Galatians 5:13-15 is just a continuation of Paul’s exhortation to the Galatian believers. First he entreats them in Galatians 4:12-20 to imitate him to live their lives in freedom. Then in 4:21-31, Paul gave an allegory arguing that those who believe are the children of the free woman and those who rely on works of the law are of the slave woman, therefore we must live in that freedom. After that, in Galatians 5:1-6, Paul exhorts them to stand firm in freedom and he gave at least four reasons why: First, it is for that very purpose Christ has set us free. Second, you cannot profit from Christ if you add works of the law. Third, saving faith is characterized by waiting and hoping for the eschatological righteousness. Then lastly, the only work that counts are works of love that is flowing from faith. Then in Galatians 5:7-12, he gave a command to reject the leaven of legalism. Now Galatians 5:13-15 will tell us how not to live and how to live in freedom, and what is at stake when we got it wrong.
For into freedom you were called, brethren; 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, in the statement, “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.
Paul is just reiterating what he said in verse 1. Christ has set us free for freedom is just another way of saying that we are called to freedom. The conjunction “for” doesn’t necessarily grounds the immediate preceding verse, but acts as a restatement of the main theme of living in freedom starting from verses 1-12. Paul still give stress to the fact that this freedom is essential on how we can rightly live our lives by placing the prepositional phrase “into freedom” in the emphatic position. “For into freedom you were called”. Now the purpose of restating the assertion is so that he can qualify what he meant by living in freedom, because Paul anticipates a possible misuse of this new found liberty. We know that’s the case because of the word “only”. Meaning he’s giving some qualifiers: First the negative, only do not use your freedom to give opportunity for the flesh. Second the positive, through love serve one another.
There are two things to take note of here. First, true freedom does not mean doing what the natural man(the flesh) wants. He doesn’t just follow the cravings of the flesh. Instead he has mastery over it. The truly freed person will not give opportunity for the flesh. He controls the flesh rather than being controlled by it. Second, true freedom is so free that it is willing to be enslaved through love for the sake of others. That’s a paradox. On the one hand you are free but on the other hand you are not. From this clarification on how to live in freedom, we can summarize freedom this way: Freedom is being able to say; no to the desires of the flesh(this could be legalism or lawlessness), and yes in serving one another through love. Now we know that the opposite of the flesh is the Spirit, we can therefore rightly say that freedom is characterized by walking in the Spirit as we will see later on in Galatians 5:16. Thus freedom by this definition is relative to where we’re freed from. We are liberated from the bondage of sinful flesh, so we can’t use this freedom as justification for licentiousness. Instead we are now servants of righteousness, that’s why we can joyfully serve one another through love.
Now verses 14-15 act as the grounds for the two halves of the contrast in verse 13. Verse 14 modifies the positive command, and verse 15 for the negative command.
Let’s look at the positive first. He said; “but through love serve one another, for the whole law is fulfilled in the statement: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ‘”
It is quite surprising that Paul talks about fulfilling the Mosaic law here after emphasizing in much detail that believers are no longer under it. In 5:3 Paul has just stated that believers ought not to receive circumcision because if they do so, then they are obligated to keep the whole law. But here he turns the same idea around and says that the entire law is fulfilled in loving one another, and he cites Lev 19:18. Is there a contradiction here? Does Paul affirm freedom from the law in 5:3, and then, as if he has Alzheimer’s, he insist on an obligation to keep the law in 5:14? Such claim must be rejected, because Paul was not saying that we need to go back under the yoke of the law in order to fulfill the whole law. Instead, he’s showing that love transcends the law. It fulfills the law. But how is that different from doing works of the law? How is love different?
Here’s how, first when you start making a checklist of whether you’re obeying the law to the letter or not, you are under it. You are no longer talking in terms of love. You are talking about obligations that even the unregenerate might be compelled to obey. With just enough threats they will do it to the letter. Now some have inferred from this verse that the the Decalogue of the old covenant is still binding to all believers. But that is to turn the text upside down. The point of saying that the whole law was fulfilled in the command to love is so that our motivation for ethics is no longer the written codes, because if you’re still asking for the list of dos and don’t s then you still don’t get it. It’s like asking what are the specific laws written in our hearts when God placed his Law in it. That’s the point of writing it into our hearts, so that you will no longer treat it the way you treat the tablets of stone, namely as a checklist. So when Paul said that love fulfills the whole law, don’t take that to mean that the Mosaic law is still binding for believers today., But that is not to say that we don’t have a law, because we are under the law of Christ.
