Love: Fulfilling God’s Law (Galatians 5)

Jul 10, 2023 | Manuscripts/Outlines

Galatians 5:1-26

The word “love” must be one of the most fascinating words in the entire world. Crazy acts of committed in the name of love, ranging from violent murder to voluntary poverty. Some have called it the most powerful force in all the universe. Some are convinced that love is “all you need,” that “love will always win,” and that you love someone by affirming their ideas and decisions.

Others contest that love is sometimes “tough” and is more concerned with telling the truth than being a nice person. Some Christians even think that “loving” people is really all that matters, while others believe that the modern church makes too big a deal out of love.

Some are confused. the Bible says God is love, and yet this same God often demonstrates retributive justice such as we see in Noah’s Flood, the slaughter of the Canaanites, and even the Cross of Calvary. 

In the Bible, love has many dimensions. You may already know that there are four words for love in the Greek language, which is a very colorful language, each of which has a slightly meaning. The word agape means “sacrificial love” and is the sort of love God demonstrates for us, and that he asks we demonstrate toward others.

Today we’re going to examine the concept of love, as we begin this series on The Fruits of the Spirit. Galatians 5 is an incredible chapter of Scripture, and I’m honored to teach on the subject of love, because even though we are focused on the Fruits found in verses 22-26, we find love as a theme that is woven throughout this entire chapter.

In fact—as we’ll see, the concept of love and the Fruits of the Spirit begin the logic that closes out the entire book of Galatians, providing a sort of exclamation point to the arguments Paul has been making to the Galatian people. In order to understand Paul’s logic, we must begin with an examination of the immediate problem he was confronting. As we’ll see, it is a problem we often confront in the modern church as well, particularly those of us who were raised in a church tradition that seemed to value rules and regulations above love and acceptance.

To be clear, love is good, and so are rules, but it is possible to take both too far. Fortunately, the Bible gives us clear direction on how to love and what rules are worth following.

Paul and the Galatians

Imagine yourself a member of the early church. You are a Jew, and for millennia, you’ve heard, read, and even memorized stories about God’s goodness, faithfulness, and activity in the world. You’ve heard how many times your people were rescued from the fire and flame, how many chances God had given them, and how many rules and guidelines you had been given to follow in order to remain in God’s good graces—613 of them, to be precise.

A man named Jesus explodes onto the scene a few years earlier. He’s talking crazy stuff about being the Messiah of Israel. You knew that couldn’t possibly be the case, though, as this man seemed to favor exactly those people who seemed opposite of everything you stood for, and certainly was not a powerful military leader who was going to deliver the people of Israel from exile. He got himself in plenty of trouble with the very authorities you looked up to, was labeled a blasphemer, and was eventually crucified on a Roman cross for such heinous crimes as claiming to be one with Yahweh.

But then… things start to happen. You heard that at his crucifixion, the veil of the temple was torn in two. You heard that whatever power was present was strong enough to spontaneously rise people from their graves. And then you heard stories about people who seemed to see Jesus alive after he rose. What’s more, these stories came mostly from Jesus’ closet followers—who were Jews!—and would have not have good reason to make up this resurrection story. After all, right up until the event, they thought Jesus was already defeated and that his plan had failed. They weren’t about to go making up stories that would get them killed! Besides, those stories wouldn’t make sense anyway in the context of their faith, because they only believed in one final resurrection at the end of time. “Ghost stories” in their culture would have only proved that Jesus was dead, not physically risen.

Then Pentecost happens. The Spirit of God miraculously descends and Jews from all over the known world began to follow the risen Jesus. The personal stories of salvation, deliverance from sin, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus become too powerful to resist. You decide to believe in him for your salvation and the Spirit of God takes up residence in you.

…Now what? What do you do with thousands of years of Jewish history? Wipe it down the drain? Start over with a death sentence? Wait, do you obey the law? Must you be circumsized? What the heck is water baptism? Does the Spirit of God really live in side of me? I don’t go to the temple on Saturday anymore? Wait, no more sacrifices?

I. Don’t. Get. It.

And this is exactly what the Apostle Paul—a highly esteemed and converted Pharisee himself—is ultimately helping the Galatians work through. He had been there before and preached the true gospel to them, which they followed.

