Pastor David B. Curtis


Media #319b MP3 Audio File

Liberty and the Flesh

Galatians 5:13-15

Delivered 05/29/2005

One of the principles of hermeneutics is that "context is king." The context of the verses we are going to study this morning are crucial to our understanding of Paul's words. Chapter 5 begins a new section. Chapters 1 and 2 are primarily written as a defense of Paul's apostleship and his authority. Chapters 3 and 4 are intended to prove the superiority and priority of grace over the Law by developing the priority and superiority of the Abrahamic Covenant to the Mosaic. Paul shows in chapters 3 and 4 that the Law cannot produce righteousness, while chapters 5 and 6 show how righteousness is produced by grace through the Holy Spirit.

Let's look back at Galatians 5, verse 1 to review where we were a couple of weeks ago:

Galatians 5:1 (NASB) It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.

Christ has set us free! We celebrated that today in the observance of the Lord's Supper. Jesus has set us free - free from the slavery of sin, free from slavery to the law. Why did He do that? It was for freedom that He set us free. Therefore, we are to stand firm against legalism - against once again subjecting ourselves to the yoke of slavery of the law.

That brings us to verse 13 in our study today, where I think Paul is saying the same thing again:

Galatians 5:13 (NASB) For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

"For you were called to freedom, brethren" That is the same as saying it was for freedom that Christ set you free. It is worth noting that Paul is talking to believers. He uses the word "brethren," which is a clear statement that these people he is writing to are Christians. This takes us all the way back to chapter 3

Galatians 3:3 (NASB) Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Paul said to the Galatians; You reached the point in your life where you realized you cannot make yourself righteous - that you cannot accomplish your own salvation through religious rituals and any type of good works that you do. Therefore, you died to that belief and you trusted Jesus' death on the cross for your salvation. He says you started that way as a work of the Spirit.

But the Galatian believers were becoming convinced that they could make themselves more righteous - that they could perfect or complete their salvation (what we call sanctification, the process of becoming more like Jesus). They felt they could do that themselves, in their own power and in their own strength, through religious rituals and works. So Paul said to them in chapter 3, verse 3: What makes you think if this started as a work of the Spirit, that you can finish it in your flesh?

That's still what Paul is talking about in chapter 5, verse 13:

Galatians 5:13 (NASB) For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

Paul is moving into the moral, ethical issues related to the Christian life. This is his normal practice after setting forth a doctrinal foundation. If we are going to live for God, we must understand doctrine. It is always doctrine first, then practice.

That is what Paul is doing at this point. He is teaching about freedom, but he reminds the Galatians why they even had freedom. It was not something which they worked for or attended a seminar and learned how to exercise it. Freedom came as a gift from God. Paul said, "For you were called to freedom, brethren." It was not your doing that gave you freedom. You did not decide, after seeing that you were in bondage for many years, that it was high time that you have freedom so you made up your mind and "decided for freedom." No, the Apostle tells us, "You were called to freedom."

Paul uses a passive voice to express that the calling which you received came from outside of you. You were the recipient, but you had no part in determining the calling. God was not waiting on you to decide to trust Him. It was God who called you out of His own good pleasure.

The term points to what is called in theology "effectual calling." By this it is distinguished from what is termed the "general call." The latter is that call which is given in the gospel to all men. All who hear the gospel have the opportunity to respond. Indeed, they have an eternal responsibility before God to respond! They must respond in faith or face the condemnation of God. But man has a deep spiritual problem in responding to God. We are spiritually dead:

Ephesians 2:1 (NASB) And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,

We live in the blindness of the kingdom of darkness (Col. 1:13). We are spiritually incapacitated due to the Fall (Rom. 5). We have natures that are hostile to God and who have no interest in knowing Him nor in obeying Him (Eph. 4:17-19). Can we overcome this problem? Do we have the capacity to reach down into some hidden region of the soul and pull out a new nature bent on obeying God? Unbelievers are no different than Lazarus in the grave! They are just as dead as he was and must receive a call from God to wake them up!

This call is effectual. That is, it effectively or energetically works in us. It accomplishes its divine intention. All God calls, He justifies:

Romans 8:30 (NASB) and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

Do you see what Paul is doing? He is reminding the Galatians that they were not saved, because they thought all of this Christianity stuff sounded like a good idea. They were saved, because God called them! He found them in the stubbornness of their hearts and in the deadness of their minds. And just as Jesus called out to the dead man, "Lazarus, come forth" the Spirit of God calls the spiritually dead to live.

What happens in this new freedom through faith in Christ prompted by the Spirit's call? The believer is now free from the guilt and condemnation he has been living under because of the Law. He no longer finds himself trying to justify himself on the basis of the Law.

Romans 10:4 (NASB) For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

He is no longer scrambling trying to find enough merit to commend himself to God, for Christ is his merit. Jesus Christ has become the righteousness of God on his behalf (2 Cor. 5:21).

