Freedom and Paul’s “Third Way”


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In Galatians 5:13-26, freedom rings out again. It’s a big thing with Paul. The problem in the Old Covenant was externalism. After the return from exile, God’s people gradually over-corrected into legalism by the time of Jesus and the Apostles—an ossified, frigid works righteousness. This target is Paul’s rhetorical foe through the letter. Almost always, when Paul refers to slavery, the law, or freedom, he’s referring to the perverted form of “the faith” that had developed by his day—a system so crusted over with the barnacles of tradition that it wasn’t the Old Covenant religion anymore. “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions,” (Mk 7:8). It’s this backdrop that helps us understand what the apostle says now:

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.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other (Galatians 5:13-15).

So, when Paul reminds the Christians in Galatia that “you were called to be free,” he means something like “free from the legalism and false religion the Jewish establishment is peddling.” Not free from relationship with God, or from sharing the faith that Abraham had—but free from the false system that had developed atop the Old Covenant and crusted over it. But, if they’re free from that—and from the Old Covenant framework entirely—then what was their matrix of authority? What was the new law? How did God regulate His people?

Christian have always struggled with how authority ought to work. Some say “the church” decides—this is the outsourcing option. Others say the bible alone is the answer—this is individualism and (if church history is any indication) a potential road to apostasy. Others say we ought to primarily rely on the Holy Spirit—this is the potential road to subjective mysticism. The true pattern of authority is the Holy Spirit speaking in and through the scriptures.1 The scriptures are but one step in an integrated revelatory chain which goes like this:

Father and Son → Spirit → Scriptures → Christian community

There have always been some in the Christian community who have wanted to abuse God’s love and grace. Perhaps they wouldn’t put it quite so crudely, but there it is nonetheless. It’s folks like this who may be creeping around, whispering that, because the Old Covenant is abolished, we’re now free to do whatever we want. “Not so!” Paul declares. “Don’t use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love,” (Gal 5:13). The key, he says, is to read and interpret the law through a prism of love—through relationship.2 This isn’t a new thing—it was there in the Old Covenant all along—but it’s become a new thing in light of Jesus’ authoritative interpretation and application of that first covenant. After all, didn’t Leviticus (of all places!) say that we must love our neighbor (Lev 19:18)? Isn’t that what Jesus said was the sum of the Old Covenant law (Mk 12:28-34)? Isn’t that what even a scribe figured out from his own study of the Torah (Mk 12:32-34)? That’s why Paul said elsewhere that love was the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:10).

So, what to do with this sudden freedom from crushing legalism, freedom from the weight of all the external expectations of “right behavior,” freedom from the cold scrutiny of religious leaders anxious to condemn you? The solution isn’t to run wild and party. It isn’t to rip up the Torah and burn it in celebration. It’s to retain the Torah (Paul and Jesus both quoted Leviticus, after all!), but interpret it the real way—through a paradigm of covenant love for God and for one another. Without love, all the New Covenant community will do is destroy itself with infighting and selfish dealing (cp. Micah 2:1-5; 3:1-8). Paul illustrates this with an analogy of sheep biting and eating one another.

But, how to “be free” and still apply the scripture without legalism? The answer is a conjunction of Word + Spirit. Remember, the same Apostle Paul elsewhere said that the scripture had two jobs; (1) to bring people to faith in Christ, and (2) to teach us how we ought to live as children of the King (2 Tim 3:14-17). This is the tail end of that organic “revelatory chain” we mentioned earlier. Jesus promised He would continue to make His Father known to Christians “in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them,” (Jn 17:26). This suggests an ever-present communication between Jesus and His people—but how? Through the Spirit (Jn 14:26-27; 16:12-15). How does the Spirit speak to us? Primarily through God’s message; His story recorded in scripture—it’s the Spirit’s sword, after all (Eph 6:17)!

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).

Paul says we must live with constant reference3 to the Holy Spirit—that’s what the “walk” metaphor means. Instead of incessant reference to laws and traditions (e.g. “can I do this on the Sabbath?”), a New Covenant believer lives with constant reference to the Spirit of God. This is a bit loose for people who prefer lists, categories, and standards. But, if taken too far that’s the road to a new legalism, and they just broke free from all that. So, we keep the Torah but read it in dialogue with God’s message from the scriptures, by the power of the Spirit.

This isn’t a rote promise that “if you do this, you’ll never sin!” It’s a general truism, like many sayings in Proverbs. Paul is just saying that, if you live with constant reference to and dependance upon the Spirit (in conjunction with the scriptures), then you’ll likely not be controlled by your own lusts.

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 (Galatians 5:17-18).

God is changing us from who we are into who He wants us to be. “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory,” (2 Cor 3:18). This means there is an ongoing, internal struggle as this renovation happens. Our “old person” doesn’t want to fade to black, and our

“new person” must struggle to assert itself in our hearts and minds (cp. Eph 4:22-24). We win this battle to the extent we’re led by the Spirit—and to that extent, we’re free from legalism, self-righteousness, and the crushing weight of meeting impossible standards. We’re free from the “law” of works-righteousness.

Paul’s audience is being presented with two options—two authorities for the Christian life:

  1. The Judaizers are offering “Jesus + obey all the Mosaic Law.” This is externalism. It’s legalism. It’s a bad option.
  2. Other folks are offering a “do whatever you want” vibe.

Both of these options are unacceptable, and so Paul offers a third way4—a life lived according to God’s will as expressed in the scriptures, interpreted through a prism of love for God and neighbor, by the power of the Spirit.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

These contrasting lists are rightly famous. They’re not exhaustive (Paul ends the list with “and the like”), but they’re representative enough to get the point across. A tree is known by its fruit (Lk 6:43-45). God’s people have His “seed” planted within them, and God’s seed always generates recognizable fruit (1 Jn 3:9). Perhaps a Christian’s fruit isn’t all it should be, but the point is that it’s recognizable. You might have a pitiful apple tree in your backyard, and even if it only produces a few pathetic apples each year, you still recognize them as apples. So it is with Christians … and with those who serve a very different master. “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister,” (1 Jn 3:10).

There are four general categories in this list. This doesn’t mean everything “bad” in this life should be situated in these categories; it’s just how this particular list shakes out:

  1. Sexual crimes. Sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery.
  2. Spiritual adultery. Idolatry and witchcraft.
  3. Love of self. Hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy
  4. Drunkenness. Drunkenness is just what it sounds like, and what the NIV translates as “orgies” means the general sort of “carrying on” that happens at alcohol-saturated parties.

Because this is rotten fruit, people live this way will not inherit the kingdom of God—their actions make it clear to which master they really belong. Because Paul says these rotten fruits “are obvious,” I’ll only remark on a few of them here:

  • Sexual immorality. As the incarnate Messiah (the divine person with a human nature), as a Jewish man whose mission involved perfectly obeying the Old Covenant law in our place, as our substitute (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), Jesus’ frame of reference to define sexual ethics was Leviticus 18. As the eternal Son within the one Being who is God, Jesus gave Leviticus to Moses.5 This means the sexual boundaries depicted there are still in effect.
  • Impurity. This literally means “dirty.” It’s figurative here, meaning activity that morally pollutes you. How do we know what these activities are? Well, that’s why you have the scriptures! Again, Paul isn’t saying we burn the Old Covenant and start from scratch—he’s appealing to God’s moral laws as standards of behavior loving children should want to do. We love God because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19), and this love produces fruit. The opposite of that is to live a polluted, morally filthy life.

The apostle now shares the other side of the coin—the fruit of a Spirit-referenced and led life:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23).

No believer’s life is perfect. But, would an impartial observer see this fruit in your life—no matter how underdeveloped it might be? Do they flow from your heart, habits, and appetites?

  • Love. Jesus is the paradigm for love, which is unearned and undeserved. This means we love others especially if they don’t deserve it. This is hard to do, obviously, but it’s clear that a “get off my lawn!” vibe is not a fruit of the Spirit—but quite the opposite.
  • Forbearance. This means we put up with things—“love covers over all wrongs,” (Prov 10:12; cp. 1 Pet 4:8). How willing are we to give in? To not insist on our own way? To listen to other voices? To be patient? Think of how much God has put up with you—has He lost patience?

Paul continues:

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. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5:24-26).

Hopefully you haven’t literally crucified yourself! Paul is employing the same metaphors he uses in the letter to the church in Rome—if you’re in union with Christ, then your old person is dead and gone. Your flesh and bones remain, but your spirit, your soul, your heart, your mind have changed. Spiritual birth has occurred, a God-seed has been planted, and things will never be the same again.

We can walk away. God has given us the power to walk away.

Instead of remaining unwitting slaves to our own lusts and ultimately to Satan, we’ve been set free. Jesus defeated Satan (Heb 2:14-15) and killed death itself for all who trust Him and His message (1 Cor 15:54-57). In return. He’s given the Holy Spirit to His brothers and sisters so He and the Father can teach us, communicate with us, mold us into the Son’s image. We must make a conscious, everyday choice to live with incessant reference to the Spirit.

The danger is that it’s possible to fool ourselves; to become conceited and arrogant while maintaining an unwittingly fraudulent front of piety. In short, we can become Pharisees. It’s to that danger that Paul now turns.


1 Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Religious Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), p. 28.

