I’ve been struck again by the wonderful depth and simplicity of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, this time with respect to his treatment of the spiritual struggle in the final chapters. Justification is not a process or a reward for those who are victorious in battle. Rather, it is a completed verdict that is rendered on the sole basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness. Precisely on this basis, we have a lot of work ahead of us. It will be a battle; we’ll win some and lose some. However, the war itself has been decided. We live from Christ’s victory over sin’s guilt and power toward Christ’s victory over sin’s presence. In the meantime, it’s choppy waters.

What pain and what gain? First, it’s crucial to notice that Paul is not talking about justification but sanctification here. The pain is perpetual struggle, warfare, and battle between the Spirit and the flesh, not between justification and condemnation. All of those who are justified are in Christ and therefore are indwelled by the Spirit. In the old covenant, provision for atonement was made in the sacrificial system of the Temple that the Spirit filled with his glory. And yet, in the new covenant the law is written on our hearts, our sins are forgiven, and the Spirit indwells us as his temple. Yet this very indwelling of the Spirit arouses the flesh to arms. Paul is not saying that we walk in the Spirit in order to be justified, but that those who are justified are in the Spirit and therefore must “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16).

Seeking to bring the church back under the old covenant, Paul’s opponents in Galatia had not even realized that the heart of the law is love. Like his gospel, Paul’s law is too simple. His critics demanded that Gentile believers be circumcised, keep kosher, and “observe days and months and seasons and years” (4:10). In the meantime, they looked down on others (especially Gentiles who didn’t act like Jews). Like Jesus in his exchanges with the Pharisees, Paul not only blames his opponents for confusing the law with the gospel but for setting aside God’s law (summarized by love) to obey their own rules, programs and ceremonies. The result of this false righteousness was disregard for God’s law under the pretense of fulfilling it. Legalism bred arrogance; instead of building each other up in the gospel and love, they were biting and devouring each other over who was “in” and who was “out.”

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). Clearly, this cannot mean that the Spirit is opposed to the moral law, which he has summarized (like Jesus-indeed, Moses as well) as the command to love. In fact, the “fruit of the Spirit” are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (v 22)-precisely the moral characteristics that the law aimed at but never could bring about because of our perversity. Far from setting aside the moral law, Paul is saying that the gospel is the only foundation on which true godliness can arise. Like Jesus, Paul refuses to pit law against love; it is love, not the observances and rules that we impose, to which all of God’s moral commands are directed.

Only in Christ, justified apart from works of the law, can the deeper intent of the law be fulfilled in us. In other words, now that we are in Christ, justified by a perfect righteousness imputed, we are finally free to “walk in the Spirit” and to fight against the flesh without any anxiety about the outcome. Will there be set-backs? Of course! Failures only happen if you’re in the fight. You will fall short, but that’s not the point anymore. Justified in Christ alone, you are free to love and serve your neighbor simply out of tainted love, more or less for his or her own good.

In their commentaries, Luther and Calvin make the same point: to no longer be “under the law” means that we are free of its condemnation, not of its command. Because we are justified, we are able to bear the fruit of love toward our neighbors: “that is,” Luther comments, so that the law “might begin to be fulfilled in us.” Only our justification is perfect, since it’s the imputation of Christ’s righteousness; the fruit of faith-namely, love-is partial in sanctification. And yet, it is truly begun. Paul is telling us, Luther adds, that we will never fulfill the law sufficiently, while “in the meantime nevertheless endeavoring diligently to walk in the Spirit, that is, wrestle against the flesh and follow spiritual motions…for that is all ye are able to do. Obey the Spirit and fight against the flesh.” Paul’s point is not to seek justification by works, but, having been justified by grace alone, to “walk in the Spirit, and thereby not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” Passive recipients of God’s favor and gift in Christ, we are thereby made active enemies of our sinful attitudes and actions. “Yea, the more godly a man is,” Luther says, “the more doth he feel that battle…Of this battle, the hermits, the monks, and the schoolmen, and all that seek righteousness and salvation by works, know nothing at all.”

So this is the irony: only a gospel of free righteousness in Christ alone, apart from works, is able produce the fruit of the Spirit, while works-righteousness keeps the fruit of the flesh well-watered. All of our righteousness before God is imputed. “But it followeth not,” Luther adds, “that thou shouldest make a light matter of sin, because God doth not impute it. True it is that he doth not impute it; but to whom, and for what cause? To such as repent and lay hold by faith upon Christ the mercy-seat, for whose sake, as all their sins are forgiven them, even so the remnants of sin which are in them be not imputed unto them.” They can freely accept the true weight of their sin precisely because it is borne by Christ. Nevertheless, “God always hateth sin,” and the believer does also-which is precisely why the battle is so severe. Those who do not abhor their sin and cling to Christ “die in their sins.” “Wherefore we speak not of them which dream that they have faith and yet continue still in their sins. These men have their judgment already: They that live after the flesh shall die.”

