In Step with the Spirit
There’s an episode of an old TV show I used to watch in which the hero winds up in prison. While he’s in prison meets a now grown-up friend he’d known in school. They talk and he realises that he’s the reason this other man is in prison. When they were kids the other guy was small and he’d conned him into helping him break into a house so that he could rob it. He got away, but the little kid was caught and went to juvenile detention. From there things just got worse. This other kid started to think of himself as a criminal. He got out of “juvy”, got into trouble and went straight back. Eventually he ended up in prison as an adult. He’d get out, but he’d become so comfortable with the idea that he was a criminal by nature that within days of being released he deliberately commit another crime that would send him back to prison. He was a criminal. That was that. It was his identity and he belonged in prison. When he was there he longed to get out and be free, but when he was free he just couldn’t shake this criminal identity he’d built up in his mind.
As Christians we all have a similar struggle. We were born into bondage to sin and death. Jesus has set us free, but it’s not always easy to live that freedom. Our old way of life, our old sources of security, our old habits of sin that were once deeply ingrained in our nature take time to break. In a lot of cases, we can be Christians for years and years before we even recognise some ways in which we’re still in bondage. This is what we call the life of sanctification. As we immerse ourselves in Scripture, as we surround ourselves with other Christians and with good Bible teaching, and as we pray the Holy Spirit continually brings to our attention areas of life that we need to give over to Jesus. But when you’ve held on to something for so long, even after you’ve given it up, it’s easy to go back to it. And this is what St. Paul addresses with the Christians in the Galatian churches.
Our Epistle today from Galatians 5 comes from the end of Paul’s letter. It’s what he spends the first part of the letter building to. He was writing to them mainly because the churches there—Galatia is a region in what’s now Turkey, not a single city, so this letter was going out to churches in a cluster of towns in that region—these churches had come under the influence of some people who taught that to be a Christian you first had to become a Jew. That meant being circumcised and it meant living according to the law. In the First Century the Jews focused particularly on circumcision, diet, and Sabbath observance as the three main things that set them apart from the rest of the world and so it’s no surprise that these are the things these false teachers in Galatia were focusing on: circumcision, diet, and observance of the Sabbath and other Jewish holy days.
And so Paul spends the first part of the letter explaining the relationship between living by the law and living by faith. This is where Martin Luther drew his theology of law and gospel that so shaped the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago. But Paul’s purpose is to highlight that in Jesus we are free. Some of the Galatians had pagan pasts and in Jesus they were now free of that past. But many of the Christians in Galatia were Jewish and Paul stresses to them too that they are now free from the law that so defined what it meant to be Jewish.
It’s easy to understand how these “Judaisers” might appeal to the people in these churches. Remember that the first Christians were Jews. And Christianity wasn’t so much a new religion for them as it was simply a new way of being Jewish. But there was a clash early on as the Gospel went out to the Gentiles and Galatians is part of that clash as the Church, under the leadership of the apostles, worked to resolve it. On the one hand you had Peter, for example, who at least early on was operating with the expectation that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism. But Peter wasn’t dealing with many Gentile Christians. Paul, on the other hand, was called as an apostle specifically to go to the Gentiles. That was his mission. And as he preached the Good News he saw nothing there that said that Gentiles had to first become Jews. But loading Gentiles down with the law was an easy mistake to make. The law was a good thing so far as it went. God called the Jews to be his people. Through them he would bring his blessings to the world, but for that to happen he had to set his people apart. They had to be distinct from the world and so he gave them the law—a distinct way to live. It did two things at once. First, it showed the nations what it meant to be holy and to live for God. Second, it quarantined Israel. The law kept the various elements of paganism out so that Israel wouldn’t be corrupted by them. Not that it all worked out this way in the end. Israel had the same sin problem that the entire human race has and, as Paul wrote in last week’s epistle, the law was powerless to fix that problem. Only Jesus and the Holy Spirit can truly fix our sinful nature. Only Jesus can set us free. Only the Spirit can regenerate hearts set on sin and turn them to holiness and to God.
And that’s just it. The Jewish Christians—some of them anyway—were turning to these Gentile converts and telling them that they needed to follow Jesus and the law, because the law would set them apart from their pagan past. If it weren’t for Jesus that would have been good advice, but Paul’s point here in Galatians 5 is that Jesus has introduced a way that’s not only better than paganism, but that’s also better still than the Jewish law. He writes in verses 13-15:
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. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
These people were fighting amongst themselves. Some of it was over this issue of whether or not Gentiles needed to be Jews before they could be Christians, but there’s no reason to doubt that some of it was just sinful people being sinful people and struggling with all the other problems we see in churches throughout the New Testament and still today. In verse 15 Paul describes the church members as viciously biting and devouring one another. It’s sad, but true that Christians still struggle with this. Sometimes we eat our own. There are times when we really do have to deal with problems. Church members who are unrepentant in sin need to be dealt with. False teaching that leads people away from Jesus has to be addressed. These are the reasons Paul writes many of his letters. But what he’s talking about here—what he’s rebuking them for—is their sinful behaviour towards each other and at the center of it was this problem of the Judaisers. The Judaisers were wrong, but it may also have been that the people who were right on doctrine were wrong in the way they were addressing it. And so Paul tells them, if you keep biting and devouring each other like this pretty soon there won’t be anything left. Your churches will be consumed by this sinful behaviour and die.
