The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 1 & 4, 2013
“The Spirit and the Flesh at War”
I say then: walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law, and those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:16-24
Spiritual warfare is a feature of every Christian’s life. When the Holy Spirit makes you a Christian, he starts a war within you. This is how he does it. He justifies you. He makes you righteous by reckoning to you the obedience and suffering of his only begotten Son. Even as he laid your sin on Jesus he credits Jesus’ obedience to you. This is how he justifies you. He declares you to be righteous for the sake of Christ’s obedience, suffering, and death. When he justifies you he leads you to faith. Through faith you are born from above. Heaven is your home. Having reckoned you to be righteous, God also gives you holy desires. You want to do what God wants you to do. The same Holy Spirit who justifies you by clothing you with the righteousness of Jesus is the Holy Spirit who renews your will. This is God’s work that he accomplishes in you by his Word. It is not your work. It is God’s work.
But your sinful flesh with its sinful desires clings to you. You remain a sinner until the day you die. The flesh wants your loyalty and obedience. The Holy Spirit pulls you one way. He says you’re a saint. Your flesh pulls you the opposite way. The Holy Spirit gives you holy desires. Your flesh has sinful desires. Each fights against the other so that you do not do what you want to do.
We Christians are caught between. We are sinners and saints at the same time. We are sinners because of our sinful desires that lead us into sinful works. We are saints because God has declared us to be righteous for Christ’s sake and he has given us new holy desires. The Holy Spirit frees us from the power of sin by forgiving us all our sins for Jesus’ sake. The Spirit tells us that we are holy. The flesh feels the joy of sin. He dismisses the wisdom of the Spirit as foolishness. He hates the gospel. He doesn’t believe in the forgiveness of sins and invariably accuses those who do of hypocrisy.
That’s the battle that rages within us. The Holy Spirit gives us the forgiveness of sins freely by God’s grace. This empowers us to live holy lives. The flesh rejects the Spirit and the forgiveness he gives. He leads us to trust in our works instead of the promise of the Holy Spirit.
The flesh works. He does what he wants to do and what he wants to do is a burden. He doesn’t think so. He thinks he’s free. He thinks that to engage in adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like is a life of freedom. But it’s not. It’s a life of slavery to sin. The works of the flesh are work. They are hard work. The hymnist says it well with the words:
One thing’s needful, this one treasure,
Teach me, Savior to esteem
Other things may promise pleasure,
But are never what they seem.
They prove to be burdens that vex us and chafe us
And true lasting happiness never vouchsafe us.
This one precious treasure that all else succeeds
Brings joy above measure and fills all our needs.
The one thing needful is the pure gospel of Christ that comes to us from the Holy Spirit and, by reckoning us to be righteous, also gives us righteous desires, holy feelings, and the will to do what is pleasing to God.
Our text speaks of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. Note this well. The flesh works. The Spirit produces fruit. The inspired words do not mention works of the Spirit because they are not our work. They are God’s work. They are the fruit of the Spirit because God himself does them in us and through us.
The fruit of the Spirit is love. Love heads the list because God is love. The gospel we receive is the revelation of God’s love. This love brings us joy because it removes all sadness from our hearts by blotting out all of our sin, which is the cause of sadness. This love brings peace because when God’s anger is quenched by the blood of Jesus shed on the cross we are at peace with God. This brings patience, for if God is at peace with us the troubles that beset us must be only for a little while. Kindness naturally flows from the heart that rests in God’s love. Every bit of goodness within us traces back to the love God has for us by which he forgave us our sins. Faithfulness to others and to our word and promise flows naturally, like the blueberry from the blueberry bush from the faithfulness of God. He never fails to do what he says he will do. Since God doesn’t force us anywhere but moves our hearts gently, so he produces a gentle spirit within us. Since it is God who works in us to will and to do every good thing we will ever do, he is in control. Self-control is relying on God to do what God in love has promised to do.
