Galatians – Part 5 (Chapter 5, Verses 1 to 21)

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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The Peoples Bible – Galatians by Armin J. Panning, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1997

PART FIVE

Paul Explains Sanctification—How the Justified Sinner Is to Live before God
(5:1–6:10)

As we begin this third major part of Paul’s letter, it may be useful to review the general outline of the letter. The six chapters of the letter divide themselves into three parts of two chapters each.

In the first two chapters we heard Paul defend his status as a true apostle, equal with the other apostles commissioned at Christ’s ascension. That was not an ego trip for Paul, but, rather, it established the truthfulness and reliability of the message he had brought to the Galatians.

What was Paul’s message? This is detailed in chapters 3 and 4, particularly in how his message differs from the message urged by the false-teaching Judaizers, who had broken into the Galatian congregations and were misleading and unsettling Paul’s recent converts to Christianity.

Paul had preached that a person is saved by grace alone, grace shown in God’s keeping his promise and sending Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah. This Savior lived a perfect life to fulfill what God’s holy law rightly demanded of us, and he died an innocent death as our substitute to pay for the countless sins and misdeeds with which we transgressed God’s holy will.

On the basis of what Christ has done, God now credits Christ’s merits to the sinner purely as a gift. He justifies, that is, he declares the sinner to be just. He looks at the sinner as if he were sinless, holy, and righteous.

This precious gift of the forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and a good conscience comes to sinners by faith. Faith is nothing other than trusting and believing God’s promise—taking God at his word when he says, “In Christ you are my dear children and heirs of eternal salvation.”

That is the faith Abraham had, and “it was credited to him as righteousness.” That is the faith God engendered also in the Galatians by Paul’s preaching the good news to them. The gospel works such faith that takes God at his word and relies solely on his promise to give every good and blessing without any contribution from people or merit on their part.

But the Judaizers challenged the Galatians’ simple faith in God’s grace. They said, “In addition to
accepting Christ you must also follow the Old Testament ceremonies, since that has always been the way of God’s people.”

Alternating between strong, emotional rebuke and warm, winsome words, using both parable and allegory, Paul made this point: The law has been fulfilled and the ceremonies have been abolished. There is nothing you can or need to do. You have been freed from all legal requirements.

But that raises this question: Can Christians do anything they please? without guidelines? The question is essentially one that asks how justified children of God are to live and put their “freedom” into practice. Paul addresses that point next.

Encouragements that flow from the doctrine of justification

Stand firm in your Christian liberty

Galatians Chapter 5, verses 1-6
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Commentary

To stand firmly in God’s good graces without having to do anything to merit or earn this blessing—that is freedom indeed! For such freedom Christ has set us sinners free by his merit, which comes to us through faith. What folly to give up that freedom and once more take up the burden of trying to keep legal regulations, whether they be the Mosaic Law or any other pattern of works done to please God and thus earn his favor. Paul urges the Galatians and he urges us: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

In the Galatians’ case the yoke of slavery meant keeping Old Testament ceremonial regulations. Many individual precepts and regulations governed every phase of Jewish life: diet, dress, social customs, public life, worship, and others.

Although gentile converts to Judaism, or proselytes, agreed to these precepts and regulations in principle, there seem to have been different levels of how completely they actually kept the individual rules. One thing is certain: to become full-fledged converts to Judaism, Gentiles would
have to pledge to keep all the Mosaic regulations, and for males that meant accepting circumcision.

In this section when Paul speaks of the Galatians accepting circumcision, he is directing his remarks against those “who are trying to be justified by law” (verse 4) — those, that is, who considered this rite necessary for salvation. Hence Paul equates accepting circumcision with renouncing Christianity and converting to the outmoded Judaism of the Old Testament.

In verses 2 to 4, Paul gives three somewhat similar but overlapping reasons why the Galatian Christians should not accept circumcision:

1. It effectively negates Christ’s sacrifice.
2. It obligates a person to keep the whole law.
3. It deprives a person of God’s grace and thus puts him on his own, that is, on the “merit plan” of salvation.

Summoning the full authority of his apostolic office, Paul warns: “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”

Falling away from grace means no longer being connected by faith to the God who graciously gives us all things as a gift. It means we’re going it alone and that on judgment day we will have to take our chances with our own righteousness for acceptance before God’s bar of justice.

That approach, in which we are “alienated from Christ,” is worlds removed from what the Galatians learned from Paul’s gospel, which the apostle here summarizes, “But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.”

If it is by faith in Christ, by trusting God’s promise, and not by our own performance that we “await . . . righteousness,” then it makes no difference whether a person is circumcised or not. If the Galatians want to accept circumcision as a matter of choice and not as a requirement for salvation, that is their privilege. If they choose not to be circumcised, that too, despite the Judaizers’ stern threats, is a privilege they may exercise. However, they must always remember “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

The last phrase of this verse forms the transition to a new thought that will be the emphasis in this closing portion of the letter to the Galatians. The apostle has been talking about justification, how a person becomes right with God. He has clearly and forcefully stated that the only way a person can be right with God is to accept the righteousness God himself has prepared through the perfect life and innocent death of his Son. Since that righteousness comes in the form of a promise from a gracious God, the only way it can be received is by trusting and believing the God who has made the promise. Or as Paul puts it, “the only thing that counts is faith.” As far as justification is concerned, the only thing that counts is faith. But note that Paul doesn’t end his sentence in quite that way. He says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone. It is always “expressing itself through love.” Appreciation for the unspeakably great grace God has shown us requires a response from us. It can’t be any different. We simply have to say thank you to our God by doing deeds of love wherever and whenever an opportunity presents itself. Living this life of appreciative love is what is called sanctification. Sanctification, faith expressing itself in love, will be Paul’s emphasis in the closing portion of the letter, but first he takes one more opportunity to warn against the Judaizers. Drawing his imagery from the athletic field, Paul tells the Galatians:

Galatians Chapter 5, verses 7-12
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be. Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

Commentary

The Galatians’ good start was spoiled by the Judaizers, who tripped them up. These false teachers “cut in” on them and made them tentative and unsure in their race of faith. That kind of running was not what they learned from the Holy Spirit working through the gospel Paul preached to them.

As Paul thinks about the hurdles and obstacles put before his newly converted Galatians, he becomes indignant. He threatens, “The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.”

It’s interesting to note how little Paul tells us about the Judaizers, other than to condemn their false teaching. He never addresses any of them by name. Indeed, we don’t learn from the letter whether the Judaizers were still in the Galatian congregations or whether they had moved on to other of Paul’s congregations, leaving confusion and unrest in their wake. Nor does Paul tell us how many Judaizers there were. Paul speaks rather vaguely here, and in the singular, when he says, “The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.” It may be hard to know or assess the damage now, but judgment day will set matters right, whoever the offenders may be.

Paul gives us only a hint regarding the personal attack the Judaizers were mounting against him. It
would seem they had accused Paul of being inconsistent, in that he still sometimes “[preached] circumcision.” Such a charge might have been based on Paul’s willingness to have Timothy circumcised so he could be helpful in working with Jews (Acts 16:3) and his refusing to have Titus circumcised when his situation became a test case regarding the necessity of observing Old Testament rites and ceremonies (Galatians 2:3).

We don’t know the details of their charge, but Paul hotly denies it as being not only inaccurate but foolish and illogical as well. “If I am still preaching circumcision,” Paul asks, “why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.” Continuing opposition from the Judaizers with their insistence on circumcision was eloquent testimony that Paul had never given in on the matter of circumcision.

At this point Paul allows himself a bitter, almost coarse, outburst against the Judaizers when he suggests, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” If they’re so bent on circumcision, so quick with the knife, why don’t they just go all the way and emasculate themselves! Obviously, Paul is being sharp, even sarcastic, to make a point. He is not offering a serious suggestion.

Walk in the spirit, not in the flesh

We have previously characterized Galatians as a letter that shows rapid and wide mood swings on the part of its author. Here again we see Paul shifting gears. After an emotional, no-holds-barred exchange with the errorists, Paul now switches to a much warmer tone of voice. He addresses his beloved Galatians as “my brothers.” He warns them most tenderly and earnestly against a problem that might result if they don’t listen carefully to and analyze properly the rebuttal he has just made to the Judaizers’ position.

Paul has taken great pains to point out that salvation is a free gift that comes purely by grace through faith in Christ and his redemptive work done in our stead. The demands of the law can make no claims on us. We are perfectly free and need not do anything in order to be saved.

That freedom from the law and its demands could, however, be misunderstood as total license and liberty, giving the Galatians permission to do just as they pleased in their daily lives. Paul anticipates this possible misunderstanding and heads it off.

Galatians Chapter 5, verses 13-15
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.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Commentary

A key term in this section is the Greek word translated as “the sinful nature.” Literally it means “flesh” and refers to our unregenerate self—what we are by nature in our fallen and sinful state, commonly called our old Adam.

The old Adam is totally selfish and self centered. Any freedom from restraint is going to be interpreted by him as an opportunity to throw off authority, grab what he can for himself, and indulge his every whim and pleasure. In short, the “flesh” is that part of us and our nature that wants to do just as it pleases, without thinking of anybody else. That is its idea of “freedom.”

