Studies in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
by Bob Burridge ©2017
Lesson 13: Galatians 5:1-15 (video)
Liberated to Love
There are four theme words in the first 15 verses of Galatians 5 that in English all begin with the letter “L”: Liberty, Law, Love, and Leaven. These words are inner-connected, and teach us something important and very practical.
The Liberty Paul talks about here is the freedom of God’s people from an evil bondage, a bondage to sin. It’s not liberty to do anything we want without consequences. And it’s not a liberty to worship or to think of God in anyway that just seems right to us. It’s a liberty to be the way we were created to be. That’s the only way that really satisfies our hearts, because God made us this way.
The Law of God shows us which things actually honor God, and how God planned to redeem us. It spells out what’s right and what’s wrong. But Law can’t get us to do the right things, or give us faith in the coming Messiah. God’s law condemns us, and points ahead to the sacrifice of Jesus as the Lamb of God.
God’s Love is what changes us, and opens our eyes to God’s promises revealed in the Law. It’s how through Christ we are delivered from the condemnation revealed by the law, and it’s how we are made able to honor God to live the way we were created to live. By God’s love we’re liberated from the chains of evil, and delivered into godly freedom. It’s all by God’s grace alone, not by our own efforts.
But even when the gospel of grace comes into our lives, we can’t stop there. We need to be aware of the dangers around us that entice us to forget the liberation of Grace. Leaven is the 4th “L” word. Paul uses it as an example of how little things can have devastating results.
Chapter 5 of Galatians begins with a reminder: the first “L” — don’t neglect the liberation you have in Christ.
1. Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
2. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.
3. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.
4. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
5. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
6. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.
1. When you trust in Christ alone to make you right with God — you are liberated. You’re set free from the burden of trying to meet impossible standards to be redeemed, and you’re set free from the chains of evil, and the guilt that comes from the things you’ve already done wrong.
Instead of those enslavements, you have become the servant of a kind and loving Master. He took up your guilt and the penalties you deserve, and made you part of his spiritual family. Those he liberates he forgives, he makes alive. He fills them with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and loves them as his own.
But we’re not liberated from obligations to honor God and to live by his moral principles. Our liberation is from the foolish notion of merit by morals or by rituals. No one can ever earn his way back into God’s favor. God’s law shows us that we deserve his wrath. That’s why Jesus had to come to pay our debt. He satisfied the demands of the law in place of his people. Therefore believers are set free from the curse of the law, and into the joys of grace through Christ.
We as believers need to cling to the liberty Christ earned for us. The Gentile Christians in Galatia had at one time lived under the yoke of paganism. They had been raised with heathen ideas idolizing prosperity and pleasure and worshiping false gods. The gospel of Christ set them free from that. They learned that what they do can’t remove their guilt or give them eternal life.
Then along came these Judaizers who were enticing them into another kind of salvation by works. The Gentiles left the yoke of paganism, but now were being drawn into the yoke of Rabbinical Judaism.
The “yoke” in that Hebrew expression is the word “ol” (עוֹל). It’s the wooden beam that locked oxen to a plow. It represented forced servitude, enslavement. The fallen heart is in bondage to the idea that we need to earn God’s blessing. That perverts God’s law into a method of removing our guilt. Only the work of Christ can do that.
2. The Judaizers were saying that all believers need to keep the ceremonial requirements of the law. But no one can keep the perfect standards of God’s law. The law exposes our fallen nature, and points to the Promised Messiah who would pay for our guilt.
At the Council of Jerusalem the Apostles met to deal with this error. They warned in Acts 15:10, ” Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
The issue was Circumcision, the old sign of God’s Covenant, which had now been replaced by Baptism. Paul was reminding them that trusting in Christ alone is incompatible with relying upon a continuing necessity of circumcision. Dr. William Hendriksen said, “A Christ supplemented is a Christ supplanted.” Either they believed that Jesus Christ was the one who alone satisfied the laws demands for us, or they believed that the ceremonial laws didn’t get fulfilled in Christ, and still need to be kept.
So why stop at circumcision? To demand that, brings you back into the whole ceremonial law. It’s to live the way things were before Christ’s atonement on the Cross. Paul urged the Galatians to continue to stand firm in that freedom from their former bondage. To be re-enslaved to law-works again, is to deny the sufficiency of the work Christ did.
Paul says that those going back to the law are fallen from Grace (verse 4). It makes no sense for those believing in Christ to go back to the symbolism of the law. If they turned away from grace alone as what redeemed them, then either they weren’t really regenerated to begin with, or were being tragically deceived and forfeiting the blessings of living by God’s principles.
We are not tempted in exactly the same way today. We are not tempted by Judaizers to adopt the old Jewish rituals. But there are influences that can tempt us to think God accepts us because of things we do.
Some try to draw us into ritualistic religions which are nothing more than sanctified superstitions. The Sacraments are not magical rites that automatically take your sins away. Repeating certain words in your prayers does not trigger blessings to be dispensed. There are no sacred objects that carry blessings with them. Crosses and statues will not keep you from accidents, illness, or temptation.
These are not the ways revealed in the Bible. Nothing you do, or touch, or say carries the power to bring down God’s blessings. God looks on the heart held captive by Christ and blesses because of what Jesus did for you. It’s not your good deeds, conservative social attitudes, or denial of personal comforts that makes you right with God. It’s his grace alone transforming your heart through Christ. That’s what moves you to love him, to love others, and to do what’s right out of thankful gratitude.
