Ruled by Law or Led By Spirit?
Galatians 5:18

We might think that, by this time, Paul has left behind him the debate about the law and moved on to the quite different subject of practical holiness. Certainly, Galatians is often read as if this were the case. But if this were so, it would be impossible to explain the verse that now follows: 'But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law' (5:18). Here the apostle defines the relationship of the believer to the law in the context, not of justification, but of personal holiness. What connection is there, then, between righteous living and freedom from law?

This verse has important implications. It strengthens the view, expressed earlier in this commentary, that Paul's concern was not only with apostate legalists, but also with the threat which the law, when misapplied, poses to genuine believers. Commenting on this passage, Longenecker writes, 'The phrase ... "under the law" is undoubtedly to be read, as elsewhere throughout the Galatian letter... as referring to the nomistic lifestyle advocated by the Judaizers...'1 what, then, is the apostle telling us? Very simply that, for the believer, the indwelling Spirit has supplanted the external law as the controlling principle that guides his conduct.

Had Paul intended to teach that the law, or any part of it, should be the Christian's 'rule of life', here was his opportunity to do so. What does he say? He tells us that those led by the Spirit are not beholden to the law with respect to righteous living. Indeed, he seems to go further; being led by the Spirit and being ruled by the law are mutually exclusive in the area of Christian conduct. Of course, as we have already seen, those who are Spirit-led will fulfil the righteous requirements of the law. They will love God; they will not hate, murder, steal or lie; they will not covet. But this will not be because they subject themselves to the law, but because they are guided by the inwelling Spirit in conformity to the whole of God's Word and the example of Christ.

I referred earlier to the 'love affair' between the flesh and the law. Unregenerate human nature craves law, for law salves the conscience and feeds the pride of man. Witness the self-congratulations of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11: 'God, I thank you I am not like other men... I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' On the other hand, the absence of law leads the unregenerate to sin without constraint, although even they have consciences which, in the providence of God, restrain their worst excesses and allow stable societies to exist. But the Christian ethic is not a middle way between law and licentiousness. It is a higher way that avoids both errors. Led and empowered by the indwelling Spirit of God, and taught in the objective principles of Holy Scripture, the believer seeks to conform his life to the will of God.

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