Week of November 13

Love from Root to Fruit

Read: Job 31-32; Galatians 5-6
“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


“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Paul refers to the Galatian church members as “sons” of God through faith in Jesus Christ, so he viewed them as family members (Galatians 3:26). They were being disciplined, like children, for wandering off the path of true faith, but they also were being trained in how to practice that faith. How timely Paul’s words are for all of God’s children! So, I believe that it will do us well to draw our focal passage from within the practical ethical section in the letter (5:1-6:10).

Understanding the Bible Context

The pattern of beginning a letter with theological content, then turning to ethical instruction and guidance is a familiar one for Paul (see Romans 12-15; Philippians 4; Colossians 3-4; and Ephesians 4-6). He wants us to engage in practical Christian living. To this point in Galatians, Paul has heralded justification by faith alone, meaning that believers have been liberated from keeping the OT Law and have been accepted as righteous before God.
These new believers had entered the Christian faith from pagan worship, and they were easy targets of Jews who preyed upon their moral insecurity and sought to enslave them to legalism. On the other hand, they also were tempted to practice libertarianism—a release from all moral restraints. How miserable they must have been!
This is a very real struggle today for many new Christians who were raised in very rule-oriented households. They reject the legalism of their childhood and experiment with all sorts of sinful behavior, then come to know Christ later in life. In an effort to avoid the rigidity of their past, they misunderstand and misapply their new freedom in Christ and fall into “antinomian” behavior. They begin to believe that Christians are released by grace from any obligation to observe moral law. How do we fulfill God’s will when we are suspended between these two realities?
Free for what?
Paul has spoken about freedom several times in this letter, so we will view the epistle through that lens (2:4; 4:26, 31; 5:1; EBC). Believe me, I understand “liberty” because I have an entire dissertation chapter on the topic, so let me simplify the point by stating that there is a distinction to be made between our cultural understanding of freedom and a biblical one. It stems from who ultimately is in charge. Paul defines freedom in Christ, negatively, as not license to do whatever we want and, positively, as service to both God and man (5:1, 13-18, ESV). Preachers are fond of saying, “we are free to serve” which captures the sense of what Paul says, but it does not convince many people to do those things! “Thanks, Ashlock,” you are thinking, “so, what are we specifically to do?”
Let me describe the point this way: Feel free to hang Paul’s understanding of Christian liberty onto your “love God/love neighbor as yourself” broader ethical lifestyle approach. The outgrowth of this moral way of living is evident in the great Christian virtues—for example, the fruit of the Spirit. Wow! Paul has helped us to sum up a wonderful way to live freely as servants of Christ and others. Jesus also taught us this love-through-service ethic when He exhorted His disciples with “you ought [ethical obligation] to wash” each other’s feet (cf. John 13:12-14).
Flee from what?
Paul also teaches us how our faith in Christ expresses itself in love (cf. 5:6). This was powerfully useful in countering the divisiveness in the churches of Galatia and will do the same in ours (5:15; cf. Pathway, 11/6/2022, peacemaking). When we use our freedom to love others we will avoid “backbiting,” “devouring,” and “destroying” one another. Paul is certainly taking the pruning shears to the church gossip grapevine, isn’t he?! The Christian lifestyle enables the use of freedom responsibly to lead holy lives. The life of legalism, as Paul addresses in the letter, requires people to carry a heavy yoke upon their moral shoulders. Christ places a new yoke of love on our shoulders, and it dictates how we treat one another. Simple enough! Let’s apply the passage to our lives.

Applying the Passage to Our Lives

I stood on the back sidewalk of the Center this week and looked at the trees growing there. I pondered how they serve us in so many good ways. They have grown on a slope, and I thought how their roots prevent soil erosion, their leaves provide shade, and they offer extraordinary beauty.
They did not get that way without the Creator’s handiwork, some discussion about best ways to help them grow correctly, and pruning to maintain their usefulness and beauty. Paul has provided the Galatian churches, his children in the ministry, with some added structure and pruning to mature in Christ. Allow me to paraphrase Paul’s point: Train up a “church” in the way that it should “grow,” even when it is mature it will not depart from it.
Here are some steps toward spiritual growth. Now that we are living in Christ’s love we will choose to do some things (5:6). First, we will avoid using our new freedom improperly—i.e., sinful self-indulgence. We are to guard against giving the “armies of indulgence” a beachhead, or starting point, to operate in our lives (5:13, GK, aphorme; EBC). Some of these areas are listed in verses 19-21. Ah! Many of us are long-term believers and we immediately dismiss such lists, because we gave up long ago such “evil” in our lives.
Hang on, though, because there is also what we may term the “inoffensive sin” that we all too often discount as being unimportant. Overall, the “opportunity for the flesh” includes all that we are capable of doing apart from the control of the Spirit in our lives. Our deeper commitment to the Spirit life will help us to rein in many other hurtful attitudes and harmful behaviors.

Secondly, we are to engage in the service of others in love. Paul uses a word meaning to be enslaved, which in the Christian meaning of the word carries the sense of voluntary sacrifice that yields deep joy. We will discover that the Spirit will guide our service along the avenues of service to God and others that He desires. The vehicle is love and the fuel for such journeys will be supplied by the fruit of the Spirit. How wonderful it is to be free in Christ!

Reflecting Upon and Discussing the Passage

1. Paul has called all of us to a freedom check-up. Are we growing in Christian love and service? Regularly check the fruit of the Spirit in your life to see if you are healthy.
2. Church families need structure and pruning to ensure that they are growing properly in Christ. One way to measure healthy growth is to assess whether freedom in Christ is leading your members to voluntarily serve one another with joy.
3. For Families: Just for fun and spiritual growth this week, challenge your family to choose a person to serve every day. Let it be anonymous, helpful, and creative, and switch persons each day. If you and each of your family members found ways to serve all of the others, every day would be full of kindnesses, grace, generosity, and acts of love.

We love because God first loved us. Christ bought our freedom with His death and resurrection. With that freedom, we choose to love, to build up, to encourage, and to love well. What a great example we have in Christ Jesus!

May your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock