 this lifestyle is described as being “led by the Spirit.” The verb for being led is related to the word “pedagogue,” which we first encountered back in chapter 3, where the law was the pedagogue. It was like a parole officer—“our guardian until Christ came” (Gal. 3:24). Now that we have come to Christ, however, we need a different kind of pedagogue. Christ has set us free from sin, guilt, death, and eternal judgment. Now we need the inward work of the Holy Spirit to teach us how to handle our newfound freedom. He becomes our pedagogue and guide, leading us to live free in Christ.

The Holy Spirit brings at least three kinds of freedom. The first is freedom from sin. Paul has already warned us not to indulge the flesh. The way to do this—the way to use our freedom without abusing it—is to walk with the Holy Spirit: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). This verse contains both a command and a promise. The command is to walk with the Holy Spirit; that is, to live within the atmosphere of his grace. The promise is that when we live a Spirit-controlled life, we will no longer follow through on our sinful desires. The promise is emphatic: You will not sin.

This explains how we get sanctified. Sanctification has to do with holiness. It is the process by which the Christian becomes like Christ: holy in thought, word, and deed. Often, when people want to become more holy, they try to do it in a legalistic way, by keeping a list of rules. But notice that God is the one who sanctifies us. And notice how he does it: not by the law, but by his Spirit. This is why God is able to guarantee our sanctification, saying, “You will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). As we live under the control of God’s Spirit, he gradually frees us from our bondage to sin.

In the second place, the Holy Spirit brings freedom to serve: “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). The kind of love Paul has in mind is the selfless love that comes from falling in love with Jesus Christ. It is the kind of love that enables me to love my neighbor as spontaneously and as instinctively as I love myself. To love in this way is to enjoy real liberty. As long as I serve myself, I am a slave to self; but when the Spirit enables me to offer loving service to others, then I am free. The person who is most free is the one empowered by the Holy Spirit to love and to serve others.

What does it mean—in practical terms—to serve one another in love? It means, wrote Martin Luther:

performing unimportant works such as the following: teaching the erring; comforting the afflicted; encouraging the weak; helping the neighbor in whatever way one can; bearing with his rude manners and impoliteness; putting up with annoyances, labors, and the ingratitude and contempt of men in both church and state; obeying the magistrates; treating one’s parents with respect; being patient in the home with a cranky wife and an unmanageable family, and the like.

In other words, serving others in love requires costly service in the ordinary duties of daily life. “But believe me,” Luther went on to say, “these works are so outstanding and brilliant that the whole world cannot comprehend their usefulness and worth.”

The curious thing about having the freedom to serve others in all these ways is that such service is actually a new form of slavery. The word “serve” (douleuete; Gal. 5:13) is the Greek word for “be a slave”—the kind of person who washes the dishes and takes out the trash. So here is the paradox: By setting us free to serve, the Holy Spirit enslaves us to one another in love.

This should not surprise us because it is the very paradox of the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he is Lord of all, he became the servant of sinners. As Paul explained to the Philippians, although Christ was in very nature God, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6–7). The word “servant” is the same word that we find in Galatians; it means “slave.” Jesus made himself our slave by suffering and dying for our sins on the cross.

Now we are called to the same kind of voluntary enslavement. Martin Luther captured the paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Luther meant that the freedom we have in Christ obligates us to serve one another in love. “In this liberty,” Luther went on to say, the Christian must “empty himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, … serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as … God through Christ has dealt … with him.” Our freedom is not self-seeking, but self-sacrificing.

The amazing thing is that this kind of “slavery” really is freedom! Now that Christ has freed me from sin and death, I am no longer enslaved by selfish desire. Instead, I am liberated to serve others with his love. This truth is beautifully expressed in the last verse of an 1850 hymn by Anna Waring:

In service which thy will appoints

there are no bonds for me;

my secret heart is taught the truth

that makes thy children free;

a life of self-renouncing

love is one of liberty.

The Law of Love

The Holy Spirit gives us real liberty in Christ. True Christian freedom is not to sin but to serve. It is not license to indulge our sinful nature, but liberty to serve one another in self-renouncing love.

