One Another Texts: Serve One Another

The Christian, having his whole being grasped by the gospel of God’s Son, no longer lives like a master with many servants, demanding they each please and satisfy him. No. The Christian is now a freeborn slave, a servant who lends himself out freely to many masters.

Galatians 5:13 encapsulates this radical teaching of Jesus Christ in these words: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Walk with me now as we survey Paul’s construction of this summons to the radically outward life of self-forgetfulness expected of all who are in Christ Jesus. It is a summons flawlessly built on the firm foundation of God’s gospel of redeeming grace.

Verse 13 opens with a soaring indicative. It declares before it demands: “For you were called to freedom, brothers.”  

The word “called” in Paul is a reference to the will and activity of God. Thus, Paul is saying this freedom is not something the Christian is striving to bring to completion. It is something finished. God has created it and God has brought it to us and us to it. God has placed it in our hands, like a mortgage fully paid. It is, as we shall see, this foundational finished freedom which allows the Christian to serve one another through love.

Now, what about this freedom, what is it? In Galatia, false teachers were trying to put the conscience of Christian believers back in debt before God. They were calling the believers to perform Jewish rites and customs saying, “If you don’t perform these, you will remain guilty and unclean before God. You must keep proving yourself worthy to God. You owe God circumcision. You owe God this ceremony and that dietary regulation and this feast day observance.” This false gospel shriveled up an outward life of service; it did so by either inflating pride in the strong or driving the weak into a labyrinth of performative introspection.

None of this bothered the false teachers. They wanted to extinguish the liberty the gospel gives a man before God. The gospel proclaims that rites and customs can never remove guilt. Only Christ crucified and risen removes the sinner’s guilt and makes him clean. The gospel proclaims by faith alone in Christ alone all man’s guilt before God is vanquished.

In the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia, Paul stunned the Jews saying: “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).
But now look back to what Paul says in his next breath in Galatians 5:13b - “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” The freedom for sinners secured by the death and resurrection of Christ in no way leaves us intoxicated with ourselves.

The word Paul uses for “opportunity” often means springboard or launching off point. In some Greek writings it refers to a base of operations for an expedition. If this is how Paul means it, he is then saying: “Do not use your gospel freedom as a doctrinal principle by which you leap off into all kinds of self-serving behaviors.” By speaking of “the flesh,” Paul does not just mean the appetites of the body. He chiefly means the appetites of our fallen human nature, which may include the appetites of the body, but the term goes far beyond this. The appetites of the flesh may even be intellectual and emotional. In general, what the flesh means is sinful self-indulgence cravings not from the Spirit of God. Paul is making clear that the freedom of the gospel is not a freedom to sin, it is freedom to not sin. The gospel, as John Stott wisely said is “not an unrestricted liberty to wallow in our own selfishness.”

But why must Paul say this? Because in Christ you have extravagant freedom before God. In union with Christ, you have already performed all God requires of you to be fully reconciled and accepted as his child (Heidelberg Catechism, 60). But you gravely misunderstand this wonderful gospel if you use it to flee from responsibilities toward others. If the love of God in Christ toward your sin does not make you more loving, you have not yet experienced the love of God in Christ.

Which brings us to the final phrase of Galatians 5:13. Paul’s phrase, “through love serve one another,” could literally be translated, “ through love be slaves to one another.” To expand the expression, Paul is saying: “Now, being free from all the pride and anxiety of having to perform for your acceptance with God, which false gospels demand, let us turn away from exalting ourselves and freely bind ourselves like slaves to one another, proving our freedom in Christ”

Where have you bound yourself freely to serve others? Church membership vows. Meeting together with the saints on the Lord’s Day. Doing the good works Christ prepared beforehand for you to do. Giving alms to the poor. Praying in secret for the suffering family of God and the mission works of the church. Rejoice. Such loving service proves you are free in Christ.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley