Personal Service

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about using the freedom found in Christ to serve others.

The Heart of Service:  Galatians 5:13-15.

[13]  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. [14]  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." [15]  But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.  [ESV]

Christian Freedom is not Freedom to Indulge the Flesh. What sort of freedom is Christian freedom? Primarily it is a freedom of conscience. According to the Christian gospel no man is truly free until Jesus Christ has rid him of the burden of his guilt. Paul tells the Galatians that they had been called to this freedom. It is equally true of us. Our Christian life began not with our decision to follow Christ but with God’s call to us to do so. He took the initiative in His grace while we were still in rebellion and sin. In that state we neither wanted to turn from sin to Christ, nor were we able to. But He came to us and called us to freedom. What are the implications of Christian freedom? In brief, it is freedom from the awful bondage of having to merit the favor of God; it is not freedom from all controls. Flesh in the language of the apostle Paul is not what clothes our bony skeleton, but our fallen human nature, which we inherited from our parents and they inherited from theirs, and which is twisted with self-centeredness and therefore prone to sin. We are not to use our Christian freedom to indulge this flesh, as an opportunity for the flesh. The Greek word here translated opportunity is used in military contexts for a place from which an offensive is launched, a base of operations. Thus our freedom in Christ is not to be used as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Christian freedom is freedom from sin, not freedom to sin. It is an unrestricted liberty of approach to God as His children, not an unrestricted liberty to wallow in our own selfishness. There are many such slaves in our society today. They proclaim their freedom with a loud voice. They speak of free love and a free life; but in reality they are slaves to their own appetites to which they give free rein, simply because they cannot control them. Christian freedom is very different. Far from having liberty to indulge the flesh, Christians are said to have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires [24]. That is to say, we have totally repudiated the claim of our lower nature to rule over us. Now we seek to walk in the Spirit and are promised, if we do, that we shall not gratify the desires of the flesh [16]. Instead the Holy Spirit will cause His fruit to ripen in our lives, culminating in self-control.

Christian Freedom is not Freedom to Exploit my Neighbor. Christian freedom is no more freedom to do as I please irrespective of the good of my neighbor than it is freedom to do as I please in the indulgence of my flesh. It is freedom to approach God without fear, not freedom to exploit my neighbor without love. Indeed, so far from having liberty to ignore, neglect or abuse our fellow men, we are commanded to love them, and through love to serve them. Christian liberty is service not selfishness. It is a remarkable paradox. For from one point of view Christian freedom is a form of slavery, not slavery to our flesh, but to our neighbor. We are free in relation to God, but slaves in relation to each other. This is the meaning of love. If we love one another we shall serve one another, and if we serve one another we shall not bite and devour one another in malicious talk or action but rather serve one another. Love is never greedy, never grasping, it is always expansive, never possessive. Truly to love somebody is not to possess him for myself but to serve him for himself.

Christian Freedom is not Freedom to Disregard the Law.  What is the Christian’s relation to the law? Paul says if we are Christians that we have been set free from the law, that we are no longer under the law and that we must not submit again to the yoke of slavery which is the law. But we must take pains to grasp what he means by these expressions. Our Christian freedom from the law which he emphasizes concerns our relationship to God. It means that our acceptance depends not on our obedience to the law’s demands, but on faith in Jesus Christ who bore the curse of the law when He died. It certainly does not mean that we are free to disregard or disobey the law. On the contrary, although we cannot gain acceptance by keeping the law, yet once we have been accepted we shall keep the law out of love for Him who has accepted us and has given us His Spirit to enable us to keep it. In New Testament terminology, although our justification depends not on the law but on Christ crucified, yet our sanctification consists in the fulfillment of the law.

The Power of Service:  Galatians 5:16,22-26.

