Walk by the Spirit
Trinity 14| Galatians 5:16-24| Pastor James Preus| Trinity Lutheran Church| September 5, 2021
You have been baptized into Christ. Your sins are washed away. You are forgiven. Through faith you are clothed in Christ’s own righteousness, so that you can stand before God without shame and confident in your eternal salvation. And yet, there is a war raging inside you! St. Paul tells us that the flesh wars against the Spirit and the Spirit wars against the flesh. This is why St. Paul exhorts us to “walk by the Spirit” so that we do not gratify the desires of the flesh. Yet, even without St. Paul telling you this, you’re aware of this war. The works of the flesh are evident. Although you are a Christian, you still are tempted to sin. The lusts you have renounced rise up within you. While you try to be loving, peaceful, kind, faithful, and self-controlled, a power within you incites you to hatred, enmity, fits of anger, and divisions.
This war is present in every Christian. St. Paul himself laments, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15, 18-19) What is this strange phenomenon of which Scripture speaks, and of which each of us has experienced? What is this war between the Spirit and the flesh?
Despite what some think, this is not a battle between your body and your soul, or between the material world and the immaterial world. Rather, by flesh Scripture means your fallen sinful nature. This includes your body, soul, mind, and will: everything that was born from your mother. Jesus says, “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6) According to your first birth of flesh, you are a sinner. You have inherited original sin from your father. That means that from your conception, you have been a sinner. Your body, soul, and will are corrupted by sin. By Spirit Scripture means everything that has been redeemed by Jesus’ blood and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, that is, your entire regenerated self. When you were baptized, your entire self was born again. That is why Christ joined water to the word. The water touches your body to indicate that your body is born again to holiness and righteousness. Yet, until you die, your sinful nature clings to you.
This means that your entire self, your body, soul, mind and will, your reason and all your senses are completely holy, righteous, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit with Christ’s blood; and that your entire self, your body, soul, mind and will, your reason and all your senses are corrupted by your original sin. You have been declared righteous by God through faith in Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit has enlivened your will to desire and pursue what is good and righteous. The works of your hands, feet, and mouth are also looked at by God through Jesus, so that he is pleased with you. Yet, in this same body, you have the desire to do evil, to turn from God, to pursue unholy desires. Yet, on account of Christ Jesus God overlooks this sin. Christians live by faith and walk by grace. St. Paul goes so far as to say in Romans chapter 7, “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
This means that although Christians still sin, they are regarded as holy through faith on account of Christ. Yet, this does not mean that it doesn’t matter if Christians sin, or that Christians can go on sinning so that grace may abound (Romans 6:1). St. Paul declared, “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. I warned you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!” (Galatians 5:19-21)
This passage cannot be overlooked. While indeed there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), a person cannot claim to be in Christ Jesus while he willfully persists in sin without repenting. We are saved through faith apart from our sins, but it is impossible for true faith and the Holy Spirit to abide with mortal sin. Hebrews 10 states, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (vss. 26-27)
It is false that Christians can continue in sin without repenting and remain Christians. True faith does not continue in willful sin. A wise man once said, “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair!” You cannot keep temptation from coming or completely extinguish the desires of the sinful flesh, but you can keep them from ruling over you. We must make a distinction between sins of weakness, which all Christians must battle each and every day, and ruling sins, in which case, the battle is lost and sin has full control.
It is indeed a false teaching that Christians can live without sin. There are some who claim that Christians can reach a point of perfection, so that they no longer sin. They’ll use passages such as 1 John 3:9 to support this claim, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” Yet, this passage does not claim that Christians no longer sin, but rather, Christians do not persist in sin. In this same Epistle St. John writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9) When people deny that Christians sin, they do great harm to the soul. They either drive some to despair, because of their own sins, or they create self-righteous hypocrites, who refuse to repent of their real sins.
Yet, it is equally a false teaching that Christians can continue in sin, while remaining in the saving faith. This false teaching causes people to be recalcitrant, confirmed sinners, who refuse to repent or seek forgiveness from Christ. While Scripture does not teach that Christians can live without sin, it certainly teaches that Christians do not persist in sin without repenting.
This is why the Church must be firm on what is a sin. People are offended that the Church condemns fornication, adultery, homosexuality, unionism with other religions, abortion, and other common sins. But Christians must know that those who persist in these sins will not inherit the kingdom of God! (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21). A person can claim to have faith in Christ, but if he rejects Jesus’ teaching and clings to his sin, then he is not following the true Jesus.
This is why it is necessary for Christians to repent of their sins every day, as our Lord teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer. Temptation seeks to become sin and sin seeks to rule you and produce unbelief. Sin is like yeast. It seeks to grow and spread. And Luther reminds us that sin is like a snake, if it can fit its head in, so can it fit its entire body. So, we must constantly be on guard. Furthermore, consider how closely sin clings to us! Our entire body, soul, and mind is corrupted by sin. Jesus says that out of the heart come sinful desires (Matthew 15:19)! So, Christians must be wise to the danger of besetting sins and crucify their flesh with its desires daily through repentance.
And so, you’ll learn that the Law is a helpful tool for the Christian to curb his sinful actions and to aid in daily reflection and repentance. Yet, you must be careful that you do not fall into legalism. St. Paul does not say, “Walk by the Law and you will not satisfy the desires of the flesh,” but rather, “Walk by the Spirit.” Legalism teaches that you can be righteous by strictly following the Law. Yet, Scripture has already made clear that we are declared righteous by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We do not then remain righteous by works, otherwise the Bible would not say that you are justified apart from works of the Law.
In this very Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul has already made this argument. He writes, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you! It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—Just as Abraham ‘believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” (3:1-6) In Chapter 5, St. Paul goes so far as to say, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (vs. 4)
The point is this: The Law kills the sinner, but not the sin; the Gospel kills the sin, but not the sinner. The Law tells you what is right, and condemns you when you fail to do it. While you might be able to curb some outward sins with the Law, the Law cannot make you love God or your neighbor. The Law does not give you the Holy Spirit, who enlivens your new self. But the Gospel kills the sin, while keeping the sinner alive. It is the Gospel that gives you the Holy Spirit, so that your whole self seeks to do what is right. It is the Gospel that Jesus Christ died for all your sins and that God forgives you for Christ’s sake that creates faith in your hearts and makes you alive to produce good fruit.
To walk by the Spirit means to walk through faith in the Gospel. You can and should use the Law to rebuke your sinful flesh, but the Law cannot give you the desire to do what is right. Only the Gospel can create love in your heart. St. Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” This is fruit, not works done by coercion. The Spirit sows the Gospel, and reaps fruits of love. This is why he writes, “And those who are in Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” The only way to conquer the sinful flesh, so that it does not subdue you, is to place your sins on the cross of Christ. Do not only repent by acknowledging that you are bad and the Law is good. Repent by turning to Jesus for forgiveness and the power to live in love and purity.
It is by the grace of God through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that you are justified in his sight. And it is by that same grace of God through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit that you produce good fruits of love and war against your sinful flesh. He who began the good work in you will complete the good work in you. Through faith in Christ Jesus, you are not a slave to your sinful flesh nor to the Law, but you are a legitimate child of God with the Holy Spirit himself living in you. Amen.