Lesson 9: Faith Active in Love: A Busy Highway (Galatians 5, 6)

It is important to keep reminding ourselves not to expect a systematic theology from Paul. He just does not offer that kind of consistency. Instead we find him applying his gospel rather flexibly to the situation of his churches.

In Galatians’ first four chapters Paul speaks of the Cross as an act of love by which God brings us into his family, adopting us as his children. Finding ourselves in this loving relationship, we desire to do our Father’s will. It is not a matter of obeying demanding laws so much as being inspired to live in the spirit of the family. There is a big difference between living under a king and with a parent. Yet because we live in the overlap of the old and new ages, we do not always do what we want to do. Guidance is helpful, even necessary. Besides that, to use our metaphor, we do not travel alone. It is a busy highway. We do not have the freedom to zig and zag, ignore stop signs, and accelerate as we please. We have to compensate for the others on the road. Indeed, we are continually yielding as we let others have their right of way.

Let’s examine how Paul presents this in Galatians 5 and 6. The first thing to acknowledge is Paul insists throughout Galatians that we either live his Gospel of faith or else deny Jesus his place in God’s history of salvation. In fact, he says if we deny that place we are stuck in the old Age of Sin, enslaved to the elemental spirits of the universe with no chance of enjoying the Father.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)

He can make almost the same statement again in Galatians 6: 16: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”  In the new creation faith is active in love. Faith frees us from the power of sin and death, so we can live in Christ. This is a living freedom that needs no law.  Paul is speaking of that which is beyond law, that which we can not legislate. It has to do with spirit or attitude. Listen to how he speaks of the works of law and the fruits of spirit.

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. The Fruit of the Spirit    By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5: 19-26)

Paul pictures law functioning in a negative manner. It commands us not to engage in the immoral practices of the evil age. On the other hand, love is positive. Christian faith is just naturally active in love. You do not command someone to love; you do not demand that they live in the Age of the Spirit. Still, because this new age is incomplete, we need guidance.

Paul, also, qualifies the freedom of the Spirit in a second way.  You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Galatians 5: 13, 14)

We Americans define freedom as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is qualified only by not letting your pursuit interfere with another’s. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution offer some principles that serve as norms for deciding when that occurs. In the end it amounts to a “No Harm” rule. Freedom is qualified by justice. Paul believes Christian freedom is more positive. It is qualified by love as expressed in the Cross, not justice. It amounts to a “Build Up Your Neighbor” rule.

Luther read this in his Freedom of the Christian as the paradoxical “A Christian is a free lord of all, subject to none; A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all”. Freed from the need to earn our way into the relationship between our Father and Jesus, we can now concentrate all our energies on ministering to the needs of our neighbors. And that can be regarded as a kind of sweet slavery.

Again we are not going to find consistency in Paul. At least, I cannot find it. In chapter 6 he counsels, “Bear one another’s burdens” and then repeats it, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But he then immediately goes on to insist, “For all must carry their own loads.   Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6: 2-10). The question has to be, “Okay, which is it- bear our own burdens or bear one another’s’ burdens?” And the answer, of course, is “Both”.

Some doubt that Paul really means to say we can live by love alone. They believe he throws out the Jewish ritual laws, those involving diet, cult, and calendar, but retains the moral ones. After all, he will use them time and again. Yet I find him using them much more freely and casually than a Pharisee would normally do. Some agree that he rejects specific laws, but retains general Hebrew principles that are implications of love. I find it hard to find any other absolute, consistent principle beyond love. Even though he insists it’s his radical Gospel or back to the Jewish law, he compensates in later letters. Even though he says no divorce, because marriage makes two one, he can discuss possible exceptions. Even though he says there are no unclean foods, he can counsel not embarrassing those who think there are. Sometimes, I think he is proclaiming a situational ethic that is based on love alone. At other times, I have no trouble listing some other principles.

In one sense, we have been asking this question the entire course. We all agree love is basic, but wonder if it implies other fundamental policies. Obviously, some contemporary Christians can list all sorts of rigid laws they believe are essential. Our group seems much more inclined to keep love open. We still can ask if there are other guidelines or principles that are essential for the Christian life.  What are the essential guide lines needed in this time when the Age of the Spirit is not yet complete? What are the principles needed when we live with other people? I’d appreciate hearing what you might list. If someone gets us started, others can add to the list. It’ll be helpful to have a twenty-first century list as perspective when Paul starts counseling the talented but troubled  Corinthian church in some very, very complicated and colorful problems.  Begin reading I Corinthians, at least chapters 1 and 2 before Friday.

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