Paul shifts gears. After spending almost the entire letter defending the gospel from the heresy of the false teachers and laying out a case for freedom in Christ versus slavery to the Law, he now elaborates on what it means to live in the freedom he defends. He wants to make sure his readers understand what freedom is and what it is not – that it is not carte blanche to serve yourself. He takes the idea he introduced in verse 6 of this chapter, that in Christ the only thing that matters is faith working through love, and defines it in terms of freedom. Love defines freedom. The one who is truly free is the one who uses his freedom to serve others in love.
Paul begins verse 13 with a statement that really summarizes almost everything he has said to this point – “For you were called to freedom, brethren.” This defines the Christian. The Christian is one God has called by the grace of Christ (1:6) into freedom. He is free from having to merit his place before God – from having to work his way to heaven. The guilt of his sin is gone and he lives freely under God’s grace rather than His wrath. He is not in bondage to perfection – his obedience or lack of obedience does not define his standing.
But since he is free, does that mean the Christian can do whatever he wants? Is freedom the same as license – is the Christian free to pursue every whim with no regard to righteousness? Paul addresses that very question with his next statement. He knows that some will twist his emphasis on freedom to accuse him of preaching anarchy.
He says directly, “…only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh.” Freedom is not license to serve the very things that Christ defeated to allow the Christian to live freely. Christ did not conquer sin so His children can turn to it in a hopeless and self-destructive quest for satisfaction. Freedom to engage in what ultimately destroys is not freedom. Bondage to sin is not freedom. The believer is free from the standard of perfect righteousness, but he is also free from the power of sin. It therefore makes no more sense for him to pursue sin than it does to subject himself again to the Law. No one chooses slavery over freedom, regardless of the master.
Christian freedom is freedom FROM sin, not freedom TO sin. It is an unrestricted liberty of approach to God as His children, not an unrestricted liberty to wallow in our own selfishness. – John Stott.
So if we are not to use our freedom to pursue sin, what ARE we to do? Paul answers that with the last statement of the verse – “…but through love serve one another.” The opposite of turning freedom into an opportunity for the flesh is to serve others. Paul already said the gospel is about faith working through love (5:6). Now he further defines what that means – we use our freedom in the gospel to serve others through the love of Christ that is in us as His children. We are free because of the love of Christ and it is this love working in us that will have an outlet. As we live as God’s sons we become more and more like Him – and that means we love. And love shows itself in service to others. [Note that love is not the absence of doing evil to others – it is active service to them. Love is active – it does not avoid opportunities to minister.]
This is similar to what John says in I John 4:12, 16-17. He says God’s love is perfected in us when we love others. What he means is that God’s love always creates evidence of its existence. The child of God will love others because God’s love in his life cannot help but come out. We perfect (complete) God’s love by loving others because that is the proof that God’s love exists within us.
This is how we explained this when we studied I John: If we think through this, it makes sense. If God’s love for us had no effect on our actions toward others or our perception of others, it would be weak and worth very little. Something that did not change our lives would not reflect the power of God. This idea is really the other side of the equation that says when we do not love we apparently do not have the love of God in us. If the love of God does not replicate itself in our lives as love for others, it cannot be classified as the true love of God. Thus, God’s love for us is completed only when we love others. Without loving others it is incomplete – and God does not love incompletely.
Another side to this verse is worth exploring too. Paul’s words are not simply an admonition to love. He also gives us a key weapon in our war against sin. If serving others is the opposite of turning freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, then serving others is essentially a defense against sin. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. What is the one thing that all sins (especially habitual sins) have in common? They are self-centered. Every sin can be traced back to making ourselves the priority over everything and everyone else. Read through the works of the flesh in 5:19-21. Every deed can be traced back to selfishness. Think about how many deeds of the flesh are done in private or in secret and why men love darkness because their deeds are evil (Jn 3:19). It is because sin by its nature is selfish (Eve ate the fruit because it looked good to her and she thought it would make her like God).
So if sin is selfish, what is the best way to combat it? By serving others and getting our minds focused on them rather than ourselves. When we serve others it shows the love of God in us but it also protects us from the sin that thrives in self-centeredness. Paul gives us a strategy to battle the sin that so easily besets us. Battling lust? Serve others. Battling the tendency to gossip? Serve others. Battling discouragement? Get involved in another’s life and make him your focus. This is not to say that it is the magic bullet to solve every sin in every situation – but if all sin is selfish then cultivating a life typified by service to others will directly address one of the root causes of our tendency to it.
Notice something else about Paul’s words here. Read back through what he actually says – “SERVE one another.” The man who has spent almost the entire letter to this point preaching against the foolishness of choosing slavery over freedom now says we are to use our freedom to become SLAVES! We are to show our faith through love for others by serving them – by becoming their slaves. While this at first seems hard to believe, it goes back to the love of Christ in us. What did Christ say about why He came? He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). Children of Christ the Servant serve others. We esteem others more highly than ourselves (Phil 2:3), so it makes sense that we want to serve them and show Christ’s love to them.
