In Galatians 5 Paul challenges his readers that they need to be focused on walking in the Spirit, rather than walking according to their flesh. Early in the chapter, he attests that faith working through love is the only thing that avails anything (Galatians 5:6). To avail is to benefit or help.
Galatians 5:6 says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (NKJV). Paul here is specifically responding to a false teaching that was becoming prominent in the Galatian region. That teaching required an infusing of the Law of Moses into the Christian’s walk. The teaching was so attractive to some in that culture that even Peter and Barnabas fell into it for a time (Galatians 2:11–13). In Galatians 5 Paul is explaining that believers in Christ are free and not under the Law of Moses (Galatians 5:1)—that law had been fulfilled when Christ died, as its purpose was to point out people’s need for a savior and lead them to Christ (Galatians 3:24–26).
Paul goes so far as to explain that, if a person places himself under the law, then that person would be rejecting Christ as the means of salvation and instead leaning on his own ability to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:2–4). Consequently, he would be cutting himself off from the grace that is found in Christ and instead choosing to walk in legal obligation. Paul’s illustration is a hypothetical to show the absurdity of trying to choose justification by works rather than justification by grace. The absurdity is in the fact that believers are already in Christ by faith and we have the Spirit of God and are anticipating being able to one day see the hope of righteousness fulfilled in our lives (Galatians 5:5). That anticipation is by faith and not by works, so it would be nonsensical for a believer to abandon the anticipation that is through faith and begin to lean on one’s own flesh.
No one is justified by works, nor is works the basis of a believer’s sanctification. Paul adds that whether or not one is circumcised (referring to the heritage and requirement of the Mosaic Law) is of no consequence because circumcision (again, placing oneself under the law) avails nothing; that is, circumcision has no power to help a person grow spiritually. Rather, faith working through love is the only thing that avails anything—“the only thing that counts” (Galatians 5:6).
The believer does not grow to Christlikeness by keeping the Law of Moses—that law had a purpose (to serve as a tutor to lead people to Christ) and was never intended to cause people to grow in Christ. Instead, believers should be walking by the Spirit of God (according to His Word) and allowing Him to bear fruit in their lives (Galatians 5:22–23). If a believer is walking in Christ, according to the Spirit of God, then God is bearing fruit in that person, and that person will not walk according to the deeds or works of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). We who have been given new life by faith through the Spirit of God should walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). Faith working through love—through God’s love for us (Galatians 2:20)—avails much. Because of His love, and because of the Spirit of God producing love in us, we can serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13). Believers have no capacity to accomplish this kind of love in their own flesh. So, by saying that faith working through love is the only thing that avails anything (Galatians 5:6), Paul is explaining that the same power that brought justification to believers is the power that is at work in us to help us grow in Christ and become more like Him.