“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.”
These verses begin a very important passage that extends into the opening verses of chapter 6. In this section of Galatians Paul gives us much needed, clear, and practical instruction about walking in the Spirit in the blessed liberty of faith in Christ. Here he tells us that this liberty is the liberty of love. The life into which believers have been delivered is a life of love.
There are two great evils to which our fallen human nature is constantly drawn, evils that must be consciously avoided. The one is the horrid evil of legalism. The other is the equally horrid evil of licentiousness. Both are evil products of the flesh. Paul has devoted the larger part of this epistle to the Galatians to the task of exposing and denouncing the legalistic, self-righteousness, and arrogance of the Judaizers who ever attempt to bring God’s saints under the oppressive yoke of legal bondage. Now he turns to the subject of licentiousness.
It may appear to be a strange paradox to many that legalism, when it is most prominent, produces licentiousness; paradoxical perhaps, but it is not a self-contradiction. Legalism is the mother of malice, strife, heresy, and slander. Who was ever more legalistic than the Pharisee? He prayed three times a day. He fasted twice in a week. He gave tithes of all that he had. He kept the sabbath. He ate no unclean thing. He was a legalistic moralist! But who was ever more licentious than the Pharisee? He slandered the Son of God. He tried to trick the Savior into speaking against the law of Moses and against Caesar. It was a band of religious legalists who took a woman in the act of adultery to be condemned, but left their fellow Pharisee in his tent unaccused. Religious legalists took up stones to slay the Lord Jesus. They crucified the Lord of glory to satisfy their own lusts. It is not at all surprising therefore that Paul brings in a solemn warning against licentiousness right upon the heels of such strong condemnations of legality. We are free in Christ; but our freedom in Christ is not a license to sin. Rather, our freedom in Christ is the blessed liberty of love.
Paul has shown the excellence of the gospel. He has thoroughly denounced all possibility that sinners can be justified by works. He has shown us that once a person is justified by the free grace of God in Christ, he is not then sanctified and made perfect by his own efforts. He asks in chapter 3, “Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” Paul has shown us that our entire standing before God is the result of his free-grace and not the result of human merit.
Now, lest anyone should say, “Shall we then continue in sin that grace may abound?” (See Romans 6:1-22) Paul gives a solemn warning against licentiousness. He tells us that our liberty in Christ is not licentiousness, but love. We are free from the bondage of the Mosaic law. And, being made free from the law, we are now free to live by the law of Christ. Believers are not antinomians, though legalists love to hurl that slanderous accusation against us. We do not live by the carnal rule of the Mosaic law, but by the law of love to Christ. In all things, “the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Legalistic duties can never fulfill the law, but love does. We have been brought under the law to Christ. What is the law of Christ? It is the law of love. Love not only fulfills the law, as legalism never can, but it also prevents the bitter strife that legalism produces.
This is what Paul has called, “a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31-13:13). Love is the law of Christianity. The commandment of Christ is love. The fruit of the Spirit is love. Faith works by love. The joy of heaven is love. Peace on earth is love. That which sanctifies our every deed is love. Tongues are nothing without love. Prophecy is nothing without love. Understanding is nothing without love. Faith is nothing without love. Self-sacrifice is nothing without love. The charter, the continuance, and the consummation of Christ’s kingdom is love. “God is love.” And God’s people reflect that love. Wherever God is there is love. Wherever love is absent, God is absent.
“How sweet, how heavenly is the sight,
When those that love the Lord
In one another’s peace delight,
And so fulfill His Word.
When each can feel his brother’s sigh,
And with him bear a part;
When sorrow flows from eye to eye,
And joy from heart to heart.
When free from envy, scorn, and pride,
Our wishes all above,
Each can his brother’s failings hide,
And show a brother’s love.
When love, in one delightful stream,
Through every bosom flows;
And union sweet, and dear esteem,
In every action glows.
Love is the golden chain that binds
The happy souls above;
And he’s an heir of heaven who finds
His bosom glow with love.”
“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (v. 13). Whenever religious legalists hear or read about the blessed liberty God’s saints have in Christ from the law of Moses, red flags immediately arise in their minds. When we assert, in Bible language, that “Christ is the end of the law,” that “we are not under the law, but under grace,” and “ye are dead to the law,” they are terrified that such gospel declarations will lead people professing godliness to live in licentiousness. Because they know that they are ruled and motivated by legal threats and rewards, because their religion is nothing more than mercenary duty, they presume the same is true of God’s children. Shall we, therefore, refuse to assure God’s saints of their liberty in Christ? Perish the thought! Instead of that, Paul asserts, “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty.” Then he gives us this admonition, “only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” We must take care that we do not use (or abuse) our liberty in Christ to indulge the lusts of the flesh.
