The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 1, 2018
“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.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace. He says,
God’s benediction, spoken at the end of the Divine Service, gives us God’s peace. Yet we are at war. Every Christian is at war. The flesh wants what it wants and the Spirit wants what he wants and they are not the same. Indeed, they are the very opposite. And while the Spirit has been given to us in our baptism and he lives within us, we will not be rid of the flesh until we die.
Some say that a Christian can reach the point where he no longer sins. A popular so called gospel song (that in fact distorts the gospel) promotes this false teaching in the words: “Perfect submission; perfect delight.” We call this error perfectionism. People teach that you can perfectly submit to God. When you do so, you will find the perfect peace your soul is longing for.
Then there is the error on the other side that comforts Christians, not with the forgiveness of sins, but with license to commit as many sins as you please, because after all, we just can’t help it. We call this error antinomianism. It tosses out God’s law as the standard of conduct and defines sin away.
Against the error of perfectionism, St. Paul writes in our text:
We Christians have the Holy Spirit. By giving us forgiveness of all our sins he also gives us the desire not to sin. He gives us holy desires and holy thoughts. He empowers us to live holy lives. But, the Apostle says: “You do not do the things that you wish.” We know by experience that this is true. You decide to do good. You resolve to avoid the besetting sin. “I am going to do this! I am going to stop doing that!” You make up your mind. You’re determined! Then, what happens? You go out and do exactly what you resolved not to do. “You do not do the things that you wish.” The flesh wars against the Holy Spirit and the flesh clings to you like the rocks in the tread of the tires that fly out and crack the windshield of the person behind you. You meant well and you blew it. The perfectionists are wrong.
So are the antinomians. They talk about grace, but ignore repentance. They twist grace into license to sin with their talk about a nonjudgmental God. The true God is the God who inspired these words of St. Paul where, after listing many works of the flesh, writes:
The antinomians are wrong. If we give up the battle against our sinful flesh we will die. We will lose the faith. We will not inherit God’s kingdom. We will be lost forever. Hell is not just a cuss word. It’s a real place where real people go and they don’t get out. Those who live to gratify their flesh go to hell. Their god is the devil. Those who serve this god are lost.
They think they are free. Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness and every other form of sexual immorality are touted as expressions of freedom. In fact they are features of slavery. The joy that God puts into the marital act by which he brings children into this world is destroyed. Death replaces life.
Don’t be deceived. Those who practice these sins are outside of the kingdom of God. The marriage bed is blessed by God. All sexual intimacy outside of marriage is under God’s judgment. Churches and their ministers refuse to identify fornication as sin. Some go so far as to regularize same sex unions as if they can be God-pleasing. What are these churches and ministers doing? They are replacing the Spirit with the flesh. These churches are not churches and their ministers are not ministers of Christ.
The works of the flesh are selfish. You become your own god and you make a rotten god. Idolatry is manufacturing your own god according to your own desires. Everything that follows in St. Paul’s long list of the works of the flesh is a symptom of idolatry: sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murder, drunkenness, and revelries. What are all of these things? They are bowing down before the desires of our sinful nature and elevating those desires as being good and right. It’s idolatry.
I want it. Therefore, it must be right. This is how a two year old thinks. This is because he is born of the flesh and needs to be born of the Holy Spirit. This is one reason why we baptize babies! The flesh isn’t something out there that comes into us. We are born in the flesh and must be delivered from the desires of the flesh by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit has different desires. He gives us these desires. St. Paul refers to them as fruit. The works of the flesh are our works done without the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit are the works worked by the Holy Spirit. They are his fruit that he produces in us. They are sweet.
Where do we get this love? How do we experience this joy? Have this peace? Get this patience? Show this kindness and goodness? How can we become faithful and gentle? How can we exercise self-control? The Holy Spirit produces this fruit. We need the Holy Spirit. How do we receive the Holy Spirit and enjoy the fruit he produces in us?
St. Paul explains. He writes, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” You don’t get the Holy Spirit from the law. The law threatens those who disobey. You can’t threaten people into love. The law coerces. You cannot coerce joy. The law kills. But the Spirit makes alive.
In Sunday morning Bible class we are going through the Divine Service. Last week we looked at the sermon. What is it for? Why does the preacher preach? God’s word teaches us that the preacher must preach the gospel because it is by the preaching of the gospel that we are brought to faith. It is how the Holy Spirit comes to us, works in us, and by his almighty power enables us to do battle against the desires of our own sinful flesh. It is the gospel that does this; not the law.
God’s law cannot enable us to do good. It can tell us what is good, but it cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit within us. God’s gospel is how the Holy Spirit produces fruit. The gospel is the message from God about the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel tells us that on account of Christ’s death and resurrection all our sin is forgiven. We are forgiven, freed from the curse of the law, rescued from death and hell, and have received eternal life. God gives us this in his gospel. God is gracious to us undeserving sinners. God has reckoned us to be saints, not because of our good deeds, but because of God’s grace for the sake of the vicarious obedience and suffering of Christ. This gospel is the power the Holy Spirit uses to govern us. He rules over us, not by threats or force, but by pronouncing us to be righteous. He forgives us through the words we hear. He does so again and again and again. The flesh is hostile to God’s law, wanting to go its own way. But the flesh is most hostile to the gospel, because the gospel is the power of the Holy Spirit to crucify the flesh.
This is how we keep our sinful flesh from claiming our affections and ruling our lives. We lay claim to the gospel. We are redeemed by the ransom Jesus paid for us. We are set free from sin’s power. We are reconciled to God by the death of his Son. We are at peace with our Creator. God’s anger against us is gone, quenched by Christ’s blood. This is the gospel the Holy Spirit speaks to us. This is what produces fruit in our lives.
We claim the Holy Spirit and his power by claiming the promise God gives us in baptism. What God said through Peter on Pentecost he says to us today:
We fight against sin. We fight against temptations to sin. We struggle with our conscience after we have sinned. Some give up the fight. They embrace the works of the flesh and pretend that there is no judgment and no God to call them to account. They may put up a pious façade of goodness, but they don’t have the righteousness of Christ because they have lost the faith. Their outward show of goodness is a lie.
Don’t give up the fight. You don’t fight alone. You are joined by your baptism into union with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are covered with the righteousness of Jesus that sets you before God as a genuine saint. He never gave in to temptation. He reckons to you his own obedience as your righteousness before God. Who says so? The Holy Spirit says so. When you are righteous with Christ’s righteousness and you know it, you can fight the flesh, not with your own power, but with the almighty power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t give up the fight. Rest your confidence in the words of the apostle Paul:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
Rolf D. Preus