The Book of Galatians: Chapter 5 (verses 13-24)

January 2, 2024

by Peter Amsterdam

The previous article covered the first part of chapter 5, ending with verse 12. We’ll continue here with verse 13.

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.1

Paul declares that the Galatian believers were called by God to be free, and he is referring in particular to freedom from the law. The preceding passage had instructed the Galatians against following a message that enslaved them. The Judaizers had been negatively influencing the Galatians, but these believers were not to be troubled over whether they were to observe the Mosaic law.

When God called the Galatians, He called them to freedom from the law, and specifically from the requirement of circumcision. Paul was making the point that attempting to be right with God based on one’s obedience to the law was no longer necessary for believers, as they have been redeemed from the curse of the law through Jesus’ death on the cross. Paul had stated this earlier in his letter: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the lawWhen the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.2 As such, they live in freedom and joy as God’s children.

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”3

Paul made an astounding claim in stating that loving others fulfills God’s standard for behavior in Christian communities. He claims that by means of other-centered service, believers fulfill the demands of the Torah without being obligated to perform the requirements of the Torah. He asserts that “the whole law” is fulfilled in one word, in the living out of a single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.4 Paul was likely aware that Jesus had identified this commandment, along with the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your understanding, as the two most important commandments.5

Paul provided a more detailed explanation about the ways in which this commandment fulfilled the Mosaic Law in Romans 13:8–10, where he wrote: Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.6

Paul had made the point that the Old Testament writings had a limited role for a limited time, and that time had now passed. As a legal code to be followed in detail to show that one belonged to God’s people, or as a way to align with God’s standards, the role of the Mosaic Law had passed. To be “under Torah” (the Mosaic Law) after Jesus’ death and resurrection is to be in slavery, when God’s purpose is freedom. It reaffirms the incorrect concept that there is special value in being a Jew; whereas God had brought Jews and Gentiles together in Christ, and had broken down the dividing wall of hostility.7

But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.8

Paul points out that freedom is not to be equated with fighting and disunity, as that would seriously damage the church. As one author explains: The Galatians are admonished in colorful terms not to turn into animals that gnaw at and eat one another.9 The Galatians are never to think that freedom opens the door for strong criticism and hatred of others. If derogatory speech comes in and isn’t corrected, the church will implode.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.10

If believers want to conquer the flesh, they need to continually yield to the Holy Spirit. Paul shows what it means to serve one another through love in verses 5:13–15. The word walk expresses the need to submit to the Spirit day by day. Believers must choose to live by the Spirit, while the Spirit empowers them to live a life that pleases God.

If believers live in the Spirit, then they won’t put into practice the desires of the flesh. As the Galatians yield to the Holy Spirit, the desires of the flesh will be thwarted and conquered. Believers are not immune to such desires; they may still find them attractive, but believers can triumph over those desires as they walk in the Spirit.

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.11

Paul now explains why it is so crucial to walk in the Spirit. A battle occurs in the hearts of believers. The Holy Spirit dwells within them, and therefore the promised gift of the age to come is theirs. However, the present evil age has not passed away. The flesh and its desires are not absent. These desires of the flesh are opposed to the things of the Spirit. (When Paul refers to the desires of the flesh, he means following one’s fallen sinful desires and acting contrary to God’s moral laws.) Of course, believers have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, and the Spirit impels them to righteousness, so they have a strong desire for goodness.

The Spirit and the flesh are in opposition to each other. Even though believers enjoy the life of the age to come through the Holy Spirit, a battle with the flesh remains. The flesh and the Spirit vie against each other, and believers regularly face temptations. Walking in the Spirit is not the same as coasting along, for the flesh wars against the Spirit and Spirit wars against the flesh. Nevertheless, Paul is optimistic, as he claims that as one walks by the Spirit and is led by the Spirit, there is victory over the flesh.

