In v1-12 Paul’s message is “don’t lose the freedom you have in Christ”; in v13-15 he says “don’t abuse your freedom”.
Before we rush onto “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…”, Paul says “you were called to freedom brothers”. We need to actually take that point on board. There are tensions in the Bible – things that seem to be contradictory – and we do need to put things in context, but if we’re constantly balancing out one truth against another we can end up not really saying very much. So I don’t think we should be too quick to add qualifications to grace. If you present the gospel of salvation by grace but then always immediately qualify it by saying “… but as a Christian you need to start doing this, this and this…” you rob the gospel of its power. We really are called to freedom. We really don’t have to work to earn or keep our place in God’s kingdom. Yes, there is a risk that some people might stop listening at that point and go away looking forward to using their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said if no one ever goes away from your sermons thinking like that, then you’re not preaching the gospel properly.
Ok, so having made that point, let’s look at the second part of v13: using freedom as an opportunity for the flesh is contrasted with serving one another through love. So the danger that Paul seems to be addressing it that the Galatians might be tempted to use their freedom to justify selfishness. I mentioned when looking at v1 that we are to defend our freedom for the sake of the gospel, not so we can demand our own way.
We’re to serve one another through love. It’s not just “be nice to those who are nice to you”. It means sacrificing self for others. Remember Jesus’ example in John 13? (read v12-15).
It’s interesting that Paul says in v14 that the whole law is fulfilled in one word, and doesn’t mention loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. We divide the 10 commandments into 4 about loving God and 6 about loving our neighbours. Either Paul reckons the part about loving God doesn’t actually matter, or he believes that if we love our neighbour, we fulfil the part about loving God too. I think 1 John 4v19-21 is helpful here (read it). I think this is part of how we’re made in God’s image in the first place, and how we’re transformed into his likeness as we grow in the Christian faith. God is love, and we’re designed to love – to enjoy giving more than receiving, and as we grasp how much God has given us and loved us, we become more loving. God doesn’t need anything from us. We serve him by serving others.
Since God is invisible, love for him is invisible too. We try to gauge love for God based on things like church attendance, Bible reading, time spent in prayer etc. Calvin says love for God manifests itself in these “ceremonies”, but it’s possible to perform the ceremonies without genuine love for God. In fact, Calvin says “It frequently happens, that none are more zealous and regular in observing ceremonies than hypocrites.”
But it’s more difficult for hypocrites to love their neighbours.
So we’re not to use freedom to justify selfishness, but to fulfil the whole law by serving one another through love, and v15 says what would happen if the Galatians did allow themselves to indulge in selfishness at others’ expense: the consequences would be bad for everyone. If we bite and devour one another, we shouldn’t be surprised if we get consumed.
The word for “serve” in v13 has essentially the same meaning as the word for slavery. So in v1 Paul urges the Galatians not to submit to a yoke of slavery, and then in v13 essentially tells them to be slaves.
Also, in v3 Paul says if you accept circumcision you’re obligated to keep the whole law (the point being that we have no hope of doing that), and then in v13-14 he tells us we should fulfil the whole law.
We’re free from the burden of trying to earn God’s favour by obeying the law, but that doesn’t mean we’re free to do whatever we want (although our desires will change too, so more and more we will have the freedom to do what we want). The Galatians had been running well in obedience to the truth, but they had been hindered by people persuading them to perform religious works in order to earn favour with God. If our motivation for obedience is legalistic, we tend to give up when we realise how hopeless it is to try to deserve anything good from God, so there was a risk that re-emphasising freedom without having restored the Galatians’ gospel motive for obedience would’ve led them to swing from legalism to giving up on obedience altogether and giving in to selfish desires.
We’re free from sin, not free to sin. We’re free from the law which imprisons us in sin, meaning we’re now free to obey the law out of love rather than a selfish attempt to save ourselves.
When we obey the rules to try to earn favour, we’re really being selfish. When we don’t have to obey, but we do anyway because we love God – that’s fulfilling the law.
We’ve been set free from slavery to the law; now we’re to be a different kind of slave. We are to serve because we are loved, not to try to earn love.