“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 entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “ Galatians 5:13, 14 Verse 13 divides nicely into three parts; the call to liberty, the temptation of license and the service of love.
The call to liberty is a call that comes directly from God. Our call to freedom is not some right we have or something we can obtain but instead a gift from God. The great purpose of God’s call to us is that we might be free. In verse one of this chapter he stated, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” In verse one, however, Paul was frightened that the Galatians would fall back into legalism, “a yoke of slavery.” Here in verse five the threat is that the Christian would fall into licentiousness.
Our freedom in Christ should rest upon the shoulders of Christ and legalism kept from our door. It has been said that the great problem with many Christians is that we start with Christ (grace) and end with Moses (law keeping). On the other hand our freedom in Christ shouldn’t lead us into living a life devoid of spiritual awareness and morality. The RSV puts it this way, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” In Verse 13 we have the first mention in all of Galatians that freedom can be perverted and misused.
J. Brown, in his Commentary on Galatians wrote, “The mad man who has mistaken his tattered garments for the flowing robes of majesty, and his manacles for golden bracelets studded with jewels, has not erred so widely as the man who has mistaken carnal license for Christian liberty.” Pg. 286 To indulge the sinful flesh (sinful nature), is to take the flesh as one’s norm and live accordingly. Too often grace has been turned into cheap grace where Christian living has all but been forgotten. While legalism tries to help God, licentiousness ignores God.
In the third part of verse 13 Paul presents the antidote to legalism and licentiousness, “rather, serve one another in love.” The Good News Bible puts it this way, “Instead, let love make you serve one another.” Christian freedom is freedom to love and thus freedom to serve. The mark of a Christian is kindness, compassion and love. How different the world would look at Christianity if we only manifested these characteristics in our daily lives. Though the themes of freedom and love flow throughout the book of Galatians and it is here in this verse that they are finally brought together in a single thought.
George, in his commentary on Galatians sums verse 13 up nicely, “The glorious good news of justification by faith is that Christ has delivered us from servile bondage to the law and from captivity to the cosmic forces of evil. But the freedom we have received is not a static thing, something to be saved and admired and stroked like Silas Marner polishing his gold coins. No, true freedom is realized only in the slavery of love. Paul’s admonition to mutual service is thus not a restriction on freedom but rather the very means of its actualization.” p. 378 Luther wrote, “A Christian is free and independent in every respect, a bond servant to none. A Christian is a dutiful servant in every respect, owning a duty to everyone.” Ebeling, Luther; An Introduction to His Thought p. 212
Throughout Galatians Paul has made it clear that law keeping will never make a person right with God. All who have been justified by faith have, “died to the law.” But, nowhere in Galatians is Paul arguing that the law is done away with or bad. He is simply making the case that law keeping, as a method of trying to obtain salvation, is fruitless. The moral law is the expression of God’s will and character and cannot be thrown out in the bath water.
So, why did Paul write that the call to selfless love of our neighbor is the fulfilling of the whole law? It is not because this is considered superior to worshipping God and the wonders of grace, but because it is proof of our loving God. The directive to love our neighbor sums up all the commandments of God. Paul is not encouraging the Galatians to fall back into legalism, but he is upholding the Ten Commandments as still important and binding upon the Christian life. The heart that has been invaded by the grace of God leads to love of others. We don’t see the law as something that we do or obey in order to earn merit for us. Instead, we live as born again Christians, as witnesses to the love of Christ through our lives. We love our neighbors not because we have to, but because we can’t help it. The love of God permeates outward when we understand we are not under the bondage of the law method of salvation. We long to share our faith and the love of God with others and we rejoice when we have the opportunity to serve others. And just who is our neighbor? It is everyone.
If we understand Galatians 5:13, 14 then a text like John 15:10 is not so difficult to understand. “If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” When we are born again we are transformed and the grace of Christ becomes the central focus of our lives. Love becomes the fruit of our relationship with Christ and from love springs selflessness instead of selfishness. We see our neighbors not as rivals, or evil enemies that deserve retribution, but instead we see them as fellow travellers that are in need of Christ just as we are. Our hearts open to them and we long for their redemption as well. To love God is to love the world around us. To love our neighbor is to love God and fulfill the commandments of God.