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Acta Theologica

On-line version ISSN 2309-9089
Print version ISSN 1015-8758

Acta theol. vol.34  suppl.19 Bloemfontein  2014


The relation between freedom, love, spirit and flesh in Galatians 5:13



Peter G. Kirchschlaeger

Dr. Lehrstuhlvertretung: New Testament Studies, Chur University of Theology, & Research Associate, Department of New Testament, Faculty of Theology, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. E-mail:




In the Letter of Paul to the Galatian churches the concepts "freedom," "love," "Spirit" and "flesh" are important: the semantic dimension of the letter and the theology of the letter strongly depend on these key concepts. Simultaneously, there is a complex relation and interaction between the four concepts. Hence an analysis of the above terms in Galatians 5:13 can contribute to the understanding of the letter. To achieve such understanding, the textual context and the structure of the text are discussed in order to establish a summarising exegesis of 5:1-24, with the focus on an analysis of these terms. This summarising exegesis then forms the basis for a reflection on the relation between "freedom," "love," "Spirit" and "flesh" in 5:13.

Keywords: Pauline Literature, Galatians 5:13, Spirit, Freedom, Love, Flesh

Trefwoorde: Pauliniese Literatuur, Galasiërs 5:13, Gees, Vryheid, Liefde, Vlees




The terms "freedom," "love," "Spirit" and "flesh" in Galatians 5:13 are key concepts in the Paul's letter to the Galatian churches.1 They dominate partly the semantic dimension of the letter, and the theology of Galatians strongly depends on these key concepts. Hence an analysis of these terms in Galatians 5:13 can contribute to the understanding of the letter.

An overview of both the textual context and the structure of the text will be followed by a summarising exegesis of 5:1-24, with the focus on an analysis of the terms "freedom," "love," "Spirit" and "flesh," flowing into a discussion of the relation between these terms in 5:13.



Galatians 5:13 forms part of the corpus of the letter (1:11-6:10). Within the corpus, 5:13 belongs to the admonitory section on the life in the Spirit and the freedom from the law (5:13-6:10). This is preceded by a theological-argumentative section on justification by faith (3:1-5:12). Galatians 5:136:10 is then followed by a conclusion (6:11-18) (Frey 2006:192, 196).

As far as the structure of 5:13-6:10 is concerned, 5:13 contributes to the resumption of the topic "freedom in love" in 5:13-15, followed by a call to a life by the Spirit and a discussion of the opposition between "Spirit" and "flesh" in 5:16-18. This is illustrated with the catalogues of the works of the flesh in 5:19-21 and the fruit of the Spirit in 5:22-24. Galatians 5:25-26 opens the ensuing admonitory section, including several appeals to a life by the Spirit.



The semantic leading term in 5:13, ἐλευθερία, is used in 5:1 to open the entire section, as part of the proclaimed message that Jesus Christ is the liberator and frees the Galatians (Borse 1984:178). An interpretation of ἐλευθερία should include the following:

In line with its context, freedom from the law includes freedom from the obligation to be circumcised with all its consequences (see 5:3);

Following from this, there is freedom from a mentality of fulfilling commandments and regulations and linking them to salvation;

In analogy to the Exodus-episode, there is a liberation from the slavery of sin (see 1:4) through Christ;

The fundamental empowerment of the baptised through Jesus Christ to a new lifestyle and a new way of thinking and living;

The notion that the gift of freedom brings with it the burden of a responsibility to remain free (Egger 1985:35).

Obviously, Paul needed to remind the Galatians that they were liberated by Jesus Christ. He admonishes them to remain (στήετε) in Jesus Christ and not to return to slavery, i.e., to the opposite of freedom (Borse 1984:179). This imperative is in line with Paul's opposition to those in Jerusalem who threatened the freedom received from Jesus Christ (see 2:4-5). One concrete aspect of the yoke of slavery is compulsory circumcision which Paul presents as an alternative to Christ; thus the Galatians have to choose between the two (Egger 1985:35). Paul argues that, if both were required, faith in Jesus Christ would be useless (5:2). Thus, the decision to be taken by the Galatians is fundamental since choosing circumcision would mean acceptance of the entire law and putting one's life under the regime of the law (see 3:10, referring to Deut. 27:26). With his personal engagement, Paul testifies this emotionally (5:3: µαρτύροµαι first person singular, only in this instance, and in 1 Thess. 2:12 in Paul). This would imply separation from Jesus Christ (5:4: ατηργήθητε ἀπὸ Χριστοῦ) - with all its consequences. The prefix ατα- emphasises the intensity of Paul's assertion. The quintessence of "falling from grace" is even more serious if one considers the importance of χάρις for Christian existence (see 1:3, 6; 6:18 concerning the believers, and 1:15; 2:9, 21 concerning Paul). It means that one is no longer connected to Christ (Borse 1984:181). The irony of οἵτινες ἐν νόµῳ διαιοῦσθε becomes obvious as justification by observing the law was actually excluded beforehand.