Something remarkable has happened in his conscience. The believer is freed from guilt. He has lived with condemnation, perhaps for many years, but now he is free. It is as though a gigantic burden has been lifted from his shoulders. He knows that Jesus Christ has taken away his sins and has removed the enmity between him and God. He rejoices that there is now no condemnation as he looks at the Law, for Jesus Christ has satisfied its demands on his behalf (Rom. 8:1-4). The believer is now free! He can live as a free man. The Law can no longer condemn him for his inadequacy. It can no longer put its icy fingers upon his shoulders and tell him that he is condemned by God. He is free!

Paul now warns that freedom received can, with neglect, become freedom abused. We are not to turn our freedom into "an opportunity for the flesh." The word translated "opportunity" is the Greek word aphorme. The word literally means: "a set of circumstances favorable for a particular activity or endeavor, a place from which a movement or attack is made, a base of operations."

Now let me ask you a very important theological and interpretive question: What is the FLESH? Those of you who have been Christians for a while probably have a definition that you attach to "flesh." But we need to be very careful that we define this term "flesh" consistent with the way Paul is using it in Galatians. One of the principles of hermeneutics is to Determine carefully the meaning of words. Hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. Whatever else the Bible is, it is a book which communicates information verbally. That means that it is filled with words. Thoughts are expressed through relationships of those words. Each individual word contributes something to the whole of the content expressed. The better understanding we have of the individual words used in biblical statements, the better we will be able to understand the total message of Scripture. Accurate communication and clear understanding are difficult when words are used imprecisely or ambiguously.

There are two basic methods by which words are defined: etymology - which is the science of word derivations - the dictionary definition. And usage - which is how the author uses a word. Usage always takes precedence over etymology. In addition to origins and derivations, it is extremely important for us to study language in the context of its usage. This is necessary, because words undergo changes in meaning depending on how they are used. Also there are scores of words in the Bible that have multiple meanings. Only the context can determine the particular meaning of a word.

Alexander Carson said, "No man has a right to say, as some are in the habit of saying, 'The Spirit tells me that such or such is the meaning of such a passage.' How is he assured that it is the Holy Spirit and that it is not a spirit of delusion, except from the evidence that the interpretation is the legitimate meaning of the words." [Examination of the Principles of Biblical Interpretation page 23.]

So if we want to understand what Paul means by "flesh," we need to see how he uses it in the context of the book of Galatians. Before we do this, let me say a word about translations. If you have the misfortune to be using the NIV, that is the "Nearly Inspired Version," you will notice that instead of "flesh" it says: "sinful nature." That's a very unfortunate translation. As a matter of fact, it's not even a translation - it's an interpretation. The Greek word used in our text is "sarx", which means: "flesh." Paul uses it 18 times in 16 verses in the book of Galatians. The translators of the NIV have said, "We think that flesh means sinful nature." That is an interpretation, and in my opinion, a bad one. I don't think the word "flesh" means "sinful nature" in this text. I think "flesh" and "sinful nature" are two completely different things. The NIV translate this word sarx in Galatians as: man, one, body, human effort, ordinary, illness, outwardly, sinful nature, and they even translate it once as flesh. Talk about confusing!

Most commentators say that verse 13 is a warning against license - that Christ has set us free; therefore, don't use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh (meaning don't use it as a license to sin). But I don't think it means that at all. That's not consistent with the way Paul has used that term, and that is not consistent with his theme in this book, so to think of it that way steers us off course.

I think he is using "flesh" to say, "Don't return to legalism." I think Paul is saying the same thing in verse 13 that he said in verse 1: that you have been set free, therefore, don't use that freedom to once again subject yourself to the yoke of slavery, to legalism. After all, what is legalism? Legalism is believing that in my own strength, in my own power, in my own humanity - my flesh - that I can make myself righteous and merit some favor before God.

Let's look at how Paul uses the term "flesh" in this book and see if we can get an understanding of what he means. Go back to Galatians 1:16, which was the first time Paul used the word.

Galatians 1:16 (NASB) to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood,

He is talking here about humanity. He didn't get his theology from people; he got his theology from God.

Galatians 2:16 (NASB) nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.

Again in this verse, he is talking about humanity - people - and the fact that we cannot, in and of ourselves, make ourselves righteous.

Now the word "flesh" is very strategic. The reason Paul uses it is because of the emphasis on circumcision in the book of Galatians. You remember, it was the false teachers who were saying that if these Gentiles were circumcised, they would be more righteous - more spiritual before God.

Going back to Abraham, we talked about the fact that the whole point of circumcision was that Abraham was removing the skin, or the flesh of the foreskin. And with that, symbolically, he was saying that there is no ability in my own human strength to fulfill the promise of God; therefore I am removing that flesh as a way of saying I can't do this myself - only God can do it. That was the symbolism of circumcision.

