Another spiritual danger (my topic for October-November) is thinking I am free from trying to earn my salvation by keeping any sort of rules, but assuming that means I can do whatever I want.
I’ve heard people say that they are not interested in Christianity because of its supposed ‘rules’ but the Christian life is far from enslaving. It is the only way to resist the various slaveries offered by the world, the flesh, and the devil. However, this does not mean that I can do whatever I might feel like doing for that is just another form of slavery. What sets me free from bondage is serving and loving God and others, and by doing that, I actually fulfill God’s laws.
The book of Galatians was written to Christians who struggled with what we now call legalism. They were saved by grace, but then got the idea that they would become better Christians by keeping rules. Paul must have been deeply concerned because this epistle is the only one he wrote that is without praise for the recipients. Their error was so grave that he got right into telling them so and telling them to correct it.
Toward the end of the book, he wrote, “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 5:13–15)
The freedom they were called to was freedom from Mosaic laws. No one could ever earn the favor of God that way, but it had not stopped people from trying. Our default mode seems to be ‘establish your own righteousness’ and it comes from sinful pride and our “I can do this myself” attitude.
When he says “opportunity for the flesh” Paul means the opportunity to follow my fallen, sinful desires and act contrary to God’s moral laws. This space is not long enough to list all the ways I could sin, but it later gives some. As the Bible says, such a life is slavery. I’ve proven this by trying to live that way before God called me to freedom, and sometimes afterward.
As he says, I’m not free to do whatever I want, particularly at the expense of others. (In thinking about it, my selfish behavior is always at the expense of others). When Paul says the whole law is fulfilled in the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and when he uses that command as the reason why the Galatians are to “serve one another,” the implication is that I still have a moral obligation to follow the moral standards of God’s “law.” Yet obedience is not a means of justification, but a crucial component of the Christian life.
When God called me, He put His Spirit in me. The desire of the Spirit is to glorify Christ and be a blessing to God’s people. I feel that desire pushing me to do the same. The next few verses back that up: “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.” (Galatians 5:16–18)
The inner war is flesh vs. Spirit; my “I wants” against what God wants. This is not about rules, but about realizing that His wants bring amazing blessing. My mother used to say, “You are never truly happy until you are doing things for others.” I used to think this was sappy, but now realize her advice was wise. It is something God says also.