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Galatians, the Law and the Works of the Flesh

A Video Supplement for
Come, Follow Me Lesson 38:
“Walk in the Spirit”




In the Book of Galatians, Paul argues passionately against those who are attempting to persuade the Galatian churches (those occupying a region probably including Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, that they should receive circumcision and follow the Law of Moses. This argument reaches its highest pitch in chapter 5, where Paul makes several very pointed comments. I will start with verses 1-4,

1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.

Some modern readers misunderstand this verse as meaning that if one has keeping the commandment as a priority, then one has fallen from grace, which is a severe misunderstanding. What Paul is instead arguing is that if Christians rely on observance of the Law of Moses with its sign of male circumcision for righteousness, then they will have missed the mark. Wayment’s renders the translation of Galatians 5:4 “You who would be made righteous by the Law are cut off from Christ; you have fallen from grace,” which brings out the continuation of the circumcision-thematic language in the passage by its use of “cut off.”

A little later in verse 12, Paul takes the argument just about as far as it can possibly go, when he says 12 “I would they were even cut off which trouble you.” This may seem like a nice tame suggestion that they be excommunicated, but as most modern translations make painfully clear, Paul is suggesting that the those advocating for circumcising Gentile Christians should take it a step farther and emasculate themselves in one of the most cringe-worthy moments in all of scripture. Fortunately, he pivots at about that point to something a bit more cheerful.

13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.
16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

So Paul has pivoted from talking about how Christians do not need to observe the requirements of the Law of Moses, to talking about how we should be led by the Spirit and avoiding the sinful tendencies of the flesh, which is also much of where the Law of Moses is trying to take them anyhow, so why not follow the Spirit, love one another and enjoy the blessings. He will go on to say that these works of the flesh are disqualifying

17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,
21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.

So Paul’s message here is that the Gentile Christians were not required to follow the Law of Moses. While they were not under that specific obligation, Paul’s message is not that what we do does not matter as some have suggested, but rather what we do matters deeply, that consequently we should take the Holy Spirit to be our guide, and that if we are led by that Spirit, we will do good and bring about good in the world.

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