Do not forget, however, that this service is done in freedom. This means we serve not to earn our standing with God but to reveal our standing with God. When Jesus said that on Judgment Day He will separate those who ministered to the poor, sick, naked and imprisoned from those who did not (the sheep and the goats – Matt 25:31-46), He did not mean that some will earn their place in heaven and some will not. He meant that His children will show who they are by their acts of love toward others. We love because He loved; not to earn His love.
In verse 14 Paul backs up his instruction to love with the command from Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the backbone to a believer’s service to others. The Christian loves and serves others as he would want to be loved and served. This again speaks to selfishness. We cannot be selfish if we love others as we love ourselves (the Bible always assumes we love ourselves – there is never a teaching that speaks about having to love ourselves before we can love others – we DO love ourselves if we have a heartbeat).
This shows how our service to others should look. We serve others through love when we interact with them exactly as we want others to interact with us – when we provide for them the same things we desire for our own lives. This is how we defined it when we studied Christ’s words about this command in Matthew 22:39: So what do we want for ourselves? We want acceptance. We want security. We want to be complimented and appreciated. We want to feel significant. We want our lives to count for something. We want food and shelter and clothing and health. We want safety and provision for our children. We want friendships and warm fellowship. We want the love of others. We want mercy when we sin. We want loyalty when we are not around. These are just some of the things we want for ourselves because we love ourselves. And if we love others the same way it is what we want for others – ALL others.
Remember too that this love for others is based on love for God and His love for us. When Jesus said this is the second greatest commandment He said it in the context of the first – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. We cannot love others unless we first love God and have His love in us. It is only then that we can love others without reservation – without demanding that they return our love or earn our love. Paul says nothing in this passage about only loving those who are worthy – we love because we are sons of One who IS love. We love God and serve others. We are satisfied in God and so are free to love others with no expectation of receiving love or justice in return. Our love is ultimately targeted at God – not the one we serve through love.
Paul says – as Jesus said – that this command fulfills the whole Law. If love governs all our human relationships we will keep the horizontal commands. We will honor our mother and father. We will not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet if we truly love others as ourselves.
Do not miss something else about this verse beyond its teaching about love. Paul actually says that we should be concerned about keeping the whole Law. Similar to telling us to be slaves after spending the whole letter warning against slavery, he now says we should keep the whole Law after telling us throughout the whole letter that keeping the Law is bondage and the opposite of the gospel. How can this be?
It is because Paul has only preached against keeping the Law as a means of salvation. He has not said the believer saved by grace does not worry about it at all. The Law does not save but it IS the roadmap for sanctification. It does give the standard for how a child of God is to live. The difference is that we do not keep it as a means of merit – we keep it out of love for the One who saved us and through the power of His Spirit. We come to God clothed in the righteousness of Christ, but the evidence of that clothing is obedience to the Law (the moral Law). Thus, summarizing the Law in one statement is profitable – love others as you love yourself and you will fulfill the Law – you will obey your Creator and Savior.
Verse 15 gives us the alternative to loving others. When we live selfishly and do not love others as ourselves we eventually bite and devour one another. The one who looks for satisfaction in places other than God sees the people in his life primarily as need-fulfillers. And since no person can meet or continue to meet all the needs of another, people get used up and tossed away. We consume others in a never-ending search to fill our emptiness. That is why living without love leads to murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting. These are the things that ultimately bite, devour, and consume.
Which then leads to this thought: if we as believers are marked by a continuing turnover in relationships (friends, family, institutions), then we should reevaluate what it is that is missing in our lives. The Christian relates to others through the fullness he finds in God – not the emptiness of one who has holes to fill. If we cycle through people it is a sign of gaps in our lives – and the gospel has no gaps.
Is it a coincidence that verse 15 describes what wild animals do when they are starving, not when they are filled (empty instead of content)? When you are not filled with God, it is sweet to eat your enemy. – John Piper
So works of the flesh are motivated by a desire to fill our emptiness. But love is very different—it is motivated by the joy of sharing our fullness. “Love does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5). When we love, we are not enslaved to use things or people to fill our emptiness. Love is the overflow of our fullness. Therefore, love is the only behavior that we can do in freedom. When God frees us from guilt and fear and greed and fills us with his all-satisfying presence, the only motive left is the joy of sharing our fullness. When God fills the emptiness of our heart with forgiveness and help and guidance and hope, he frees us from the bondage to accumulate things and manipulate people. People who devote large hunks of their life to surrounding themselves with the comforts of this world testify that God has not filled the void of their heart to overflowing. When God is our portion and we are truly free, then we will serve one another through love. Freedom flows forth in love just as surely as a bubbling spring flows forth in a mountain stream. But the flesh is like a vacuum cleaner: it sucks and sucks and just the moment it starts to feel full, somebody throws the bag in the garbage. The book of Galatians is written to show us how to become a mountain spring that serves the valley with the water of love. – John Piper