Perhaps no letter in the New Testament is clearer on Law and Gospel than Galatians. Paul is determined to knock any pretension and work-righteousness out of his beloved Galatians, recently disturbed by new preachers who pointed them back to the Old Testament Laws and ceremonies that Christ had put behind them. These false preachers gave the impression that a piece of skin, a dinner choice, or a festival could add to the work of Christ, could complete what He must not have finished. And so Paul went to work to make Christ all in all; to make grace, not works, where we find our righteousness, hope, and confidence.
Then, in Galatians 5, Pauls shifts his focus. He begins to talk about the Christian life. He writes in Galatians 5:16-23:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Our sinful nature, our old Adam, loves lists. He can be quite the religious fellow, that old Adam, so long as the religion builds towers to heaven instead of lingering at the manger where God came from heaven above to us. The old Adam is thrilled at first, therefore, when it finds, not one list, but two here. But the first list, upon further examination, quickly loses its thrill. The first list is meant to sting. The first list is meant to accuse, to humble, to threaten. The first list, if we are honest, troubles us. While we may not be guilty of some of the more open sins, at least not in deed, we know that to some extent, even if only in thought, we are guilty of many. As James says, if we are guilty of one, we are guilty of all. The works of the flesh are evident, even in us, and this should not be.
But the old Adam takes heart. There is another list. Perhaps things will even out a bit. In our natural inclination to take it easy on ourselves when judging such things, we may initially think we have fared well in the second list. It’s easier to feign virtue than avoid sin. We may start to think we’re doing all right in God’s scales of justice on our own. But the sinful flesh has no business reading the second list because the flesh can’t produce what is found there. These are the works of the Spirit, the works of God in us and through us.
Galatians 5 isn’t a move beyond Christ to the Christian life. Galatians 5 is the Christian life in Christ.
The Christian will be fruitful only because God is at work through the Christian. From the waters of our Baptism springs new life. The works of the Spirit Paul describes here are works motivated, not by the hope of deserving salvation, but by the promise of a salvation we don’t deserve, works made possible, not by our determination, but by God’s love.
St. Paul didn’t write the first four chapters of Galatians for us to now ignore them in the fifth. No, this flows from what came before. There’s no salvation in works, no boasting in works, no hope in works. There’s only death in the pot of works done to win God’s love because God’s love flows elsewhere—from the font, from the cup of salvation, from the mouth of a preacher.
So now what? What are we to do? Perhaps we’ve been convicted by the first list. Perhaps we’re worried that the second list doesn’t remotely describe us as much as it ought. We’re to do what we’re always to do: receive from God and then get out of His way. We delight in the works of the Spirit done through us as His gifts to our neighbor and to us. Otherwise, we’re looking at them to be what they are not, and what would ruin them, namely, measures of what can only be given. Against such things there is no law, Paul writes, and he’s not joking. The same God who justifies us sanctifies us. The same God who bids us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling adds quickly that He is the One who works in us to will and to do (Phil. 2:12,13).
Galatians 5 isn’t a move beyond Christ to the Christian life. Galatians 5 is the Christian life in Christ. The cross planted firmly before the Galatians in the first four chapters now blooms. We walk, not by ourselves, but by the Spirit, the Spirit given by Christ, the Spirit who is the seal of our salvation, the guarantee of Christ’s accomplished work.