Galatians 5: Live By the Spirit

Why don’t we need a system of laws and rules to “babysit” us anymore, as Paul said in chapter 3?

Paul gives us an unmistakable answer in today’s reading.

If you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law. (5:18)

In fact, the word “spirit” is used seven times in this chapter, punctuating Paul’s point (though I wish Wright had not chosen to leave “spirit” and “holy spirit” uncapitalized in his translation).

A system of laws, a list of rules, or a handbook of standards and dictates is comfortable for a lot of people.  Everything is stated and known.  It is also a good tool to have when dealing with children.  The problem, though, is that all of these exist outside of the person.  Someone made some laws or rules and published those and now we are expected to adhere.  The handbook is sitting over there on the table.  We can choose to know, learn, and follow it or we cannot.  While these systems of law do provide guidance, they don’t give power to meet those expectations.  And expectations without empowerment usually lead to failure.

Now, with the coming of the Holy Spirit into the life of Christians, there is both guidance and power.  And all of this exists within.  Temptation is still with us, of course.  It was right there with us when we operated by a system of dos and don’ts too.  The difference is that, unlike any system of law, the Spirit is alive and personal.  The Spirit wishes to “make us alive” (remember chapter 2) and empower us past the temptation and on to righteousness (5:5).  That Spirit guides us and if we will choose to “live by that spirit” (5:16) we find that progressively, little by little, the Holy Spirit puts to death the “flesh” (5:17) and truly “makes us free so that we [can] enjoy freedom” (5:1).

Free people are able to make the choices that truly liberate their souls.  It is not that the lifestyle our rules are trying to produce is bad.  Not at all.  The whole law really came down to one principle: love your neighbor (5:14), and that is as good a lifestyle as they come.  True Christian love requires an emptying of self, putting other before oneself (5:13).  It takes true freedom to choose to do that.  Freedom from requirement, from having to love others.  It isn’t love if it is done by obligation.  But when we step out in faith, trusting that the best way to happiness is to serve others, counterintuitive as it is, and that faith shows itself through love (5:6), one more crucifying nail is driven into the self (5:24), and the Spirit is able to produce fruit in our lives (5:22-23).

We don’t need a babysitter when we have the spirit of the Father inside us.

What verse stood out to you in this chapter?

Categories: Galatians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Post navigation

7 thoughts on “Galatians 5: Live By the Spirit

  1. Dean

    Hi Jason,

    Well, as for verses that stood out, I would say 19-21.

    Why exactly will those who practice the works of the flesh (fornication, uncleanliness, hatred, contentions, jealousies, anger, selfishness, envy, drunkenness) not inherit the kingdom of God? (Am I right to interpret this to mean salvation?)

    It may be a silly question – we all know how bad those things are – but isn’t Jesus’s sacrifice enough to pay for those sins done by a believing Christian?

    It seems as though Paul’s assumption is that with true faith, a believer would be empowered by the spirit to resist from practicing these faults, but that doesn’t seem empirically true. So often we see individuals who, despite being “born again” and certain of their own salvation, fall into many of the above faults repeatedly. Which is not a surprise – many of the sins Paul lists are very common human flaws.

    What are your thoughts on this? Is it a matter of one’s initial faith being hypocritical – as though one who falls into these sins was initially untruthful when he or she first had faith in Christ? Were they lying to themselves years back when they first had believed they were saved? If so, how can anyone be certain of his or her salvation by faith if one is uncertain about one’s future bad deeds that may discredit his or her faith?

    Or must an individual constantly re-affirm his or her true faith by repentance after each sin? It would seem odd though that the salvation that someone can win by faith alone could be then lost by one’s faulty deeds.

    I guess, reading through Galatians, I can’t help but feeling that you’re over-interpreting Paul’s words. He seems to be condemning predominantly the rigid ritualism of the old Toraic “Law” which was far from understandable and did not seem to flow from love. Circumcision in order to be acceptable to others was emblematic of this, as were overly restrictive dietary laws. But he seems to replace the old Toraic “Law” with a simpler, more natural “law” based on faith and love – to refrain from what was clearly sinful and do what is clearly good. You may not want to call it a “law” for the sake of your theology, but isn’t Paul essentially advocating for the “Progressive Legalism” you discard in the last post?

    I may well be biased of course from the Islamic outlook that not only are deeds without faith empty and worthless but also that “faith” not expressed in righteous deeds is essentially dead as well. Salvation can’t be won by either faith or deeds alone, but God fulfills His promise by freely and easily granting His Compassion to those for whom faith naturally flows into righteous efforts and those who turn back to Him after their mistakes. (I guess this is why the Epistle of James is my favorite New Testament book – a squarely ‘Muslim’ epistle in my opinion).

