A BIBLICAL THOUGHT – 1
“You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”—Galatians 5:7–15, ESV (emphasis added)
In our last biblical thought, we discussed how the journey of the followers of Jesus is not one that goes from sin to without sin, but rather is one of growth in love, going from selfishness to unselfishness. It is not a life organized around what is and is not sin, but a life organized by the principle of love and service, in love for God and others. In this Bible text, Paul continues his argument and fleshes out what freedom in Christ truly means.
At this point in the letter, there is no discussion of the fact that Jesus, through His sacrifice, grants freedom to every single person who believes in Him. Christian communities have downplayed this freedom throughout the centuries. The reasoning is that if people are given freedom, people will sin. So instead of freedom, human religion creates ways in which humanity becomes busy attempting to please the gods. And this attempt, as history attests, really ends with humans pleasing other humans who place themselves in positions of control. This was the context of the Christian church before the Reformation. Salvation, forgiveness, and everything Christ gave and gives freely was assigned a price and a method of purchase. And who benefited from this? Humans who were in control. The freedom of the gospel has systematically been subverted and replaced by human control (be it through traditions and laws in Galatia or indulgences and offerings before the Reformation). This reality was even picked up by the Russian writer Dostoyevsky in his book The Brothers Karamazov, where he writes that the church took away the freedom Christ gave people and in exchange it gave them security—a false security based on human sacrifice and offerings.1 As long as people paid the price, they believed they would be fine.
This extreme must be avoided. It undermines the freedom of Christ because of the risk of sin, and it results in human control. And yet, there is another extreme that should be avoided: the extreme of thinking that freedom implies permission to do whatever humanity wants—what Paul calls living “according to the flesh” (Rom 8:5, ESV). This is an extreme that Paul fights in this portion of the letter. Paul is a man who trusts the work of the Spirit. He does not trust in himself or in any other human being, but he trusts the work of the Spirit in the life of an individual. Here Paul writes, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13, ESV). Why is Paul so concerned about the other extreme, the extreme of living in the flesh with the freedom that was given by Jesus? Because a life in the flesh is truly a life of selfishness. It hinders us from doing what Paul calls us to do: service to one another in love. Why is Paul against sexual promiscuity? It is not only a question of personal sin, but of using other people’s bodies for our own pleasure. In using the other person’s body for our own pleasure and benefit, we are practicing selfishness. We are destroying ourselves and others. Christ has reconciled us to the Father and to one another; by living in the flesh we live for ourselves and deny God.
So, what is the balance? It is living a full life of true freedom in Jesus within the parameters of the fruit of the Spirit. Nobody with the fruit of love, patience, faithfulness, and self-control will fall into a life predominantly guided by the selfish desires of the flesh. Jesus has paid the full price and now we are free to live in joy and love in the trust that if we fall and “confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, ESV). And by this trust in this love, we will grow in our relationship with God and others, practicing loving service. In this trust we will also develop the discernment to know that “‘all things are lawful’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor 10:23, ESV). This discernment will keep us away from the extremes that lead to both a false religion of human control and a selfish life under the pretense that we are free to live a life in the flesh.
My dear reader, may you trust in the love that casts you into a life of true freedom! And as you grow in this love, may you realize how true, how beautiful, and how meaningful the religion of Jesus is. The weight of human religion can only be felt in the active mistrust in the love of Jesus for us. So trust, trust, trust. I heard a song this week that summarizes it well: “What could I bring, for your gift is complete, so I trust you, simply trust you Lord, with every part of me.”2 May we trust and continue on this liberating path of growth from selfishness to unselfish love and service to one another.
A BIBLICAL THOUGHT – 2
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”—Galatians 5:16–26, ESV (emphasis added)
Read and re-read this text again and again! Paul describes what life in the flesh and life in the Spirit actually look like. Notice that in both of these explanations, flesh and Spirit are opposite ways to live, opposite ways to see the other, opposite ways to relate to the other. While life in the flesh is nothing more and nothing less than the outward manifestation of selfishness, life in the Spirit is the outward manifestation of unselfishness.
The ending of Galatians 5 is the summary of what Christian religion should be all about: freedom to live within the parameters set forth by the Spirit who dwells in the life of those who respond to His gracious leading. And within these relational parameters, we find the center of what true life is all about: loving God and others.
In fact, the only way to know whether somebody has or has not been with Jesus is by the manifestation of fruit in their life. The natural human being, those who do not respond to God’s grace, will live a “fleshly” life of selfishness. These are the true unbelievers, whether they are inside or outside church buildings. The unbeliever will manifest fruits of the flesh. Here is the list of actions that manifest our natural selfish tendencies:
- sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality
- fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions
- envy, drunkenness, and orgies
Now as for those who do respond to grace, they will live—although within the natural tendency to live in the flesh—according to the impulses of the Spirit, a life of unselfishness. And these are the true believers, whether they are inside or outside church buildings. The believer will manifest the fruit of the Spirit, which is:
- kindness and goodness
Against this list there is no law, because if the law is summed up by love for God and others, this list shows what that looks like! So there is truly no way to fake our way into the kingdom of God. Those who respond to grace, in time, will manifest the fruit of the Spirit, and those who do not will manifest the fruit of the flesh. We live a life either guided by the selfish flesh or by the unselfish Spirit. And the battle between both will follow us until our last day.
SO THERE IS TRULY NO WAY TO FAKE OUR WAY INTO THE KINGDOM OF GOD. THOSE WHO RESPOND TO GRACE, IN TIME, WILL MANIFEST THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT, AND THOSE WHO DO NOT WILL MANIFEST THE FRUIT OF THE FLESH.
So, my dear reader, may you live and walk by the Spirit! May your living out of loving unselfish service make you into a living reminder of Jesus for those around you. And may your religion be centered by this action of the Spirit in and through you.
1 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor,” bk. 5, chap. 5 in The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Knopf, 1992).
2 “I Will Trust My Saviour Jesus,” track 6 on CityAlight, Yet Not I, CityAlight Music, 2018.
Tiago Arrais, PhD, is a district pastor in Santa Fe, NM, USA.