All We Need Is Love


This chapter is an exposition of the freedom of the Christian. He is free from the Law’s demand from perfect righteousness and from its curse. He is free to express the Law’s call for love in the power of the Spirit.


I. The Particular Liberty with which We are Free.

A. Christ set us free from the immutable legal demands of the Law so that we will not be bound either by its curse or by its requirement of unalloyed perfection in obedience. For freedom from this damning lordship of the Law Christ has set us free by his own perfect work. Paul admonishes them, therefore, to stand firm in the gospel that he has taught them and not allow other teachers to reimpose the Law on them.

B. The particular issue of circumcision implied the entire legal code. Circumcision was the first and most identifiable aspect of the ceremonial requirements of the Law. It has been fulfilled through the work of Christ as applied by the Holy Spirit. Thus:

  1. To submit to a ritual the meaning of which has been consummated in the finished redemption Is to prefer the shadow to the substance and Christ will be of no benefit. To receive circumcision would be to reject Christ as Redeemer. One would, as it were, substitute a picture of Christ for Christ himself.
  2. To receive circumcision would be to embrace the ceremonial law as necessary for salvation. If the ceremonial law is necessary for salvation, then how much more would fulfillment of the moral law be necessary. So, if one consents to circumcision, he, in effect, puts himself back under the demands of the moral law which involves a curse (3:10).
  3. One may find righteousness in the Law by his own perfect fulfillment of it, or he may find it in Christ by his perfect fulfillment of it. To receive one’s own fulfillment of any aspect of the Law as necessary for salvation severs one from Christ and substitutes our obedience for the obedience of Christ. In this way one would be severed from Christ and dependent on works not on grace. But “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified;” (Galatians 2:16) rather, “BY grace are ye saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).

C. (Verse 5) – The hope that salvation gives is not in our own righteousness, but the righteousness received by faith. The ways God gives salvation is absolutely contrary to the message preached by the Judaizers.

  1. First, we know that we have been brought into the awareness of sin and salvation by the work of the Spirit. The Spirit takes the gospel, opens our hearts to see the glory of Christ and his righteousness and works faith in us.
  2. The “hope of righteousness” means the confidence that we have in being with Christ forever comes from trusting in the perfection of his righteousness. We may stand in the presence of God in the enjoyment of his happiness and beauty only in the clothing of perfect righteousness; and this is granted to us by faith; and faith is the result of the special operations of the Spirit of God.
  3. In Christ, the distinction between Jew and Gentile established by circumcision has been abolished. The only difference that it ever made was to maintain the identity of a covenant people who had been chosen as the nation through whom the Messiah would come. The Messiah was always promised as one through whom the nations would be blessed. This Paul makes the radical statement, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything.”
  4. The full intent of the Law, therefore, is established in “faith working through love.”
  • Faith as a Christian grace uniquely unites the sinner to Christ in his full saving work. The entire mental and spiritual apparatus of faith perfectly coincides with the provision of Jesus Christ for forgiveness and righteousness.
  • But even behind faith is the Spirit-born reality of love. Those truths to which faith consents could not be embraced unless love had been laid as a foundation in the soul. The Ten Commandments are all about loving God and loving man. We will not repent of sin if we do not affirm the true loveliness of God’s law, both in its presentation of the duty to worship, honor, and serve God and its requirement that we place the same value on the well-being and happiness of our neighbor as we place on ours. We will not place faith in Christ if we do not give heartfelt consent to the lovely way in which he alone has met all the righteous, holy, and beautiful precepts of the Law.
  • So love does not save for our love is as yet imperfect and does not constitute righteousness, but it does give the disposition to approve all that the Law requires and leads us to embrace Christ as the only one in whom God can justly receive us into eternal life. Thus, no merely external conformity to ceremonial law can do us any good at all, but only “faith working through love.”


II. The Damning Consequences of following the wrong person and adopting the wrong persuasion. In verse one Paul used the image of “standing firm;” here he changes the picture and speaks of their “running well.”

A. In the midst of their running well, someone has hindered them from obeying the truth. Paul refers to this person under several disturbing ideas. Paul uses a term to which he will return later. This person has “cut you off” from the truth.