So when Paul is using the word "flesh," he is using it to refer to something that is totally human, with no special grace attached. In Paul's use of the term "flesh" in Galatians, he does not simply mean: "possessed of a physical body"; rather, he means: "limited to only a physical body and the physical strength it contains."

Galatians 2:20 (NASB) "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.

Again, flesh here means the life that I live on this earth; the life that I live in my humanity is now the life of the Spirit of God being lived through me.

Galatians 3:3 (NASB) Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

"Having begun by the Spirit" means that it was God who brought salvation; it was God who did what we couldn't do in our own power. God justified - God made them righteous. It was the Spirit. So Paul is saying that what started as an act of the Spirit of God, do you think now you can perfect it or complete it in the flesh?

What does he mean by flesh? In your own power, in your own strength, by what you can do yourself - meaning legalism. Legalism is anything that I think I can do in order to make myself more righteous before God. It is human achievement; it's a form of self-righteousness.

To live by the flesh is depending upon the resources and abilities of the physical body, or humanness. To live by the Spirit is depending upon the resources and abilities of the Spirit, whom God gives by grace through faith. In both cases, the fundamental issue is "depending." The critical difference is the object of the dependence. In "living by the flesh," the person who is living is depending upon what he is and has as the result of his physical heritage (genetic composition, intelligence quotient, education, etc.). In "living by the spirit," the person who is living is depending upon what the Spirit of God is and has - and what God has promised to do through Him.

Galatians 4:29 (NASB) But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.

He is talking about the difference between Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Hagar, and that was a relationship of the flesh, meaning that was merely accomplished through human power. There was nothing divine or miraculous about that.

That is contrasted with Isaac, who was a product of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham knew he could not produce a child of his own strength at age 100 and Sarah at age 90, so Isaac's birth was a miracle. It was something that Abraham could not do himself; it was purely a work of the Spirit. So again, the contrast is that which God alone can do versus that which we can do in our own power. One is referred to as the Spirit; one is referred to as the flesh.

Galatians 5:13 (NASB) For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

Now we come to our text which is the next time the word flesh is used. Paul is not suddenly going to define this term differently; he is going to use it the same way he has been using it. Flesh is defined as that which I can do in my own power, in my own strength - that which I can accomplish in my own humanity. Therefore, what he is talking about here is not using our freedom to return to legalism. Once I've been saved by the Spirit, why would I go back to thinking I can do this myself? Which is exactly what he said in verse 1 of chapter 5.

It is interesting to think about this contrast between the flesh and love, or between legalism and grace, because legalism is a very selfish way to live. It is a very self-oriented way to live your life, because, by definition, legalism is self-focused. It is constantly looking at myself to see how I measure up. It is based on competition and comparison. It is based on figuring out where I fit in the spiritual pecking order; and the only way to do that is to constantly have my eyes on myself. So it is a very selfish way to live. Luke 18 illustrates this very graphically:

Luke 18:9-10 (NASB) And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer.

The holiest people in the thinking of many Jewish people were the Pharisees, and the most despicable persons were tax collectors, who were the puppets of the hated Roman government.

Luke 18:11-12 (NASB) "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'

When we boast about our religious accomplishments, we border on Legalism. If we brag about our praying, our giving, or our ministry, we are practicing the religion of human achievement. I don't know why this Pharisee even bothered praying to God; all he wanted to do was display his pride - which God hates.

The tax collector recognized his need of divine grace and therefore received it:

Luke 18:13-14 (NASB) "But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' 14 "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted."

The flesh - human achievement - leads to legalism and pride, which leads to God's resistance. A legalist can never truly love like Jesus, because, ultimately, whatever appears to be an act of love is actually just a very selfish attempt to gain points with God; to be spiritual, to look spiritual. What may look like a very loving act for a legalist is actually just an attempt to somehow win some more points with God, to move one's self up in the spiritual pecking order. Therefore, what he is actually doing is that he is using you for personal gain. That is how the legalist ultimately loves.

That is contrasted with the love of Christ - "…but through love serve one another." In the original Greek, Paul is even more specific. He says, "Through the love serve one another." What love? Specifically, the love of Jesus Christ.

Paul uses another interesting little word. It is even more interesting when we consider that the entire message of Galatians is about freedom. The word that I am referring to is the word "serve," which is from the Greek word douleuo. The word means:"to be a slave, to serve, or to do service." The word is often used of nations that are in subjection to other nations.

When I understand that this is all on the basis of grace, and it's not on the basis of competition or comparison, I'm not working my way into the spiritual favor with God. But rather than having my eyes on myself all the time, I fix my eyes on Jesus as the author and finisher of my faith. Therefore, I don't have to compete with you for my spiritual position; I'm free to just love you. We are no longer competitors, and so I am free to love you with the love of Christ. I don't have to have my eyes on myself; I can have my eyes on Christ, which leads me to serve others. So there's a radical difference between the life of legalism and a life of love.