Second, Paul is not saying that we should return to the law, because love precisely fulfills it. Love is the essence, the substance, so why return to the shadows of the old covenant? The Mosaic law is but a shadow of the law of Christ. Now it is no accident that one of the fruit of the Spirit is love(Galatians 5:22), and that we are also called to live by the Spirit, and that the same author wrote in Romans 2:25-29, that what counts as a valid circumcision is not one through obedience to the letter, but the circumcision of the heart and by the Spirit. In other words love is not just one of the works of the law, it is the fruit of the Spirit. It is beyond the law and is wrought by the Spirit.
Thomas Schreiner says : “Those who are free from the law, however, and empowered by the Holy Spirit live a life of love. Love does not go around the moral norms of the law, nor does it violate them, but it does transcend them. Indeed, the call to love probably reflects “the law of Christ” (6:2), and Christ himself modeled that love in his self-giving for his people (2:20). So too, believers live out the law of Christ when they give themselves for the good of others.”
Now the rod by which we measure how we ought to love one another is by how we love ourselves. The text is not giving a command to love ourselves, but rather it assumes that we do, for no one really hated his own body(Ephesians 5:29). But we should be quick also to add that the text neither prohibits loving ourselves. Love here for the self is desiring what’s good for our well-being. There’s nothing inherently evil with that. What constitutes selfishness is desiring your private good only.
Now let’s look at the negative pair. Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, [because] if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. The grounds given for the negative command gives us some idea what the flesh is only good for. It is no different from how animals behave, driven only by their basic instincts. When the flesh has the opportunity, it only follows its own desires. So what Paul is virtually saying is that there is only one appetite that drives people to do things, namely love for the self. Self preservation, own interest and therefore our own happiness. The truly freed person will share the love that he has for himself to others. He will love his neighbors as he love himself. Not so with those who are still enslaved by their natural desires. They will bite and devour one another. They haven’t tasted true freedom yet, so they will settle for the fleeting pleasures of private self love at the expense of the good and joy of others. And Paul warned us that if we do that, we will consume one another. The language used here is remarkable. It shows that lawlessness too is but a work of the flesh. It is our nature apart from the Spirit, to consume and devour, and not to give and bless. This will be the undoing of ourselves and destruction of the local body.
So why is it that Christian freedom can only be expressed in self giving kind of love and not licentiousness? I believe John Piper rightly says it:
“Because love is motivated by the joy of sharing our fullness, but the works of the flesh are motivated by the desire to fill our emptiness. The meaning of “flesh” in the book of Galatians is not the physical part of man, but man’s ego which feels a deep emptiness and uses the means within its own power to fill that emptiness. If it is religious, it may use law; if it is irreligious, it may use booze. But one thing is sure: the flesh is not free. It is enslaved to one futile desire after another in its effort to fill an emptiness which only Christ can fill. So when Paul says in verse 13, “Don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,” he means, don’t surrender the freedom that you have in the all-satisfying Christ to return to the unsatisfying desires for mere physical pleasures or self-exaltation. So works of the flesh are motivated by a desire to fill our emptiness. But love is very different―it is motivated by the joy of sharing out fullness. “Love does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5). When we love, we are not enslaved to use things or people to fill our emptiness. Love is the overflow of our fullness. Therefore, love is the only behavior that we can do in freedom. When God frees us from guilt and fear and greed and fills us with his all-satisfying presence, the only motive left is the joy of sharing our fullness. When God fills the emptiness of our heart with forgiveness and help and guidance and hope, he frees us from the bondage to accumulate things and manipulate people. Freedom flows forth in love just as surely as a bubbling spring flows forth in a mountain stream. But the flesh is like a vacuum cleaner: it sucks and sucks and just the moment it starts to feel full, somebody throws the bag in the garbage. The book of Galatians is written to show us how to become a mountain spring that serves the valley with the water of love.”
Yes we are free, but the one who liberated us from slavery under sin and the law has his own purpose in redeeming us. Christ freed us to overflow in love for others. Licentiousness only demonstrates that we are empty, only faith working through love can show how Christ filled the void of our hearts and so freed us from all kinds of slavery. Freedom in Christ is so free that it enables us to serve one another through love. It breaks the chains of the desires of the flesh. It enables us to say with Paul that we are willing to become all to all people in order that we might save some.