Regarding the churches of Galatia, Paul recognises by means of a positive statement in 5:7, that they have been following the right path of being Christian. (A change in the tone, language and semantics can be noticed in this instance, in order to transmit the strong personal engagement.) However, this has been interrupted as they no longer obeyed ἀληθεία, i.e., the ἀλήθεια τοῦ εὐαγγελίου (Gal. 2:5). πείθεσθαι refers to existential trust in and engagement with the specific character of this "good message." Who are those opposing the ἀλήθεια τοῦ εὐαγγελίου? (The spreading of their dangerous influence is illustrated in 5:9 by the image of yeast, also used in 1 Cor. 5:6). One thing is clear (5:8): Their efforts do not correspond with God's calling; therefore, by following them, the churches of Galatia are no longer following God's calling. Consequently they lack an essential characteristic of a baptised person (see 1 Cor. 1:2) - a very strong accusation.

A surprising turn - a change in tone, showing the personal engagement of the author - takes place in 5:10. Paul expresses his trust that they will stay on the right path (Borse 1984:186). At the same time, he takes a clear stand against the opponents, expressing a threat of a condemnation to all of them, without exception.3 In 5:11, Paul again takes up the discussion of the law, with the unclear, but probably ironic, statement that he is not in favour of circumcision, because, if he were, prosecution would not be an issue for him.4 In this instance, περιτοµή is a pars pro toto for the law and stands for a particular understanding of salvation (see 2:15-21). In 5:11, τὸ σάνδαλοντοῦ σταυροῦ reminds one of 1 Corinthians 1:23, and refers to the issue of the acceptance of this path; this is not meant in a historical way. σταυρός stands for the entire reality of Christ, leading to freedom from the law.

In 5:12, Paul attacks the opponents, who create trouble (οἱ ἀναστατοῦντες) among the Galatians, in a polemical manner and full of emotion, against the background of Deuteronomy 23:2, with the result that the equivalence to their practice is idolatry (ἀποόψονται: "[I]t is clear from the context that Paul has in mind the removal of the private parts of his opponents" [Tolmie 2009:87.]). Paul uses rather negative words for his opponents. The polemic in and the entire verse must be understood in terms of its rhetorical function:

Paul is using a very negative description of his opponents -naturally so, because he is still continuing his vilification5 of them; at the same time, he is portraying the Christians in Galatia as their victims. According to him, the opponents do not have any good motives; in fact, they are destabilising the situation in the Christian congregations in Galatia (Tolmie 2009:87).

With this sarcastic approach, Paul creates a distance between his addressees and the opponents, based on the horror of such practice and on his negative feelings about the opponents (Betz 1979:270).

In 5:13, ἐλευθερία builds on this thematic basis, recalling 5:1a. Verse 5:13 returns to some fundamental assertions, using a very engaged tone, and addressing Paul's audience directly (second person plural). A variation can be detected between 5:13 and 5:1a:



In 5:13a, instead of an explicit subject, there is a theological passive, referring to the addressees as subjects. ἠλευθέρωσεν (in 5:1a) is thus interpreted by ἐκλήθητε, with God as the implicit subject of the theological passive (see also 1:15). It is difficult to identify the precise meaning of έπί with the dative exactly: in, to, or due to (Aland & Aland 1988:581-583). One must remain open for a variety of interpretations. γάρ is probably not meant as a stringent argument, but as perpetuating and leading over. (Were it to introduce a stringent argument, it would have referred to 5:7-8, but this does not seem to be the case).

The entire phrase possesses the character of an impressive repetition of the term "freedom." Furthermore - and in addition to the meaning of 5:1 and the thematic foundation built in the ensuing verses - 5:13 links "freedom" to the theme of the vocation (λήθητε), picking up the basic theme of the letter (see 5:8) already mentioned at the beginning (see 1:6). This freedom is a gift from God and part of the call by God through Christ.