Paul again calls the Galatian saints "brethren." He does so to express his own affection for them and to remind them (and us) of their relationship to one another in Christ, a loving family relationship. Then he reminds us that we have been called to liberty by the effectual grace and power of God the Holy Spirit.
The work-mongers at Galatia were frustrating the grace of God by their doctrine (Gal. 3:21). They taught that the rule of the Mosaic law was still in effect, that men and women make themselves righteous by their obedience to the law, and, thereby, taught that the sacrifice of Christ and the grace of God were meaningless (Gal. 5:1-4). Paul here reminds us that Christ has given all who trust him freedom from the law, calling us to liberty. — “Ye have been called unto liberty.” Our liberty in Christ includes freedom from condemnation by the law and from the consciousness of guilt because of sin (Rom. 8:1). Christ has freed us from the carnal ordinances and ceremonies of the law (Col. 2:16-23). He has freed us from the oppressive rule of the law (Rom. 6:14-15; 7:4; 10:4). And he has given us the liberty of access to and assured acceptance with God as his own dear children (Gal. 4:6-7; Heb. 10:19-22).
“Only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” — The corrupt, depraved nature of fallen, unregenerate men is so base and vile that it finds encouragement to licentiousness in the goodness, mercy and grace of God in Christ to licentiousness. The sweet, blessed doctrines of grace revealed in the gospel (unconditional election, everlasting love, free justification, the non-imputation of sin, immutable grace, absolute security in Christ, etc.), though the very source and inspiration for all true godliness, are perverted and abused by ungodly religionists and made to be a covering and excuse for evil. This was the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which our holy Savior hates (Rev. 2:14-15).
Paul’s comments here are not addressed to lost religionists. They are addressed to the saints of God. Believers are no longer in the flesh (Rom. 8:9), and do not live after the flesh (Rom. 8:12-13). Yet the flesh, the old nature of the flesh, is in us and is constantly at war against us. That old nature that is in us is prone to the same evils that the unregenerate practice. That makes Paul’s admonition needful. We must not give in to the flesh. We must take care that we do not indulge the flesh, abusing the liberty that is ours in Christ to gratify the lusts of the flesh. Christ’s free men must not give way to such evil lusts. To do so is both to bring reproach upon our Savior and upon the gospel of the grace of God. Let us, rather, “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (Tit. 2:10).
Our liberty in Christ is abused, or used as an occasion to the flesh whenever we begin to live for the gratification of our fleshly lust. In this context Paul is particularly telling us that we must not excuse, or attempt to justify any conduct that injures our brethren. “To use this liberty as an excuse to indulge the old nature is,” wrote Edgar Andrews, “a contradiction in terms. Any who do so have not understood the meaning of Christian liberty, for liberty and lawlessness are bitter enemies, not companions.”
Christian liberty is not a spring board, or incentive for the sinful human nature to assert itself. The doctrine of Christ is a “doctrine according to godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3). It is freedom to walk with and serve our God. We are free to use all things lawfully, but we are not to be in bondage to any (1 Cor. 6:12). And our liberty must never be so pressed as to become a stumbling block to a weaker brother (1 Cor. 8:9, 13). We are to use this liberty for the good of men and the glory of Christ (1 Cor. 9:12, 19:22; 1 Cor. 10:23, 24, 31; 11:1), not to gratify ourselves.
“But by love serve one another.” — Gospel liberty and the service of the saints go hand in hand. Faith works by love. Our Savior commands us to love one another. Our profession of faith in Christ and our family relation to one another in Christ, the grace of God that we have experienced, and the love of God revealed to us in the sacrifice of his own dear Son for us all teach us to devote ourselves to and serve one another in love. Throughout the New Testament good works are set before us, not as deeds by which we attempt to show how good, devoted, and holy we are (That is ever the practice of Pharisees.), but by acts of kindness, love, and mercy: visiting the fatherless and the afflicted, giving a cup of cold water, bearing one another’s burdens, etc.
Let every child of God make it his goal in life to help his brothers and sisters in Christ in their pilgrimage through this world. That is what it is to serve one another by love. Believers ought always to pray for one another, sympathize with one another’s needs, and provide for one another’s needs. We ought to be forgiving, forbearing, and long-suffering with one another, patient, kind, and gentle toward one another. We are to think well of and speak well of one another, each esteeming his brother and sister in Christ better than himself (Phil. 2:1-4). Love is a debt we owe to one another (Rom. 13:8). If we were more concerned about loving and less concerned about being loved, that would put an end to resentment, strife and division, envy, malice, and feuds in the church of God.