    Thanks for your posts though – this is my first time reading Galatians, and it’s a very interesting glimpse of Paul’s personality.

    Take care,

    • Dean:

      Great to hear from you again. Sorry it took some time to respond. I knew this might take some time to respond appropriately and I have been a bit busy at work.

      I think much of the answer is in the way you phrased it: “fall into many of the above faults repeatedly.”

      It seems you are asking me what my opinion is more than just what general Christian answers are so here goes: it seems that a just God judges the totality of a person’s life as opposed to individual actions, at least if what we are talking about is “inheriting the kingdom of God” (or eternal salvation). If one’s life is marked by a repeated, calloused, rebellious engagement in the sins listed here, it is hard to think that is a person who has truly surrendered their life to the Spirit of Jesus (which is what this passage is about). People who have surrendered their life to the Spirit or “live by the Spirit” have lives that are more consistently (though not perfectly) marked by the fruit of the Spirit listed in 5:22-23. This idea of judging “totality of life” is what makes “losing salvation” more than just doing individual sins. Yes, I would wonder about the grace of God too, if a momentary lapse of reason could jeopardize it.

      We also must be mindful that no one’s life is completely characterized by either list. That is precisely why grace is the center of Christianity. We are fully aware of how short we do fall and how we cannot be saved by our own merit and need a Savior. At the same time, grace should never be used as an excuse to remain in a life that is more like the list of sins than a life like the fruit of the Spirit list. Yes, there are Christians who disgrace their Savior and make little effort to root out the sins you talk about from their everyday patterns of life. I do feel compelled to say that amongst the conservative evangelical circle of Christians that are my closest friends, I do not find many who feel anything in 5:19-21 is okay and do not work hard to remove these vices from their lives. When 1/3 of all humans profess to be Christians we are destined to have some who don’t represent the religion well; that is true of every religion, right? And, yes, Paul does seem to think the Spirit can help one move closer day-by-day to a more virtuous life, though never a sinless one.

      Personally I put a huge emphasis on human freedom, so I think one’s faith can be genuine and then deteriorate (and vice versa). This may be a big judgmental but it seems to me that more often than not Christians who are harboring major unrepentant sin in their lives for a length of time fall into two categories: 1) those who feel trapped by behavioral patterns that seem out of their control or 2) people who call themselves Christians out of convenience or advantage and their hearts are only nominally engaged. Of of interest, is this true in Islam as well.

      I am thinking more about your second to last big paragraph. Look for a separate reply next.

      I very much agree with your last big paragraph. See tomorrow’s post of James 2 and see how that resonates with your own views. Personally, yes, I see faith as an active, working thing. True faith does something. My interactions with Muslims and what I read last year have always left me thinking that we have similar views here. Of course, we are back to the lack of atonement in Islam, which for me is the impassable gulf of difference between our theologies.

    • It wouldn’t be the first time I have “over-interpreted” something but I am not seeing what you are seeing in your second to last big paragraph.

      I would say Paul is a “restorationist,” as was Jesus. They reminded Israel what their laws were fundamentally all about: love (Romans 13:8-10). love rightly understood was at the core of the gospel of Jesus, which which I placed on the right-hand side of my diagram. The “Progressive Legalism” I mentioned in the Galatians 4 post would be better associated with the Corinthians Christians in 1 Corinthians 12-14. They seemed to think there were certain miraculous spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and prophesying that make one Christian better than others. The focus of their religion had again become what they did, though not anything like the Jewish laws. Interestingly, Paul opposed this kind of thinking and said in 1 Cor 13 that what they were most missing was love.

      I am not seeing it. Sorry.

      By the way, thank you for dialoguing so thoroughly with my posts. I appreciate and am helped by it.

      • Dean

        Hi Jason,
        Thanks for your response! No worries – I’ll respond with my thoughts to your post on James 2.


  2. Georgia Stafford

    I was struck by how upset Paul was regarding “those who are troubling” his fellow Christians and causing them to stumble. His protective comments make his love for his brothers and sisters so obvious and sincere. It reminds me that being corrected by fellow Christians is really a way that I am shown love and worth by those wanting me to please the Lord. By the way… I get shown a lot of love! 🙂

    • HA! 🙂

      How true! What a great perspective to have. Personally I don’t like to be corrected so this is good to remember. Thanks!

  3. “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.”

    Exactly! But man that is so hard! I feel like its my emotions that get the best of me and send me off in directions I struggle with. Anger, jealousy, offense – these have made love to some people hard lately. But that is not what I am called to. Lord, help me rise above who I am and become who you can make me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: