Falling from Grace: Exegesis of Gal 5

Paul returns to the question of why grace doesn’t lead to license in chapter 5. To follow his argument, we’ll need to work through most of the chapter —

(Gal 5:1) It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

Note the contrast. It’s —

  • freedom vs. slavery
  • grace vs. justification by law

5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.

And now we add —

  • faith/faithfulness, Spirit, righteousness, and hope vs. fall away from grace

6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

And the next contrast is —

  • faith/faithfulness expressing itself through love vs. circumcision/uncircumcision

13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.

Paul then contrasts —

  • freedom and serving one another in love vs. indulging the sinful nature

14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

And then we have —

  • “love your neighbor” vs. destroying each other

Now, at this point, we see that Paul is hardly preaching lawlessness; rather, he is urging justification by faith in order to be committed to a life of love, expressed in service. Thus, he replaces law with love, and he declares that justification comes not from obedience to a discrete set of positive commands but by faith in/faithfulness to Jesus expressing itself in a life of love.

To a legalistic mind, Paul is replacing a set of commandments (the law) with a single commandment (love). But that misses much of what Paul is saying. Paul isn’t saying that love isn’t a command. Rather, he’s saying that God will change our natures from enslaved, rule-keeping natures to free, loving natures.

He explains this in the next few verses —

16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

“Live by the Spirit” is not “live by the rules inferred from the Bible.” Paul is quite capable of saying “scriptures” when that is what he means. Paul is rather speaking of the indwelling Spirit that all Christians receive at baptism.

17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.

Any doubt on that point is removed by Paul speaking of what the Spirit “desires.”

As Paul also says in Romans 7 – 8, all Christians have a spiritual war going on inside us — between the Spirit and our sinful nature (literally, the flesh). We want to be justified by rules where our confidence can be in our own doing. If circumcision justifies, well, it’s something we can do and do perfectly. Because we distrust our sinful nature (and well we should!), we tend to look for externals to justify us before God because we know we can’t make it on our morality!

18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

Why would being led by the Spirit free us from law? If “Spirit” means the new, better laws in the New Testament about how to worship and organize, then how are we not under law? It’s just a different law! Paul obviously has something else in mind.

19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul warns us against sinning contrary to “love your neighbor.” “Discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” Sounds a lot like church, doesn’t it? Yes, we are “biting and devouring” one another, and we are guilty of precisely these sins. And Paul makes the point that these sins obviously contradict the command to love our neighbors.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Here’s the key, and it’s a bit tricky to get. Paul is not saying, “I hereby command you to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Rather, he says these are “fruit of the Spirit.” They come from the indwelling Spirit just as naturally as corn grows on a cornstalk. It is the nature of the corn plant to produce corn. It requires no command.

Just so, the Spirit’s work within us is to change our hearts and minds so that our nature changes and we become the sort of people in whom faith is expressed through love, joy, etc. You see, when we teach classes on these fruit, we typically teach as though we expect the students to accomplish these things themselves — they thus become the fruit of our own hard work. But Paul says they are fruit of the Spirit. And, of course, these are the characteristics that loving people should aspire to.

And notice that one fruit of the Spirit is pistis, that is, faith/faithfulness! Just as Paul declares in Rom 1:17, our salvation is “from faith to faith.” It begins with faith and a commitment to be faithful, that is, repentance, and continues on the identical terms to the end, except that once we’ve been saved, God gives us his Spirit, who works to produce in us the very faith/faithfulness we need to make it to the end.

24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

And this passage answers those who worry that this doctrine of the Spirit takes away our free will. No, Paul says that we are led by the Spirit but we must keep in step with the Spirit. The Spirit bears fruit, but we must live by the Spirit. We have to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in us.

25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Again, Paul gives a contrast —

  • keep in step with the Spirit vs. being conceited, provoking and envying

How do we know whether a Christian is keeping in step with the Spirit? Well, we look at the fruit — does he evidence the fruit of the Spirit or does he evidence the works of the flesh?


Let’s review the contrasts that Paul presents —

freedom slavery
grace justification by law
faith/faithfulness, Spirit, righteousness, hope fall away from grace
faith/faithfulness expressing itself through love circumcision/uncircumcision
freedom; serving one another in love indulging the sinful nature
“love your neighbor” destroying each other
keep in step with the Spirit being conceited, provoking and envying

The flow of Paul’s logic becomes plain as we study these contrasts. Paul doesn’t contrast ceremonial law with moral law. He doesn’t contrast new law with old law. He doesn’t contrast the new form of worship and organization with the old form of worship and organization.

Rather, on the left (good) side, we see faith/faithfulness, grace, love, and the Spirit. On the right (bad) side, we see law, self-destruction, conceit, and envy. If we aren’t talking about faith, love, and the Spirit, we’ve entirely missed Paul’s point.

Explore posts in the same categories: Apostasy

4 Comments on “Falling from Grace: Exegesis of Gal 5”

  1. Jerry Starling Says:

    When we, who have begun in the Spirit, try to continue in the flesh we end up making a real mess of things, don’t we?

    Jesus said you will know false teachers (prophets) by their fruit. Even as a lad growing up in “the church” I used to wonder about some of the fruit that I saw in the congregations I knew. As I became older, I began to realize that this bad fruit did not come from the seed of the gospel. It came, instead, from the flesh.

    As long as we emphasize the “rules” while ignoring the Spirit, we will continue to have such evil fruit and will continue to “bite and devour one another.”

  2. Jay,
    Let me put this in my words and see if I’m tracking with you, please?

    Verse 16 ends with a promise “…you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” This is opposed to the command found in the RSV of the same verse. The command as stated in the RSV is just one more thing that I cannot live up to, but the proper translation stated as a promise takes the power out of my hands and firmly places it where it belongs – in the realm of the Spirit; relieving me from a doomed quest to meet the standard by my own doing. It can do this because of v.24; the flesh has been crucified in Christ.

    Yet there still is a war waged in my flesh because the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit contrary to the flesh. Now this is not a bad thing because as I see it, this war is a sign that the Spirit indwells me. In other words, walking with the Spirit does not mean that all of my bad desires have been conquered and are now gone but that I now struggle to overcome them with the power of the Spirit; where as before the indwelling I would just cave to the fleshly desires. This war is fought in at least two ways: 1) objectively trough the word of God and 2) subjectively through my inner convictions.

    Now, as I walk with and am led by the Spirit I am abiding in the Vine (John 15.4-5). No branch can bear fruit by itself; it can only do so as long as it abides in the Vine. If by the above stated indwelling I know that I abide in the Vine then my fruit that I bear is not of myself but a gift from God who has placed His spirit in me, and these not for my consumption but for the nourishment of others. Thus I live by faith/faithfulness and by love, and etc.

    So now that the flesh has been crucified and the Spirit dwells in me there is no fear of the law because the law is being fulfilled by the fruit that is produce by the Spirit in me. In other words, how can I be under the weight of the law when the requirements of the law are blooming out of every branch of my life?

    Without realizing that it is the Spirit that produces the requirements of the law, I see grace as only the top rung of a latter that I have to climb of my own strength. But knowing that the Spirit dwells in me due to my walk with it and by letting it lead me I can then move along knowing that grace is the side rails of a ladder that I and the Spirit climb together.

    I know this has left out much of what you have covered in your post, but I wanted to know if I was moving along the right direction. Your input is greatly appreciated.

    Because of Christ,
    Steve Valentine

  3. Jay Guin Says:

    Very nicely said. Thanks and amen.

  4. No, thank you Jay. Your work here combined with a lot of time in the Word is producing lots of fruit. Just some insight on me, I have been breaking free from a rule-keeping mind set that was seeking self-justification. Over the last few years the Spirit has been working on/in me and this Conversation has come to culminate this process.

    May God bless you with continued health and wisdom and a voice here.

    Because of Christ,
    Steve Valentine

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