Throughout the book of Galatians, we hear the good news that Christ has set us free, and the exhortation to not return again to a yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1). But what should we then do with our freedom? That’s the question this text answers.


Galatians 5:13-26

Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Tom Schreiner

Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown

Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther

Galatians For You, Timothy Keller

Sermon Transcript

The Shawshank Redemption is listed by many as one of their favorite movies. It’s the story of how a man wrongly convicted of murder deals with his imprisonment. In his time in prison, he meets another man, Brooks, who works as the librarian, and who has spent most of his life in prison. As an elderly man, however, he finally made parole and was released. He was free! But he didn’t know what to do with his freedom. Tragically, after a few years of freedom, he ends up committing suicide. Many people today want to be free: We may want to be free from rules, we may want to be free from our jobs, we may want to be free of financial debt, but Brooks’ story teaches us to ask an important question: If we could get freedom, what would we do with it anyway? We may say, “Whatever you want!” but none of us have just one thing we want. So what happens when your desires conflict? In Galatians thus far, Paul has proclaimed the good news that Christians are now free! But in this passage, we see that Christians still have conflicting desires within them. “Do what you want” is insufficient guidance for free people. What should we, then, do with our freedom in Christ? Use your freedom to serve one another through love. This passage shows us why that’s how we should use our freedom, and it shows us how to do it. Why? Because love fulfills the law. How? By keeping in step with the Spirit.


Because love fulfills the law


Our passage begins in verse 13 with a restatement of what came before this passage, and what we talked about last week: You were called to freedom, brothers. The Westminster Confession of faith summarizes that Christ set us free from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the law, the law of Moses itself, the present evil age, bondage to Satan, the dominion of sin, the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation. Throughout the letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul has been exhorting the Galatians, now that Christ has given them this freedom, to stand firm in it! Don’t go back into slavery by going back under the law of Moses. If you do, you must keep all of it perfectly, and since nobody does, you will put yourself back under its curse. Accordingly, the letter has had a somewhat negative thrust: Don’t get circumcised, don’t go back under the law, don’t listen to these false teachers who are telling you to do so. Instead, stand firm in the freedom for which Christ has set you free.


Ok, but what should we do now that we’re free? What do we do with our freedom? First, we learn what we should not do with our freedom in verse 13: Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. This is a common abuse of the gospel. Because of what Christ has done, we are no longer under the law of Moses. So people think, “Oh good; you know, throughout my life I have often struggled with guilty feelings, especially from my church. But now that I’ve learned about the gospel, I realize I can sin without having to feel so guilty all the time.” This can be especially tempting for those who grew up in very conservative families, churches, and regions, where the basic message they heard, whether by the church’s fault or their own, was, “Don’t drink, and don’t have sex outside of marriage. These are the two great commands, these are all the law and prophets, and the one who does not drink and remains sexually pure has fulfilled the law.” So they weren’t really getting the gospel, and were likely never genuinely converted, so they didn’t really love God, but they were pressured to not commit certain taboo sins. Their experience was a lot like the experience of Israel under the law: Pressed to obey, threatened with a curse if they didn’t obey, but lacking the desire to obey. On top of that, they often had televisions, the internet, and perhaps even went to school with peers who didn’t have to follow the rules of their church, and who seemed to have a lot more fun than they did. They always wanted to fit in, but they weren’t allowed to.


So then they go to college or they move to the city, and suddenly…they’re free. No more harsh parents looking over their shoulder, maybe they go to church, but it’s a church that talks about grace and not much about drunkenness and sexual sin like the church in which they grew up, and they realize: Now I can finally fit in! Now I can finally do all the things I’ve always wanted to do but I was never allowed to do! And they think they’re enjoying their freedom in Christ, when in reality they’re using their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, the very thing this passage tells us not to do with our freedom. What they’ve done, really, is traded one slavery for another: Instead of being enslaved by their church, family, and/or hometown’s morals, they’ve become enslaved to money, sex, substances, and “fitting in.”


So that’s an example of what not to do with your freedom: Don’t use it as an opportunity to act on your sinful desires. What should we do with it, though? We read next in verse 13 that the alternative to using it as an opportunity for the flesh is to “through love, serve one another.” The word there for “serve” one another comes from the word for slave. Notice the irony: You’ve been set free from the law in order that you might live as slaves of one another. This doesn’t set up a hierarchy where some are slaves and some are masters, some serve while others are served. Rather, it calls all of us who have been called to freedom to serve one another. And the way we are to do that is through love. Love is not the same thing as service. It is possible to serve someone outwardly for reasons other than love: It’s common, and happens even in churches, that we tend to serve those who appear to be the wealthiest, the most attractive, and the most well-connected, because we subconsciously want to be part of their world. That’s not serving through love. Love motivates us to act for the good of others for their sake. Serving through love, then, means we serve one another because we are dear to one another; we truly desire one another’s good. That’s what those who are free in Christ do with their freedom.


Why, though? Verse 14 tells us: It says, “for,” as in here is the reason: The whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. So here’s another way to think of this: You’ve been set free from the law in order that you might fulfill the law. The essence of the law can be summarized in this command: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew 7:12 we read that Jesus said, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). In other words, to love your neighbor as yourself is to do to them what you wish others would do to you, and Jesus says this is the essence of all the law and the prophets. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment in the law was, he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37-40). Interestingly, here in Galatians, Paul doesn’t mention this first commandment, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. We can safely assume he wasn’t trying to contradict Jesus, but the idea seems to be that the only way to truly love your neighbor is to love God, so that while the first commandment to love the Lord your God is the highest priority, hence being first, it is not the end of the law, and therefore one has not fulfilled the law until that love for God has produced in them love for their neighbor. If you obey the first and great commandment, you’ve started well, but you haven’t reached the end until you also obey the second commandment that is like it.


So often before the coming of Christ, the charge God brought against Israel through the prophets was not that they failed to get circumcised, offer the right sacrifices, and observe the days, months, seasons, and years. Recall that those were the things the false teachers who had infiltrated the churches of Galatia were trying to get them to do. The Israelites were always good at those things, though, and therefore, they appeared to love God. But the charge of the prophets was this: It’s clear that you don’t actually love God, because if you loved the God you cannot see, you would love your neighbor who you can see. They weren’t fulfilling the law! They kept some rules, but they didn’t keep the most important ones. Because, remember what the law could and could not do: The law told us who we ought to be and what we ought to do, but it did not give us the power to be who we ought to be and do what we ought to do. Israel did not love God, so Israel spent its time trying to pacify God with sacrifices and rituals rather than spending their time serving one another through love.


But now that we’ve been set free from the law, do you see what that means? It means our calendar just opened up! It means we don’t have to spend our days trying to pacify a God we don’t love. We don’t have to observe days and months and seasons and years, and we don’t have to pacify him through elaborate sacrifices and rituals. The perfect sacrifice has already been offered for our refusal to love God! The demands of his law have been satisfied! The righteousness of Christ, a complete righteousness, has been imputed to us through faith the moment we believed. The work of your salvation is finished! As you rest on Christ alone for salvation, your calendar opens up, and now what can you use it on? Serving one another through love. So Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t need your good works. You neighbor does.”


So if you feel you don’t have the time to serve one another, it’s worth popping the hood on that. I doubt many of you are trying to engage in the rituals of the law of Moses, but it is possible for Christians to become so focused on their private holiness that they neglect to serve one another through love. If you spend a lot of your time analyzing yourself, analyzing your motives, making sure your theology is right, your decisions are right, that can look like love for God, right? You say, “I just want to do what God wants me to do.” But there is a difference between wanting to do what God wants you to do, and wanting to know you are doing what God wants you to do. The latter springs from a felt need to be able to look at yourself and assure yourself that you are righteous because you’re getting it all right, and when you live like that, do you see who end up spending a lot of time thinking about? Yourself. You’re so anxious to secure your own righteousness before God that you hardly have the mental space, let alone the time in your schedule, to serve others through love.


But the gospel frees you from that felt need to be able to look at yourself and assure yourself that you are righteous because you’re getting it all right. The gospel reveals a righteousness apart from the law, the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed to you the moment you believe. That’s the freedom to which you have been called if you are a Christian! Use it. Now that you don’t have to spend your days securing and reassuring yourself of your own righteousness, use your days to serve one another through love. Others of you may feel you have no time to serve others not so much because you’re busy trying to reassure yourself before God, but because you’re busy trying to justify yourself in the eyes of the world. We’ve said throughout this series that if you aren’t trying to be justified in God’s sight, you will look to be justified in the sight of people. So you may be very busy with your job because you’re looking to achieve a certain social status that the world calls good. You may be very busy finding a spouse to justify you. You may be very busy trying to raise perfect kids so they will justify you, or so others will look at you and declare you righteous for your parenting. But the gospel frees you from this too. If you’ve been declared righteous by God, you don’t have to be declared righteous by people. Now that you don’t have to spend your days securing the approval of others, use your days to serve one another through love.


As you think about how to serve one another, a few points of guidance: First, remember that this book of the Bible is addressed to the churches of Galatia. So when God tells us to serve one another through love in verse 13, he’s primarily telling us to serve our fellow church members through love. Our service and love shouldn’t end there, and we’ll see that in chapter 6, but it should start there. A kind of first step, then, is to know one another well enough to serve one another. We give you a printed members’ directory and an app in part so that you’ll simply know who the other members of this church are, and therefore be able to take steps to get to know them better. Then, as you get to know people, you want to think of people as whole persons, people with a material body, and an immaterial soul. So the historic Reformed confessions speak of serving one another in both the inward and outward man, and we included that language in our Church Constitution when describing the reasons for which we exist. When it comes to the outward man, think about the kinds of things servants have historically done: Help with childcare, do laundry, buy groceries, cook meals, help with cleaning. One week I went to hear a seminary professor speak during the time my Citygroup met at my house. As a result, I wouldn’t be there to help my wife clean up after Citygroup: Clean the dishes, take out the trash, and so forth. So the people in our Citygroup stayed and did all that with her. That kind of thing should be the norm in our church. And if you’re struggling to think of ways to do that, use Jesus’ rule: What are the things you wish others would do for you? Try to find another church member to do that for.


That’s the outward man, but then there’s also the inward man, and serving one another in that way seems to be the focus in Galatians. So in chapter 6, verse 1, we’ll see Paul telling the churches of Galatia that if anyone among them is caught in any transgression, those who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness. Correcting one another when we are caught in any sin is one important way we serve one another. And why do we often not do it? Because it makes us uncomfortable. Do you see how that’s more about serving yourself than serving one another? On the flipside of correction, we also serve one another in the inward man when we pray for one another; that’s another reason we give you those members’ directories. We serve one another in the inward man when we pray together, when we follow up with those for whom we’re praying, when we spend time together discussing the Bible and helping one another apply it to our lives, when we ask one another after church how the Lord used the sermon in one another’s lives, when we invite less mature members into our lives to follow us as we follow Christ, when we listen well to one another and offer godly, biblical counsel, rather than the world’s wisdom, and so forth.


Those are some ideas of how to serve one another, and many of them you can just go do. But we aren’t to use our freedom just to serve one another. Remember we’re to serve one another through love, and love isn’t something you can just go do. It’s also not automatic. Paul says in verse 15 that there is another way we are tempted to live: Biting and devouring one another, which leads to us consuming one another. You don’t have to be a Christian for long to realize that the desires of your flesh haven’t gone away. Sometimes you want to use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, so how can we really serve one another through love, a love which is the fulfilling of the law? We see next that it is by keeping in step with the Spirit.


By keeping in step with the Spirit


So Paul says in verse 16 that instead of consuming one another, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. If you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit is now in you, and so if you want to avoid gratifying the desires of your flesh, which are still there, walk by Him, and you will not gratify those desires. That’s because the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, verse 17. Before you become a Christian, you only have the desires of the flesh, and so you are a slave to sin. Even the good things you do, though they may be good in themselves, because they proceed not from love for God, nor are they done in obedience to the word of God, nor for the end of the glory of God, they are still sinful. But when you become a Christian, the Spirit of God comes to live in you, and to produce in you new desires which are opposed to the desires of the flesh. That’s one reason you are no longer a slave to sin! Though you still feel a desire for it, you also feel a desire for things that are exactly contrary to it.


This is the internal condition of every Christian. If you are a Christian, there is a war going on within you, between the remnants of your sinful flesh, and the very Holy Spirit of God, who now lives in you. As a result, you never quite act on all your desires. Verse 17 ends by saying that this war inside you keeps you from doing what you want. You still feel desires for sin, but now the Holy Spirit is in you to keep you from doing what the flesh wants. Yet the flesh is still there, so that when you go to do good, you find that sin lies close at hand. The key, then, to serving one another through love, rather than using your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, is to walk or keep in step with the desires the Spirit produces, not those that the flesh produces. If you do that, you will not gratify the desires of the flesh, because the desires of the Spirit are opposed to that of the flesh, and they are the ones on which you are acting.


This is such a wiser and more realistic picture of human psychology than what our world offers us today. Our world is captive to expressive individualism, and we’re so surrounded by it that it can unwittingly affect us as Christians as well. The idea of expressive individualism is that your job as an individual is to identify your deepest desire, and then express it. Here’s one of the big problems with that: No human has just one desire. We all have multiple desires, and these desires often conflict. I want to eat donuts and live long enough to play with my grandkids if God gives me any. So I can’t eat donuts every time I want to and also act on my desire to live long enough to play with my grandkids. There must be something that sits in judgment on my desires, that helps me decide which ones to act on, and which ones to suppress, because some must be suppressed. Either I will suppress my desire for donuts, or my desire for donuts will suppress my desire to be healthy in old age, for, to use the language of our passage, these are opposed to one another. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is.


If you are a Christian, there is a battle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit within you. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have been tempted to escape this battle by emphasizing one side of it over the other. There have been those who have taught that it is possible in this life to attain “Christian perfection,” where the desires of the flesh are so weakened in us that we do not consciously sin any more. Their famous tagline is to “let go and let God.” It’s an attractive hope, but Galatians 5:17 holds out no such hope to us. The normal Christian life is one where the flesh wars against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and there is no escaping that battle in this life. On the flipside, others live with a kind of pessimism, assuming that since they’re used to sinning, they inevitably will keep sinning. Galatians 5:16-17 also doesn’t say that: It says the Spirit wars against the flesh, and that you can actually walk by the Spirit, and so not gratify the desires of the flesh.


How, then, can we engage in the battle? First, we must be able to identify what desires come from the flesh, and what desires come from the Spirit, so that we can walk by the Spirit, and not gratify the desires of the flesh. So Paul tells us in verse 19 that the works of the flesh are evident: Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. Notice when Paul thinks of the works of the flesh, the first item on the list is sexual immorality, and he reinforces it with two similar words that follow: impurity and sensuality. Drunkenness makes the list too, so if those things are things you act on, you are not living free in Christ; you’re simply indulging your flesh. He mentions sins of worship, which show us that he hasn’t forgotten the first and greatest commandment: Idolatry and sorcery are works of the flesh. Then he also gives a lot of examples of enmity with one another: dissensions, divisions, fits of anger, and so forth. Finally, he talks in various ways about covetousness: Jealousy, envy, rivalries, and then he adds this more general statement at the end of the list: “Things like these” before giving this warning, a warning he’d already given before, but wanted to repeat: Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.


What does that mean? If you’ve ever been sexually immoral, you’re going to hell? No. The gospel proclaims the forgiveness of our sins, and whoever believes it is forgiven of all their sins, past, present, and future. But if you profess faith, and yet continue walking in these things…if you don’t just feel these desires, but make it your practice to act on them, you demonstrate that the Spirit of God is not truly in you; if he was, he’d be warring against those desires of the flesh. If that isn’t happening, it demonstrates that you have not sincerely received and rested upon Jesus alone for salvation. You need to hear this very clearly: If you’re engaging in regular sexual activity with someone to whom you are not married, if you simply accept that as the way you live, and do not fight it, you should not expect to spend eternity with God in heaven. You should, rather, expect eternal, conscious torment under the wrath of God in hell, even if you profess faith in Christ. The same goes for any of the other sins on that list. Those are not the desires to act on, because those who do will not inherit the kingdom of God.


