Galatians 5:1, 13-25 Living by the Spirit: Freedom (With)In Christ
Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches is one long, angry, passionate, and life-giving argument regarding the expansiveness of God’s saving work in Jesus and the resulting freedom of those who find themselves in Christ. Indeed, Galatians has rightly been called “the Magna Carta of Christian liberty.” Paul’s extended argument in a nutshell is this: God has acted dramatically and decisively to free all people from the enslaving powers of Sin and Death through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and the entry point into this liberation is nothing other than the faithfulness and grace of Jesus. Grace serves as the invitation, the proper credentials, the doorway itself, and the entire structure into which one enters—the new creation is the world itself, marked and defined not by competition, qualification or exclusion, but by grace—pure gift.
Paul has just spent the better part of the letter arguing that the entry point into being part of the people of God in Christ is not the law, which was the qualification for being an Israelite, but rather the gracious and unilateral act of Christ’s self-giving. To gain entry and stay within the sphere of the law required circumcision and strict regulation on eating behaviors (what one ate, with whom, and how, were all vitally important considerations, see Galatians 2:11-14). To gain entry and stay within the sphere of grace, one received the unilateral work of Christ through baptism and Eucharist (see, again, 2:11-14 and 3:27-29). Through the cross and in the unity of baptism and the common table—both acts signifying being “one in Christ”—God had formed a new people, both Israelites and Gentiles, no longer separated, but called into existence as the new humanity within God’s work of new creation.
This is all well and good, but Paul runs up against the problem that the law, in addition to providing entrance into the people of God, also gave the ethical standards of staying in good standing within the people. Without the law as guide, where is one to find ethical foundation? If Christ’s act of welcoming all people, both Jews and Gentiles, was unilateral, what is one to do about the behavior of the believer? That is the question Paul wrestles with in this section of the letter. Here we have Paul’s extended meditation on the ethics of freedom and of the Spirit.
What is Freedom For?
The end result of Christ’s work of grace for humanity is freedom, freedom from exclusion by any requirement external to Christ’s gift. Therefore, Paul urges the Galatians not to submit themselves to a yoke of slavery. In the Galatians’ case this is turning again to the exterior requirement of circumcision for belonging to Christ. And yet, this freedom is not simply an “anything goes” ethic. Freedom, in Paul’s Christocentric view, is not primarily “freedom from,” but “freedom for.” Or better, Christians have been freed from (the power of Sin) in order to be freed for life in Christ (“It is for freedom that Christ has freed us” is the double-usage Paul employs). Freedom, therefore, is a paradox in Paul’s thought, for in the same breath that he urges the Galatians not to submit to a yoke of slavery, he is urging them to become slaves to one another (5:1, 13).
Christians have been freed for life in Christ (2:19-20). Paul believes in a very real and literal sense that those who have been baptized and share in a common table have been welcomed into Christ’s person, Christ’s life, his body. Where there were a people divided by distinctions and qualifications, now there is one people, or even better, one person: Christ (3:27-29; see Rom 8:14-17). He is Abraham’s singular seed, and Christians have become one in him (Gal 3:16).
Freedom in Christ, therefore, is not individualistic, libertarian, go-it-alone kind of freedom. Freedom is first of all Christological and therefore communal. It is Christological in the sense that Christian freedom happens as believers are made participants in Christ’s person. In the famous Christ hymn of Philippians, Jesus makes himself a slave in order to obey and honor God and rescue humanity (Philippians 2:5-11). Becoming slaves to one another means to be shaped by the slavery of Christ. One is freed from slavery to Sin and self and freed for life in Christ the slave who gives himself to God and others.
Freedom in Christ is also communal, which means that freedom happens within Christ, in being for the other who is also part of Christ. That’s why freedom is not to be used as an opportunity for self-indulgence, because the self has been included within the larger Christ-self. To make oneself more important or try to accumulate more honor or riches or whatever at others’ expense does not compute within Paul’s Christological logic, because that would mean Christ would be divided against himself.
Life in the Spirit
Since the law no longer functions as the entry point or the ethical standard for the people who exist in Christ, Paul urges the Galatians not to turn back to the law, but instead to live by the Spirit. The Spirit is the means by which one enters into life in Christ and also the ethical guide to daily existence in Christ. Here Paul opposes Flesh and Spirit as two different modes of existence. Flesh here for Paul signifies both a power of the “present evil age” (as opposed to the new creation, see Gal 1:4; 6:15) and the practice of circumcision (Gal 6:12).
This is a complex discussion on Paul’s part and often gets glossed over as mere dualism. This should be avoided in the interest of fostering healthy attitudes toward bodily existence. It was certainly not the case that Paul meant to discard or disregard the importance of embodied life. In other words, it is not the case that flesh (=body) is bad and Spirit (=disembodied existence) is good. Earlier in the letter Paul described his life in Christ as occurring “in the flesh” (2:20). Clearly flesh and Spirit are contrasting realities, but they are not merely mirror opposites.
If by “Flesh,” Paul is making a reference to circumcision, then living according to the Flesh means living in ways that exclude brothers and sisters from communion (the primary problem addressed throughout the letter). This would make sense of Paul encouraging them not to “bite and devour one another” (5:15). Requiring qualifications for community outside of the grace of Christ is to work against the unity brought about in Christ’s crucifixion. The works of the flesh that Paul enumerates in verses 19-21 all have a sense of the breakdown of community. Circumcision does not have the power to unify and to make people righteous. Living by the flesh cuts others off, and leaves people at the mercy of the power of Sin. Living by the Spirit would then mean existing within Christ’s body. The fruit of the Spirit point toward an ethic of robust regard for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ. And the Spirit is the empowering agent of grace who makes this kind of life possible, since it is the Spirit who moves one into life in Christ. The Spirit is the entry into life and Christ and the ethical guide: “If we live by the Spirit let us also be guided by the Spirit” (5:25).
One final thing in guarding against mere dualism between Flesh and Spirit is to understand the Hebrew terms that reside behind Paul’s thought here. Flesh in Hebrew is basar which implies weakness, disempowerment, infirmity. It is not empowered to live toward God; it is cut off from and closed off to its source of life. Spirit is ruach, the empowering breath of God that gives life, makes alive. Flesh (as basar) lives apart from its source of life, but Spirit (ruach) sanctifies and makes dead flesh live. Flesh is opposed to Spirit, but Spirit enters into and enlivens flesh (2:20; 5:24). Therefore, though these terms are opposed in Paul’s thought, they do not oppose each other as equals.
There are many ways to approach this text homiletically, but it will be important not to make the Spirit a new law that enslaves. Rather, the preacher should emphasize the freedom that makes one free to live in Christ, participating in Christ, and shaped by Christ. Life in the Spirit is not about learning a new set of rules but about being set free for a journey into the dangerous and rewarding task of loving God and others. The Spirit is the freedom and empowerment to live as Christ lives, and to let Christ’s love live through you.
 For more on these Hebrew anthropological terms see the excellent work by Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1974.