Galatians 1:6–8 (KJV 1900)

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.

They had been led astray by a group called the Judaizers, and in particular, the “social” and “elitist” varieties which placed a strong emphasis on both a social and salvific role of Jewish laws and customs on both Jewish and Gentile believers. In other words, the sort of people Paul was up against were adding the works of the law to the gospel, and doing so both in terms of association with the group and salvation from their sin.

And we should not be too hard on them, either. Even the Apostle Peter needed multiple lessons to overcome his deeply-held Jewish beliefs (Acts 10/Cornelius and a rebuke from Paul in Antioch). These 6 chapters represent Paul’s strongest rebuke of these practices and one of his most notable contributions to the discussion of the role of the Law in the early church.

For our purposes, the book culminates in a very Christ-like curveball he throws in the fray of Chapter—specifically, verse 14:

Galatians 5:14 (KJV 1900)

14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On what authority does Paul make such a claim? How could love—one single word—be so all-consuming as to erase the need for 613 very specific pieces of instruction for how to live and please God. How it could be that simple?

1. What’s Love Got to do With it?

Galatians 5:2–6

This is actually a very fair question, especially for these early Jewish converts. In the Hebrew Bible, reconciliation with God was very personal. One did not necessarily demonstrate their allegiance to God by how well they loved other people, although they were clearly commanded to treat others (including outsiders) well. For Jews, loyalty to Yahweh was a very personal matter; their Jewishness was important, but each one still needed his own sins to be atoned for, and his own uncleanliness would mark him unfit to be in Yahweh’s sacred space.

This is what makes Gal. 5:2-6 so very striking. Let’s look at it again:

Galatians 5:2–6 (KJV 1900)

Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.

Circumcision was, again, one of the primary ways that one physically demonstrates his own loyalty and allegiance to Yahweh. And here’s Paul—the Pharisee of Pharisee’s—with the unimaginable view that one who relies on their circumcision for salvation in in debt to the law—in other words, most obey it to the full.

He goes further. Even that is not good enough. Because once you rely on the law to accomplish salvation, you make Christ’s work pointless. Literally, of no effect. You fall from grace because you’ve placed you reliance on God’s favor and rescue into a system which he longer (and truly never did) intended to produce favor and rescue.

Verse 5 is the unsung hero of this passage, and it’s rich with “Christianese” language,   making it easy for us to miss or dismiss. Let’s look closer:

  1. The Spirit (of God)
  2. Produces righteousness
  3. For which we wait
  4. By faith

Donald Campbell puts it like this:

In contrast with legalists, true believers by faith (not works) eagerly await (apekdechometha; used seven times in the NT of the return of Christ: Rom. 8:19, 23, 25; 1 Cor. 1:7; Gal. 5:5; Phil. 3:20; Heb. 9:28) the consummation of their salvation (cf. Rom. 8:18–25). Then the righteousness for which we hope will be fully realized (cf. 1 Peter 1:3–4, 13). At the coming of Christ believers will be completely conformed to all the requirements of God’s will. The inward and forensic righteousness which began at justification will be transformed into an outward righteousness at glorification. God will then publicly acknowledge all believers’ full acceptability with Him.

Campbell, D. K. (1985). Galatians. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 605). Victor Books.

This amazing verse tells us what we no longer have to strive for righteousness by keeping the works of the law. And Thank God, because that plan failed miserably! As Jesus told one of the Pharisees:

Matthew 23:15 (KJV 1900)

15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

In these people, the law produced hypocrisy—not righteousness. They taught people that they could be right with God by following the law, which was not only incorrect, but led them into highmindedness and further away from the Gospel.

So instead of fear by the law, Paul is leading the Galatians (and us!) to an understanding of faith by grace. What’s even more powerful, though, is what Paul tells us next. This is a radical shift. Look at verse 6:

Galatians 5:6 (KJV 1900)

For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.

Loyalty to God was once demonstrated by physical mutilation (among other things—sure glad I didn’t live back then!). For the believer in Christ, it is demonstrated (worketh) by love for other people.