It appears that Paul is well aware of the fact that his addressees could misunderstand "freedom". Therefore, in 5:13b, he explains precisely what he means by "freedom," differentiating it from any possible misunderstanding of the term (Egger 1985:37). Paul describes such a misunderstanding in a typical Pauline way: εἰς ἀορµὴν τῇ σαρί. Freedom may not be used as a false pretence or as an opportunity for the fleshly human being to follow her or his instincts. To illustrate what he has in mind, Paul then cites a catalogue of a life in the flesh in 5:19-21. In Galatians 5:13, άλλά introduces the positive side, corresponding to freedom: διὰ τῆς ἀγάπης δουλεύετε ἀλλήλοις. Through the term ἀγάπη the assertion is thematically related to 5:6. One finds this term especially in the New Testament; outside the Bible it is hardly used.6 Paul uses the term mostly for brotherly love which is linked with the love of God expressed in his revelation to humankind in Jesus Christ (see Rom. 8:32, 39; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; 5:22; Rom. 5:6, 8, 10; 15:30; 2 Cor. 5:14). Therefore, Paul does not use it only to refer to a purely ethical commandment of brotherly love, but also to refer to ἀγάπη as a gift from God; it is simultaneously a gift of God and a commandment (see 1 Cor. 14:1; 16:14; Rom. 13:8-9; 15:1).7

The term ἀγάπη links 5:13 to 5:6: οὔτε ... ἰσχύει οὔτε relativises the difference between Jews and Gentiles (see 2:6, 15) with the all decisive πίστις δι' ἀγάπης ἐνεργουµένη: "Faith" has an impact and a force; it is not a mere theoretical issue. Paul uses ἐνεργέω in Galatians twice more (2:8 [twice]; 3:5) where God is the acting subject. This corresponds to a general Pauline usage (see 1 Cor. 12:6, 11; Phil. 2:13; 1 Thess. 2:13) and emphasises that God empowers one to act out of love. It should not be confined to brotherly love, but should be considered as a basic attitude of love, based on faith in Christ; thus love with its origin in a personal relationship with Christ. Love is thus to be understood basically as a relational category.

Verse 5:13 amplifies the message of 5:6 in two ways. Firstly, "love" is explicitly linked to one's behaviour towards other believers. A life following the call by God and based on "freedom" should be oriented towards other believers in the churches of Galatia. Secondly, the interaction with each other is described as "slavery." In the light of Galatians 4, the use of the term δουλεύετε here is extremely strong. Its point lies in the orientation of the slavery mentioned here: they should serve each other, not the law.

"Love" remains central in 5:14. It is the point of reference for the modal attitude of serving each other and for the correct perception of the law. The respect for, and the fulfilment of the law (πᾶς νόµος ... πεπλήρωται) does not imply the implementation of every single letter of the law, but the pervasion of one's own attitude of serving and readiness to help with love (see also Rom. 13:8-9). Therefore, Paul gives a clear indication of the understanding of the relationship as one of Christians following the example of Jesus himself. Faith can be effective and have an impact (see 5:6) only in this way; not by observing regulations.

This fundamental message is ironically and sarcastically directed to the churches of Galatia in 5:15. The exaggerated imagery - found on many occasions in profane literature (e.g., Plutarch, Mor. 2234d-e; Epictet, Diss. II 22,27-28; Lucian, Pisc 36) - echoes the emotionally intense discussion, the origin of which probably lies in the Pauline mission.

The starting point of 5:16 is the concern that freedom could be understood in an arbitrary way and could form the basis of a life full of vices (as mentioned in 5:13). Therefore, Paul points out πνεῦµα as the point of reference for Christians, thereby embedding it in the reality of baptism. πνεύµατι περιπατεῖτε can be paraphrased as "live your life based on the foundation of your baptism." αὶ ἐπιθυµίαν σαρὸς οὐ µὴ τελέσητε has a consecutive mode: A life based on the foundation of one's baptism will not allow the "flesh" to gain control. "Spirit" and "flesh" have to be understood in terms of the two catalogues in 5:19-21 (flesh) and in 5:22-24 (Spirit). The opposition between the two, already mentioned in 5:16, is emphasised in 5:17, which provides a reason for the assertion in 5:16. The emphasis is formulated in a way (a double reciprocity) that gives the most weight to the irreconcilable opposition between "flesh" and "Spirit." The relevance of this verse is enhanced rhetorically: the antithetic parallelism underlines the predicate positioned in the centre:


The rhetorical structure already points to the conclusion: ταῦτα γὰρ ἀλλήλοις ἀντίειται.

The verse ends with the final sentence, ἵνα µὴ ἃ ἐὰν θέλη