2 “In this entire summary, Paul’s purpose is both to let the law come into its own proper validity in the life of believers; and to graft its fulfillment upon a different principle from that of human self-vindication through works—namely, the salvation brought by Christ. For the love, in which the law has its fulfillment, is the fruit of faith (verse 6),” (Ridderbos, Galatians, in NICNT, p. 201).

3 I take the dative in πνεύματι περιπατεῖτε to be a dative of reference.

4 Fung, Galatians, in NICNT, loc. 3057.

5 Leviticus 18 begins with “The LORD said to Moses …” (Lev 18:1). We know this is the triune God speaking, because the divine name of Yahweh is always signified by a capital “LORD” in our English bibles.


You are missing something major here. First, Galatians 3:3 refers to the major conflict (flesh/spirit) of Galatians 5-6. Second Paul refers to the law as the rudiments (Gal 4:9), as a slave who trained children (Gal 3:23-25), and elsewhere states the law is for the unbeliever, not the believer. (1 Ti 1:9) The final piece, the one those who have little training in Christian Philosophy miss, is that the fruit of the Spirit are virtues, not commands. This implies that Paul is advocating a virtue theory instead of the type of deontological ethic that an ethic of laws epitomizes, within a virtue ethic, law is a secondary concern, primarily for children. So I would submit the way to avoid legalism is to instead walk in the Spirit and along the way cultivate the Christian virtues.

See After Virtue by MacIntyre for details on virtue theory.

Please provide more context. I did not frame the fruit of the Spirit as a command. I essentially said they’re the inevitable overflow of a life lived with incessant reference to the Spirit—in contrast to one lived in reference to the law (i.e. the false works righteousness interpretation of the law which was so common).

A “virtue” is a moral quality (see OED, s.v. I.1.a). I’m afraid I don’t understand the distinction you’re making between my exposition and “fruit of the Spirit = virtue.” What’s the disconnect?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Gentiles were of course never under the law in the first place, nor are gentile Christians now, (Paul was likely fully Torah observant). Paul is not referring to a perversion of the law, however, he is referring to the law as central to the Christian ethic. The law is an all encompassing authoritarian system, it does not have native parts, artificial demarcations between the moral, civil and ceremonial laws are useful for our learning from them, but they are not related to the point Paul is making. The law, in Paul is of one piece, and he seems to imply Jews were still obligated to obey the law, those who were circumcised into Judaism were to follow the whole thing, but his point is that gentiles were not under the law, and never had been.

Paul's point implies that Jewish law was never a fully reflected view of God's commands (see for example Matthew 19, which contains a hermeneutic consistent with the point I am making, and was instrumental in abolitionist writers such as Francis Wayland). One of the central metaethical themes (questions related to distinct systems of ethics) comes down to families deontological ethics (ethics based on adjudication the proper rules), virtue ethics (there is a central telos, or purpose), consequentialism (consequences are the main factor in making ethical decisions, most commonly seen in Utilitarian ethics).

But what I think you miss is that Paul's third way isn't a different way old interprdeting the law, it is a rejection of the type of deontological ethic that centers ethical concerns in the old Testament law in any form represents, and where we get into trouble is wdith continuing to observe the law through systems of ethics centered in the law (usually termed divine command theory or modified divine command theory). That is, if we define ethical behavior on the basis of the law, we are in the proto-ebionite camp, rather than the Pauline camp.

Laws exist in virtue theory, but they play a secondary role to the cultivation of virtues. Laws in virtue theory are either for children, not yet ready to live the life of the free citizen, or are based on the virtues, themselves. Law ethics focus on authority, virtue ethics on a telos. That is, sanctification in Christianity replaces the law as central to our ethical deliberations, with Love as the central ethic marking 'the good.' (Though here we must be cautious to avoid the medieval shift in the meaning of love).

See the book I noted, After Virtue by MacIntyre.

This perhaps will help, take Grudem's book Christian Ethics. Not to pick on him particularly, he happens to be the last Christian ethicist I read from cover to cover (currently reading Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea which has meta-ethical significance and of whom I am much more critical).

Grudem's central point are the 10 commandments, they dorm the structure of his book's organization, and the sun total of his ethical discussion is to take exegetically derived legal premises, and logically resolve modern questions, this has been common in Protestantism since at least the Enlightenment (if MacIntyre is right about Aquinas, ironically his ethics might be a better match to Calvin's soteriology than was Calvin's discussions of the law).

I am stating, instead, the fruit of the Spirit is a replacement for the law, which provides some case studies in applying the virtues rather than a basis for ethical decision making. Thus it isn't that the Jews perverted the law, though they missed the central point, it is that Christianity takes the training wheels (the law) off the bike so that we can ride a two wheeler.