Galatians 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Freedom for Moral Transformation

The fruit of the Spirit is the moral character developed by the power of the Spirit. The nine character qualities are a unity, a perfectly formed Christlike character. Paul has expressed his desire to see Christ formed in the Galatian believers (4:19). Now he describes what they will be like when that formation is complete. These character qualities are not a new list of laws or moral codes that must be kept; they are the result of living and being led by the Spirit.

Paul's image of the fruit of the Spirit is probably drawn from the imagery of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus. The promise of the Spirit and the promise of moral fruitfulness in God's people are connected in the Old Testament:

Until a spirit from on high is poured out on us,

and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,

and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,

and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.

The effect of righteousness will be peace,

and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

(Is 32:15-17 NRSV; see also Joel 2:18-32)

Jesus also taught that the genuineness of his followers would be demonstrated by good fruit from their lives (Mt 7:16-20; Lk 13:6-9), and he promised that the presence of the Spirit and communion with him would produce the fruit of love and obedience (Jn 14--16). These promises of righteousness by the Spirit are the background for Paul's description of the believers' eager expectation of righteousness (5:5); now in verses 22-23 he focuses on the believers' expression of righteousness, which fulfills God's promises for his people.

Paul's list of moral qualities produced by the Spirit provides assurance that those who "live by the Spirit" will actually fulfill God's requirements for his people. There is no need to worry that following Paul's ethical appeal to live by the Spirit will lead to moral license and sin. Just the opposite will be the case. The Spirit will produce those moral qualities that God requires.

The first place in the list, the place of emphasis, is given to love. Love is the focus of the entire ethical appeal: "serve one another in love" (v. 13). Love fulfills the law (v. 14); love is the expression of faith (v. 6). Love is demonstrated in a tangible way in the sacrificial love of Christ (2:20) and the service of Christians (5:13). All the other moral qualities in the list define and flow from love.

Joy is the result of healthy relationships. When relationships fall apart because of broken commitments, there is a loss of joy (see 4:15). When there is conflict and bitterness, as there was in the Galatian churches, there is no joy. But the first result of true love in relationships is the renewal of joy.

Peace is also the result of relationships built by loving service. Instead of "hatred, discord, . . . dissensions, factions" there is harmony and order in relationships.

Patience is the opposite of "fits of rage" or short temper. It is the quality of staying with people even when constantly wronged and irritated by them.

Kindness and goodness are joined with patience to teach that a sweet disposition and doing good toward people (see v. 10) is the way to stay with them in love.

Faithfulness is the quality of keeping commitments in relationships. The Galatians had proved to be fickle in their attitude toward Paul (4:13-16). Only the Spirit can produce the quality of loyalty no matter the cost.

Gentleness is the opposite of "selfish ambition." Gentle people are not "conceited, provoking and envying each other" (v. 26). Gentleness is an expression of humility, considering the needs and hurts of others before one's personal goals.

Self-control is the opposite of self-indulgence. Those who are Spirit-led will not indulge the sinful nature (v. 13). They are not characterized by "sexual immorality, . . . drunkenness, orgies." They do not use other people to gratify their own appetites. They have the strength to say no to themselves, to the desires of their sinful nature.

In Paul's ethical appeal this list of qualities paints a picture of relationships that are built and nourished by the presence of the Spirit. No wonder Paul says, Against such things there is no law. Here again we see that Paul is directing his comments to people who want to be under the supervision of law. Paul assures them that if they are led by the Spirit, they are not under law (v. 18) because the Spirit produces all the qualities that fulfill the requirements of the law (vv. 14, 23). There is no rule in the Mosaic lawbook which can be cited against such character qualities. The Spirit-led life is not a life against the law; it is a life that fulfills the law. The way to the fulfillment of the law is not to live under the law like slaves, but to live by the Spirit as children of God.

Paul concludes his two lists of the acts of the sinful nature and the fruit of the Spirit with a summary statement about putting to death the sinful nature (v. 24) and living by the Spirit (v. 25). The death of the sinful nature opens the way for the life of the Spirit. This movement from death to life is parallel to 2:19-20 and 6:14-15, where death is also followed by new life.

The remarkable feature of Paul's statement about the crucifixion of the sinful nature in verse 24 is the use of the active voice: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Galatians 2:19 and 6:14 say that Christians have been crucified with Christ, but 5:24 says that they themselves have acted to put to death their sinful nature. Believers are responsible to crucify their sinful nature. Since Roman crucifixion was a merciless, painful means of execution, Paul's statement describes an absolute and irreversible renunciation of evil. The past tense may point to the time of baptism, when the Christian publicly identified with Christ. A common liturgy of baptism expresses it this way:

Do you turn to Christ?

I turn to Christ.

Do you repent of your sins?

I repent of my sins.

Do you renounce evil?

I renounce evil.

If this repentance and renunciation of evil is as decisive as crucifixion, it means that Christians have said an absolute, unconditional no to all of their sinful desires and passions. Renunciation of evil is not only a baptismal vow, it is a practical everyday discipline. When my sinful nature subtly suggests paging through a pornographic magazine, I shout a defiant no to my sinful nature. When I hear a juicy bit of gossip and start to repeat it, I close my mouth and say "no way" to my sinful desire. When another Christian criticizes me unfairly and my flesh screams for revenge, I say "absolutely not" to my sinful passion.

The fact of warfare against the sinful nature, described in verse 17, indicates that the sinful nature is never fully eradicated in this life and therefore this no must be continually renewed. But the fact of the execution of the sinful nature described in verse 24 shows that goal of the war against the sinful nature is not a negotiated peace but final execution.

Both the continuous war against the sinful nature and the absolute execution of the sinful nature must be kept in mind if we are to have the full picture. The perfectionists who talk as if the sinful nature has been or can be totally conquered in this life have lost sight of the need to fight the war every day. The pessimists who are halfhearted in battling the flesh because they never expect victory have lost sight of the victory that is ours through active identification with Christ on the cross.

The active execution of the sinful nature is followed by an active expression of new life in the Spirit: Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit (v. 25). Paul's combination of an indicative (we live) with an imperative (let us keep in step) is parallel to the same combination of indicative and imperative in verses 1 and 13. The indicative describes God's gift to us: freedom in Christ and life in the Spirit. The imperative expresses our responsibility: to protect our freedom from slavery under the law, to use our freedom to serve one another in love and to keep in step with the Spirit. Keep in step is a military command to make a straight line or to march in ordered rows. The Spirit sets the line and the pace for us to follow. Keeping in step with the Spirit takes active concentration and discipline of the whole person. We constantly see many alternative paths to follow; we reject them to follow the Spirit. We constantly hear other drummers who want to quicken or slow down our pace; we tune them out to listen only to the Spirit.

What does this mean in practice? Paul gives a general but practical application to the Galatian churches: Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (v. 26). This verse and verse 15 clearly indicate that the community life of the Galatian churches had been torn apart by pride, which caused provoking and envying. In their concentration on keeping the law, the Galatian believers had become very competitive in their spiritual life, attempting to outdo each other. To provoke means to challenge to a contest. Some were so sure of their spiritual superiority that they wanted to prove it in a contest. Others felt spiritually inferior and resented those who made them feel that way. Both attitudes were caused by pride that could not tolerate rivals.

C. S. Lewis says that the devil laughs when he sees us overcome by pride: "He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride--just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense" (Lewis 1943:45).

The only treatment for the cancer of pride is radical surgery: we must crucify the pride of sinful nature and be led by the Spirit, who alone has the power to overthrow the dictatorship of pride.

Previous commentary:
Freedom from Evil

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