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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Galatians 5



Other Authors
Verses 1-26

IN THE FIRST verse of chapter 5 we have the main point of the epistle compressed into a few words. Christ has set us free in a wonderful liberty, and in that we are to stand fast, refusing to be again entangled in bondage.

Let us refresh our memories as to the extent and character of the liberty into which we have been brought.

In the first place we have been set free from the law as the ground of our justification before God. This was previously stated in Galatians 2:16. We are “justified by the faith of Christ.”

Further, we have been set free from the law as the basis of our relationship with God. The “adoption of sons” is ours as having been redeemed from under the law. This is stated in Galatians 4:5.

Consequently, in the third place, we are set free from the law as the rule or standard of our life. This came out in the whole passage, Galatians 3:23 to Galatians 4:7. For as long as God’s children were in the place of servants, the rule of life for them was the law. Now, as full-grown sons in the house of their father, possessing the Spirit of God’s Son, we have a higher rule or standard than the law of Moses—even the “law of Christ,” of which Galatians 6:2 speaks.

The liberty into which we are brought, then, is the complete emancipation which has reached us as being made the sons of God. It is the freedom of which the Lord Jesus spoke when He said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). We are no longer like servants of the household, who rightly have their conduct regulated by the rules suitable to the servants’ hall; and to put ourselves in our thoughts and behaviour back into that position is to sadly entangle ourselves. It is indeed to fall from grace, as verse Galatians 5:4 has it.

The words “fallen from grace” are often taken to mean that such have fallen out of the gracious hand of God—that such are no longer saved. The phrase however, refers to what was produced in their consciousness, not to what is true as before God. The verse begins, “Christ is become of no effect unto you.” Is Christ of no effect REALLY?—that is, IN THE SIGHT OF GOD? Far be the thought—an impossible supposition! But to them— in their experience and consciousness? Yes. If they considered themselves as justified on the principle of law, Christ was most evidently disallowed in their minds, and they had descended from the divine and lofty principle of grace to the far lower level of law. And the descent between the two is so pronounced and precipitous that it can only be described as a fall!

To fall from grace is not a difficult thing. How many a professed believer there is today that is guilty of it! Are we all clear on the point? Do we stand in the liberty of grace in all our dealings with God?

In verses Galatians 5:2-3 Paul again alludes to the matter of circumcision as this was being used as a test question. It was the spearhead of the adversaries’ attack on their liberty. It doubtless appeared to many to be a small and unimportant point, but it was quite sufficient to establish the principle. The law is one whole. If taken up in one detail it must be maintained in all details. This is quite in keeping with what James writes— “whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10). This enforces the fact that if the law be broken in one detail, it is broken altogether. Both statements correspond and show us that the law cannot be taken up piecemeal. It is one whole and must be considered as such. If but a very small stone be thrown through a large pane of glass it is a broken pane, as really as if it were shivered to atoms by a large chunk of rock. Or, to change the figure, the law is like a chain of many links. It is as really a broken chain if one link be fractured as if a dozen were snapped. Conversely, let a boat be connected with but one link of a chain and that boat is attached to all, and may be controlled by the hand that pulls any link in the chain. And this is the particular point that Paul is enforcing here.

Now note the contrast between the “ye” of verse Galatians 5:4 and the “we” of verse Galatians 5:5. “Ye”—such among the Galatians as were abandoning in their thoughts the place in which grace had set them. “We”—the mass of believers, standing in the grace of the gospel. It is the Christian “we”— if we may so speak; and verse Galatians 5:5 describes what the proper position of the believer is: not now his position of privilege before God as a son, but his position of liberty as left in the world, which is in sharp contrast with all that the Jew had ever known.

Our position is one of expectancy. We wait, but not for righteousness as was the case with the Jew, who under the law was always “going about to establish his own righteousness,” and yet never arriving at it. We have righteousness as an established fact in the Gospel, and are only waiting for the hope that is connected with it. The hope of righteousness is glory, as Romans 5:2 makes manifest. Now we are waiting for glory—by the Spirit given to us; and on the principle of faith—not the principle of the works of the law.

Is not this a position of wonderful liberty? The more we have experienced the drudgery and despair of seeking righteousness by diligent efforts at law keeping, the more we shall appreciate it; and see that faith working by love is the only thing that counts in Christ Jesus.

Once the Galatians had been like earnest runners in the race, now they were hindered and no longer obeying the truth. Take note that “the truth” is not something merely to be discussed and analysed and understood, but to be obeyed. Are we sons of God? Then as sons we are to behave ourselves. Are we no longer under the schoolmaster? Then we no longer order our lives on a legal basis. Are we crucified with Christ? Then we do not aim at living unto ourselves but that Christ may live in us. Every bit of truth that we learn is to have a practical expression in us. We are to obey it.

The Galatians however were turning aside not only from obedience to the truth, but from the truth itself. They had been persuaded to embrace these new ideas, which did not come from the God who had called them; and further, they had to remember that ideas and doctrines can work like leaven. They might be flattering themselves that they had only embraced a few minor items of Judaism, yet thereby they might become wholly Judaized.

The saying which we have here in verse Galatians 5:9 is also found in 1 Corinthians 5:6. It states the essential nature of leaven. In Corinthians it is applied to a matter of conduct and morals. Here it is applied to a matter of doctrine; for it was virtually “the leaven of the Pharisees” which was threatening the Galatians, just as that threatening the Corinthians was in its nature near to the leaven of the Sadducees and the Herodians. Still when the Apostle thought of the Lord and His gracious working in souls, he felt confident that his letter of remonstrance and correction would have its effect on the Galatians, and that the workers of mischief, who had troubled them and perverted their thoughts, would eventually come under God’s dealings in judgment.

In verses Galatians 5:11-15, Paul reinforces his appeal by one or two further considerations. He was no preacher of circumcision. Had he been he would have escaped persecution. The “offence” or “scandal” of the cross consists in the fact that it puts no honour upon man; in fact, it totally condemns him. Circumcision on the other hand, assumes that there is some possibility of merit in him, that his flesh in this way can be made profitable to God. And what is true of circumcision would also be true of any other rite which is performed with the idea that there is virtue in it. This explains why men so dearly love rites and ordinances. They induce in men a comfortable feeling of complacency with themselves. The cross makes nothing of them. Hence its scandal.

The Apostle longed for the true liberty of the Galatians and could have desired that those who were so zealous for the cuttings of circumcision would cut themselves off. Liberty, he points out, is not licence to sin but rather freedom to love and to serve. And this love was what the law of Moses had been aiming at all the time. Yet, as a matter of fact, while boasting in the law they had been biting and devouring one another, instead of loving and serving one another. It is ever thus. Legality leads to the very opposite of love in action, and the Galatians had to beware lest their pursuit of holiness by law only led them to the unholy end of consuming one another in their contentions and criticisms. They would avoid the scandal of the cross only to come utterly to grief in the scandal produced by their own unholy conduct. We have sorrowfully to remark that this just sums up the history of Christendom. In proportion as the scandal of the cross has been refused and avoided, the scandal of its divisions and misbehaviour has increased.

The Galatians, however, might turn round to Paul and say, “you have pretty definitely and effectively shown us that our thoughts as to pursuing holiness by law-keeping are wrong, but what is right? You have demolished what we have been saying, but what do you say?” His answer to this begins in verse 16. “This I say then, walk in the Spirit.”

Walking is man’s earliest and most primitive activity. It has consequently become the figure or symbol of man’s activities. To “walk in the Spirit” is to have one’s activities, whether of thought or speech or action, in the energy of the Spirit, who has been given to us. The Spirit of God’s Son, conferred upon us as God’s sons, is to govern all our activities. This is the way of liberty, a liberty which is the very opposite of licence, for walking in the Spirit it is impossible for us to fulfil the desires of the flesh. The coming in of the higher power completely lifts us above the pull of the lower.

The flesh is not thereby altered, as verse Galatians 5:17 makes plain. Its nature, its desires, its action remain the same, and always contrary to the Spirit of God. But the Spirit prevails—if we walk in the Spirit—against the flesh, so that we “cannot” (or, more accurately, “should not”) do the things that otherwise we would. And then if we are “led” of the Spirit we cannot be at the same time under the leadership of “the schoolmaster”—the law.

In verse Galatians 5:16, then, the Spirit is regarded as the new Power in the believer, energizing him. In verse Galatians 5:18, as the new Leader, taking him by the hand and directing him in God’s will. In Romans 8:14, the Spirit is also presented in this capacity. The sons are led by the Spirit. The servants are led by the schoolmaster.

The fact that there exists a total and absolute contrast and contradiction between the flesh and the Spirit is very manifest when we consider the outcome of each. Verses Galatians 5:19-21 give us the dreadful catalogue of the works of the flesh. Verses Galatians 5:22-23 present the beautiful cluster of the fruit of the Spirit. The former wholly under the condemnation of God and to be excluded from His kingdom. The latter wholly approved of God and hence no law existing against them. In the one list we discover the hideous features which characterize fallen Adam: in the other the character of Christ.

Notice the contrast between the “works” and the “fruit.” It is easy to understand the “works.” The earth is filled with the noise of them. Their confusion and disruption are visible on every side. “Fruit,” on the other hand, is of silent growth, even in nature. In summer time, amidst the orchards no one is driven to distraction by the noise of maturing fruit. The wonder of its growth takes place without a sound. So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. It is “fruit” you notice, not “fruits;” and this, because these lovely moral features are conceived of as a bunch; nine in number but all proceeding from one stem—the Spirit of God.

These lovely traits of character are going to fill the kingdom of God, whilst the blatant works of the flesh are totally excluded. No true Christian is characterized by these works of the flesh, though alas, a true Christian may fall into one or other of them, and only be extricated by the advocacy of Christ and at the cost of much suffering to himself both spiritual and physical. To belong to Christ means that we have come to a definite judgment as to the evil of the flesh, and have crucified it by heartily ratifying in our own conscience and judgment the sentence against it pronounced by God at the cross.

We do well to enquire if we have really arrived at this, which is the proper attitude of the Christian. Have we definitely put the sentence of death on the flesh? Have we crucified it with the affections and lusts? Is it what we profess to have done as being Christians: but are we up to our profession?

A very serious question which we must each answer for ourselves. Let us give ourselves time for conscience to answer!

Certain it is that we live by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Well, then, let us walk by the Spirit. Our walk must certainly be according to our life. A bird cannot have its life in the air and yet all its activities under the water. A fish cannot have its life in water and yet its activities on land. Christians cannot have their life in the Spirit and yet their activities in the flesh.

The last verse of our chapter is another pretty plain hint to the Galatians that the Apostle well knew what their false pursuit of holiness was coming to. Depend upon it, if we fall into their snare the same sad effects will be displayed in ourselves.

Only in the Spirit of God can we reproduce, even in small measure, the beautiful character of Christ.


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Galatians 5:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

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