The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
August 28, 2016
“The Spirit and the Flesh”
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
Some years ago, after the state of Minnesota passed a law to protect patients of psychotherapists from sexual abuse, the Minnesota North and Minnesota South districts of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod adopted policies that put pastors into the category of psychotherapists. Many of us – pastors, lawyers, and laymen – objected to this, but we lost the argument. I’ll spare you a recitation of the legal arguments, and share instead a theological argument that you should care about. Pastors are not psychotherapists. The counseling a pastor provides is not designed to provide you with sound mental or emotional health. It is designed to provide you with sound spiritual health. They are not the same thing.
The church lives on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. We have no other source of strength, no other source of truth, no other source of information concerning the faith that we believe, teach, and confess. The Scripture alone is the source and standard of our teaching. The Scripture alone is the source and standard of any counseling God gives the pastor to do.
People confuse emotional health with spiritual health. If people feel good, they must be close to God, living in communion with him, enjoying true fellowship with him. Right? Not necessarily. What does our text for today say?
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.
Every Christian suffers from this conflict. Every Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit and every Christian has the sinful flesh clinging to him until he dies. There’s a war going on inside of us all. This can cause just a bit of anxiety now and then.
Emotional peace is a blessing. There is no denying that. The satisfied mind makes life much more pleasant to endure than the mind at conflict with itself. But the peace God gives us in Christ goes deeper than the surface feelings of the moment. Jesus speaks of it in John 14,
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)
This is spiritual peace. We are at peace with God. God sees no sin in us because his dear Son has borne our sin away. God regards us with favor. He holds nothing against us. The peace that Jesus established for us on the cross is made our own personal possession by the Holy Spirit who lives within us and rules over us. From being at peace with God we are enabled to do battle against the sinful flesh that rages inside of us. Faith claims this peace as the gospel truth. From this faith we fight against the flesh. The peace of God – the peace that surpasses all understanding – is the peace of sin forgiven.
Some folks don’t think it makes sense to teach that being forgiven of all our sins enables us to fight against sin. They would rather teach that if you are sure your sins are forgiven you will more easily fall into sin because, after all, if they are forgiven anyway, you won’t bother fighting against them. So they deprive Christians of the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and think that in this way they will encourage them to do a better job of avoiding sin so as to gain a greater assurance of forgiveness. But this is nothing more than teaching Christians to rely on their flesh to fight their flesh. You see, the law commands the flesh. But those who are led by the Holy Spirit are not under the law.
God doesn’t make you good by commanding you to be good. God makes you good by forgiving you your sins. Then, the same Spirit who seals unto us the forgiveness of all our sins is the Spirit who lives in us and gives us spiritual desires. What are they? St. Paul lists them in our text for today. He writes:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.
You cannot force love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You cannot command fruit to be borne. It is borne naturally without force. The Holy Spirit doesn’t force us to be holy. He first makes us holy by declaring us to be righteous for Christ’s sake. Then he makes us holy on the inside by producing in us the fruits of faith. Faith cannot be forced. Neither can its fruits. The law can attack the flesh, expose its sins, and display to the Christian’s conscience what he has done wrong. But the law cannot produce the fruits of faith.
If you rely on your own works you will fall into the works of the flesh. Listen once more to St. Paul’s list of the works of the flesh. He writes:
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.
If you look at these works you can see that they are designed to serve those who do them. Why does a man or a woman commit adultery or fornication? To express love for another? Of course not! They do it to gratify themselves. This is the same reason people fall into idolatry, express selfish jealousy, envy, murder, and so forth – they are in love with themselves. This self-love is self-destruction. Only the love of God in Christ can yield the harvest of eternal life. The kingdom of God does not belong to those who rely on their works to obtain it. It belongs to those who by faith receive it as a gift from a gracious God, a gift they don’t deserve, but a gift for which they bow down at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.
The flesh cannot be reformed. He must be destroyed. Only the Spirit, the Spirit that proceeds from the Father and the Son, the Spirit of grace, the Spirit who testifies to our spirits that we are children of God, washed in Christ’s blood, set free from God’s judgment, and living under God’s favor, can produce in us the fruit that lasts.
Let me give an illustration from nature. I just returned from Gunflint Lake, a border lake between Minnesota and Ontario about forty miles west and north of Lake Superior. Nine years ago, after the driest weather in memory, a forest fire burned down about fifty thousand acres in our area including all the Preus cabins on the Canadian side of Gunflint Lake. That’s bad. But think of it, not in terms of cabins and a beautiful pine forest, but in terms of blueberries. It’s really unbelievable what a forest fire will do for the blueberry crop. Blueberries everywhere! They are getting the sunshine of which the trees deprived them. With the trees burned down, the blueberries are more fruitful than ever before. Blueberry pie, blueberry pancakes, blueberries liberally sprinkled over the bowl of oatmeal, and not a single blueberry grown by threat or force, but by the shining of the sun.
When God attacks our flesh it may be a painful process. When idols are smashed within your heart it cuts. It burns. The forest fire is a savage thing. But there is no stopping the blueberries when its competitors for sunshine have been taken out of the way. And so it is that when God crucifies our flesh with all its lusts and evil desires, when he shows us how stupid are our selfish values, when he demonstrates time and time again that our self-serving priorities will produce nothing but sin and death, he’s not destroying us. He’s preparing us. He will cover our nakedness with the beauty of a new forest. The black barren spikes that litter the hillside are not the forest. The forest is young, bright green, healthy, and beautiful. That’s God’s fruit.
Oh, how I wish I could produce the fruit of the Spirit. Who can argue against living such a life? It is not just God, it is I, his Christian, who wants my life to be marked by love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If this is what you want, dear Christian, know this. This fruit is God’s doing. It is the sun of his grace shining on you. What sun? Where is this sun? He is none other than Jesus Christ, sent by the Father, revealed by the Spirit, and joined to you in intimate union in your baptism where you were clothed in him.
As the lepers came to Jesus, afflicted with a disease that excluded them from the assembly of the faithful, we come to Jesus, begging for the same mercy. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He takes away the sin for which he shed his blood as the true high priest who has opened the way to heaven. In taking away that sin, he fills us with his Spirit, and moves us to want what is right and good and pure and holy.
Those who receive mercy from Christ, give thanks for his mercy, and rely on it to live before God as his children understand love. Love is centered at the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ where he died to take away our sin. Love is the primary fruit of the Spirit. It is the defining virtue of the Christian life. It isn’t forced. It grows naturally in the lives of God’s children. They may feel emotionally healthy or distraught. They may be confident or tentative. They may have besetting troubles that come back again and again – troubles they cannot seem to master. But what they also have is the Spirit of God’s Son. By sustaining them in their simple Christian faith in him who was delivered up for our sins and raised again for our justification, the Holy Spirit produces in them true love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They know they will be at war against the flesh all their lives. They know that in Christ they have the victory.
Rolf D. Preus