When we love one another in the Spirit, we also enjoy a third kind of freedom: freedom to fulfill the law. Here we come to one of the most surprising verses in Galatians. After we are commanded to “serve one another” through love (Gal. 5:13), we are told that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Gal. 5:14; cf. Rom. 13:9–10). The Spirit makes us free to keep the law of love.

This law of love is familiar. It comes from the law of Moses: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus taught the same thing. When someone asked him to name the greatest commandment, he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–39).

Some have wondered why Paul mentions only the second greatest commandment, and not the first, but what better way to prove that we love God than to love our neighbor? Indeed, loving our neighbor is the very heart of God’s commandment; love fulfills his law. But how can Paul say this? Isn’t fulfilling the law just another form of legalism? Wasn’t it Paul who said all those disparaging things about the law, such as “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (Gal. 3:10), and “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4)? How can Paul command us to fulfill the very law he condemns?

The answer is that the law has to be kept in its place. As we have noted before, the Protestant Reformers spoke of several different uses of the law. The first is to drive us to Christ. The law does this by showing that we cannot justify ourselves before God. The law is not the means of our salvation. It cannot make us right with God. The most it can do for us, before we come to Christ, is to show us our sin.

Once the law has driven us to Christ, however, it does something else for us. It shows us how to live for God by telling us to love our neighbor, among other things. It does not tell us this as a way of getting right with God—as far as justification is concerned, we are “not under the law” (Gal. 5:18; cf. 4:21)—but as a way of living free in the Spirit. Our liberty is not lawless. We are not under the law; nevertheless, we fulfill the law. Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) explained this in a picturesque way:

What is God’s law now? It is not above a Christian—it is under a Christian. Some men hold God’s law like a rod, in terror, over Christians, and say, “If you sin you will be punished with it.” It is not so. The law is under a Christian; it is for him to walk on, to be his guide, his rule, his pattern: “we are not under the law, but under grace.” Law is the road which guides us, not the rod which drives us, nor the spirit which actuates us. The law is good and excellent, if it keep its place.

It is vital to understand that God has never done away with his law. His basic commands have not changed. His will for our lives, as expressed in his moral law, is eternal. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). God still wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and by doing so to fulfill his law.

The way to keep the law in its place is always to think in the proper theological categories. Although the law cannot justify, it can help to sanctify. Justification has to do with God declaring us righteous; sanctification has to do with God making us holy. The law cannot justify us because it declares that we are not righteous. But once God has declared us righteous in Christ, the law helps to sanctify us by showing us how to be holy. John Stott writes, “Although we cannot gain acceptance by keeping the law, yet once we have been accepted we shall keep the law out of love for Him who has accepted us and has given us His Spirit to enable us to keep it.”

One way to illustrate the different uses of the law is to compare God’s law to a pair of ice skates. The value of ice skates as a mode of transportation depends entirely on where they are being used. They are rather awkward, for example, on hot asphalt or in a grassy meadow. The only place ice skates are much use is at the skating rink, or perhaps on an icy pond. In the same way, before we come to Christ, the law cannot help us to please God. In fact, the more we try to use it to become good enough for God, the more we stumble and fall. But coming to faith in Christ is like going to the ice rink. Once we receive his Spirit, the ice skates of God’s law help us to glide through the Christian life.

We are free from the law; now the Spirit uses the law to help us exercise our freedom. What enables us to live a holy life is not simply the outward constraint of the law, but the inward compulsion of the Spirit. This is what the prophets meant when they promised that God’s law would be written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33), or what the apostle James meant when he spoke of “the law of liberty” (James 1:25). It is also what Paul explained to the Romans: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:2–4).

We could never be saved by the law because we are lawbreakers. Instead, we are saved by Jesus, who kept the law on our behalf. And now the law is fulfilled in us as we live by the Spirit. Donald Hagner writes:

Here is the paradox again in its fullness: We are set free from the law in order to produce a righteousness that corresponds to the righteousness that the law demanded. This is because the teaching that serves as our guide to righteousness—the teaching of Christ and his apostles—is in effect an exposition of the ultimate meaning of the Mosaic law.… The content of the law, then, has not fundamentally changed. It is only the dynamic—the means by which we can arrive at righteousness—that differs dramatically. Living out the righteousness of the law does not result in a right relationship with God; rather, being in a right relationship with God through faith in Christ results in living out the righteousness of the law. The Christian—through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and not through the dynamic of his or her own efforts to be righteous by keeping the law—manifests a life of increasing growth in righteousness.