[16]  But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. [22]  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, [23]  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [24]  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. [25]  If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. [26]  Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.  [ESV]

[16]  Each time Paul writes of Christian freedom he adds a warning that it can very easily be lost. Some relapse from freedom into bondage [5:1]; others turn their freedom into license [5:13]. In verses 13-15, Paul emphasized that true Christian freedom expresses itself in self-control, loving service of our neighbor and obedience to the law of God. The question now is, how are these things possible? And the answer is, by the Holy Spirit. He alone can keep us truly free. This section in which Paul elaborates this theme is simply full of the Holy Spirit. He is mentioned seven times by name. He is presented as our Sanctifier who alone can oppose and subdue our flesh [16-17], enable us to fulfill the law so that we are delivered from its harsh dominion [18] and cause the fruit of righteousness to grow in our lives [22-23]. So the enjoyment of Christian freedom depends on the Holy Spirit. True, it is Christ who sets us free. But without the continuing, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit our freedom is bound to degenerate into license. By flesh Paul means what we are by nature and inheritance, our fallen condition. By the Spirit he means the Holy Spirit who renews and regenerates us, first giving us a new nature and then remaining to dwell in us. More simply, we may say that the flesh stands for what we are by natural birth, the Spirit for what we become by new birth, the birth of the Spirit. And these two, the flesh and the Spirit, are in sharp opposition to each other. Certainly, as we learn to walk in the Spirit, the flesh becomes increasingly subdued. But the flesh and the Spirit remain, and the conflict between them is fierce and unremitting.

[22-23]  In verse 22-23 we have a cluster of nine Christian graces which seem to portray a Christian’s attitude to God, to other people and to himself. Love, joy, peace. This is a triad of general Christian virtues. Yet they seem primarily to concern our attitude towards God, for a Christian’s first love is his love for God, his chief joy is his joy in God and his deepest peace is his peace with God. Next, patience, kindness, goodness. These are social virtues, manward rather than Godward in their direction. Patience is longsuffering towards those who aggravate or persecute. Kindness is a question of disposition, and goodness of words and deeds. The third triad is faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Faithfulness appears to describe the reliability of a Christian person. Gentleness is that humble meekness which Christ exhibited. And both are aspects of the self-control which concludes the list. So we may say that the primary direction of love, joy, peace is Godward, of patience, kindness, goodness manward, and faithfulness, gentleness, self-control selfward. And all these are the fruit of the Spirit, the natural produce that appears in the lives of Spirit-led Christians. No wonder Paul adds again: against such things there is no law. For the function of law is to curb, to restrain, to deter, and no deterrent is needed here.

