In Galatians 5:13 Paul addresses the Galatians as brethren, showing he doesn’t consider that they have lost their salvation, as some assume through a misapplication of Galatians 4:19. If asked if I thought the freedom we are offered in Christ was absolute or liberty in measure, I would have to say that such freedom must be absolute. Otherwise, we are not free at all. We would continue to be subject to the authority of something (or someone) else.
One of the questions I often think about is: how do others see me? Do people, especially unbelievers, see me as someone who is free or someone who is bound up or hung up on unnecessary things? I suppose the answer to such a question depends upon the person who considers my behavior. Some (especially brethren) may think of me as too free, having gone too far in my walk and have embraced too much of the world’s thinking. Others, depending upon the unbeliever (the irreligious for example), may think of me as “hung” up on unnecessary things. Still others may see me as exercising freedom in a somewhat healthy manner. I often see myself as still hung up on unnecessary things. I am continually repentant of the authority I give to other things and hopeful of the Spirit’s work in me to free me from both sin and law.
The nature of our freedom is liberty exercised through love. True Christian love is offered to all—friends and enemies alike—without strings. We don’t love others because they are like us or because we want something from them. We simply love them as Christ loves them, and stand ready to give ourselves to them when that is needed. As Christians, we need to exercise our freedom responsibly (Galatians 5:13-14), that is, as people who love God, and as people who love mankind. Our love of God will keep us from sinning secretly, and our love for men will keep us from sinning openly.
Jesus illustrated what Paul says in Galatians 5:13-14 when he washed the feet of the disciples (John 13:3-5, 12-17). Jesus’ act was the responsibility of a servant. He humbled himself in order to express his love for the disciples. Practically speaking, the hands that wash the feet also wash themselves. The idea is our own sins (or what we do, symbolized by the hands) are washed away as we wash away the sins of others (i.e. their walk, symbolized by the dirt on their feet). Peter says love covers an abundance of sins (1Peter 4:8), and he was quoting Proverbs 10:12. James says the same thing in James 5:19-20 where love is put into practice through convincing a brother of his error. Faith in Christ expressed in love fulfills the requirements of the Law (Galatians 5:6, 14). The believer is set free to love (Mark 12:28-31). Only loving others strengthens one’s stand in the freedom Christ has given us.
Paul warns us, however, against carrying liberty too far, living according to the desires of the flesh and giving ourselves permission to satisfy sinful desires (Galatians 5:15). What Paul is doing is alluding to Micah 3:5 and Habakkuk 2:1-10. There the Scriptures describe those who seek to rule over others and gain their support through false doctrine. They bite their followers—live off them, and make war against those who refuse to support them (cf. 2Corinthians 11:20). Eventually, those who have submitted to them will turn on them. Jesus spoke of the Pharisees who wouldn’t enter the Kingdom of God and also prevented others from doing so (Matthew 2313). They did this through their doctrine of righteousness through the Law of Moses, and Christ warned against that doctrine which he called leaven (Matthew 16:6, 11-12).
God promised to write his law in our hearts (cf. Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16), and this was done under the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31). This law wasn’t the Law of Moses, because that was written in the hearts of all men including the heathen (cf. Romans 2:14-15). The Law of God which he shed abroad in our hearts is the law of love—love of God and love of our neighbor (cf. Romans 5:5; James 2:8; 1John 2:22-24). Living out love for one another will never end in living licentiously.