A Positive Argument from Galatians 6
In part 1, I outlined a few of the logical ‘difficulties’ I have with some of the common views of ‘the Law of Christ’. Now, let us turn to the passage where the actual phrase ‘the Law of the Christ’ (lit) is used – Galatians 6
“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.” (Galatians 6 vs 1-6)
Caring about my brother’s sin problem
This passage expounds what Jesus taught concerning fellow-believers who have fallen into sin. Jesus said, firstly, that when we spot sin in another Christian’s life, we should be concerned and we should want to do something about it. Remember the Lord’s illustration of someone with a plank in his eye attempting to help someone else by removing a speck from theirs?
This is Luke’s account:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
(Luke 7 vs 41, 42)
Although the oft-interpreted moral of that is ‘don’t judge’, and this is understood as ‘don’t have an opinion concerning someone else’s sin’, this is very bad exegesis and not what Jesus is saying at all. He IS saying ‘don’t be judgmental’ – but that is different. This passage explains that further. It cannot be true that if we are to take sin seriously, when we see trouble in a brother or sister’s living for Christ, we just close our eyes and ignore it. Jesus’ parable intends to show how we are to go about taking action, not that we should take no action at all. Imagine a little one coming to you in tears and crying, ‘there’s something in my eye’, only to meet the response, ‘I mustn’t judge’. What hard-hearted, callous indifference could do that? And there is no doubt – and we must ‘feel’ this – that sin hurts the sinner. So are we to turn a plank-filled blind eye? Ridiculous – not what the Lord is teaching at all. The outcome of that would be impaired sight for both the ‘helper’ and the ‘helpee’ allowed to continue. Rather, it is important that we help one another with our blind spots! The outcome is far more beneficial – improved vision for both! And the path to that end is to sort our own ability to see first, so that – what? So that we can help the struggling brother with his sin.
In this Galatians verse, there is a process which we need to understand. The outcome is supreme. Paul says, and the Holy Spirit says through him, that if we get this right, we will ‘fulfill the law of Christ’. And this is the same word that is used of Jesus Himself – ‘fulfilling’ the Law of Moses. Paul speaks about ‘fulfilling a law’. There is no doubt that Paul makes that connection; it is probably the precise reason he uses the phrase. Jesus says He came not to destroy the Law of Moses but to fulfill it. To live out everything it could possibly demand. To satisfy its requirements in total. It was the ‘sign-off’ written across paid invoices – “paid in full”. Nothing owing. No more due. Done. Completed. Finished. And what Jesus did for that old covenant law, He now says believers do for this ‘law of Christ’. The New Testament never – never – says we are ‘under’ a ‘new law’, or that we are to ‘keep’ a new law. But it does say this in multiple places. We can live so that we ‘fulfill’ this law.
We have to bear in mind here that Paul has just spent four chapters explaining why converted Jews – or anyone – must not live under the Mosaic Law. He concludes that extended argument with this impassioned plea at the beginning of chapter 5:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
He goes on to squash the fear that if they are not under a law at all, they will be running all over the place, doing whatever sinful acts they want or desire, indifferent to holiness and righteousness. Paul says that isn’t a legitimate fear:-
“So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
The answer to ‘how do I deal with my (fallen) flesh if I don’t have ‘Law’ to beat it into submission’ is not ‘use a different kind of law’. That would completely baffle Paul’s readers. He would be going back on what he has already vigorously asserted. It would be the undoing of his argument. He just does NOT say ‘don’t obey THAT law, obey THIS law’. Paul’s answer is ‘don’t live by law at all – any law. Walk by the Spirit!’ Well, that might seem a bit ‘loose’ to some. We tend to want tight, well defined rules and regulations to control us. We want to be able to see what is demanded of us. It’s a kind of self-control thing. If we have a ‘list’, it is a list in our hand. We read it. We do it. And then we can ‘tick the boxes’ But that, according to Paul, is not the Christian life at all. He says ‘walk by the Spirit’. And more, he says that this is a question of ‘desires’. A battle of desires. There are the ‘desires of the flesh’, and there are the ‘desires of the Spirit’. Note that they are both ‘our’ desires. They take place inside the believer. But they are ‘contrary’ to each other. If you satisfy the one, you will not satisfy the other. So if we believers walk by the Spirit, who (as Paul has said earlier) we ‘received’ from God when we put our faith in Christ, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. “Will not”. According to God’s word, it is impossible to do both – they are mutually exclusive. This, then, is to be the means whereby we do not sin.
Seeing the Problem
At this point, we have to ask the questions
- ‘how do I recognise the desires of the flesh’ and
- ‘how do I recognise the desires of the Spirit’.
Is this just going to be according to some kind of inner compass which, in the new creature in Christ, will automatically point the right way? Some, when they hear this kind of exhortation, fear that what is being advocated is a kind of complete inner subjectivism. That it will be left to each individual believer to ‘decide’ themselves what ‘God is saying to them’ by His Spirit. Now, that is a groundless fear. God’s word never says such things. How are we to learn what to ‘put off’ (the old nature) and what we are to ‘put on’ (the new nature? We will be instructed by God’s infallible word, the Spirit’s own sword. Here, Paul anticipates the question. He says:
“ The acts of the flesh are obvious”
… and then proceeds to give us a list. A list of inner and outward sins – sins of the heart as well as sins of the body. We will not examine them here. But notice that the list concludes with the words “and the like.” The list is not intended to be exhaustive, neither is it exclusive. And Paul’s use of the word ‘obvious’ means ‘plain to see’. In other words, the items in the list are pointers – ‘flavours’ of the kinds of things we should shun. Our new thinking with our Spirit-transformed minds should be able to sort out for us the specifics. This is not to be a set of tick-boxes, it is the indication of a mindset.
Seeing the Provider
Similarly, he outlines for us the desires of the Spirit –
“But the fruit of the Spirit is …”
Another list ensues. And Paul adds:
“Against such things there is no law.”
Mark this. It indicates the new creature in Christ, who has the ‘seed’ of the very presence of the Spirit of God in his heart. This indwelling, holy inhabitor will grow His fruit, the organic outcome of His being. Again, we are giving an idea of what may be expected as outcome in the Christian’s character. This is none other than Christ-likeness. Here is what it means to ‘abide in the true vine’ – believers are the branches, and here is the fruit such a union produces. And once more, Paul sounds out the clear declaration that if we live like this, we do not need ‘law’ at all. Law is required for constraint and correction of the kind of behaviour indicated in the first list – law is for those who are ‘law-breakers’ in their lifestyle. Law is for those whose nature is unruly, and who, without it, will fly to excesses and deteriorate into behaviour which displays all the corruption and wickedness man is capable of, to greater or lesser extent. Law curbs and limits. It provides externally imposed restraint for those who have neither intent nor incentive to hold back. Law threatens penalty if it is transgressed, and thus it works by fear. And Paul has been careful to note in what has gone before here – that the Law of Moses is to do with sin and death. But this new-nature produces a lifestyle far different. It exceeds and surpasses anything any list of laws could describe. It fulfills law and goes, magnificently, beyond and above it. And it works from the inside out, not from the outside in!
So the answer to those two questions –
- ‘how do I recognise the desires of the flesh’ and
- ‘how do I recognise the desires of the Spirit’.
is just this:
Believers learn and are informed on what the flesh desires and what the Spirit desires because the word of God, the holy Scriptures, the Spirit’s own sword enlightens our mind as we are led by Him. Indispensably, He uses our Bibles to teach and train, to rebuke and correct. We are to live by every word which proceeds from God’s mouth (Jesus says). We learn life from what God has caused to be inscripturated.
Cruciform (Cross-shaped) Love
Paul goes on:
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
And here we see the core of this separation from the world’s ways, the following of the flesh. It is cross-shaped living – what Blake White calls ‘cruciform love’. It is possible because of the cross of Christ. In His death, is our death to these worldly powers. On His cross, He has shattered the potent grip of our past life. All the things which once enslaved and controlled us are dead to us now, and we to them. If we belong to Jesus Christ, this distinctive ‘spiritual surgery’ has already occurred. We have died to the sin we once lived in. What we were dead to – righteousness – we have now been made alive to in Christ. Elsewhere, Paul states that we not only died, we were buried with Him in baptism, and we have risen with Him to a joyous newness of life (Romans 6). It is left to us to live it out. And to do so, we have our very own internal trainer – the Holy Spirit. He sets the pace as He walks us through our lives. We live ‘by’ Him. We must ‘keep up’ – keep in step with Him, footfall by footfall. Living in this way simply cannot indulge fleshly desires. It is transformed. It cannot bear and carry the former nature it is now dead to. And we need to learn how we trust it – trust Him.
But back up a couple of verses to 13 and 14:
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
You see that the fears of those who say that emphasis on the freedom we have in Christ, in the Spirit, will lead to licentiousness and promiscuous living just don’t pan out. Paul has no such fears. Oh yes, it could go that way – at least, theoretically. But we have already seen that Christians who indulge in constant sinning will be living lives contrary to the Spirit of God who is housed in their very hearts, as God’s temple. He (the Spirit) will be ‘pulling one way, and their sinful natures the other. That’s an immense inner tug-of-war. And although some – more than a few – will find themselves going through that war, if they are truly the Lord’s, the Spirit is ultimately going to win.
But here Paul says something else quite amazing – and it is this that he picks up again in the next chapter. How is this ‘freedom’ in Christ to be employed? In indulging the self? No, that is precisely what Paul says is not to happen. How, then? Well, Paul tells us. Our freedom from law, from sinning, is to be invested in serving one another humbly in love. We are to live for others. We are to invest ourselves – our freedom – in promoting their good and building them up and this is to flow from hearts filled with love for them – the motive, and it is to be conducted in self-abandoning humility – the method. And here is the incredible summary statement:
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.””
Now, that should not surprise us. Jesus Himself said more than once that the two greatest commandments were:
1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and
2. Love your neighbour as yourself
And He added that ‘on these hang all of the Law and the prophets’. In other words, that everything else that is said in your Old Testament is but an exposition of these two fundamental commandments. All of it. If they had understood what this single law meant, they could have dispensed with all of the rest! But, of course, they did not and they could not. And even less so – they could not live up to it.
An Old Commandment made new
When we come to the new covenant, where we are told that God’s law is ‘written on the hearts’ of those who believe (Jeremiah 31), the first of these two is something that becomes central to faith. That in this covenant, which we now know is the covenant in the very blood of Christ, the Son, it is not necessary for any one believer to say to another ‘know the Lord’. God promises, when He foretells of this great new time, “they will all know me, from the least to the greatest”. If we love the Son, we will love the Father. Nobody is in the covenant at all unless that is true of them. It is the heart, the source of our life in Christ. It is the definition of what it means to be a Christian – that you and I have come to love God above all else, and to submit unconditionally to the Lordship of Christ. We now know Him as Father. We must cherish, nurture and remain faithful to that. But so central is it that – astoundingly – the New Testament does not constantly re-iterate it as a primary command. It is assumed. It has to be true before anything else can be. What is left, then, and this is repeated consistently throughout the New Testament, is the command to love one another.
Look at that verse again – Galatians 5 vs 14.
“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.””
In the middle of it, shining its bright light, is, once again, that word ‘fulfilled’. The entire (old covenant) law is FULFILLED in the keeping of that one (old covenant) commandment. Even though it was never placed on the tablets of stone! It is the prince of commandments, the royal command. It is the peg upon which, along with its ‘fellow’, which it is ‘like’, the whole Law of Moses hangs. All that was given to Israel about how they were to live in the land of promise, which God gave them – all of it which prefigured and prophesied what Christ would do in perfection; everything which was a ‘shadow’ of which He, gloriously, was the ‘substance’, all of these other things were to do with how they should treat each other and how they should view themselves. Very explicitly, within their God-proscribed community, God laid out those things, in painstaking detail. “When this happens, do that”. “In this situation, do this.” Hundreds of commands to be remembered and obeyed. But all summed up in this one great commandment –
‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
It seems to me that what Paul is stating here – and it must be remembered that Galatians is about contrasting real, vital, Spirit-sparking living in Christ with the old and now obsolete, death-dealing Law of Moses – is that the ultimate way in which we love one another as He has loved us is to do,, in our small measure, what he did. And that is to be each other’s sin-bearers. Of course, the Lord Himself has done upon the cross what no other person could ever do. But when we seek to help another with his sins, how much more Christ-like could we be? Again, read the words with me:
“… if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.”
And don’t we really need to unpack that! In some Christian circles, what you do with Christian sin is to point the finger and condemn; to denounce and expose; to declare disgust. In others, completely the opposite –love, they think, turns a blind eye (after all, who are we, who are also sinners’ to judge?); we pray for those who fall and fail and hope they will improve. Paul’s answer is radical. It effectively makes us into ‘little Christs’ – what an astounding thing to say! And it is this power-plan, driven by the Spirit life of loving brothers and sisters, which will fulfill in total this ‘law of Christ’.
Thus we see quite clearly that this law is something which this action completes and satisfies in full.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.”
And this is precisely what this verse is looking for. Something that can be considered to be ‘the law of the Christ’ which can be utterly satisfied – fulfilled -by our action of ‘carrying each other’s burdens’. What burdens? Sin burdens – as Paul has stated in the preceding verse. And if we will live in this way, as inspired by the Spirit within, and driven by love alone, we satisfy to full measure what this ‘law’ requires of us, so that no more need be added to it. This ‘cruciformed heart’, in this respect, ongoing though the requirement may be, can cry with a loud voice just as the Saviour did, when it has accomplished its goal, “IT IS ACCOMPLISHED”. Until the next time. The next brother. The next sin-load which requires us sharing on our shoulder.
In Part 3, I want to take a close look at the foundation for this astounding promise and proclamation – that if we love one another as Christ has loved us, we fulfill the law of Christ. I want to pay another visit to that Upper Room on that last, critically important night before the cross.
Preacher & Teacher
Studied Theology at London Bible College
Lives in Northampton, Northamptonshire UK
Serves a moderator for the New Covenant Grace Facebook group.