The love Paul is speaking of here is not mere human affection. It is the love of God revealed to us in Christ and shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The great example of serving one another by love that is held before us in the Book of God is Christ himself (John 13:13-15; Eph. 4:32-5:1; 1 John 3:16-17). He said, “I am among you as he that serveth.” He came into the world in the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). When he arose from supper, he put a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and washed his disciples feet (John 13:4-5). The Prophet called the Messiah a Servant (Isa. 42:1; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12).
What is this love? It is a deep affection, but more than affection. Love is devotion, self-sacrificing tenderness, genuine care, and a readiness to help. It is free, spontaneous giving and forgiving. William Hendriksen tells us that, “When Paul warns the Galatians not to turn freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love to be serving one another, he is placing service over against selfishness…Vice can only be conquered by virtue, which is the Spirit’s gift, man’s responsibility.”
Savior, give me grace that I may
Love Your people as I ought,
Ever serve them, and defend them,
And with care offend them not.
May the grace You have imparted,
In releiving me of woe,
Make me kind and tenderhearted;
Give me grace Your grace to show.
As You laid down Your life, Savior,
For the people that You love,
Help me to my own life lay down
For my brethren, whom I love.
“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (v. 14). — Paul, by divine inspiration, reduces the whole Mosaic system to one commandment. — “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Legalists take great offense at this, saying that such a view of the law makes every man a law unto himself and gives no real direction for life. Nothing could be further from the truth. The law of love is the new commandment of the gospel (Eph. 5:2; 1 Thess. 4:9; James 2:8, 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 John 3:23; 4:21). This love is not natural to men. It is the fruit of the indwelling Spirit making manifest the fact that Christ dwells in us (Gal. 5:22; 1 John 3:9-24). Pastor Henry Mahan wrote…
“When I consider what I can do, should do and am required to do in word, thought and deed toward others, it is all fulfilled in the word 'love' (Matt. 7:12). My love for the Lord will control my personal conduct and behavior, and my love for others will control my public conduct where others are concerned. As far as a man loves aright, so far he fulfils the law.”
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” What more needs to be said? If I want to know how I ought to love my neighbor, I need only to ask, “How do I love myself?” When I am in trouble, or danger, or need of any kind, I welcome the help of others who are able to help. We do not need a book of instructions to teach us how to love our neighbor. All we need to do is look to our own enlightened hearts. If any ask, as the lawyer in Luke 10, “Who is my neighbor?” the answer is given in the parable that followed his question. My neighbor is anyone who needs my help (Luke 10:25-37). Let us so love our neighbors, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. But our responsibility (our great privilege of love) reaches beyond the household of faith. We are to love all men, even those who despise and abuse us (Gal. 6:10). My neighbor is anyone with whom God in his providence brings me into contact, anyone I can help in anyway, even though he hates me and is my enemy (Matt. 5:43-48). My neighbor is especially my brother in Christ.
Most people talk glibly about love and boast that they practice it, but love is a rare, very rare, thing in this world. Love is more than a feeling, a sentiment, or an emotion. To love my neighbor is to serve him. We are to “by love serve one another.” Love is not merely putting up with people, or refraining from injuring them. It is doing them good (Gal. 6:10). To serve one another in love is to instruct the erring, comfort the afflicted, raise the fallen, and help one another in every possible way. If I love my neighbor, I bear his burdens, and forgive his offenses. I am patient with his infirmities, weaknesses, and ignorance, and am long-suffering with him in all things. Love forgives the unforgiving, is patient with the impatient, merciful to the unmerciful, and kind to the mean-spirited. Love makes children honor their parents and parents to be patient with unruly children, causes husbands to be patient with nagging wives and wives to be patient with obstinate husbands. If I love my neighbor as myself, I will not defraud him, betray his trust, lie to him, cheat him, slander him, or reveal his faults, weaknesses, and failures to others.
These things are not regarded as good works by most people; but they are the very things our God speaks of as good works. They are such excellent things that the unregenerate cannot possibly estimate them at their true value. Religious legalist vainly imagine that good works are the observance of rituals, ceremonies, holy days, dress codes, dietary laws, fastings, and countless other things seen, approved of, and applauded by men. Their religion is street corner and market place religion. Nothing more. While they strenuously observe the outward duties of religious laws and customs, they are filled with violence and hatred.
What greater example of this horrid spirit of legalism could be found than in the fact that those very men who crucified the Lord of glory because of their envy and hatred insisted that his body be taken down from the cross (John 19:31), lest their sabbath day be polluted? The Old Testament as well as the New is replete with examples that show how highly our God values love. When David and his men had no food they ate the showbread, though the law forbade them to eat it. Our Savior’s disciples broke the legal sabbath law when they plucked ears of corn and ate it as they followed the Master, resting in him who is our Sabbath. The Lord Jesus himself broke the sabbath day, as far as the Jews could see, by healing the sick on the sabbath day. In all these things, we are taught that the holy Lord God calls for mercy, not sacrifice. The law itself was designed to teach us this blessed doctrine — “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Therefore, Paul urges us to serve one another by love. He says to them and to us, “If you want to do good works and honor God’s holy law, ‘by love serve one another.’ The world is full of people who need your help.” Yet, those who teach that righteousness comes by works never mention such things.
“But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (v. 15). — Here Paul is saying, “If you are critical, unforgiving, unkind, and filled with bitterness and strife, you will destroy the unity and peace of God’s church. Love is the cement that binds us together and enables us to live and labor together in peace” (Eph. 4:1-7; Col: 3:12-14).
In the church at Galatia, as in countless churches today, there was much strife and division, backbiting and slander, bitterness, and jealousy. The fact that Paul gives us the warning in verse 15 in the context of Galatians 5 tells us that the root cause of these evils is the carnal, fleshly spirit of legalism and self-righteousness. One of the problems with living by law is the fact that once the explicit duties of the law have been fulfilled in the mind of the legalist, he vainly imagines that he is “holier” than other people and sets himself up as a judge over them. Those who walk in the Spirit (That is to say, those who live by faith in Christ) do not fulfill such lusts of the flesh. They know themselves to be sinners in constant need of mercy, whose only hope before God is the blood and righteousness of Christ. If we truly know that, if truly we have experienced the grace of God and know something of the evil of our own hearts, we will esteem our brothers and sisters better than ourselves, and “by love serve one another.”
Let us hear and heed Paul’s warning. — “If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Here people, church members at that, are pictured in the act of rushing upon one another as wild beasts. Strife and divisions are always carnal and ungodly (1 Cor. 3:3). It is not strange to see dogs and wolves biting and devouring sheep; but it is unthinkable that sheep should bite and devour one another. “He that soweth discord among brethren” is an abomination to the Lord. Strife and division destroy the peace of churches (1 Cor. 3:17). It is by these things that we quench the Spirit of God (Eph. 4:30) and destroy our usefulness in the cause of Christ.
Here are quotations taken from the writings of four men on this 15th verse. Each is tremendously insightful.
“Christian churches cannot be ruined but by their own hands; but if Christians, should be helps to one another and a joy to one another, be as brute beasts, biting and devouring each other, what can be expected but that the God of love should deny his grace to them, and the Spirit of love should depart from them, and that the evil spirit that seeks the destruction of them all should prevail?” (Matthew Henry)
Strife, contention, bickering, detraction, and the biting of hard, unjust words will rend a church in pieces quicker than all the assaults of men and devils from outside.” (G. S. Bishop).
“How distressing, how mad it is that we, who are members of the same body, should be leagued together, of our own accord, for mutual destruction!” (John Calvin)
“When faith in Christ is overthrown peace and unity come to an end in the church. Diverse opinions and dissensions about doctrine and life spring up, and one member bites and devours the other, i.e., they condemn each other until they are consumed. To this the Scriptures and the experience of all times bear witness. The many sects at present have come into being because one sect condemns the other. When the unity of the spirit has been lost there can be no agreement in doctrine or life. New errors must appear without measure and without end. For the avoidance of discord Paul lays down the principle: "Let every person do his duty in the station of life into which God has called him. No person is to vaunt himself above others or find fault with the efforts of others while lauding his own. Let everybody serve in love.” (Martin Luther)
For the glory of God our Savior, for the furtherance of the gospel, and for the sake of our brethren, let us endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace by our conduct toward one another (Eph. 4:2-3). Let us ever take care that we do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by treating the objects of God’s love with contempt (Eph. 4:30 – 5:1-2). May God give us grace to love and serve one another, taking no offense at anything done to us by others. If another person will not walk in peace, but insists upon stirring up strife and division in the family of God, for the sake of Christ and his kingdom and the gospel of his grace, we must simply avoid them (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15).
Read Paul’s words of wise instruction one more time and ask God the Holy Spirit who inspired them to graciously apply them to your heart, for Christ’s sake. — “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.”