Paul’s Letter to the Galatians – Part 4
A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
Part 4 of Paul’s case against combining the Law and Grace
By now you know that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was a vigorous rebuttal to the claims of the so-called Judaizers, Jewish Christians who taught that Gentiles desiring to become Christians had to put themselves under the Law and be circumcised to be saved.
As I said at the beginning of this series, the same teaching is once again coming into the Church. Among other things, this teaching stresses keeping the Saturday Sabbath, celebrating the Jewish feasts and festivals, and observing the Jewish dietary laws. On one hand, those who teach this deny that it constitutes a return to Jewish legalism, but is a demonstration of love and obedience instead. But on the other hand, they teach that every Christian must be “Torah observant” to live a life that pleases God. (Being Torah observant means obeying the Law of Moses contained in the first five books of the Bible. In Hebrew these five books are called the Torah.)
Therefore Paul’s letter is as timely today as it was when Paul wrote it almost 2,000 years ago. We’ll continue our study now by taking up chapter 5, which in my Bible is subtitled “Freedom in Christ.”
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. (Galatians 5:1-6)
First, Paul said it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
To the Jews who believed in Him Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
Since the Law cannot provide a remedy for our sins but can only make us conscious of them (Romans 3:20), anyone who is under the Law remains a prisoner of the Law and a slave to sin. By paying the penalty for our violations of the Law, the Son of God has set us free from the Law. And when the Son sets us free we are free indeed (John 8:36).
Then Paul made another powerful claim that sets the tone for the entire chapter. He said, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
In several other places Paul wrote that our eternal inheritance is guaranteed from the time we believe (2 Cor. 1:21-22, 2 Cor. 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14, Ephesians 4:30). Therefore he had to be saying that the Galatians who were being enticed to go under the law were never saved in the first place. Otherwise, he would have been contradicting himself.
The Greek word translated fallen away here is not the more familiar apostasia, but ekpipto. One of its meanings is to fall from a place which one cannot keep. The only way we can keep our position of grace is through faith. Paul was claiming that the Galatians who were going under the Law never had the faith to be saved by grace. We are either forever saved or we were never saved.
Paul warned the Galatians that while neither circumcision nor uncircumcision was relevant in and of itself, it was being proposed to them as a sign of their acceptance of the Old Covenant. Therefore agreeing to it would obligate them to the whole Law.
This is an important point. We don’t get to decide which parts of the Law we want to obey. Picking any part of it obligates us to all of it. And the Law is not just the 10 Commandments. The Torah contains 613 commandments.
Attempting to keep the Law to justify ourselves before the Lord alienates us from Him because it denies what He’s done for us. It makes His death of no value, leaving us responsible for saving ourselves. Remember, it wasn’t the fact that the Jews had orchestrated the death of Jesus that caused their alienation from God. After all, He came to die for their sins. It was the fact that by rejecting His death as payment in full for their sins they made it meaningless to them, of less value than the animals they continued to sacrifice, that broke the relationship.
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! (Galatians 5:7-12)
You can’t have a little bit of Law mixed with Grace. Just as a little bit of yeast will permeate the whole batch of dough to change its composition, a little bit of Law will work its way through the doctrine of Grace, changing it into something it was not intended to be. When Paul said, in that case, the offense of the cross has been abolished, he meant the Law cancels Grace.
(The Judaizers were hinting that Paul preached the Law among Jews but switched to a watered down version of the Gospel when speaking to Gentiles. His response was, “If I’m preaching the Law to the Jews then why are they persecuting me?” His frustration with them is evident.)
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. (Galatians 5:13-15)
Paul’s comments on “serving one another in love” and “loving your neighbor as yourself” tell us he was especially concerned about the Galatians’ arguments over Law vs. Grace. Their freedom was not an excuse to be argumentative to the point of sinfulness. He called it “biting and devouring each other” and said that being in Christ meant they were free from the Law, but even the Law agreed they shouldn’t behave that way.
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. (Galatians 5:16-18)
If we let the Holy Spirit guide us, our sin nature will not be able to rule our lives. But it’s an either /or situation because the two are opposed to each other and will never agree on what’s proper behavior for us. If we let our sinful nature guide our behavior we will invariably wind up doing things we don’t want to do. Even so, if we are led by the Spirit we don’t need the Law to govern our behavior.
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 (Galatians 5:19-21).
Please read these next few sentences carefully. Nowhere does the Bible ever accuse the Pharisees of committing the sins Paul listed here. In fact, by human standards their behavior was exemplary. And yet, Jesus said unless our righteousness surpasses theirs we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). No matter how good we think someone’s behavior is, unless that person is also born again, he or she cannot enter the kingdom (John 3:3). We’re saved because of what we believe, not because of how we behave.
Notice, Paul didn’t say “believers who practice the acts of the sinful nature,” in Galatians 5:21, he said, “those who practice the acts of the sinful nature.”
Also, when you see the word “practice” think of the doctor who practices medicine or the lawyer who practices law. They are immersed in their professions all day every day. This is what I think Paul meant by “those who practice the acts of the sinful nature.” They are immersed in a sinful lifestyle all day every day.
Every believer has repeatedly committed one or more of the sins mentioned in Galatians 5:16-21, and Paul spoke of his own struggle with sin in Romans 7:14-20. Therefore, if he had meant to condemn every believer who sins he would have to condemn himself as well. But in Romans 8:1 he said, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
I believe Paul was referring to people who sin without regard for what the Bible says about it. In my opinion, these people identify themselves as non-believers, because while I’ve never met a true believer who has no struggle with sin, neither have I met one who had a complete disregard for his or her sinfulness. The Holy Spirit convicts believers when we sin, and that conviction brings remorse which leads us to confession. Knowing how we’ll feel after we sin is part of what leads us to struggle against our inherent sinfulness. Non-believers don’t feel any of that.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:22-26)
The differences between the acts of the sin nature and the fruit of the Spirit can be seen in the comparison of these two passages. In reading the first one we can all admit to periodically doing one or more of these things as believers, even though we strive to be led by the Spirit. In Romans 7:18-20 Paul said from God’s perspective when that happens, it’s not us but our sinful nature that’s to blame when this happens.
King David foresaw the incredible gift of Grace when he wrote,
Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit (Psalm 32:1-2).
Paul’s final words on the subject, to not become conceited, provoking and envying each other, confirm that he has been especially concerned about their arguing over who was right, Paul or the Judaizers. He said those Galatians who belonged to Christ should live by the Spirit and not become conceited but should stop provoking and envying each other. These are acts prompted by the sin nature and are not appropriate for believers.
Remember, the Law was only given to point out our sins and no one can be saved by keeping it (Romans 3:20). But through faith, we can achieve a righteousness apart from the Law and be saved (Romans 3:21-24). So there is only one way to live one’s life with the assurance of pardon, and that’s by Grace through faith. We can’t have it both ways. If we’re under the Law we can not benefit from God’s grace. If we’re under Grace, the Law is not necessary. We’ll conclude this study next week.