This is precisely Paul’s point in verse 21, after listing the fruit of the flesh: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” The verb “do” here is a present participle, prassontes, meaning “practice”-as a pattern of life. Paul is not listing unpardonable sins; rather, he is talking about someone who is not even in the fight, someone who has not taken a definitive stand with God against his own sin. For Paul, “the flesh” means our old identity in Adam, under the power of sin and death. You will fall, but you take God’s side against your sin-and not just in general, but specific sins. You hate it. You long to be free of its presence in your life. The flesh remains strong, “to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (v 17). Nevertheless, the condemnation of the law has been removed and now we are free to engage the battle without fear, self-righteousness, or despair-in dependence on the Spirit. The command is not to win enough victories over sin to enter into the life of the Spirit. On the contrary, believers are in the Spirit and therefore are commanded to “walk by the Spirit” and so bear the Spirit’s fruit.

Even this can be turned into a form of self-righteous ranking, though. Many teach that Paul has in mind a “second blessing.” Economy fliers are justified, but through a separate act of faith some move up to first class. They live the higher and victorious Christian life. They are not run-of-the-mill “carnal” Christians, but sold-out, on-fire, radically-crazy-for-Jesus people, living “in the Spirit” rather than “in the flesh.” But here, as in Romans 6-8, Paul teaches that all believers are simultaneously justified, filled with the Spirit, and therefore engaged in a battle that seems often like a hopeless cause when viewed from our point of view. No believer is “carnal” (i.e., defeated, living “in the flesh”) or living above the battle with indwelling sin. Antinomianism and legalism tempt us to go AWOL in this battle, either by passive resignation to indwelling sin or by an activism that has neither the gospel as its power nor the law of love as its goal.

If God cannot condemn us, since we are justified, then how can we condemn each other? Ironically, legalism is breeding antinomianism in the Galatian church. Legalism has no power to create a new heart; on the contrary, it’s like pouring gasoline on the raging fire. Notice how, among the “works of the flesh,” Paul includes “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy” in between “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery” and “drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (vv 19-21). Outside of Christ and his Spirit, it’s death; legalism and antinomianism merge into one. Sniping gossips and censorious judges are lumped together with witches. Dividing the church into “haves” and “have-nots” is right up there with orgies and idol-worship. Refusing to cling to Christ alone for all of their spiritual blessings, each in its own way sets aside both the gospel of grace and the law of love.

The reformers were quite right to see parallels between the legalism of the first-century and the medieval church. We should also see parallels with our own day. In our own evangelical circles, we often hear more about spiritual disciplines, devotions, quiet times, and personal growth than we do about either the gospel or the law that summons us to love our neighbors. We tend to think of sanctification-this war of the Spirit against the flesh-almost exclusively in terms of our own inner life. While that is certainly present and personal disciplines are included in the pursuit of godly maturity, the fruit of the Spirit and of the flesh are revealed chiefly in our relationships with others. Clinging to the merit of works leads us to set aside God’s law of love, which none of us fulfills as we ought, in order to establish our own more flashy and attainable works of piety that God has never commanded. Like the external show of the religious experts confronted by Jesus and Paul, medieval piety drove sinners deeper into their narcissism rather than leading them outside of themselves, looking up in faith to God and out in love toward their neighbors. Like Jesus and Paul, the reformers pointed out how this kind of works-righteousness actually focused not on that charity that we owe to others-“the weightier matters of the law,” but fasts and washings and seasons and pilgrimages and other acts of private devotion that we think will impress God. However, they not only enrage God; they serve no useful purpose for our neighbors.

Calvin observes, “Let arrogance go and we shall be most moderate towards one another…But it often happens that we compare ourselves with others and from the low opinion that we form of them set a high price on ourselves.” If the gospel of free grace really does characterize the basis, source, and confidence of the church, then instead of looking for opportunities to catch a fellow believer in sin, Paul says “you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” and “keep watch on yourselves,” since each of us is just as prone to fall. We will “bear one another’s burdens” instead of loading them on each other. “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (6:1-3).

In this freedom, Paul can exhort, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (vv 9-10).

Here is the irony: Only in the gospel, where we passively receive Christ and all of his benefits, through faith apart from works, is it possible to become active in good works for the first time. On the secure basis of the Father’s acceptance in his Son are we able now at last to work hard, to “not grow weary of doing good,” to “not give up,” to strive more and more to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to love and serve our neighbors. Only because we are saved by grace apart from works can grace-wrought works blossom. Now the commandment is a wonderful summons to a life of love, knowing that our failure to fulfill this law will never be used against us in the court of law. So forget about your merits! Think now of those neighbors you encounter today who need your gifts, your time, your money, your words of comfort and exhortation. Love them not as a way of mollifying an angry judge or even of improving your own sanctification, but simply because they need you.

“Now let the Papists go and try to break their way into heaven by the merit of works!”, Calvin exclaims in response to this verse. Even our rewards “are the freely granted fruits of adoption,” gifts of God’s grace rather than merit. “The vast number of the needy overwhelms us; we are drained by paying out on every side. Our warmth is dampened by the coldness of others. Finally, the whole world is full of hindrances which turn us aside from the right path.” What does it matter? It is our vocation. Having been given everything by grace, God makes us debtors not to himself anymore, but to others. “Our common humanity makes us debtors to all; but we are bound to believers by a closer spiritual kinship, which God hallows among us.”