Walking in the Spirit
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| Galatians 5:16-24| September 13, 2009
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
The central truth of the Holy Scriptures is that a lost and condemned sinner is justified and saved eternally, not by obedience to the law, but through faith alone in Christ the Savior who by his obedience and death has won righteousness and eternal life for us. No book of the Bible presents this precious truth more clearly than St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.
In this letter the apostle pleaded with the Christians living in the province of Galatia to stay with the gospel they had learned. False teachers had invaded the church. They insisted that faith in Christ was not enough to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. They taught salvation by obedience to the law. It was an attractive teaching. If we teach that the way to eternal life is by obedience to the law we motivate people to obey the law.
But it doesn’t work that way. The teaching that we are saved by our good deeds does not promote more good deeds. Rather, it makes us into hypocrites. It enslaves us. The law threatens with death those who don’t obey it. It cannot change the heart so that we can love God and neighbor as we should. It can only condemn us for our disobedience.
The simple truth of the matter is that the pure gospel of justification by faith alone is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to live holy lives. The law cannot make us good. The gospel can.
When St. Paul tells us to walk in the Spirit he is telling us to trust in Christ our Savior. Reckon yourself to be a Christian. Consider who and what you are. You belong to Christ. You are clothed in his righteousness. You have his Spirit living within you. Walk in the Spirit – fix your eyes on your Savior who died for you – and you won’t fulfill the lusts of the flesh.
There is a war going on inside of every Christian. We have the Holy Spirit who filled us when we were baptized. We also have the flesh, that is, the old sinful human nature that clings to us until the day we die. St. Paul reminds us that:
. . . 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.
The flesh wants to please himself. He despises the law. He hates the gospel. He is his own lord and god. He cannot be reformed. He cannot be converted. And he wants exactly the opposite of what the Spirit wants. He remains a part of us as long as we are living in these dying bodies.
If you suffer distress because you want to do what is good and you find yourself falling into sin; if there is a spiritual battle going on inside of you then take heart. This is not a sign that you aren’t a Christian. It’s a sign that you are a Christian. The Spirit and the flesh cannot tolerate one another.
When you are perfectly at peace without any spiritual conflict at all and you think that you are living the holy life God called you to live it’s time to stop and take a serious look at yourself. Is that so? Are you rid of the flesh? Have you died and gone to heaven? If you think you can live your Christian life here on earth without experiencing any spiritual conflict you are wrong.
Walking in the Spirit means that we take stock of who we are. We are Christians. We’ve been called out of darkness into the light of God’s truth. The law cannot condemn us because we have Christ and he faced the condemnation of the law as our Champion.
St. Paul puts it this way in our text: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” The law cannot judge you. It cannot condemn you. It cannot drive you away from God and expel you from the fellowship you enjoy with God’s Church. For you are identified by the Gospel, not the law.
The law condemns the flesh. In so doing the law stirs up the very passions and sins that it condemns. When our flesh is condemned by the law he screams his defiance: “Accuse me, will you?! Then the flesh defies the law out of spite. He deliberately does what he knows to be wrong and challenges the law to do anything about it.
But when we are led by the Spirit, when we are seeking the kingdom of God and laying claim to Christ’s righteousness, we are not under the law. It cannot judge us. It cannot drive us into defiance. It must remain silent.
The Christian is tempted by the works of the flesh. He can easily fall into them. When he falls, he repents and renounces his sins. The works of the flesh cannot claim the Christian because the Holy Spirit lives in his children.
Now this is an extremely important point. Falling into temptation and sin is one thing. But embracing sin and claiming it is good is something quite different. The Spirit fights against the flesh. When the Christian is no longer engaged in spiritual warfare it’s because he’s no longer a Christian.
What are the works of the flesh? They are obvious. The apostle lists seventeen of them. He begins with sexual sins: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness. These are sins against the body. The body is treated as if it exists purely for itself. But God created us male and female. He established sexual intimacy and he placed it within the marriage of one man to one woman for as long as they both should live.
Next, the apostle lists sins against the true worship: idolatry and sorcery. The attempt to gain supernatural power or knowledge through various mediums is to offend against the name of God. Every offense against God’s name and God’s word is a work of the flesh who won’t be bridled by anything but his own desires.
Paul then lists one sin after another that displays the selfishness of our sinful nature: hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders. This is the very opposite of love. Self-love is celebrated today as a wonderful virtue. In fact, it is a close twin to selfishness and selfishness always makes self the standard of right and wrong.
Paul concludes his list by mentioning both drunkenness and gluttony. The flesh wants what it wants and is never satisfied. After listing the works of the flesh the apostle makes it crystal clear that those who practice these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
The works of the flesh are obvious, the apostle says. They are obviously wrong. But what does the flesh, in his arrogance, do? The old, unregenerate, corrupt, and incorrigible flesh takes what God established, twists it into perverted forms, and then claims that God did it.
This just happened in August of this year. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to “recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships” and to permit homosexuals to serve as pastors. The adopted resolution claimed that the Holy Spirit was guiding them.
But the Holy Spirit was not guiding them. The flesh was. The confusion between the Spirit and the flesh comes about because the ELCA does not hold to the Holy Scriptures as the clear and inerrant word of God. A Bible with errors in it is useless as a standard of teaching for the church. What the Bible says about homosexuality is crystal clear for those who choose to listen. St. Paul writes in Romans 1, 26-27:
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
The decision to permit manifestly impenitent homosexuals to persist in their sin so long as they continue committing it with the same person is an act of unspeakably cruelty against homosexuals. Those who defend this decision appeal to the gospel, but in fact it deprives homosexuals of the gospel because it deprives them of repentance. Instead of being told to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, homosexuals are told to celebrate the flesh. Consider this warning God gave through the prophet Isaiah:
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5, 20)
The road to hell is paved with the works of the flesh. It may be an easy road but it is work to walk on it nonetheless. Those on the road to hell have no rest in their travel. There are only works, bitter works, with no forgiveness from God for the sin with which their works are filled.
There are no works of the Spirit. There is fruit. The flesh works for what it gets. The Holy Spirit gives and gives and gives some more. The fruit of the Spirit does not come about by our hard work. It comes about by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit through the gospel. The fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Love comes from being loved. The perfect obedience and vicarious suffering of Jesus is love. It is love for the Father. It is love for us, God’s children. When we receive through faith the love by which all our sins were washed away we are also filled with love as a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
This love produces joy – not a shallow happiness that comes and goes, but the joy of being at peace with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. This peace produces patience. We don’t need to get what we want when we want it because we already have everything worth having. This patience leads us to kindness as we tolerate the weaknesses of other in imitation of our Lord Jesus. Kindness does not rejoice in evil but in what is good. Goodness is honorable and faithful and true. There is no deceit in it. Gentleness comes as fruit because the gospel doesn’t coerce. It woos and wins over the heart.
The last of the fruits mentioned is self-control. Being filled with the Holy Spirit does not entail an obnoxious display of emotion as if letting it all hang out were an indication of true spirituality. But the Holy Spirit makes us reverent. The peace in which we live enables us to control ourselves.
But we fail, don’t we? The works of the flesh rise up to claim us. We fall into sin. What do we do then? We reclaim our inheritance in God’s kingdom. We claim the promise of God in our baptism. God has named us. God has joined his name to ours. He has washed us in the blood of the Lamb. He has joined us to the crucifixion and resurrection of his dear Son. This is who we are. We are forgiven of all our sins. We are children of God. So we walk in the Spirit and rejoice in the privilege of being Christians. Amen