[24-25]  What must we do in order to control the lusts of the flesh and to bear the fruit of the Spirit? The brief answer is this: We must maintain towards each the proper Christian attitude by crucifying the flesh and walking by the Spirit. Paul writes that everyone who belongs to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh. This is not something that is done to us but rather something that is done by us. Thus verse 24 does not teach the same truth as Galatians 2:20 or Romans 6:6. In those verses we are told that by faith-union with Christ we have been crucified with Him. But here it is we who have taken action. We have crucified our old nature. It is not now a dying which we have experienced through union with Christ; it is rather a deliberate putting to death. What does it mean? Paul borrows the image of crucifixion from Christ Himself who said: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me [Mark 8:34]. To take up the cross was our Lord’s vivid figure of speech for self-denial. Every follower of Christ is to behave like a condemned criminal and carry his cross to the place of execution. Now Paul takes the metaphor to its logical conclusion. We must not only take up our cross and walk with it, but actually see that the execution takes place. We are actually to take the flesh, our willful and wayward self, and (metaphorically speaking) nail it to the cross. This is Paul’s graphic description of repentance, of turning our back on the old life of selfishness and sin, repudiating it finally and utterly. The following points belong to the notion of crucifixion and cannot be separated from it. First, a Christian’s rejection of his old nature is to be pitiless. If we are to crucify our flesh, it is plain that the flesh is not something respectable to be treated with courtesy and deference, but something so evil that it deserves no better fate than to be crucified. Secondly, our rejection of the old nature will be painful. Crucifixion was a form of execution that afflicted great pain. Thirdly, the rejection of our old nature is to be decisive. Although death by crucifixion was a lingering death, it was a certain death. Criminals who were nailed to a cross did not survive. If we crucified the flesh, we must leave it there to die. We must renew every day this attitude towards sin of ruthless and uncompromising rejection. So widely is this biblical teaching neglected, that it needs to be further enforced. The first great secret of holiness lies in the degree and the decisiveness of our repentance. If besetting sins persistently plague us, it is either because we have never truly repented, or because, having repented, we have not maintained our repentance. It is as if, having nailed our old nature to the cross, we keep wistfully returning to the scene of its execution. We begin to fondle it, to caress it, to long for its release, even to try to take it down again from the cross. We need to learn to leave it there. When some jealous, or proud, or malicious, or impure thought invades our mind we must kick it out at once. It is fatal to begin to examine it and consider whether we are going to give in to it or not. We turn now to the attitude which we are to adopt towards the Holy Spirit. This is described in two ways, first, it is to be led by the Spirit [18]. Secondly, it is to walk by the Spirit [16,25]. There is clearly a distinction between being led and walking, for the former expression is passive and the latter active. It is the Spirit who does the leading, but we who do the walking. First, then, Christians are portrayed as being led by the Spirit. As our leader the Holy Spirit takes the initiative. He asserts His desires against those of the flesh and forms within us holy and heavenly desires. He puts this gentle pressure upon us, and we must yield to His direction and control. But it is a great mistake to suppose that our whole duty lies in passive submission to the spirit’s control. As if all we had to do was to surrender to His leading. On the contrary, we are ourselves to walk, actively and purposefully, in the right way. And the Holy Spirit is the path we walk in, as well as the guide who shows us the way. This becomes clear when a careful comparison is made between verses 16 and 25. The English of both verses contains the verb ‘to walk’, but the Greek words are different. The verb in verse 16 is the ordinary one for walking, but that in verse 25 refers literally to people being ‘drawn up in line’. Hence it means to ‘walk in line’ or ‘be in line with’. It is used of believers who by sharing Abraham’s faith are said to walk in the footsteps of the faith [Romans 4:12] or follow his example. So to walk by the Spirit is deliberately to walk along the path or according to the line which the Holy Spirit lays down. The Spirit leads us; but we are to walk by Him or according to His rule. As, therefore, we crucify the flesh, repudiating what we know to be wrong, so too we must walk by the Spirit, setting ourselves to follow what we know to be right. We reject one path to follow another. We turn from what is evil in order to occupy ourselves with what is good. And if it is vital to be ruthless in turning away from the things of the flesh, it is equally vital to be disciplined in turning towards the things of the Spirit. The Scripture says believers are to set their minds on the things of the Spirit [Rom. 8:5-6], and to seek the things that are above … set your minds on things that are above [Col. 3:1-2]. This will be seen in our whole way of life – in the leisure occupations we pursue, the books we read and the friendships we make. Above all in a disciplined practice of prayer and Scripture meditation, in fellowship with believers who provoke us to love and good works, and in attending public worship and the Lord’s Supper. In all these ways we occupy ourselves in spiritual things. It is not enough to yield passively to the Spirit’s control; we must also walk actively in the Spirit’s way. Only so will the fruit of the Spirit appear.


[26]  Verse 26 shows that our conduct to others is determined by our opinion of ourselves. It is when we have become conceited that we provoke and envy other people. The Greek word for conceited describes somebody who has an opinion of himself which is empty, vain or false. When we are conceited, our relationships with other people are bound to be poisoned. Indeed, whenever relationships with other people deteriorate, conceit is nearly always the basic cause. According to Paul, when we are conceited, we tend to do one of two things: we either provoke one another or envy one another. To provoke one another means to challenge them to a contest. It implies that we are so sure of our superiority that we want to demonstrate it. So we challenge people to dispute it in order to give ourselves a chance to prove it. Secondly, we envy one another, being jealous of one another’s gifts or attainments. Very different from these two things is that love which is the fruit of the Spirit, which Christians exhibit when they are walking by the Spirit. Such people have no self-conceit, or rather are continuously seeking by the Spirit to subdue it. They do not think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. The Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to see both their own sin and unworthiness and also the importance and value of other people in the sight of God.


