This passage in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians reads as follows: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only (use) not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, (even) in this: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that we be not consumed one of another.”
For a proper and correct understanding of this Scripture passage it is of the utmost importance that we understand the context in which these words were written and thus understand their proper background and limitation. It should be borne in mind that the great issue in this letter of Paul is whether works of law must be performed in order to be saved, or whether we are simply justified out of faith that is energized by love through the Holy Spirit. That is the issue. Paul takes the stand that it is “either-or.” It cannot possibly be both by works of law and out of faith that we are justified. It is either grace, the free gift of God, or it is of merit of works. In the former we have boast with God, in the latter we boast in man’s achievement and deny the very cross of Christ! So serious is this matter. And well may we, therefore, beware! For, mark you well, a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. Grace and works will not be commingled. For if justification (the subjective entering into the kingdom?) is by grace then it is no more of works, otherwise grace has become no longer grace! Grace has then been denatured into works! Romans 11:5.
Such is the serious departure from the grace in Christ! implicit in this returning to the keeping, of days, months, seasons and years, the return to weak and beggarly principles: Gal. 4:8-11. For if one must even as much as be circumcised in order to be saved, then one is a debtor to go all the way and keep the whole law. But such a return is fatal. Such a one is fallen from grace and from Him who called in the hope of the gospel. Woe to one who returns to these weak and beggarly principles; principles which are weak because they have no power to make the dead sinner alive, and are beggarly because they cannot make the poor sinner rich with all the joys and graces of a free and good conscience whereby we fight against sin. Oh, the folly of it. For that is to become ensnared with a yoke of bondage once more. Then all the joy of salvation is gone. The quiet waters of joy and peace in the cross become troubles with anxiety and stark despair! For everyone that is under law is under the curse!
Such is the context.
Paul, in this context, exhibits masterfully what our fathers so succinctly express in the Canons of Dort, V, 14—God preserves, continues and perfects the work of grace in us by the hearing and reading of His word, by meditation thereon, and by exhortation, threatenings and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the Sacraments!
This exhortation and warning cannot too seriously be taken to heart. For did not Jesus Himself warn His disciples against this “doctrine” of the Pharisees, speaking of it as the “leaven of the Pharisees,” which corrupts all sound doctrine?
But Paul is not one-sided!
Did I say “one-sided?” Let us use that term guardedly and with discretion. The truth of the salvation by grace is not simply a “middle-in-the-road” position between Phariseeism and Antinomism, between legalism and anti-legalism, so that he would become a semi-legalist!! No, the truth is that it is either. the position of the true liberty in Christ or the bondage of sin under law in earnest, or walking in sin as a slave of sin! The position of salvation by faith alone is that of being a “new creature” where old things have passed away and all things have become new. In this “newness of life” there is place neither for legalism nor for Antinomism! Both are out of the evil one, setting on fire man’s sinful passions out of hell, constituting total bondage!
It is good, therefore, to give account of this “lack of one-sidedness” of Paul and listen to his warning against either form of bondage, whether this be legalism or Antinomism!
This means that all of the exhortations, admonitions and threatenings are directed to the church on the basis of what she really possesses by faith in Christ. And these exhortations are preached to all from the viewpoint of the living vine and branches. Thus it is here!
Hence, Paul’s warning note to the Galatians: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only (use) not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.”
What does Paul have in mind when he speaks of using our “liberty'” as an “occasion” to the flesh? We should know that the term in the Greek of which “occasion” is a translation into English means: 1. Properly: a place from which a movement or attack is made, a base of operations. Thus Thuloch writes “the Peloponnesians all withdrew and thus to have a fit place of attack (aph-ormee). 2. And thus figuratively it means: that by which endeavor is excited and from which it goes forth; that which gives occasion and supplies matter for an undertaking, the incentive; the resources we avail ourselves of in attempting or performing anything!
This is the sense of the term also in the New Testament Scriptures where it is, a term peculiar to Paul among the New Testament writers.
In our liberty in Christ, unto which God has efficaciously and powerfully called us, there lies the real starting point of all “loving service toward our neighbor.” We have been called unto good works of faith that worketh by love. Such a starting point of Christian conduct cannot possibly be found in the being “under law” of works. The law is the “starting point” of sin, working all manner of concupiscence from a spiritual-psychological viewpoint. The law is the “power,” the dynamic of sin. Not because the “law” is evil. It is, indeed, spiritual, good, holy and righteous. But it is “weak” to incite unto good works. Those, who are under the curse, cannot find any incentive anywhere to do good works, which are born only out of the expectation of the “hope of righteousness. This hope of righteousness has in it the resources from which all good works spring forth as a spring-board in our soul!
Now the passionate exhortation of Paul comes to stand before us in bold relief, does it not?
Hear the earnest plea: only use not the liberty in Christ as the place of operation of the flesh! God forbid! O, the depths of iniquity in thus doing! O, the sorrow and contrition of the repenting saint for such conduct! Is there anything so abominable as this? Yes, and this is the abomination of iniquity that lies ready in our flesh to reveal its foulness at every moment. The heart of man is deep, yea, deadly it is: who can know it! And the child of God, who walks according to the Spirit, even as he lives by the Spirit, sighs and confesses: “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins, let them not have dominion over me, then I shall be upright and free from the great transgression.”
The Psalmist speaks here of the true “freedom,” which does not want to be a servant of sin!
It is of this “liberty” that Paul here speaks in these verses. And this liberty is that we are free in serving God in a free and good conscience and manfully fight against and overcome sin, the devil and his whole dominion as part in the new covenant, the law written upon the tables of our heart! May this faith then be the springboard, be the Spiritual resources of a godly walk at liberty!
These resources of a faith that is energized by love (verse 6) will surely never be lawless. The fact that we are not “under law”‘ but rather “under grace” is such that by the law of the “Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” we do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. And this walk, we repeat, is not the half-way position between legalism and antinomism, but it is wholly different. It is the manifestation of the New Testament in the latter days, which God made through the Spirit of the risen Lord, shedding His Spirit abroad in our hearts, the pleroma of the law!
Of this “pleroma” of the law the apostle writes as to its manifestation in our lives in the church. The sons of Sarah, the Jerusalem in heaven, must have a corresponding walk, walking “even as in that day.” Love must be perfected in our lives, come to full fruition. That is only a reality when we do not serve sin, but when by love we serve one another. Such service is the service of a true and living faith. For the same love which prompts us to serve one another is the love that energizes our faith. Only where such love, energizing faith is, is there a service of one another. Justifying faith is therefore at once sanctifying faith. Only the justified saint will walk truly in sanctification. We must never say: justification can be stressed too much as being by faith. We must not say: yes, but there must be works too, if we have in mind to place sanctification next to justification! But when we insist with Paul that there be works as manifestation of justifying faith, then, to be sure, we say “too” and “but”; however, then it is not placed over against, our being “under grace” but it is then placed over against the “antinomian” as does James when he says that we are not justified by “faith alone.”
In this passage Paul and James meet, or better stated: James speaks of the same aspect of faith in James 2 as does Paul in Galatians 5. James 2 presupposes Romans 5:1.
We should, therefore, use great discretion when we warn against saying there must be works “too!” Also we should be very careful that we do not say too little and therefore say too much, when we say: God elected us. Now do not say: But we must believe! It depends whether we are contending with the fathers of Dort or whether we are contending with that nefarious offshoot of the Reformation known as Anabaptism. In the case of the former we say: God elected and, therefore, we believe and are admonished to walk in this faith, which is energized by the love of the Holy Spirit. In the latter case we say, standing in this faith energized by love, having its fountain and cause in electing love: but there must be the works of faith too, lest we walk unworthily of the saints who are called unto spiritual-ethical freedom! Then we answer the antinomian.
Since a good part of our serving one another in love is the accurate instructing of one another and so keep and remove offense from out of the church of Christ I have delineated just a bit about these important distinctions.
The word of Paul is still true that if we bite and devour one another we should beware lest we consume one the other! That would be water on the mill of Satan. But such is not the law of faith which is energized by the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. It is the principle of the old serpent the dragon from the beginning! There is a famous story of two snakes that grabbed each other by the tail and each swallowed the other. Such is the case when we do not walk in the true and living faith which reveals itself in the pleroma of the law: love thy neighbor as thyself!