So the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Ah, but the flesh won’t have it! He’ll insinuate himself into the Christian’s affections and pretend to be the Holy Spirit himself! He wants what he wants when he wants it and so he works at proving that his will is best. At the top of the list of the works of the flesh are sexual sins: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lewdness. The sexual desire is God’s gift and when directed property to express marital love is a precious gift. When this desire is torn away from its God-given place in marriage it is cheapened, and what was beautiful is made dirty, though the flesh thinks that what pleases him is beautiful even when it’s ugly. Sexual sins are ugly. The pleasure they promise is a lie.
But the works of the flesh are certainly not limited to sexual sins. St. Paul continues by listing activities that fall under the category of religion: idolatry and sorcery. Idolatry is the worship of the creation rather than the Creator. Idols are man-made. Sorcery is one of the oldest forms of false worship, seeking power for self instead of humbling oneself under the hand of a loving God. Hatred is displayed in the works that follow it: contentions, jealousies, and outbursts of wrath. The flesh insists on being the center of the world. He thinks like a two year old. If it makes me feel good it must be good and if it makes me feel bad it must be bad. I am the measure of what is good and I’ll scream my defiance to anyone who challenges me!
The depressing list goes on: selfish ambitions, dissensions, and heresies. Since the flesh insists on having its own way its own way bulls its way into everyone else’s way and the result is bickering, quarreling, division, and every sort of selfish conflict. And it gets even worse. Envy and even murder flow out of this selfish ambition that cannot submit in love because it doesn’t know true love. Not knowing true love, it must manufacture a counterfeit version of it as it turns to drunkenness and reckless partying, all in a frantic but vain search for true pleasure, true joy, true love, true whatever.
But there is nothing true about any of it. Its end is death and hell. Those who live this way end up in hell. They do not inherit the kingdom of God. Why not? Because they aren’t children of God. Why not? Because they don’t have the Spirit of God who testifies that they are children of God.
The Spirit comes to us from the outside. The flesh is on the inside. Not the Spirit comes inside. He lives within us. St. Paul tells us that our bodies are his temple. He lives within us. What else lives within us? Our flesh. This is why we must crucify the flesh. How? How do we crucify the flesh with its passions and desires? By repenting of our sin and believing the gospel. That’s the simple truth, but it’s a truth sadly neglected. Neglecting this truth is the most tragic thing that can befall anyone. Repent and believe the gospel. That’s what St. Peter said to the crowd cut to the heart on Pentecost. That’s the road the Holy Spirit travels on.
He comes to broken hearts and lifts them up and fills them with love. He comes where he chooses. He chooses to come in the gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. This is why we need to hear the gospel. Why do we need to hear the gospel when we already know it? Because our flesh doesn’t know it and won’t ever know it but will always reject it. And we are stuck with the flesh until we die. That’s why we must crucify the flesh with the gospel every day. By daily repentance we drown our sinful flesh in the waters of Holy Baptism. Even as the Holy Spirit robes us with Christ when we were baptized, even so he kills the flesh by the gospel and frees us from its power.
But this is an ongoing thing. It doesn’t end this side of the grave. It’s not like you can “get religion” by having some dramatic spiritual experience that gives you final victory over the sin in your life. It doesn’t work that way. The church triumphant is in heaven. Here on earth she remains the church militant. Life is a battle and we don’t quit fighting until we leave this life.
St. Paul gives us the key to victory in this battle when he writes: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” We don’t do battle against the flesh with the law. The law can’t kill the flesh. People who think they can be spiritual by doing whatever it is they can conjure up within themselves to do are ignorant of this fundamental Christian truth: if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. You are set free by the gospel. You are righteous. You are holy. You are a child of God. The claims of the flesh on your will and your affections are false claims, for the sinful flesh was drowned in your baptism and will be utterly destroyed when Jesus returns to change these dying bodies into bodies that cannot die. Then the Spirit will have full sway over our affections and our will. Then the love of God will fill us with joy. We will inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Then the battle will be over and what we knew in this life only dimly as through a thick glass will be revealed clearly and forever. For that day we pray, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen.
Rolf D. Preus