Imagine this situation: your boss is going to pair you with a fellow employee for an extended work project, and has narrowed the options down to two. The first could be best described as law-abiding, and the second as very mature. Then your boss gives you the choice; whom do you choose?
Most of us would choose the co-worker who is more known for maturity. Why? Because a person can be law-abiding and at the same time be cantankerous, stubborn, uncompromising, and brittle in their interpersonal relationships. A mature person is none of those things, yet will also respect the rules. Even though the mature person is not primarily identified as law-abiding, they abide by the law while showing grace, patience, and self-giving in how they work with others.
This is the type of distinction Paul develops in Galatians 5-6. He is writing a people who have been “bewitched” (Galatians 3:1) by false teachers into thinking that God is primarily concerned about their ability to keep the Law of Moses, especially kosher eating and circumcision. These teachers modeled a life of boasting in human ability to keep these laws (Gal 6:13) such that the church in Galatia had a bitter edge to it. Paul had to warn them that their tendency to “bite and devour one another” would lead to them being “consumed by one another” (5:15).
Paul’s answer to the false teachers’ false gospel was neither to throw out the law as unnecessary nor to hold it up as the believer’s primary concern. He transcended these options with the call to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16). On the one hand, this paid no credence to the false teachers’ insistence on law-keeping as the prime marker of a follower of Jesus. Twice Paul stated that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything.” Rather, what matters before God is “faith working through love” (5:6) and “a new creation” (6:15), both the works of the Spirit. Even more bluntly, Paul states that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18). On the other hand, a life of walking by the Spirit will result in fulfilling the law. The Spirit bears the fruit of love in the life of the believing community, and “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:14). After listing off the other fruit of the Spirit–joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.–Paul asserts that “against such things there is no law” (5:23).
Few of us fall into the Galatian trap of making Old Testament law-keeping a badge we wear with pride. But have we substituted some other religious discipline as the standard that confirms our spiritual pedigree? Depending on the church tradition, standards such as theological knowledge, evangelistic fervor, time spent praying for revival, or social concern have often supplanted love, patience, kindness, and gentleness as the evidences that the Spirit is at work. Indeed, these need not be at odds any more than eating kosher food or circumcising children run contrary to walking by the Spirit. Yet the fruit of the Spirit must be primary in how we evaluate our spiritual health.
When others look at our church family, my prayer is that they will not primarily notice how stringently we keep our rules or attain to our version of being “good Christians.” Rather, my prayer is that others would be most impacted by how much the character of our church family reflects the character of our loving, joyful, peacemaking, patient, kind, faithful, gentle, self-controlled God. This is a work only the Spirit can do among us.