The Reward of Service:  Galatians 6:7-10.

[7]  Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. [8]  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. [9]  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. [10]  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.  [ESV]

Paul moves from the particular to the general, from Christian ministers and their support to Christian people and their moral behavior. He reverts to the theme of the flesh and the Spirit which he has treated at some length in 5:16-25. There the Christian’s life is likened to a battleground, and the flesh and the Spirit are two combatants at war with each other upon it. But here in Galatians 6 the Christian’s life is likened to a country estate, and the flesh and the Spirit are two fields in which we may sow seed. Further, the harvest we reap depends on where and on what we sow. This is a vitally important and much neglected principle of holiness. We are not the helpless victims of our nature, temperament and environment. On the contrary, what we become depends largely on how we behave; our character is shaped by our conduct. According to Galatians 5 the Christian’s duty is to walk by the Spirit, according to Galatians 6 to sow to the Spirit. Thus the Holy Spirit is likened both to the path along which we walk and to the field in which we sow. How can we expect to reap the fruit of the Spirit if we do not sow in the field of the Spirit? To sow to the flesh is to pander to it, to stroke it, instead of crucifying it. The seeds we sow are largely thoughts and deeds. Every time we allow our mind to harbor a grudge, nurse a grievance, entertain an impure fantasy, or wallow in self-pity, we are sowing to the flesh. Holiness is a harvest; whether we reap it or not depends almost entirely on what and where we sow. Instead of sowing to the flesh, Paul instructs his readers to sow to the Spirit. By the books we read, the company we keep and the leisure occupations we pursue we can be sowing to the Spirit. Then we are to foster disciplined habits of devotion in private and in public, in daily prayer and Bible reading, and in worship with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day. Paul distinguishes between the two harvests as well as between the two sowings. The results are only logical. If we sow to the flesh, we shall from the flesh reap corruption. That is, a process of moral decay will set in. If, on the other hand, we sow to the Spirit, we shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. That is, a process of moral and spiritual growth will begin. Communion with God (which is eternal life) will develop now until in eternity it becomes perfect. Therefore, if we want to reap a harvest of holiness, our duty is twofold. First, we must avoid sowing to the flesh, and secondly we must keep sowing to the Spirit. We must ruthlessly eliminate the first and concentrate our time and energies on the second, it is another way of saying that we must crucify the flesh and walk by the Spirit. There is no other way of growing in holiness. The subject changes somewhat from personal holiness to doing good, helping others, engaging in philanthropic activity in the church or community. But Paul treats this too under the metaphor of sowing and reaping. Some incentive is certainly needed in Christian well-doing. Paul recognizes this, for he urges his readers not to grow weary. Active Christian service is tiring, exacting work. We are tempted to become discouraged, to slack off, even to give up. So the apostle gives us this incentive: he tells us that doing good is like sowing seed. If we persevere in sowing, then in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. If the farmer tires of sowing and leaves half his field unsown, he will reap only half a crop. It is the same with good deeds. If we want a harvest, then we must finish the sowing and be patient. The household of faith consists of our fellow believers. Thus a patient continuance in well-doing is a characteristic of the true Christian, a characteristic so indispensable that it will be taken as evidence of saving faith on the Judgment Day [Rom. 2:7].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is Christian freedom? How does it free us to serve one another in love?

2.         Describe the battle between the flesh and the Spirit. What does Paul say we are to do with our flesh? What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? Think about how you can put these things into practice in your daily Christian walk.

3.         What does Paul mean by sowing to the flesh; by sowing to the Spirit? What are we sowing? What are we seeking to harvest? Take an inventory of where your time and resources are being planted. What areas do not reflect the harvest you want?


Galatians, Timothy George, NAC, Broadman.

Galatians, Philip Graham Ryken, REC, P & R Publishing.

The Message of Galatians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts