Galatians 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Freedom to Love

Christian freedom is the freedom to serve one another in love (v. 13). The slavery of love is contrasted to two other kinds of slavery. First, the immediate context puts this command to serve in love in direct contrast to indulging the sinful nature. Our sinful nature causes us to be slaves to our own selfish desires, but love expresses itself in service to the needs of others. Second, the command to serve in love is contrasted to slavery under the law. Christians are not to be under the law, enslaved to it, but they are commanded to be under others as slaves to them. Christian obligation is not subjection to the law (v. 3) but subjection to one another in love.

These two other kinds of slavery always threaten to rob us of our freedom to serve others in love. If I am enslaved to the law, I am more interested in keeping the commandments to establish my own merit than in loving others. Even if I serve others out of obligation to observe the law, I do it for myself rather than for them. If I am enslaved to my own sinful nature, I am absorbed in my selfish interests rather than the needs of others. Even if I serve others, I do it to fulfill my own desires. So slavery to the law and slavery to the flesh cause us to use people to meet our goals rather than to serve people in love. Only when we are free from slavery to the law and slavery to the flesh will we be free to serve one another in love.

We have already learned two things about the meaning of love in this letter: first, love was expressed by Christ's giving of himself for us (2:20); second, love is the expression of true faith (5:6). Now we learn that love is expressed by serving one another. When the object of our faith is Christ, who loved us, we are motivated and empowered to express his kind of love to others.

When such love is expressed, the whole law has been fulfilled. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (v. 14). Paul's reference to law at this point cannot possibly mean that he is putting Christians under obligation to keep the law. If he meant that, he would be contradicting all that he has been saying so far in the letter about dying to the law and being set free from the law. Just a few verses later Paul emphasizes freedom from the law again: If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law (v. 18). Paul's reference to law in verse 14 is not prescriptive but descriptive. He is not prescribing the requirements of the law in order to regulate Christian living. He is describing the result of Christian faith expressed in loving service to others. The result of Christians' loving service to others is that all the prescriptions and prohibitions of the law are fulfilled, since they can all be summed up in one command: Love your neighbor as yourself. Paul does not quote the law to motivate love; he quotes the law to show that love, motivated and empowered by faith (v. 6) and the Spirit (v. 22), fulfills the demands of the law.

The moral standards of the law are not discarded or violated by Christians who are free from the law. For "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good" (Rom 7:12). Freedom from the law is not license to break the law and pursue every selfish desire. No, freedom from bondage to the law is experienced by those who believe in Christ and are led by his Spirit. They use their freedom to serve one another in love. And in that loving service the high moral standards of the law are fully realized in their lives. Though the law is holy and good, since it is God's revelation of his moral standards for our lives, the law provides no power to overcome sin.

To run and work the law commands,

Yet gives me neither feet nor hands.

Only the power of the Spirit at work in us can enable us to overcome sin and fulfill God's moral design for our lives through loving service to others.

The Galatian readers of this letter wanted to be under the law (4:21) as a way to attain spiritual perfection (3:3). But their preoccupation with keeping the law did not lead them to spiritual perfection. On the contrary, their bondage to the law produced a competitive, angry, judgmental spirit. Paul warns them of the results of their bondage to the law: If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other (v. 15). These words are often taken as a description of the libertine tendencies of the Galatians, who are destroying each other by indulging the passions of their sinful nature. But note the similarities between this description and Paul's description of himself before his conversion. When he was competing against his fellow Jews to advance beyond them in his zealous devotion to the traditions of Judaism (1:14), he was persecuting and trying to destroy the church (1:13). Paul knew from his own experience that zealous devotion to keep the law can accompany and even intensify destructive attitudes toward the church. When he saw the Galatian believers biting each other in their criticism and chewing each other up in their negative reports, he was reminded of his own attacks on the church during the time in his life when he was most zealous to keep the law. When churches define their purpose in terms of law observance, they need to watch out or they will be destroyed by a competitive, critical, judgmental spirit.

The tragic irony of the Galatians' situation was that the more they came under bondage to keep the law, the more they violated the basic moral standard of the law: love your neighbor as yourself. Paradoxical as it may seem, that standard is only fulfilled in the lives of those who resist slavery under the law (v. 1) and serve as slaves in love to others (v. 13). Freedom in Christ is freedom to love.

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