Paul warns against getting tangled up in bondage again. There’s a natural tendency in us to become self-absorbed. We tend to think that our eternal destiny is in our own hands.
If you believe your outward deeds or words can earn God’s blessings whether it’s circumcision, sacraments, repeated prayers, sacred objects, or social programs, you deny the sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming you.
Those who believe this false gospel have fallen from grace. Instead of resting in God’s provision, they think they have to earn it for themselves. If this is a person’s way of thinking about Christianity, the law condemns them. They are rejecting what God’s law pointed toward and meant.
3. In place of self-caused salvation, God’s word teaches that it’s faith working by Love. By faith, hope in Christ’s righteousness alone, a person is made right with his Creator.
False religion teaches that if you love enough you grow closer to God. Biblical religion teaches that when Christ brings you back into fellowship with God you learn to love as he loved you.
Love and good deeds are the fruit of grace and faith, not the cause or root of it.
Paul reminds them that at one time the converted Galatians lived as they should.
7. You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?
8. This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you.
Paul had seen the evidence of Christ at work in their lives when they first believed. He had confidence that by God’s grace they will go back to their former well-run-race. He wanted them to realize that bad influences were hindering them from living by God’s truth.
4. It doesn’t take much to ruin a good thing.
9. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.
10. I have confidence in you, in the Lord, that you will have no other mind; but he who troubles you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is.
11. And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased.
12. I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!
A little too much sugar or salt can make a good dish taste bad. A bad tire can cause an accident that destroys a car and kills its passengers. A small leak in a gas line can cause an entire building to explode. Or as Paul puts it here, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” The point here is that even what seems like a little deviation from God’s truth can get your whole life going in the wrong direction.
By hoping in outward things you do, you forget the heart of the gospel. Don’t count your prayers or the minutes you read the Bible. Look on your heart as you pray and read. Are you aware of the Living Christ? Are you speaking in faith to him? Are you remembering that you’re reading God’s own word? It’s not rituals or practices that take away your guilt. No wonder that people have anxiety and depression in their lives if they forget that it’s God’s perfect love that redeems and keeps them. Leave your worries at the cross of Christ where they are paid for in full.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe a horse was lost, for want of a horse a rider was lost, for want of a rider a battle was lost, for want of a battle a kingdom was lost.” That little nail could be the tiny thought in your heart that you haven’t done enough.
To accept a misunderstanding of God’s law, of the Gospel, effects your whole life. It arranges your every attitude around a false starting point. You can’t keep God’s law enough to erase your past sins. Give in to one point like that and you’re condemned because you can’t be good enough. James 2:10, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.”
Paul says that those who promote ideas like that will bear their own judgment. People sometimes approach God’s word as if they can choose what they like and ignore the rest. Without realizing how it effects their attitude toward God people to latch on to some wrong idea that gets them off the track of truth. As God pointed out here through the Apostle Paul, it just takes a little error to send a life into a horrible spin out of control.
Paul wanted them to understand that he was being persecuted for standing up for truth. He could easily have compromised on that little point of allowing circumcision to continue. But to do that destroys the whole Gospel message.
In the last part of this section, verses 13-15, Paul explained the boundaries of Christian liberty.
13. For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
14. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
15. But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!
Liberty in Christ isn’t a liberty from Christ. It’s a liberation from bondage to error, so that you can enjoy freedom to live by God’s truth.
Here’s where he brings the focus back to that 3rd key “L” word – Love. Love as the Bible speaks of it isn’t a romantic moment or just an emotional feeling. It’s defined by God’s word as expressed in his law. The law in the broad use of the word teaches the perfect way which can’t be followed aside from Christ. It tells us how to love, how to honor God in our lives, and how to live among others here in God’s world.
Jesus explained it this way all through his ministry. In John 14:21 he said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. …” In Romans 13:10 Paul said, “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Biblically, “Love is an attitude implanted into our needful human hearts by the prevailing grace of God whereby we are enabled to joyfully obey the revealed desires of our Creator both toward the Lord himself and toward those he Created.”
When Christ works in you to move you to honor God and to treat others as he says, that’s love. His perfect love is credited to you even when you don’t deserve it. That’s grace. He also works in those changed by his grace so that they strive to do what God says is right.
Make sure that these 4 Key “L” words are active in your life every day. Rest in the liberty you have in Christ. Don’t become enslaved by the lie that you have to earn your way into God’s blessings. Let God’s law teach you and convict your heart of it’s deep need for the Savior. Appreciate God’s standards for worship and morality. See how the law points toward the Savior who would die to redeem his people. Learn to love as God defines it in his word. Rely on the power of the Risen Savior to make you able to live to promote God’s glory in all things, and to stir you to live by his moral principles. And don’t let little pieces of leaven, wrong beliefs and practices, spoil your whole life. Let his word identify the dangers and direct your steps in the narrow way.
You are free from the chains of self-effort, guilt and anxiety, because Jesus Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law in your place, and he lives in your heart to do what is impossible without him. You can overcome the depressions and agonies which are exaggerated by focusing on yourself, when you turn your attention to Jesus and rest in his gracious victory that delivers you.
(The Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.)