Can we be real honest? It’s hard for Pharisees to love. It was back then. And it is today. Because as long as a standard outside the hope of righteousness through faith, demonstrates by love, is being applied to a believer, that person can not truly experience victory.

But there’s another danger, one which Paul was keenly aware of and addresses throughout the New Testament. Suppose one finally begins to grasp the meaning of grace… what happens then? Does he live victoriously in power over sin, or does he allow his new found freedom to create opportunities for it?

2. The Power of Love

Galatians 5:7-14

An initial read of this next section seems confusing. It seems like a detour that doesn’t fit. But the logic of Paul’s argument becomes clear upon further examination. Let’s look at these verses:

Galatians 5:7–14 (KJV 1900)

Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be. 11 And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. 12 I would they were even cut off which trouble you.

13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

First, Paul had to clear the air about a personal matter. There was apparently a Billy Blabbermouth and a Lying Lilly in the area telling people that even Paul thought one must be circumsized to be right with God. Ever had people tell a lie about you to get people on their side?

To make sure Paul was abundantly clear, he tells them exactly what he thinks of people who teach that. They should go ahead and just castrate (cut off) themselves and go the rest of the way like the Pagans do!

He digresses; followers of Jesus have been called into liberty—freedom! But not the kind of freedom that invites license to sin. Paul knew that might confuse people, and clarifies his position (in no uncertain terms) in the book of Romans:

Romans 6:1–2 (KJV 1900)

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?

You don’t use this newfound freedom and liberty as an occasion to sin and please the flesh (which he uses the rest of the chapter to underscore), no! You use it to serve others by loving them well. The gospel is about a trade. A few of them, actually, but for Paul here, it’s a trade from the lifestyle of bondage and law-keeping to freedom and love-spreading.

Stop being so focused on yourself, says Paul, and use your liberty in Christ to look outward and serve the people who matter most. And as if his point was not already clear, he makes one of the most shocking statements in the entire Bible to cement it:

Galatians 5:14 (KJV 1900)

14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Paul is making two extremely important points here:

  1. Don’t worry about your standing with God. Christ has taken care of that. You wait with hope of righteousness by faith, through the power of God’s Spirit. God did the work; you can rest. All those rules and regulations are now subsumed by your freedom in Christ.
  2. Love literally fulfills the law. Christ made the same point when he said the came to fulfill the law. The point is the law was about the relationship between you and God, and you and other Image-Bearers of God. If you have true love for God, and for people, you can’t help but fulfill the law!

Here’s Paul making the same point elsewhere:

Romans 13:8–10 (KJV 1900)

Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

John makes the point as well, adding the helpful clarification (and warning!) that one who claims to follow Christ but does not have love for his brother/neighbor is lying:

1 John 2:3–11 (KJV 1900)

And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked. Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. 10 He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. 11 But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.

Again, LOVE is the demonstration of God’s Spirit living in and working through you. And that is the hallmark of a Christian.

3. What is Love?

(Baby, don’t hurt me)

Gal. 5:15-18

As you can imagine, there was much confusion, contention, strife, and bitterness among the brothers and sisters of the Galatian churches. Paul made sure to take this opportunity to resolve some of these issues as well.

But he doesn’t take a long time to get too the root of the problem! These believers had been so distracted by their attempts to please God and be justified by the law that they had let their zealousness get in the way of Godly practice. They hurt one another instead of encouraging one another. In what might have seemed like a shocking revelation, the law actually plays to the works of the flesh, not the Spirit:

Galatians 5:15–18 (KJV 1900)

15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. 16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. 18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

This is the great transition point in the chapter. God’s people must not be led by the works of the flesh. A person who lives by the flesh can only find salvation in the law. But we already know that salvation by the law is impossible!

In your life, do you ever find yourself working so hard to please God that it is taking the place of living in faith and freedom, and loving others? I think of my friend Jared, who lives by the lake and often takes boat rides in the early morning. He made the point that people are often praying for God to “show up” or to “move,” when if they’d open their eyes early enough to see the sunrise, they would find God all around them.

