Week of March 14

Out of Our Reach, but Well Within His!

Read: Deuteronomy 25-27; Galatians 5
“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.”
Galatians 5:13, ESV


“Smooth sailing” is a euphemism that means easy progress without impediment or difficulty. The Galatians were on some windy, choppy waters, so church life was definitely not smooth sailing. Captain Paul’s argument, to carry the analogy forward, takes another tack as he sails toward the final destination of freedom in Christ.

Galatians 5:13 serves as a transition verse from his theology of freedom (value) in the previous two chapters of the letter to an ethic of obligation in what follows. Those who are “free” from the burdens of the law are not to abuse that liberty by behaving in a “lawless manner” (without any constraints). One of the Jewish-Christian accusations of the circumcision party was that the removal of the law would lead to unbridled license. Paul knew this slide into sin would not be the case, if Christians were to take on the yoke of Christ’s love (5:13). So, what is the obligation?

Let's See What the Bible Says

Paul exhorts Christians to use their freedom wisely through service to one another. The introduction to this “calling” came from God. Believers were “affirmed and loved and elected by God” (cf. 4:9; 1 John 4:10, “he loved us and sent his Son”; NAC). We, like the Galatians, are too often tempted to attach ourselves to individual leaders or parties, but Paul makes it clear that they were attached to the source of love, God himself! God purposes for Christians to be freely yoked to him and not enslaved to anyone else.

Enslavement will be apparent if they slip into unbridled license (5:13b, “opportunity for the flesh”). Christians are not to presume that the grace of God frees them to “licentious living,” which would result in moral chaos (5:19-21). The Galatians learned that the freedom they had in Christ could be terribly “perverted and misused.” Wow! The danger before had been the paralysis of legalism and now they would need to guard against a captivating carnality.

Their threat of fleshly enslavement has one further note to consider. When Paul uses “flesh” in chapters 5-6, he uses it in an ethical sense (NAC). It refers to the center of human pride and self-willing. Timothy George states, “the locale in which ‘the ultimate sin reveals itself to be the false assumption of receiving life not as the gift of the Creator but procuring it by one’s own power, of living from one’s self rather than from God’” (quoting Bultmann, Theology, 232). I make this point because we too often slam the works of physicality in 5:19-21, but slide along in the vessel of our own self-will! Paul offers a way forward.

On the one hand, we are called by God’s love to new freedom. On the other hand, love channels us into service given to others. C. K. Barrett observes, “The opposite of flesh is love … love that looks away from the self and its wishes, even its real needs, to the neighbor, and spends its resources on his needs” (as quoted in NAC). Paul links freedom and love with the word “serve,” but we need to be aware that he uses the same word that translates as “slave!”

Paul means that we should, through love, make ourselves slaves to one another. Hold on! He was not referring to the abhorrent institution of slavery that we are still seeking to eradicate. He teaches us a “slavery of love” moral principle. We become the most free when we serve one another in love. Martin Luther, the great reformer, wrote, “A Christian is free and independent in every respect, a bond servant to none. A Christian is a dutiful servant in every respect, owning a duty to everyone” (NAC; Ebeling, Luther, An Introduction to His Thought, 212). Remember that Paul writes of the Christ, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Let's Deepen Our Walk

One of the most challenging subjects for me as a junior high school student was English grammar! Bless her heart, my English teacher worked patiently with me quite a few times in after school tutorials. I diagrammed sentences until I thought we would run out of chalk! She was wonderful to help me with the mechanics, but the grammatical structure of the English language remained a challenge.

Interestingly, I finally began to learn English grammar when I was required to diagram Greek sentences as a seminarian. My struggle really had rested previously in the fact that I had always linked English grammar to the grade I was earning. I became a slave of that standard of measurement. In seminary, however, my desire to learn to diagram sentences was now attached to the Bible. It was my passion to draw close to the Word of God that freed me from the law of a grade in order to become a servant of God’s word.

The principle applies to the way a disciple loves others—even when they may be difficult! The law demands, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but Christ in me commands my every step. I turn to my Teacher each day, and he makes it possible to love and serve others.

Here is a thought for our spiritual formation. The example and motivation of Christ’s self-sacrificing seems admirable, but impossible to reach. Would you agree? Hmm. The “crucified life” in Christ was a central feature of Paul’s ethic. It may well be that we fall short of the goal because we are reaching for it in our own strength. Dead men and women cannot reach (Ephesians 2:1-3)! Gladly, our bondage was broken in Christ's death on the Cross. We are not to reach in our own strength, but to rest upon his work! How do we do this sort of thing?

First, we must reckon ourselves to be dead to sin and alive in Jesus Christ. Then, we begin to take up the cross life daily (reckoning ourselves dead to sin). The Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ to our lives and enables Christ to live in us. In other words, the difference is between our reach and our release. The moment we try to rely upon our own moral worth, then self is torn down from the cross and becomes as active and enslaving as it ever was! Thirdly, our goal is to become reliant upon the finished work of the cross. When we take up the cross as disciples, then the process of death to self begins to set in. To use another analogy, we become seeds sown by Christ in our offices, schools, churches, and wherever he plants us. We die to self, sin, and law every day so that Christ may live out the love of God through our lives.

Let's Think and Discuss

1. Learning to respond to Christ who loves us will transform the way that we serve others. The demand to love and serve will change drastically when we desire more than anything else to have Christ love and serve others through us. Write down who it is that Christ wants to love through you. Now, take active steps to grow closer to Christ by surrendering yourself to him daily. He will make your love for other persons possible.

2. For families: One of the most valuable lessons Christian parents can teach children is the attitude of self-denial out of their love for Christ. Perhaps you have seen the rare but beautiful moment when a sibling gives away that which he or she loves to a brother or sister out of sheer love. Such sacrificial generosity of spirit is breathtaking. It can also be fostered. A good way to do this is to designate a “Love like no one is watching” day. In this exercise, children learn to choose and do something for every member of the family without the other person knowing it. Kids can take out the garbage to save dad from having to do it, whisk away a sibling's lunchtime mess, weed a flower bed, or entertain baby for Mom. The more they can create ways to serve others, not because they have to, but because they want to love Jesus by such actions, the deeper their walk of faith will become as they grow in grace. This goes for parents, too!

May all your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock