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Galatians 5:13-26

May 23, 2016

Most of Paul’s letter has focused on understanding the work of Christ, and faith, and the Law in the “right” way. But now the letter shifts to how we actually live. What difference does trusting in Jesus’ faithfulness make?

Paul divides ethical living into two types: living by the Spirit, and living by the flesh. Living by the flesh means living by our own resources, strengths, and desires. For Paul, living by the flesh inevitably means living selfishly. But living by the Spirit means living unselfishly. The center of one’s life is no longer one’s own resources, strengths, and desires. Instead, the self-giving and obedient Christ is at the center; and when Christ is at the center, the Spirit of God is at the center.

In the most broad sense, to live by the Spirit is to live by love. Echoing or quoting Jesus, Paul says that the whole Law is fulfilled in one statement from Leviticus 19:18–love your neighbor as yourself. The radical conclusion Paul draws from this is that if you live by love, you are automatically fulfilling all of the Law; therefore, the many commandments and stipulations of the law–such as dietary laws and circumcision and Sabbath observance–can now all be set aside and replaced simply by loving others with true unselfish Christ-centeredness.

The ancient rabbis and prophets often strove to find the most important organizing principles of the Law. Perhaps it was the Ten Commandments, or perhaps it was to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah); or perhaps it was to love God and love one’s neighbor. But whatever the core of the Law was understood to be, no prophet or rabbi said that the rest of the Law could then be ignored! Finding the center was a way to help interpret and faithfully follow all the laws, not replace them.

But Paul takes the radical step of seeing love as truly fulfilling and therefore replacing the law. Jesus, as quoted by the Gospels, comes close to saying the same thing; but Paul is even more stark and clear about this. Jesus continued to follow the various laws of Moses throughout his ministry; but Paul sees no reason for Gentiles who follow Jesus to do the same–indeed, to do so would be to violate the principle of living by faith working through love.

For Paul, living by faith (or love–which is pretty much the same thing for Paul), instead of by the Law, clearly does not mean living lawlessly! But that is how some people misunderstood him. So he must make it clear that the “freedom” he is talking about is not the freedom to live selfishly! People who live by sexual selfishness, magical manipulation of unseen powers, fighting, arguing, and chemical fog are not living by the Spirit or by love! Quite the opposite. Paul has warned the Galatians repeatedly that those who live this way have no part in God’s kingdom.

This statement in verse 21 is crucial for understanding Paul correctly. A common, shallow interpretation of Paul is that Paul says we are saved by “faith alone”–and faith is taken to mean cognitive beliefs about who Jesus was and what he did. That is not what Paul is saying. For Paul, faith means trust, and trust means turning over the center of one’s life to the self-giving and obedient Christ; and to do that means to live by love and no longer by self-interest and self-indulgence. So for Paul, it is equally true to say we are saved through faith, or through Christ, or through love. Paul is not against “works.” Indeed, works of love are the very proof that we are living by faith. The only “works” Paul is against are the “works of the flesh”–outward signs such as circumcision–which some Gentiles are using as their “membership card” in God’s church and kingdom.

Living by the Spirit, rather than living by the Law, I think has another implication that is quite relevant for us today. How do we determine what is the right thing to to do? How do we determine God’s ethical will? Do we determine this by finding verses in the Bible that are for or against a certain action? Or, do we use the principle of love? It seems to me that if we are going to live by the Spirit, this means that we move beyond “proof-texting” (proving our position with a scripture citation) and instead do the much more sensitive and mature work of discerning what is actually the most loving, unselfish thing to do. The Bible as a whole is a dynamic conversation and revelation that is moving ever more deeply toward love. We must line up ourselves with love if we are to understand God’s will and do the right thing. As Augustine said: “Love, and do what you will.”

For Paul, when we live by the Spirit, various virtues naturally emerge in our lives: things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These virtues are much softer and less self-interested than the usual Roman virtues such as prudence, dignity, gravity, respectability, refinement, and sternness. Christians and the Roman pagans shared a desire for many common virtues (for instance, fortitude and courage and loyalty), but the Christian virtues, inspired by living by love and the Spirit, moved Christians in some novel directions such as humility.

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From → Galatians

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