To combat self-serving motives for using the freedom in Christ, all believers must serve others through love.
Galatians 5:7-18: You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (ESV)
Do you remember what you wanted to be at the age of five or six years old? I wanted to be a soldier. The idea of freedom and protecting freedom fascinated me even at that very young age.
As of last week, my son Arius, who is six now, wants to be a drone pilot. When he was born, one of Sarah’s sisters asked us what we wanted him to be when he grew up. Like a good South Asian dad, I said a doctor. Sarah’s sister did not like that I wanted to select a career path for him. In America, people have the freedom to choose whatever they want, she argued. Yes, of course, I said he would have the freedom to choose. He can choose to be any kind of doctor he wants! Only time will tell what the Lord has in store for him.
Freedom to choose is a blessing unlike any other, but no one has absolute freedom. We may think we all have the freedom to make our own choices, but in reality, we are free to choose only from what is chosen for us.
Let’s take the example of my favorite place, Costco. I may think I have the freedom to buy whatever I want, but I can buy only from what is in stock, which Costco decides. Besides, I can only buy what I can pay for. You see! Not only is our freedom limited, but we also must handle it responsibly because even the limited autonomy in choosing is not without consequences.
In our text today, Galatians 5:13-18, Paul told the Galatians to handle their freedom responsibly or else they would face the consequences. He claimed that their freedom is not for self-serving purposes but to serve others through love.
The spiritual freedom that all followers of Jesus enjoy the moment they are made right with God through the resurrecting power of the Gospel that brings spiritually dead people to life and connects the unworthy, ever-grateful sinners back to the Holy God is neither a license to live lawlessly to please one’s own desires nor approval to become a law to self for moral reformation. Both originate from selfish and self-serving motives.
Unless we responsibly handle our freedom in Christ, we will abuse that freedom in one way or another, which will have consequences. So, to combat self-serving motives for using the freedom in Christ, all believers must serve others through love.
In Christianity, it’s always about the intent and motive behind what we do and what we don’t do. So, let me ask you, do you serve? How often do you serve? Do you serve others in love or out of obligation? In other words, is your serving for you or for God? If you are not serving in any capacity at all or serving because that makes you feel good, you are not serving in love; and you are putting your freedom in danger.
This passage shows us several things that happen when we do not use our freedom to serve in love.
Opportunity for the Flesh
When we do not use our freedom to serve in love, we create an opportunity for the flesh. What does that mean? That means we are responsible for our actions, godly or otherwise. Our actions create opportunities for sin through flesh or the Spirit through obedience.
Verse 13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Freedom is the idea, which Paul wants to drill in the minds and hearts of the hearer, that they are declared righteous and justified before God completely without any human works and entirely by the complete work of Christ on the cross.
Now the problem is the devil is in the details. He always finds loopholes to push believers toward the extreme and tempts them to misuse God’s Word to accomplish his purposes. This happened in the Garden of Eden with Eve, and the first couple’s actions resulted in man’s fall. This was also happening to the churches in Galatia, as verse 15 indicates. Their actions were resulting in disunity in the church and members destroying each other. This is happening even now in our times, and even here, some of you are creating an opportunity through your actions for sin, the flesh, which is your sinful nature.
Paul’s teachings were used, on the one hand, to promote legalism, which dismissed the gospel of grace, and on the other hand, to introduce antinomianism, in which grace was used as the license to do whatever they wanted. This abuse and misuse of grace through legalism and antinomianism has not stopped.
Just as every generation is responsible for exercising and defending our country’s freedom from all foreign and domestic enemies, every believer in every generation is responsible for exercising and defending the freedom for which Christ has set us free.
How will we do that? In verse 13, Paul says by serving others in love; in verse 14, by loving and serving our neighbors; in verse 15, this will keep us united and safe from biting, devouring, and consuming each other. This is true for our nation, and this is true for the church.
So, the application is: use your freedom to create an opportunity for the Spirit to bring the transformation that you are supposed to experience as a believer by serving others in love.
Gratifying the Desires of the Flesh
When we do not use our freedom to serve in love, we gratify the desires of the flesh. “ But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Another way to put that would be: if the Galatians do not walk by the Spirit by serving others in love, then they will gratify the desire of their flesh, which is their sinful nature. So, it moves from creating an opportunity for the flesh in verses 13-15 to enjoying and craving its fruit in verse 16.
