“The aim of Torah, which Torah was helpless to bring off, was to create a loving community in which God’s own character and purposes are fulfilled as God’s people love one another the way he loves them,” says Gordon Fee who suggests that two matters drive Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “On the one hand stands Paul’s deep conviction of the failure of Torah to effect righteousness, both as right standing with God and as behaviour that conforms to the character of God...On the other hand, in terms of the argument of Galatians proper, there is the objection that was – or would be – raised by his opposition: If you eliminate Torah observance altogether – as Paul indeed does – what happens to obedience? Since the whole point of Torah is to lead God’s people to obedience, if you take that away, what is to keep them from doing ‘whatever they wish’ (5:17)?”
The whole of the law is fulfilled in the command to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. But the law cannot produce a loving community. It can be used to exclude the worst offenders and it offers resources for rehabilitating lesser offenders, but it cannot generate the love which overcomes our inborn selfishness (self-promotion, self-vindication, disregard of others). So what can?
The Spirit accomplishes the love that fulfils the law and so Paul’s basic command is: “Live by the Spirit!” Live “in keeping with the values and norms of the coming age inaugurated by Christ through his death and resurrection” and by the power of the Spirit given in this new age (Fee), “and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16).
What does Paul mean by “flesh”? William Barclay summed it up like this (in an older work which uses “man” to include men and women): “The flesh is what man had made himself in contrast with man as God made him. The flesh is man as he has allowed himself to become in contrast with man as God meant him to be. The flesh stands for the total effect upon man of his own sin and of the sin of his fathers and of the sin of all men who have gone before him. The flesh is human nature as it has become through sin…The flesh stands for human nature weakened, vitiated, tainted by sin. The flesh is man as he is apart from Jesus Christ and his Spirit.”
The flesh makes it possible to use God’s law to become “religious” without being “righteous”. But the Spirit and the flesh are utterly at odds with each other and therefore those who live by the Spirit will no longer follow their twisted desires, doing whatever they wish – with or without a religious veneer. Those who are led by the Spirit live the life which Torah envisaged. They fulfil the purpose of the law and this is why Torah observance has become irrelevant. Those who work closely with a professional carpenter need not worry about the instructions that came with the Billy book shelves.