The great irony of the Christian life is that God is closer than we could ever imagine, yet we strive, work, and long to see him. According to the the Bible, the more we love people, the more we see him. And the more we demonstrate him to others. That’s exactly what Jesus thought:

Matthew 25:34–40 (KJV 1900)

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

In other words, how we treat other people is how we treat Jesus. Do we treat them with love and serve them? Or pass them by? The closer you look at God’s Word, the clearer it becomes: We’ll be known by God and man for how well we loved people, not how well we kept the law.

And if you’re led by the Spirit, you are not under the law anyway! The Spirit will lead you into the love of other people. It is our own flesh that drives us back into the place of relying on the law and the insidious cycle of sin (Romans 7).

4. God’s Love Story

(Baby, just say yes)

Galatians 5: 19-26

This final section compares what it is like to live bound by slavery to the flesh into-stead of freedom through the Spirit of God. Paul runs through a list that would make you blush, hitting on many of the pet sins both believers and unbelievers alike have struggled with.

Earlier in the book of Galatians, Paul makes the point that the law was a schoolmaster. In other words, the law helps us to see how those things are wrong, but it cannot go far enough to rescue us from them. For that, we’ll need a transformation of that heart. Willpower won’t do it. Clenching our fists a little tighter won’t do it. Logic won’t do it.

Only the transforming power of the Spirit can produce in us a desire to do the works of the Spirit; those works that please God. One who is surrendered to God and living by faith will exhibit these things:

Galatians 5:22–23 (KJV 1900)

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

And to make sure he’s clear, he puts an exclamation mark on it — against these things, there is no law. You don’t have to use the Fruits of the Spirit to measure anything. You can’t be too loving, too joyous, too peaceful, etc. These are limitless because they are powered by the unlimited power of God.

The same power God used to create the world literally lives inside of you and gives you everything you need to live a joyous, victorious Christian life. This is where the rubber meets the road, and is one of the hardest things for us to grasp about Christianity.

In one sense, it relives me to know that even the earliest Christians (Paul himself!) struggled with this. Paul ends this chapter by making sure people know that love is not an ooey-gooey feeling, but a “boots on the ground” action:

Galatians 5:25–26 (KJV 1900)

25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. 26 Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.

Sure—we must live by the Spirit. Failure to do so results in the bondage that Paul has been refuting in this chapter. But it’s more than just our orientation toward God and away from the works of the flesh, it shows up in our daily abiding. It shows up in our relationships.

We know this because chapter 6 dives headfirst into the argument, but also because verse 26 of the present chapter warns us to not take pride in our actions. That is “law” thinking again. The point is not to provoke one another of to be desirious that people would think much of us. (It’s easy to pay for everyone’s dinner when you know what people will think of you after.)

We love because he first loved us.

The point is to live by the Spirit AND walk in the Spirit, guided by the love of God and manifesting the love of God, not because we’re so righteous; but because we’re redeemed.


1 Corinthians 13 is often called the “Love Chapter” of the Bible. Here’s what it says about love:

  • “Love is patient,” – Love can endure hardship, delays, and difficulties without becoming impatient.
  • “love is kind.” – Love seeks to do good, to be generous, and to take care of others.
  • “It does not envy,” – Love does not desire what others have. It is content.
  • “it does not boast,” – Love does not brag about its accomplishments.
  • “it is not proud.” – Love is not arrogant or condescending.
  • “It does not dishonor others,” – Love respects others and does not behave rudely.
  • “it is not self-seeking,” – Love does not insist on its own way. It is unselfish.
  • “it is not easily angered,” – Love does not get angry quickly.
  • “it keeps no record of wrongs.” – Love does not hold grudges. It forgives.
  • “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” – Love is not pleased with wrongdoing, but it is glad when truth prevails.
  • “It always protects,” – Love always seeks to guard and shield.
  • “always trusts,” – Love always has faith and trust.
  • “always hopes,” – Love always remains hopeful, even in tough times.
  • “always perseveres.” – Love endures through every circumstance. It never gives up.

As the great Philosophers of Song, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, wrote:

All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.

But not ooey-gooey love. Christ-honoring, Spirit-produced, people-serving kind of love. That’s what the world needs now.

Meet Steve

Meet Steve

Hi, I’m Steve, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher with a heart for exploring God’s Word and God’s world.

I’m interested in the surprising connection between creation, theology, business, and storytelling. We explore those themes and more on this blog.

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