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.12

Even though there is a conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, those who are led by the Spirit triumph over sin, because they are no longer under the law. The Spirit’s presence gives believers the ability to conquer the desires of the flesh. When we are led by the Spirit, when we submit to His guidance, we are set free from the legalism required by the law. We are to walk in the Spirit and be led by the Holy Spirit of God; for when we submit to His leading and guidance, we are delivered from a life of bondage to all sorts of fleshly inclinations and set free from legalistic practices. Paul points out that the Spirit and the law are two methods of living a Christian life that are diametrically opposed to one another.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality…13

The works of the flesh (which will be continued below) are easily discerned. These things that come from the flesh are generally clear to believers. Lists of vices are common in Paul’s writings, and their purpose is to point out qualities that aren’t pleasing to God and aren’t in alignment with life in the Spirit. The first three vices listed here focus on sexual sin. He referred to the same three in 2 Corinthians 12:21 to address sexual sins.

The term “sexual immorality” is used elsewhere in Paul’s writings and throughout the New Testament, where it is found over 30 times. It is a general term used to denote sexual wrongdoing. The word “impurity” also denotes sexual sin and is found nine times in Paul’s writings.14 The term “sensuality” is also commonly used for sexual sin (eight times), and emphasizes a lack of restraint.

… idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions.15

Idolatry and sorcery are listed together because they both focus on the refusal to worship the one true God. The main sin in Paul’s theology is the failure to praise and thank God for His goodness, and to turn away to the worship of idols. This is worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.16 Sorcery is condemned in both the Old and New Testaments.17 Instead of trusting in God, people try to control circumstances to bring about what they desire. Sorcery turns one from trusting in God to depending on other sources.

Enmity is only mentioned in this one instance in Paul’s vice lists. It denotes animosity and hatred that two or more people have for one another. Strife, which Paul uses numerous times in his writings, focuses on the contention that divides people from one another. Jealousy is a term which often has a positive content, signifying zeal and passion for God or for what is right.18 However, it may also refer to jealousy that is consumed by self-glorification.19

Fits of anger refers to strong flashes of anger, uncontrolled temper, poured out on others, causing damage to the one who is the object of the anger. Rivalries is elsewhere referred to as self-seeking or selfish ambition.20 This brings discord, as it doesn’t focus on the good of others but rather grasps for honor and praise for oneself.

Dissensions is a term that calls attention to division in a community as a result of sin. Divisions is a term which is used infrequently, which also calls attention to the division in a community because of sin.

…envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.21          

Envy is found in others of Paul’s vice lists.22 It centers on the desire to possess what others have. Envy causes one to not be satisfied with the gifts God has given, and it begrudges someone else’s prosperity.

Drunkenness and orgies are two words which are used to describe a decadent lifestyle. Reference to these is also found in Romans 13:13 and 1 Peter 4:3. Those who give themselves to this kind of revelry show that they are not living in the new age which has been brought about through Christ.

Paul says that he is warning the Galatians, as he has before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Doing the works of the flesh is no small thing. Paul warns the Galatians that those who continue to do so will not inherit the kingdom. Rather, they will face judgment on the final day along with the wicked.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.23

Paul now contrasts the “vice list” with the virtue list. There is no particular order to this list other than love appearing first. These godly qualities are the fruit of the Spirit, as opposed to the product of human strength. Believers don’t receive the Spirit by doing works of the law, but rather by hearing the gospel with faith.

The first fruit listed is love. The love of believers for others is rooted in the love God has given to believers through the Holy Spirit.24 Such love can also be traced to the Father,25 as well as the Son.26

Joy is a work of the Holy Spirit.27 The theme of joy is prominent in Philippians,28 where sacrificing for the unity of fellow believers is emphasized. Believers are called to trust that God is working all things together for their good.

Peace is often used in the opening of Paul’s letters. He connects it with joy elsewhere,29 and such peace is the result of the work of the Spirit.30 Christ has brought peace to both Jews and Gentiles through the cross.31

Patience is used here and elsewhere in Paul’s list of virtues.32 It is a work of God’s Spirit when one endures difficult situations without losing one’s calmness and composure.

Kindness is found in other virtue lists.33 It is particularly used to speak of God’s kindness in providing salvation through Jesus.34 Whenever believers are generous to others, especially when they extend help to those who don’t love in return, they imitate the Father and Christ.

Goodness is very similar to kindness. It is mentioned in only a few places in Paul’s writings.35 Those filled with the Spirit of God are given strength to live lives of goodness, of moral beauty, which shines into the needy world.

Faithfulness often means faith in Paul’s writings; however, here it means being faithful. Those led by the Spirit are loyal and dependable. They can be counted on to fulfill their responsibilities.

Gentleness is found in other of Paul’s virtue lists.36 Those who sin should be corrected gently, as gentleness characterized Jesus.37 Unbelievers should be gently corrected in the hope that they will repent.38 Harsh behavior is not the mark of the Spirit’s work.

Self-control is a rare word in the New Testament, found only a few times.39 Those who have self-control are able to restrain themselves when necessary.

Against such things there is no law.40

The meaning of this short phrase is difficult to interpret. Paul could mean that no law prohibits the fruit of the Spirit, and therefore no one can find fault with such virtues. Or, perhaps the point is that the law can never produce these godly qualities, but such is the result of the Spirit’s work. Throughout Galatians we have seen that the law cannot produce righteousness (3:21), and that those who are led by the Spirit are not under the law (5:18). In other words, those under the law are under the dominion of sin. The Spirit, then, produces fruit that the law cannot create.

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.41

Believers do not need the law to restrain their behavior. Because they belong to Christ, they have put to death the desires of the flesh. This verse points back to Galatians 2:20, which says: I have been crucified with Christ. The crucifixion of the flesh, then, occurred at conversion, when believers died with Christ.

The death of the flesh does not mean that believers no longer feel the temptation of fleshly desires. But the flesh has been dealt a decisive blow through Christ’s death on the cross. Though the desires of the flesh are not absent, they no longer rule and reign. Those who walk by the Spirit and who are led by the Spirit find themselves (though imperfectly) triumphing over the passions of the flesh that previously dominated them. 


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Galatians 5:13.

2 Galatians 3:13, 4:4–5.

3 Galatians 5:14.

4 Leviticus 19:18.

5 Mark 12:28–31; Matthew 22:34–40; Luke 10:25–28.

6 Romans 13:8–10.

7 Ephesians 2:14.

8 Galatians 5:15.

9 Thomas R. Schreiner, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians (Zondervan Academic, 2010), 336.

10 Galatians 5:16.

11 Galatians 5:17.

12 Galatians 5:18.

13 Galatians 5:19.

14 Romans 1:24, 6:19; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 4:19, 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:3, 4:7.

15 Galatians 5:20.

16 Romans 1:21–25.

17 Exodus 7:11, 22; Isaiah 47:9, 12; Revelation 18:23.

18 2 Corinthians 11:2; Numbers 25:13; 1 Kings 19:10; Zechariah 1:14.

19 Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 12:20.

20 Romans 2:8; Philippians 1:17, 2:3.

21 Galatians 5:21.

22 Romans 1:29; 1 Timothy 6:4; Titus 3:3.

23 Galatians 5:22–23.

24 Romans 5:5, 15:30.

25 Romans 8:39, 2 Corinthians 13:14, Ephesians 1:4, 2:4.

26 Romans 8:35, 2 Corinthians 5:14.

27 Romans 14:17.

28 Philippians 1:4,18,25; 2:2,17,18,28,29; 3:1; 4:1,4,10.

29 Romans 14:17, 15:13.

30 Romans 14:17.

31 Ephesians 2:14,15,17.

32 2 Corinthians 6:6; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 3:10.

33 2 Corinthians 6:6; Colossians 3:12.

34 Romans 2:4; Ephesians 2:7; Titus 3:4.

35 Romans 15:14; Ephesians 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:11.

36 Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12 [meekness in ESV, although NIV and some other versions say gentleness]; Titus 3:2.

37 2 Corinthians 10:1.

38 2 Timothy 2:25.

39 Acts 24:25; 2 Peter 1:6; 1 Corinthians 7:9, 9:25.

40 Galatians 5:23.

41 Galatians 5:24.