The Word of the Day is “fulfill”’ as in to “fulfill desire.” In our reading of Galatians 5:11-21, St. Paul urges his flock to “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (OSB Galatians 5:16). Today we consider Paul’s warning not to use our freedom in Christ as a pretext for indulging in our sinful desires.
Paul qualifies that Christian liberty does not mean license. His congregations in Galatia are being torn apart by bitter and hateful controversy. But it is not merely a theological argument over circumcision. Paul sees that the deeper problem is a misunderstanding of his teaching of believers’ liberty in Christ.
A False Choice
It seems that the Galatians are caught up in a false choice. It is either the bondage to the moral and social restraints of the Mosaic Law. Or freedom from the Law’s constraints to do as one pleases.
But Paul insists on both moral purity AND freedom. He has laid out the case for Christian liberty. In our passage, he clarifies that the Galatians should not take the “opportunity” of their freedom from the Law to “fulfill the lusts of the flesh.”
When he says the “lusts of the flesh,” Paul does not blame the body for the sins he so graphicly lists in versus 19-21. When Paul contrasts “flesh” with “Spirit,” he means that earthly self that is estranged from God and that is subject to corruption. In Ephesians he teaches “that you put off the old man which grow corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (OSB Ephesians 4:22). The emphasis in both cases is on the “lusts,” that is the cravings and burning desires of our earthly nature.
To Fulfill Is to Satisfy
Paul says we should not “fulfill” these ungodly yearnings that are expressed in the sins he lists. The word “fulfill” is apt for it means that we should not seek to “satisfy” our unholy desires (Strong’s #5055).
But how can these cravings be controlled? The Judaizers would say that we need the Law as a guardian, schoolmaster, and ruler over us. But without it, aren’t we subject to the urges and impulses of our earthly nature?
No, there is another way! We can “walk in the Spirit” (OSB Galatians 5:16). To “walk” is a metaphor for going down the path of life. It is our behavior, conduct, and way of life (Strong’s #4043). Now the Spirit is given to us in our baptism and chrismation. It is the chief gift granted to the “New Man” who rises out of the water of cleansing to live a “New Life.” From then on, the Spirit is within us to give us life in Christ and to direct all that we do.
In this passage Paul teaches that we are not under the dominion of the law but under the gracious rule of love. Accordingly, he says should not use our freedom as a pretext for our earthly desires, but “through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). The apostle adds that love, after all, is the fulfilling of the Law (Galatians 5:14). St. John Chrysostom says that Paul points out a path that “makes duty easy.” It is a “path that is “fenced in by love” (Homily on Galatians 5:16). In other words, the Spirit is the Spirit of life and love. And our way of life “in the Spirit” is a life controlled by the love of God and neighbor.