I enjoy and crave good Pakistani food, so even though I know I should not always eat that, I always find a way to justify it. Earlier last week, I decided to take a break from Pakistani food, and then on Thursday night, I was with Elder Andy at my favorite Pakistani restaurant. I thought to myself well, I will start next week. I have been saying that ever since I got here in Metuchen. Guess how I am starting my week? I will have Pakistani food with Wafiq and Vivian later today. My point is, when we enjoy sin and crave sinfulness, we find a way to justify it by misusing freedom and grace as a license to live lawlessly. The Galatians were doing that and were digging their own graves.
Therefore, in 5:1, Paul warned them against legalism by telling them, “do not submit again to the yoke of slavery,” which is the works of the law based on human merit. In 5:13, he warns them against antinomianism, the danger of misusing freedom as an “opportunity for the flesh.” Interestingly, in v.13, the Greek word for opportunity is aformay which can be translated as a starting point. Starting point for what? For self-indulgence.
In 5:16, the word for gratify in Greek, teleo, means to bring something to an end. So, if we use our freedom as a starting point as an opportunity for the flesh, which is our sinful nature, it will end in slavery to sin and death; if we use our freedom for the Spirit, it will end in the transformation that will be visible in our morals and ethics. Paul instructs the Galatians that they should use their freedom to “walk by the Spirit.”
So, what is the application? When we use our freedom in Christ as a starting point and an opportunity to love our neighbors and serve each other in love, we begin to experience moral and ethical modification as a result of gospel transformation. When we do not use our freedom to serve in love, we begin to sink into a web of justifications to hide our filth, but nothing is hidden from God. Paul says that only by living by the Spirit will we not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Opposing the Desires of the Spirit
Finally, when we do not use our freedom to serve in love, we oppose the desires of the Spirit. Verses 17-18 say, “ For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Notice how Paul wraps up this section by focusing on how to enjoy freedom in Christ and not submit to the yoke of slavery. His conclusion is that when we do not use our freedom to serve in love, we oppose the desires of the Spirit because that is what the Spirit wants. That is the solution to win the battle against the desires of the flesh.
I was listening to a Muslim Imam preaching, and he made a sarcastic comment that reflects the mind and heart of every person who does not know the gospel of grace. The Imam said, so, I can just go on doing things that I want to do as long as I believe Jesus is the son of God. What he did not understand, and unfortunately most Christians do not understand, is that believing is obeying everything that the Lord Jesus commanded in His Word and also that James 2:19 teaches, “Even the demons [that is the fallen angel] believe—and shudder!” and scripture teaches they are destined to eternal damnation.
I don’t blame the imam for thinking grace is a license to continue to live in sin. Most of the world thinks that, every religion thinks that, and unfortunately, millions of those who profess the name of Jesus think that too because to them, the gospel of grace dismisses any human effort because Christ and the cross do not make any sense to them.
Here the application is simple. Believing in Jesus as a savior and believing in Him as your Lord are two different things. If He is the Lord, then you will not serve the flesh; you will serve your Lord. When we serve others in love, we serve the Lord.
Paul in verse 14 said, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said the same in Luke 10:25-37, and he was confronted by one question: who is my neighbor? Israelites were accustomed to thinking only Israelites were their neighbor. Jesus made it clear through the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbors are anyone in our proximity with whom we can share the love of God.
When we love someone, our focus shifts from ourselves to others, we become selfless. It stops us from acting on things that can hurt our loved ones, which will bring moral and ethical modifications from the inside, out of freedom, not out of compulsion for fear of consequences. Freedom in Christ should not be taken as a license to live lawlessly to please our own desires, nor should it be taken as approval to become a law to self for moral reformation. Unless we responsibly handle our freedom in Christ, we will abuse that freedom in one way or another, which will have consequences.
For example, you are free to drive, and you are free to drink, but if you drink and drive, will you not face the consequences? You are free to pursue your dream, but to fulfill your dreams, if you rob a bank, will you not face the consequences?
Freedom is fragile; it must be protected, cared for, and handled responsibly, or else the abuse of freedom can result in losing it. The Bible is clear that when we do not use our freedom to serve in love, we create an opportunity for the flesh, we gratify the desires of the flesh, and we oppose the desires of the Spirit. All of this has consequences here in this world but also for eternity.
If you do not know where to begin, I want to help because, as a church, our mission is to make a difference by serving. My appeal to you is that if you are struggling to love others because you do not like them, or they do not like you, or you’ve got some other reason, and therefore you are not serving in love, let me remind you, you are trading freedom for whatever reason you’ve got. Is it worth it? Because loving God and loving people cannot be separated. Genuine love puts the interest of others first.
For the full sermon, click here