I believe with all of my heart that we can gauge how we are growing in our walk with the Lord by our willingness to serve those around us who can give nothing in return; those who have hurt us in the past, and those who we think are undeserving of our time and energy. This is beyond our ability. This type of love and sacrifice does not come naturally. When someone hurts us, says bad things about us, or breaks our hearts, our automatic reaction is to strike back. When somebody is a taker, a user, and a manipulator, our automatic response is to run from them and never give them the time of day.

Galatians 5:14 (NASB) For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF."

People think that somehow grace is going to lead to lawlessness. Actually, the opposite is true. It is legalism that leads to lawlessness, because it caters to the flesh. When I am led by the Spirit, I'm not lawless; I fulfill the Law! I begin to actually live out the Law. I become what God has always wanted me to be. So grace isn't lawless; grace is the fulfillment of the Law.

God had given His people the Ten Commandments back in Exodus 20, but the Ten Commandments lacked definition and detail in the minds of some of the rabbis. The Jewish rabbis decided that they needed to add some explanation, so they broke the Ten Commandments down even further into 613 laws. Paul says that the entire law is summed up in a single command:"Love your neighbor as yourself."

Out of the 613 laws, which one is the greatest? No problem. Love the Lord and love your neighbor. In Galatians 5, Paul doesn't quote loving the Lord with all of your heart. He writes that the entire Law is summed up in loving your neighbor. John Calvin writes, "Why did Paul call the selfless love of neighbor the fulfilling of the whole law? Not because it is superior to the worship and adoration of God, but rather because it is the proof of it. God is invisible; but He represents Himself to us in the brethren and in their persons demands what is due to himself. Love to men springs only from the fear and love of God." (Calvin's New Testament Commentary. 11:101.)

God represents Himself to us in those around us. We are called to love, to serve, and to sacrifice what we want, so that we might be used to do what God wants in the lives of others.

This is the same command that Jesus gave in Luke 10. When a certain lawyer asked Him, "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He answered:


The lawyer then asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" In reply, Christ told him a parable in which a good Samaritan helped a man who had been robbed, beaten, and left half dead. That wounded man had earlier been by-passed by a priest and a Levite.
Of this Samaritan, Jesus said:

Luke 10:34-35 (NASB) and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 "And on the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you.'

Jesus then asked:

Luke 10:36 (NASB) "Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?"

And we read in verse 37:

Luke 10:37 (NASB) And he said, "The one who showed mercy toward him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do the same."

Our neighbor is anyone with a need that we have the ability to meet.

Galatians 5:15 (NASB) But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.

The verbs actually read: if you "continue biting and devouring" one another. In other words, the Galatians are already at each other, because the legalists have come in and convinced them that they have to compete with one another and compare themselves.

Ironically, the law, which the Judaizers were trying to use to bring about righteousness and holiness, actually ends up creating the opposite effect. And the reason is that the law, once again, doesn't deal with the heart of a person, but only with the performance of people. The loveless life is a life lived on the level of animals with a concern only for oneself, no matter what the cost to other people.

If those in the world are only seeing biting and devouring in the church, then what would be their motivation to want to be part of that?

Think about this and see if you don't agree: wherever there is conflict there is legalism; and where there is legalism, there is conflict. It is always going to be that way because legalism feeds our pride, and pride causes contention.

Christianity is not about what you do or don't do; it is about love. As believers we are called to serve one another in love. Loving one another within the family of God is of primary importance. Jesus says:

John 13:34-35 (NASB) "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

I want to ask you this morning, "Who are you serving in love?" Before you answer let's take a look at our lives. Open your checkbook. Does it reflect the commitment you speak about to Christ? Do you lavish more and more upon yourselves, or are you allowing the Lord to use the resources He has given to you to bless others and to under gird what He is doing in this world? How about taking a look at where you work. Do you see your job as a way to get ahead? Are you simply seeking another promotion, or are you seeking to promote the cause of Christ in the workplace? Do you serve those you work with, or are they a burden to you?

Let's take a walk into our homes. Husbands, are you serving your wife? Do you spend time thinking of ways that you can bless your wife and lighten her load? Do you go out of your way to serve your kids, or do you see them as another burden on your schedule? Wives, how about taking a look at your relationship with your family. Do you begrudgingly do the things you do around the house for your family, or are you aware that by serving your husband and kids that you are serving the King of glory?

Continue the Series

Berean Bible Church provides this material free of charge for the edification of the Body of Christ. You can help further this work by your prayer and by contributing online or by mailing to:

Berean Bible Church
1000 Chattanooga Street
Chesapeake, VA 23322