Here are the desires to act on, the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Notice that while the works of the flesh were works, things our flesh produces, these are fruit of the Spirit; we can’t work them up. Notice also that they aren’t listed as the fruits of the Spirit (plural), but the fruit (singular). That’s because there is one item in this list that stands over the rest and can be taken as the summary of them all, and it is the first item on the list: Love. The fruit of the Spirit, most fundamentally, is love. But viewed from another angle, love shows itself as joy, and from another angle peace, and from another angle kindness. So at the end of this list, Paul can say against such things there is no law. Because, remember, love is the fulfilling of the law! That’s why, verse 18, if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Because if you are led by the Spirit, if the desires you walk in accordance with are the desires the Spirit produces, you will be walking in love, the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law, and which is itself the fulfillment of the law.


Let me give an example of how this could look. The night of game 1 of the World Series, one of my best friends and fellow pastors made a big mistake: He got married on the same night. I had the privilege of officiating the wedding and celebrating with several other Citylight members. Then, afterwards, a few of us went over to Caleb’s house to watch a recording of the game, having turned off our phones and knowing nothing of what happened. After seeing an amazing come-from-behind victory, it was 2:40am when we all headed home, and two single ladies in the church were driving home together. As I thought about them having to find parking and walk to their house, I felt a desire to offer to drive them home, drop them off, and park their car for them. I believe that was a desire of love and kindness. But I didn’t act on it. That’s an example of me not keeping in step with the Spirit, walking by the Spirit, and instead gratifying the desire of my flesh for a longer night’s sleep. Walking by the Spirit, instead, would have been acting on that desire. And can you see how, if I had walked by the Spirit, I would have been serving these fellow church members through love? Can you also see how walking by the Spirit is different from walking by the law? If I was just asking, “What does the law require?” I’m not sure I could definitively say the law required me to offer to park these ladies’ car for them, but the Spirit did prompt me to do so.


Use this to test your desires, then. Those desires that tend to produce sexual immorality, divisions, envy, etc. you don’t want to act on, whereas love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so forth, are the ones you do want to act on. To help us do this, we are planning to spend 9 out of the next 10 Sundays preaching on the fruit of the Spirit. We’ll do one Sunday on love, one on joy, one on peace, and so forth, with a break for Christmas morning. But for today, perhaps you relate to my story. You can think of ways the Spirit has produced love, joy, peace, and so forth in you that you have quenched. So let me close with the encouragement with which this passage closes.


Verse 24 says that those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. In other words, though there is always a battle within Christians in this life, the enemies are not evenly matched. In fact, one of them is already defeated. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have already crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. The moment you believed in Jesus, the old “you” died. Though his or her passions and desires are still around, they’ve been crucified. They aren’t in the driver’s seat anymore. Rather, there is now a new life in you, which verse 25 says is life by the Spirit. Therefore, if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit, rather than becoming conceited, provoking one another, envying one another, as the flesh would have us do.


It’s those who belong to Christ Jesus of whom this is true because Christ Jesus is the one who used his freedom, not as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love to serve others. He had the ultimate freedom, as true God, to remain in heaven, unbothered by our problems, and instead he was born in the likeness of sinful flesh, so that in his flesh, our sin could be condemned, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us. If you’re here today and you are not receiving and resting on Christ alone for salvation, do so today, and though the desires of the flesh will war against the Spirit in you, you won’t have to give in to them any longer! Through his death, we are dead to sin, and through his resurrection, we now live by the Spirit. When you feel the desire for sexual immorality, anger, division, drunkenness, or envy, say no to it. When you feel the desire for love, joy, peace, and the other ways the fruit of the Spirit is described, say yes to them. Act on them. Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Instead, the Spirit will produce love in you. Through that love, serve one another. That’s the freedom for which Christ set you free, and that’s the way to use it.