But Paul warns, “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.’” To be sure, Christ has fulfilled every demand of the law, and there remains nothing for us to do to earn salvation. But when we realize that salvation has been earned for us and that everything has come to us as a free gift of God’s grace, then we will want to show our appreciation to our gracious God for so great a gift. And if we, as redeemed children of God, now cast about to discover what would please such a God and what we can do to show our appreciation to God, then God’s law gives us guidance and direction. It indicates what God would have us do.

Paul turns to Leviticus for a summary statement of God’s holy and unchangeable will, his “law.” The verse Paul chooses is “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which is nothing other than God’s directive to serve one another in love. It’s what Paul has previously referred to as “faith
expressing itself through love” (5:6).

Paul undergirds the practical value of keeping God’s command by pointing out the damaging effect of not keeping it and operating with a lack of love. “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” But avoiding the bad effects of lovelessness is not the real motivation to show love for one’s neighbor. The true and proper motivation has to come from quite a different source, the new spiritual life worked in the believer by the Holy Spirit.

Galatians Chapter 5, verses 16-18
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

Commentary

In the previous paragraph “sinful nature,” or “flesh,” was a key term. Its counterpart needs to be noted in this section. It’s the word rendered “Spirit” in the NIV translation. That term can properly be written with a capital S and will then be understood to refer to the Holy Spirit. But it also can be rendered with a lowercase s and refer to the spiritual nature, the new man worked in believers when they come to faith in Christ. In fact, in passages where “flesh” and “spirit” are contrasted or pitted against each other, the lowercase “spirit,” or “spiritual nature,” often seems preferable.

A moment’s reflection will show, however, that the distinction is not of as great a consequence as it might at first appear. There can be no spiritual life unless the Spirit has first worked that life in the believer (1 Corinthians 12:3). And, on the other hand, where the Spirit is active in a person’s life, there will inevitably be spiritual life and a new spiritual nature (John 3:6).

In the present context, a practical balance between the two meanings can be struck by understanding the first and last uses of the term (verses 16,18) as referring to the Holy Spirit, and the two uses in between as speaking of the spiritual nature of a Christian. Such an adjustment will have our translation of these verses coming out something like this: “So I say, live under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of your sinful nature. For the old sinful nature desires what is contrary to your new spiritual life. And the new spiritual life, in turn, is contrary to your old, original sinful nature. These two natures are in conflict with each other, so that, as a Christian, who at all times retains an old Adam alongside your new man, you find yourself not doing what you want. But if you are led by the Holy Spirit, you are not under law but rather in sync with it.”

Paul explains that the Christian’s life will always be a pitched battle. There is an ongoing conflict between what the rebellious old Adam wants to do contrary to God’s will and what the new man, guided by the Spirit, wants to do in accordance with God’s will.

What these two entities in the Christian want to do is light-years apart. The difference is immediately apparent as one observes their activities. Paul lists the negative side first. He says,
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious,” and he then proceeds to lay out a scandalous catalog
of vices.

Galatians Chapter 5, verses 19-21
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Commentary

Paul names 15 crass sins and ends the series by adding “and the like.” He could no doubt have named more. And for that matter, a shorter list would have been just as incriminating. The point is that nothing good comes from our old, sinful nature.

A careful look at the placement of semicolons in the NIV translation indicates that the translators have attempted to group the vices. “Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery” are sins against the Sixth Commandment. “Idolatry and witchcraft” are infractions of the First and Second Commandments. “Hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” are sins against the neighbor, essentially a breaking of the Fifth Commandment. “Drunkenness” and “orgies” lump together all manner of intemperance.

Paul doesn’t elaborate. He simply states, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It is important to keep in mind that Christ died also for sins like those on Paul’s list. The apostle is not saying they are unforgivable. After all, in their
pagan past, the Galatians had done all of them. Paul previously had to preach against such wickedness in their lives. Forgiven of their past, the Galatians, however, dare not blithely return to their pet sins. They know from Paul’s gospel that God’s Son came down from heaven to give his life as a ransom for sin. If God is that serious about sin, how can the Galatians, or we, carelessly continue in a sinful lifestyle? That would be a contradiction in terms. That would not be faith expressing itself in love toward God or our neighbor.

Paul is not speaking of individual lapses into sin that the Christian repents of and receives forgiveness for. Paul is speaking of a pattern, a consistent and persistent lifestyle. The original Greek makes that plain. Literally Paul says, “Those continuing to do things of that sort will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

The End

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