In many ways Galatians 5 is Paul working out the simul in communication with a congregation he knew well in preparation for Romans 7, a few years later which was a letter to a congregation he’d not yet known, a catechism of sorts. It’s helpful here, therefore, to take a moment to consider that chapter. Now wouldn’t be a bad time to take a break and read it. It’s not a difficult read.
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 these dearly loved Christians, who have been 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 chapter 5, he shifts his focus. He begins to talk about the Christian life.
Our sinful nature, our old Adam, loves lists. He can be quite the religious fellow, 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 (Jas 2:10). 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 things 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.
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. They are works made possible, not by our determination but by God’s love.
The Christian will be fruitful only because God is at work through the Christian.
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 in the first four chapters of Galatians 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. This is the simul in action. This is what it is to be a sinner-saint, daily drowning the sinful nature, daily rising to live anew in Christ by His Spirit.
To repeat language used earlier in this book, we are healed, and yet being healed, there and here, one through faith and the other as we are as sinner-saints. And so God, like a good surgeon, keeps working on us, for our own good, to strip us of all that would distract us from His Son or try to supplement or subtract from His grace. This isn’t because of any insufficiency in the gospel. This is because of the weakness of the flesh. As Jesus told His disciples as their weary eyes pressed heavy upon them in the garden, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).
Galatians 5 isn’t a move beyond Christ to the Christian life. Galatians 5 is the Christian life in Christ.
This tells us something important about the church. The church is a hospital for sinners, not a showroom for saints. It’s where we go for triage, and so it’s where we go to be honest about ourselves. There’s no pretension in the emergency room. There ought not be any in church. We begin the service by confessing our sins and receive an absolution. The sermon absolves us again. The service draws to a close with Christ’s body and blood put into our mouths for the same. We shouldn’t be terrified to go to our pastor with our struggles and transgressions. Trust me, he’s more worried about those not struggling, because it’s in the struggle when faith is most active and we take our most desperate hold of Christ. Church shouldn’t be where we worry about what people will think. It’s where we hear what God says, and God says, sinners that we are, struggling though we be, that we are His children, pardoned, victorious, and set free. The perfect church isn’t the one without sinners. The perfect church is where sinners go to hear grace, because that is what Christ has commissioned His church to proclaim, and that is how we live and move and have our being as Christians, by grace.