A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 5:13 1). Christian freedom is not freedom to indulge the flesh.
*You were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh*. ‘The 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-centredness 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’ (*aphorme*) is used in military contexts for a place from which an offensive is launched, a base of operations. It therefore means a vantage-ground, and so an opportunity or pretext. Thus our freedom in Christ is not to be used as a pretext 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. The New English Bible puts it well: ‘You…were called to be free men; only do not turn your freedom into licence for your lower nature.’ Indeed, such ‘liberty’, an unbridled licence, is not true liberty at all; it is another and more dreadful form of bondage, a slavery to the desires of our fallen nature. So Jesus said to the Jews: ‘every one who commits sin is a slave of sin’ (Jn.8:34), and Paul described us in our pre-conversion state as ‘slaves to various passions and pleasures’ (Tit.3:3).
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’ (verse 24). That is to say, we have totally repudiated the claim of our lower nature to rule over us. In vivid imagery which Paul borrows from Jesus, he says that we have ‘crucified’ it, nailed it to the cross. Now we seek to walk in the Spirit and are promised, if we do, that we shall ‘not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (verse 16). Instead the Holy Spirit will cause His fruit to ripen in our lives, culminating in self-control (verse 23). We shall consider these verses in greater detail in the next chapter.
2). Christian freedom is not freedom to exploit my neighbour (verses 13b, 15).
Verse 13 ends: *but through love be servants of one another*. Christian freedom is no more freedom to do as I please irrespective of the good of my neighbour 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 neighbour 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. We are not to use them as though they were *things* to serve us; we are to respect them as *persons* and give ourselves to serve them. We are even through love to become each other’s ‘slaves’ (the Greek is *douleuete*), ‘not to be one master with a lot of slaves, but each to be one poor slave with a lot of masters’, sacrificing our good for theirs, not theirs for ours. 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 neighbour. 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’ (verse 15) in malicious talk or action. For biting and devouring are destructive, ‘conduct more fitting to wild animals than to brothers in Christ’, while love is constructive; it serves. And Paul goes on later (verse 22) to describe some of the marks of love, namely ‘patience’, ‘kindness’, ‘goodness’ and ‘faithfulness’. Love is patient towards those who aggravate and provoke us. Love thinks kind thoughts and performs good deeds. Love is faithful, dependable, reliable, trustworthy. Further, if we love one another, we shall ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (6:2). For 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.
Tomorrow: 3). Christian freedom is not freedom to disregard the law.