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Galatians 5:13-26 (NRSV):

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

The Works of the Flesh

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

The Fruit of the Spirit

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

This passage of Galatians touches on several topics, such as the battle between Spirit and Flesh, the fruit of the Spirit, the works of the Flesh, the preeminence of love, etc. But in particular, verse 18 says "but if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law". What does it mean to not be subject to the law?

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  • This verse does not mean the law is no longer to be kept. To be subject to the law is to be condemned by it. What the verse says is that it is the law that condems us. We are saved not by the law but by the "righteousness of Jesus". When we appear before the judgement seat, God sees the cloak of Jesus, not an unrighteous sinner standing before him. We are nothing but filthy rags.
    – Adam
    Feb 15 at 19:05
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To understand the intent of Paul’s words, it helped me to look at his journey of faith, specifically the fact that he was once a Pharisee, a zealous adherent and defender of the law:

  • If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)

His faith was firmly founded in the law, but blind adherence to the law turned him into a tyrant and explained his involvement in the persecution of the early church:

  • I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26: 9-11)

Though he considered himself righteous under the law (Phil 3:6), Paul did not recognize his hypocrisy in violating the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Later, after his conversion, when he was arrested and placed before members of the Jewish council, he would be quick to point out their hypocrisy:

  • While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. At this Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:1-3)

Paul’s history explains the passion with which he argued against the law, and why he equated the law to enslavement. His experience gave Paul a unique perspective from which he argued that certain laws, like the requirement for circumcision, should not be applied everywhere or in every circumstance:

  • v. 1: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)

  • v. 6: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

Paul was quick to add that freedom from the law does not mean freedom to do whatever we please. Rather, the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself calls us to serve, not the law, but one another:

  • v. 13: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In particular freedom from the law is not a license to sin. No longer subject to the law, the guidance of the Spirit is needed to check the desires of the flesh that lead to sin:

  • v. 19-21: Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, … and things like these.

To be guided by the Spirit is to walk the way of virtue, because the fruits of the Spirit is virtue. The law works by prescribing behavior; it cannot instill virtue. Thus, “there is no law against such things:”

  • vv. 22-25: By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Though the way of the Spirit is entirely different from the prescriptions of the law, the goal remains the same -- to fulfill the essence of the law:

  • v. 6: the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

  • Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)

The phrase “you are not subject to the law” therefore does not mean that we are completely unbound from God’s commandments. Certain laws, however, clearly can be amended or nullified by the community, under the guidance of the Spirit. From the tone of this passage I infer that Paul’s arguments sparked intense debate in the early church. They represented a major shift away from complete subservience to the law while upholding the primacy of God's commandment to love one's neighbor. I think Paul would agree that this freedom from strict adherence to the law allows us to more perfectly follow God’s commandment of love. This lesson was not only conveyed by Paul’s teaching, it was woven into his life and journey of faith.

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Galatians 5:18

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.

We should not read "you are not subject to the law" in isolation. This verse is meant to contrast between the Spirit and the law.

In this context, the law corresponds to the flesh. The contrast becomes Spirit vs flesh:

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law [of flesh]. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

What does it mean to not be subject to the law?

To me, it simply means that we are subject to or led by the Spirit and we are not subject to or led by the flesh/law.

We are not lawless people but under the law of Christ.

1 Corinthians 9:21b Berean Study Bible

though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ

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  • But verse 14 says For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”. Should we read v14 as "law of flesh" as well? Feb 15 at 19:40
  • Good point. Whole law refers to Moses' law which is legalistic and binds the flesh. Love your neighbor is a command led by the Spirit, not the flesh. I agree that it is a bit confusing. However, the contrast still works even here.
    – Tony Chan
    Feb 15 at 20:11
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The best understanding of this passage in Gal 3:18 is succinctly summarized by Meyer:

οὐκ ἐστὲ ὑπὸ νόμον] namely, because then the law can have no power over you; through the ruling power of the Spirit ye find yourselves in such a condition of moral life (in such a καινότης ζωῆς, Romans 6:4, and πνεύματος, Romans 7:6), that the law has no power to censure, to condemn, or to punish anything in you. Comp. on Romans 8:4. In accordance with Galatians 5:23, this explanation is the only correct one; and this freedom is the true moral freedom from the law, to which the apostle here, in accordance with Galatians 5:13, attaches importance. Comp. 1 Timothy 1:9. There is less accuracy in the usual interpretation (adopted by Winer, Rückert, Matthies, Schott, Baumgarten-Crusius; comp. de Wette): ye no longer need the law; as Chrysostom: τίς χρεία νόμου; τῷ γὰρ οἴκοθεν κατορθοῦντι τὰ μείζω ποῦ χρεία παιδαγωγοῦ; or: you are free from the outward constraint of the law (Usteri, Ewald); comp. also Hofmann, who, in connection with his mistaken interpretation of Galatians 5:14, understands a subjection to the law as a requirement coming from without, which does not exist in the case of the Christian, because in him the law collectively as an unity is fulfilled.

I think it was Luther who said something like: "become converted to Christ and do as you please"; by which he means that a Spirit lead Christian is a supremely moral person who fulfills the law instinctively because such is lead by the Spirit.

This give us freedom from the moral law, because the penalties no longer apply because we keep the law and do not transgress it! Indeed, 1 John 3:6 says this:

No one who remains in Him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has seen Him or known Him.

That is, the person who obeys the moral law is free. This cannot be done - we cannot obey the law except by the Spirit of God who lives in us. A person who disobeys the law become subject to the law and its penalties as Gal 3:16-18 makes clear.

There is a similar discussion in Rom 8 about the distinction between "walking according to the flesh", vs, "walking according to the Spirit". A person walks by the Spirit is free from the [moral] law because that person obeys the [moral] law perfectly.

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  • So are you not really free from the law, but free from the penalties associated to breaking the law? Feb 15 at 22:12
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - we are certainly free from the Levitical law. Rom 3:31 - Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Certainly not! Instead, we uphold the law. We are free of the law because the HS miraculously changes us to keep the law - we no longer fight the law but keep the moral law. Rom 6:15 - What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law, but under grace? Certainly not!
    – Dottard
    Feb 15 at 23:04

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