And he corrects them by starting with their freedom. They are free in Jesus. This is no doubt the point that the non-Jewish Gentiles in these churches were making. They told the Judaisers, “No. We’re free in Jesus. We don’t have to be circumcised or eat kosher or observe the Sabbath.” And Paul agrees with them. But he also tells them that Jesus didn’t set them free from paganism and the Jewish law so that they could bite and devour their erring brothers and sisters. No, Jesus has set them free from sin and death, from paganism and from the law so that they can love. Presumably all of them loved Jesus, but they weren’t loving each other. We still struggle with this today. How often do we say, “I love Jesus!”, but fail and sometimes even refuse to love our brothers and sisters? St. John wrote, “Anyone who says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother is a liar.” And since these Judaisers are so devoted to the law, Paul reminds that the law that is summed up in the simple command: love your neighbour as yourself. They’ve been set free, but they’ve been set free to love—to love Jesus and to love each other. And now Paul makes his key point. Look at verse 16:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
It’s the Spirit who makes all the difference. Before they met Jesus, before they were baptised and plunged into the Holy Spirit, they lived according to the flesh. For the former pagans this was obvious. But it wasn’t so obvious for the Jewish Christians. They might object and say to Paul, “But we’re zealous for the law. How can you equate that with living according to the flesh?” But Paul’s point is that if you find your identity in the flesh—and this struck home to the Jews who saw their identity in being the biological children of Abraham, in diet, in Sabbath, and especially in circumcision—if you find your identity in the flesh, then flesh is what you’re going to get. Again, the law, circumcision doesn’t have the power to fix our basic human sin problem. And so Paul describes what the flesh—and by that he just means our unredeemed nature without Jesus and the Holy Spirit—this is what the flesh looks like in verses 19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.
And Paul stresses to them as he had so many times already:
I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Bad fruit grows on bad trees. You can’t call yourself a Christian while bearing bad fruit. Repentance is the first step we take towards Jesus. Sanctification is a process. Not all of our fruit is transformed from bad to good overnight, but the Spirit will transform it and the surest test of whether or not the Spirit is at work in person is their fruit. Do they show repentance? Do they show a desire to be regenerated and renewed by the Spirit? Has at least some of their fruit become good? Do they mourn the bad fruit they still bear? These are signs of the Spirit. These are signs of the transformation brought by real and saving faith in Jesus. And that’s why Paul says that those who unrepentantly engage in these sins—sexual immorality, idolatry, angry fits, enmity, strife, rivalry, envy, dissensions—these people are by their behaviour showing that they are not followers of Jesus because followers of Jesus will always show repentance and a desire to be transformed by the Spirit. Going back to verses 17 and 18 Paul writes:
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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Jesus offers an alternative to both paganism and the law and his alternative is the power of the Holy Spirit. The law says to love your neighbour, but it’s only by the renewing work of the Spirit in our lives that we can do that. This is why Jesus had to come as the fulfilment of the law. The law written on stone tablets was external. It had no power to transform. But Jesus came to bring forgiveness of our transgression of the law—our sins—and then pours his Spirit into us to transform us—to write the law of love on our hearts. Paul reminds them that our real identity lies not in who we are according to the flesh, but in our union with the Lord Jesus.
Jesus has set us free. Yes, it’s hard to remember this sometimes just as it was for the Christians in Galatia. It’s easy to use our freedom to justify falling back into our old way of life, our old sins, old ungodly habits, and looking to our old sources of security. We have to be always on our guard, always asking if what we’re doing is honouring to the Saviour who gave his life to set us free to love him and to love each other. But Paul’s main point here is that we need to be always coming back to the fact that our identity is in Jesus. He’s the one who has poured his Spirit into us. And especially for the Jews in these churches that meant there was no longer any need for circumcision or any of those other parts of the law like diet and Sabbath to set them apart as God’s people. Jesus was and Jesus is and Jesus always will be enough. He sets us apart as God’s people, free from paganism, free from the law, and free for God and free to love our neighbours.
In verses 22 and 23 he contrasts the works of the flesh with the life or the fruit of the Spirit. As our undredeemed natures produced all those things like sexual immorality, anger, envy, and strife, Paul says:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Something changes when by faith and baptism we are united with Jesus. The unredeemed flesh is committed to self. It’s hostile to God. It’s sold out to sin. This is why the world is the way it is. And yet ever since the day we rebelled and introduced sin into God’s good creation, God has promised that he will one day set things to rights. Jesus is the fulfilment of that promise, although we still have a long way to go. Jesus unleashed life into the world. Jesus set the process of recreation in motion. But in his mercy God didn’t come as so many had expected to set things to rights all at once. That would have meant condemning us all to death. Sin has no place in God’s new creation, but we’re all sinners. And so he sent Jesus to die for his people’s sins. He sent Jesus as a means of redemption and through faith in his forgiving death and life-giving resurrection we find our place in the new creation. Not only that, but in pouring his Spirit into us, Jesus creates his Church and he’s given us the mission of proclaiming that his redeeming death and resurrection, of proclaiming that he is Lord, and that his kingdom has been established and is breaking in.
The Holy Spirit bears fruit in us as a part of that new creation. It’s a down payment, an earnest on God’s recreation—that setting of the world to rights—that he’s promised. As Jesus has died and was raised to new life, so in our baptism we have died with him and been raised to new life. We won’t experience the full resurrection that Jesus has until that last great day when the kingdom is finally consummated, but the gift of the Holy Spirit gives us a foretaste. This is why Paul writes in verse 24:
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
We’ve not only taken hold of Jesus in faith, but in doing so we’ve nailed our old sinful selves to the cross—we’ve put them to death to live no more. The old man or the old woman is dead. Jesus has given us new lives. The problem is that we so often forget that we’ve been given this new life. We’re so used to our old sinful habits. We’re so used to old ways of thinking. We’re so surrounded by the sins and habits and securities of unredeemed men and women that we lose sight of the new life Jesus has given us. Being a Christian doesn’t mean setting your life on autopilot and expecting or hoping the Holy Spirit will just do his work. Look at verses 25-26. Paul says:
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
To live the life Jesus has given requires that we walk in step with the Spirit. That means being deliberate and conscious in letting him be our guide to keep us from falling back into our old ways. And to walk in step with the Spirit means actively taking advantage of the means of grace that the Lord has given us. As I was thinking about this I was reminded of the fancy “smart” thermostat we bought last year to replace our old “dumb” one. It’s a thermostat that “learns”, but you have to feed it information and you have to read the instructions, understand how it works, and then get things set up properly. If you do that it’s really amazing what it can do. But if you don’t it doesn’t give much of an advantage over the old dumb one. The Spirit is a bit like that. Some people never even get this far. They don’t even realise that to become a Christian is to be totally transformed—probably because no one ever told them that repentance is the first step in following Jesus. But many people do expect transformation by the Spirit. The problem is that they don’t realise that it’s work to walk in step with the Spirit. They don’t feed themselves on the means of grace. Brothers and Sisters, this is why it’s so vital that we immerse ourselves in Scripture and in Sacrament and in fellowship. If you want to hear the Spirit speak, if you want your mind, your heart, and your conscience shaped and moulded by the Spirit you’ve got to immerse yourself and feed yourself on the word he’s caused to be written. You’ve got to throw yourself into Scripture. And Jesus has given us the Sacraments. They’re outward signs and seals of the grace he pours into our hearts. Through the waters of baptism we reach out to him in faith to take hold of his promise of forgiveness and life. At the Table we eat the bread and drink the wine as an outward sign and symbol of the life that flows from Jesus to us by virtue of our union with him in the Spirit. And as we take part in the life of Jesus’ Church, we exhort and encourage (and when necessary rebuke) each other as we walk in step with the Spirit. There’s no such thing as a loner Christian. We walk in the Spirit together and we work in the Spirit together.
And if we do this the natural result will be that as the Church we will together be loving Jesus and each other. The Judaisers in Galatia were concerned that everyone keep the Jewish law. They were afraid of being condemned and of losing their status with God by failing to keep the law. But Paul’s point here is that the law is summed up in love—love for God and love for neighbour—and if we walk with the Spirit as he’s saying, if we bear the fruit of the Spirit as he describes it, no one has any reason to fear being condemned for not keeping the law.
We need to hear this as the church. We still deal with the same sorts of problems the Galatians did dealt with. On one hand they had false teachers leading them astray and on the other they had church members who were committed to the truth of the Gospel, but in addressing their erring brothers and sisters they were displaying the works of the flesh instead of the fruit of the Spirit. Today we still have false teachers and false prophets who lead Christians away from the truth of the Gospel. Some Christians denounce any attempt to address error to talk theology by appealing to the fruit of the Spirit. “No, no. We just need to love each other and be patient and gentle.” They’re right. But being loving doesn’t mean turning a blind eye on error and sin. It means addressing it. That’s what Paul’s doing right here in his letter. But Paul reminds those on the other side who are so often inclined to address sin and error with angry fits and with pride and other works of the flesh, that this is not the way of the Spirit. To follow Jesus and to walk in step with the Spirit is to place an equal value on commitment to truth and lives characterised by the fruit of the Spirit. To follow Jesus means living in the grace of Word and Sacrament and living together as the Church, loving Jesus and loving each other.
Let us pray: Father, we asked in the Collect for an increase in faith, hope, and charity—for more of the fruit of the Spirit—and that you would give us a love for the things you command. We ask this again. Continually pour your Spirit into us, remind us to feed on the grace of your Word and Sacraments, and as we do so, transforms our sinful hearts and minds. Make us people of your new creation who truly seek to love you and to love each other. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord. Amen.
Sermon Topics: Trinity 14