The first few verses of chapter 5 states very clearly the point of this website. We are free in Christ. Free from what? Of course Christ frees us from a lot of things including sin and death. But in the context of Galatians and this chapter, we are free from the Law.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.
– Galatians 5:1 (NET)
Paul was passionate about this topic. He calls us to stand firm in it. Now we call people to “stand firm” a bunch in our tribe don’t we? Stand firm against Liberalism. Stand firm against Denominationalism. Stand firm against this or against that. God has a pattern to follow. Avoid “strange fire” etc. But instead of those notions Paul is telling us right the opposite. Stand firm in your freedom you have in Christ. Do not be subject again to slavery. Slavery of what? Law. For the Jews it was the Mosaic Law and by extension, the Mishnah. Today we have our own mishnah. We have our own oral traditions and unwritten laws and we are slaves to them every bit as much as these Galatian Jews were to theirs. The principle remains. We are under a “law” of the Spirit which is not a written code at all but instead a response to love and faith.
Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.
– Galatians 5:2-3 (NET)
Remember the specific issue at hand was circumcision, but it could’ve been any legal act you require in order to find God’s favor. That’s the point. This is why he states Christ is of no benefit to you. Because you are leaning on an act (or set of acts) to make you right with God. If your rituals and behaviours can make you right with God… you don’t need Jesus or his sacrifice. Worship practices will not make you or break you in God’s eyes anymore. Your faith in Jesus does.
You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace!
– Galatians 5:4 (NET)
It is so ironic we use the term “fallen from grace” traditionally to refer to someone who is less religious than us. People who quit “church” are “fallen from grace”. Yet the context of Paul’s phrase is in reference to people who ARE religious! To a fault. Think about what the word grace even means. Unmerited favor. Unmerited means unearned right? So if you are performing for God’s favor… you are earning his favor. His favor, in that case, would be earned. Hence it is no longer “grace”. Paul is simply stating a logical conclusion. You are outside of grace if you are trying to earn it. This is why it is so silly to hear people argue that your stance has to be a balance between “works” and “grace”. Nope. If works are required… it stops being grace. Period. That doesn’t mean we don’t work. In fact, the hardest working Christians I know don’t feel like they are earning anything. They are just lovingly responding to the grace they have received.
The next verse tells us the contrast to being “fallen from grace”. It is “through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness.” Paul then chastises them for falling into this works mentality. In this, Paul uses language we are familiar with. Our tradition has used the same monikers but to invoke the complete opposite of what Paul is teaching. We use terms like “not obeying the truth” and “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump”. Yet we use these to battle “liberals” or others who do not hold to the exact legal requirements we hold to. But in this passage, Paul is using these terms to represent those who would teach that salvation requires certain works and rituals. He has so much righteous anger at this point, he declares that they should go beyond circumcision to complete emasculation.
The second half of the chapter is geared toward behaviour. For after all, he just emphatically taught against the legalism of works based salvation. And like any good legalist, the offender will naturally ask, “so are you trying to say we can just do whatever we want?” After all, if we are not justified by our performance, obedience of laws, or rituals… then there is nothing to govern our actions. Right? Wrong. We are forgetting that God changes us and that we are filled with His Holy Spirit. We respond to grace… with love. We have the freedom to do anything, but the will not to.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.”
– Galatians 5:13-14 (NET)
Sounds familiar because this is the exact teachings of Christ. His commandments can all be summed up in one word… love. If you are acting in love at all times, the purpose of the law if fulfilled. You no longer need a command that says, “Thou shalt not kill”. For if you love your neighbor, you can’t kill him. Romans 13:8-10
But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
– Galatians 5:16-18 (NET)
Live by the Spirit and you will not carry out those bad desires. Look at the simple logic here. The flesh and Spirit are in direct opposition to each other. You have to choose one or the other in every decision. Look at the principle stated at the end of this passage. If you are truly led… by the Spirit… you are not under the law. There’s more logic at work here. The law only provides instruction. Law can only create rules to be broken… and loop holes around the penalties. The Spirit however, has the power to transform the mind and body to work in the will of God. If that is happening, then all the rules can be thrown aside because you have become a new loving person who desires what God does… regardless of whether or not a rule exists to govern the situation.
Paul then lists the famous “works of the flesh” and “the fruit of the Spirit”. Too often we read that passage (alone and out of context) as a list of things to do and things not to do… ironically, creating more rules. But this is not what Paul is doing. He is stating facts. The person who follows the flesh will desire to do those fleshly things, but the person who follows the Spirit will bear a different fruit… and it isn’t your fruit by the way. It is the fruit of the Spirit. If I exemplify all of the things listed there, that is not me being a “good Christian”. It’s the Holy Spirit working through me… and there is no law which can create that in me. Only He can produce that.