Galatians 5:13 marks an important turning point in the book of Galatians. Whereas up to this point Paul has focused entirely on the theological content of his message, he now turns to the issue of Christian behavior. How should a person who is not saved by works of law live? 1
What potential misuse of freedom did Paul want to keep the Galatians from committing? Gal. 5:13.
Paul was well aware of the potential misunderstanding that accompanied his emphasis on the grace and the freedom that believers have in Christ (Rom. 3:8; 6:1, 2). The problem, however, was not Paul’s gospel but the human tendency for self-indulgence. The pages of history are littered with the stories of people, cities, and nations whose corruption and descent into moral chaos were directly related to their lack of self-control. Who hasn’t felt this tendency in his or her own life, as well? That’s why Paul so clearly calls followers of Jesus to avoid indulging in the flesh. In fact, he wants them to do the opposite, which is “through love serve one another” (NKJV). As anyone who serves others out of love knows, this is something that can be done only through death to self, death to the flesh. Those who indulge their own flesh are not the ones who tend to serve others. On the contrary.
Thus, our freedom in Christ is not merely a freedom from the enslavement to the world, but a call to a new type of service, the responsibility to serve others out of love. It is “the opportunity to love the neighbor without hindrance, the possibility of creating human communities based on mutual self-giving rather than the quest for power and status.”—Sam K. Williams, Galatians (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1997), p. 145.
Because of our familiarity with Christianity and the wording of modern translations of Galatians 5:13, it is easy to overlook the startling power these words would have conveyed to the Galatians. First, the Greek language indicates that the love that motivates this type of service is not ordinary human love—that would be impossible; human love is far too conditional. Paul’s use of the article (the) before the word love in Greek indicates he is referring to “the” divine love that we receive only through the Spirit (Rom. 5:5). The real surprise lies in the fact that the word translated “serve” is the Greek word for “to be enslaved.” Our freedom is not for self-autonomy but for mutual enslavement to one another based on God’s love.
Be honest: have you ever thought you could use the freedom you have in Christ to indulge in a little bit of sin here and there? What’s so bad about that kind of thinking?