  1. This is a person who has given them a system that is in opposition to the truth. Not only has he proposed an alternative way of being rightly related to God but has sought to convince them that Paul’s message has no exclusive claim to be true.
  2. The message is one of pure fleshly power, not of the work of the Spirit. The Spirit’s work is to draw the sinner to Christ; this person has contradicted the Spirit’s work by making them focus on their conformity to ceremonial law.
  3. This person is disturbing the Christians of Galatia, bringing about confusion, seeking to move them to another view. In so doing he will bring judgment on himself. These truths are matters of eternal life and eternal death. As in the first chapter Paul issued “anathema” on those who preached a gospel other than the one he preached, so here he points to this person as coming to a time when he will bear his judgment. The judgment could be church discipline, but Paul seems to point to the final judgment in which he will be condemned as an unjustified person and his punishment will be exacerbated by his having led astray others.

B. Ideas matter. Paul refers to this alternative message in the light of the message that he preached.

  1. He called his message “the truth.” The person disturbing them sought to forestall their believing the truth.
  2. He calls the false message a “persuasion.” He had mounted an argument to drive them from one position on salvation to another.
  3. If he has succeeded to any degree, then all is lost, for “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” In the matter of justification, the admission of even the slightest aspect of human conformity to the Law alters the entire doctrine and drives Christ away. There is no halfway compromise between Paul’s message of justification by faith and this attempt at performance religion.
  4. Paul expressed confidence that they would recognize the fallacy of this alternative religion, would adopt “no other view,” no other manner of thinking.

C. They made a false claim about Paul and he issues another malediction toward the false teacher.

  1. The false teachers claimed that even Paul returned to circumcision (Acts 16:3) when he had Timothy circumcised. For Paul this was not connected to his message of the gospel at all, but was purely a pragmatic action so that Timothy could go with Paul into Jewish synagogues in order to witness the nature of gospel dialogue in a hostile environment.
  2. “If I still preach circumcision:”
  • He had done this before during the days when he persecuted, but now he himself is being persecuted, and that by the circumcision party. If he preached circumcision, then they would not persecute him.
  • The offense of the cross would be gone and the Jews would no longer oppose him (cf 1 Corinthians 1:23).
  • Since these false teacher tried to “cut off” the Galatians from the truth, why don’t they just cut themselves off. He could be referring to the image of circumcision and mean that they should simply emasculate themselves. He could mean that, instead of cutting off others from the truth, they should cut themselves off from any connection with the “Jesus-is-Messiah” movement. They do not advance the cause of Christ or increase reverence for him but only make his work unnecessary. Jesus is Messiah only if the cross is effectual.


III. Paul now draws attention to another look at freedom. Here he is expanding on the idea that faith works through love(verse 6).

A. Freedom from the Law’s condemnation and freedom from the necessity of achieving the merit of eternal life through our own obedience (impossible), does not mean that the moral profile of the Law is rendered irrelevant. When Paul asked in Romans 3:31, “Do we nullify the Law through faith?” he answered, “May it never be! On the contrary we establish the Law.”

B. Here he seems to use the word “flesh” in a different way.

  1. In the first instance, he used the term to indicate human works in an attempt to achieve righteousness by personal endeavor (3:3; 4:23).
  2. Here he is speaking of the flesh as a principle of opposition to godliness and given over to the pursuit of pleasure and preeminence arising from the idolatry of self.
  • This is seen in the positive admonition Paul gives, “Through love serve one another.”
  • Since faith arises from love, we see that true faith will seek ways to show its exalted view of the Law: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • On the other hand, unmortified selfishness will destroy the entire fellowship: “If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” By love we are to serve one another, not destroy one another through selfishness. “The son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

C. Even as the Spirit is set in opposition to the flesh in the matter of justification by faith, so the Spirit is set in opposition to the flesh in the matter of sanctification, or growing in Christlikeness.

  1. Walk in the Spirit in order not to carry out the desires of the flesh. One may trace out Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit up to this point (3:2, 3, 5, 14; 4:6, 29; 5:5). Your life now, Paul implies, is a manifestation of the presence of the Spirit.
  • He has inspired the word of truth by which we learn the gospel (1 Peter 1:11, 12; 2 Peter 1:20, 21).
  • He has sovereignly granted the new birth (John 3:1-8)
  • He has indwelt us as the Spirit of sonship (4:6).
  • He resides in us as a sanctifying power (Romans 8:14).
  • He grants gifts so that the whole body grows in grace and knowledge (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:1-13; 1 Peter 4:8-11).
  1. Walking in the Spirit will produce an unending conflict with the flesh until we are freed from its presence in heaven. In this conflict we should know how to evaluate the variety of affections and desires that arise. If we have a firm grasp on the nature of the flesh we can recognize those works as they operate seeking to destroy us.
  • Paul first mentions three perversions of sexuality. These kinds of sins are the most wide-spread and indicate the immediate impulse of the flesh to seek personal sensual pleasure without regard to the will of the Creator. They include fornication, homosexuality, orgiastic living, and the sexualizing of society through pornography, provocative advertisement, entertainment, and formal arguments for celebration of alternative sexualities.
  • Second Paul uses two words for false religion. One, idolatry, is the blatant substitution of deities of human imagination for the one true God. The other, pharmakeia, points to the efforts to engender religious experience through magical potions and incantations. In these instances, religion does not involve worship of the one true God but an effort to seek alternate ways of quieting a disturbed soul.
  • Interpersonal relationships are corrupted. Paul uses eight words that focus on the internal attitudes and aggressions that tend toward division, conflict, prejudice, anger, revenge, grudges, and acquisitiveness.
  • Social order is corrupted. Drunkenness and carousing create instability and danger in social settings and indulge an attempt to gain personal pleasure and the power of intimidation at the expense of the common good. There is no such thing as a funny drunk, only a pitiful, sad, perversion of human dignity and an attack on the order symmetry, beauty, rationality of the image of God in humanity.
  1. If we know the fruit of the Spirit we can trust that He will supply the energy and power for that. These are the “normal outcropping of the Holy Spirit in us” [A. T. Robertson]. Knowing this, we also can seek to inculcate those holy actions and attitudes that are distinctly expressive of the divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1:4-10 where Peter admonishes his readers to “apply all diligence.”).
  • Since “fruit” is singular and the list begins with “love,” Paul probably is using that word as inclusive of all the qualities that follow. Earlier he wrote that faith works through love. Here he wrote that love is the fulfillment of the Law (14), and Paul concludes the list by affirming “Against such things there is no law.” In his first letter to Timothy, Paul wrote that the goal of his instruction was “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1:5).
  • Paul’s discussion of love in 1 Corinthians 13 includes in a variety of ways the same ideas expressed here. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul contrasts love with works of the flesh to which one may find parallels in the list in Galatians 5. “Love is not jealous,. . . does not brag, is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly, does not seek its own, is not provoked (vs. strife, pro self-control), does not take into account a wrong suffered (vs. disputes), does not rejoice in unrighteousness (vs. immorality etc).”
  • Positive parallels also exist such as “love is patient (patience), kind (kindness), rejoices in the truth (joy), bears all things (patience), believes all things (faith as the fruit of love), endures all things ( patience and self-control).
  • Since the law seeks to promote every spiritual fruit listed here, obviously, unlike the works of the flesh, there is no law against them. Freedom from the curse of the Law through the work of Christ embraced through the power of the Spirit does not establish a path to lawlessness but promotes the true godliness intended by the Law.
  1. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
  • The same regenerative work of the Spirit that produced repentance from sin and faith in Christ did so by contradicting the demands of the corrupt heart and establishing a love of righteousness. If this work of the Spirit had not occurred first, none would repent and believe.
  • Since the life of the soul and the promise of eternal life have come through the Spirit’s effectual work of uniting us to Christ by faith, we should continue to walk in the same spiritual impulse that led us to Christ.
  • Paul gives a summarized warning about the subtleties of the flesh in warning against boasting (vainglory, an empty attempt to point to personal importance). This is an attitude that increases provocation to jealousy and envy.
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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