The War Within

With all this talk of freedom, it would be easy to think that the Christian life is one spiritual triumph after another. After all, we are free from sin: If we live by the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. And we are free to serve: As we are led by the Spirit, we fulfill the law of love. Yet the reality is that Christians often suffer bitter spiritual defeats. We still sin. We do not always want to serve. Thus we fail to fulfill the law of God’s love. How can we explain the apparent contradiction between our freedom and our failings?

Martin Luther faced the same dilemma. Despite all his attempts to live a godly life, there were times when he was tempted to sin. And not just tempted. There were times when he committed very fleshly sins. This made him worry that he was not really a Christian. Perhaps you have had some doubts of your own. Do your sins ever cause you to question your salvation?

One of the verses that helped Luther most in his spiritual struggle came from Galatians 5: “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” (Gal. 5:17). Luther used this verse to preach to himself, “Martin, you will never be completely without sin, because you still have the flesh. Therefore you will always be aware of its conflict, according to the statement of Paul: ‘The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.’ Do not despair, therefore, but fight back, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

This verse describes the war within, the constant conflict raging inside the human heart. One desire grapples with the other, like two giant sumo wrestlers trying to push each other out of the ring—flesh against spirit, sinful nature against regenerate nature. The result of this conflict is that we do not always do what we want to do. Often, we do exactly the opposite, for the flesh wars against the Spirit. Paul expanded on this idea in his letter to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.… 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” (Rom. 7:15, 18–19).

At the same time, the Spirit fights to prevent the flesh from indulging its sinful desires. Here is how one commentator describes the ensuing battle: “The flesh opposes the Spirit that men may not do what they will in accordance with the mind of the Spirit, and the Spirit opposes the flesh that they may not do what they will after the flesh. Does the man choose evil, the Spirit opposes him; does he choose good, the flesh hinders him.”

Notice that this is the spiritual condition of the believer. When Paul says, “You do not do what you want,” he is talking to Galatian Christians who had already received the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:3) and who were members of the church of Jesus Christ. The spiritual battle between flesh and Spirit takes place within the Christian.

This is what Martin Luther meant when he said that the Christian is “partly righteous and partly sinner” (simul justus et peccator). He or she is practically a self-contradiction, pulled by flesh and Spirit in two different directions at once. What takes place within the heart, mind, soul, and body of the believer is nothing less than civil war, a violent confrontation between opposing forces, an “irreconcilable antagonism.”

This helps us to recognize that the spiritual life will always be a struggle. How can it be otherwise, when our flesh desires what is contrary to God’s Spirit? We should not be surprised by sin, as if we expected God to make us perfect in this life. Nor should sin cause us to doubt our salvation. On the contrary, we are most aware of our sin when the Spirit is most active in fighting against our old adversary: sinful desire.

Realize, too, that the war will not last forever. We are not fighting a losing battle. Nor will the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit end in a stalemate. One day the Spirit will gain total victory, and the flesh will torment us no longer. Then we will be free in all the ways that the Spirit wants to make us free: free from sin, free to serve, and free to fulfill God’s law. We will be free to do what we most want to do, which is what God wants us to do.

Even now, we can begin to experience that victory by following God’s marching orders: “Live by the Spirit. Walk in the Spirit. Be led by the Spirit.” The great eighteenth-century Scottish preacher Ralph Erskine (1685–1752) wrote about this in one of his “Gospel Canticles”:

When once the fiery law of God

Has chas’d me to the gospel-road;

Then back unto the holy law

Most kindly gospel-grace will draw.

The law most perfect still remains,

And ev’ry duty full contains:

The Gospel its perfection speaks,

And therefore give whate’er it seeks.

A rigid master was the law,

Demanding brick, denying straw;

But when with gospel-tongue it sings,

It bids me fly, and gives me wings.