October 17, 2021
"Liberated from Legalism"
As we saw last week, there was a certain discouragement which came with Paul's command in verses 13-15. Before we revisit the discouragement, let's look at the antidote in verses 16-18:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Keep that in mind as we now return to the discouragement.
Galatians 5:13-15 says:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are
not consumed by one another.
You hear the command, right? "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There's the command, followed by the discouragement: "But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another."
We ignore the command at the peril of the discouragement. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In other words, we are called in our freedom to desire and seek the joy and contentment of others with the same drive that we seek our own. Paul warns us of the dire consequences if we ignore the command, yet the command at times feels like swimming upstream. It goes against our natural inclinations. How many of you would agree that we struggle with selfishness and self-centeredness? The desires and drives of the ego are strong. And so the thought that every day, when I get up, I should set my thoughts on your needs as well as my own seems beyond the ability of my fallen self to fulfill. Do we have the power to do that? There's the challenge. It's easy to get discouraged.
Paul's answer to the discouragement is in verses 16-18. We cannot love
our neighbor as ourselves under our own power. We must live it by the Spirit of God. And here's the beauty to that truth. Because the power to do difficult tasks comes from God, they are not burdens but opportunities to glorify God. When we try to love without relying on God's Spirit, our default position is trying to fill our emptiness with things of this world and by using others, rather than sharing God's love, which is poured into us to overflowing by the power of the Spirit. Trying to love on our own isn't love. It's not easy to love on our own. But the good news is that's okay, because loving is not primarily our work, but it is God's. We must simply learn to walk by the Spirit.
So how do we do that?
How do we walk by the Spirit, so we can love our neighbors as ourselves?
First, we need to recognize that it's the Spirit's work, not ours. We don't have to push it or force it. All we have to do is trust the power of the Spirit helping us walk in love. As Jesus said in John 15:4-5:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless
it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Walking by the Spirit is another way of saying abide in the vine. Keep yourself tethered to the living Christ. Worship, pray, read the Bible, serve the needs of others…don't cut yourself off from the flow of the Spirit.
So why is it so important that we walk by the Spirit?
Simply put, so we will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Now there's a phrase that needs unpacking. Desires of the flesh.
One of the quirky things about this phrase, desires of the flesh, is that its meaning is nuanced, depending on context. Here, Paul was talking about the person who is driven by selfishness and self-centeredness. The ego-driven person seeks to fill emptiness with what he desires or thinks he needs. As we see in Romans 8:7, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot."
While we all have an emptiness that needs to be filled, the person of the flesh seeks fulfillment in ways that are oppositional to God. "I'd rather do it myself." Or, "I did it my way."
We should not be surprised, therefore, that as verse 17 points out, there is a war between our flesh and God's Spirit. The flesh desires to be filled toward selfish ends, while the Spirit wants to fill us with a love that can be poured out for others. Do you see the difference?
Some of you might remember when, years ago, in one of the creepiest celebrity moves of all time, Woody Allen married his girlfriend's adopted daughter. She was twenty-seven when they married. Do you remember what Allen said about their relationship? "The heart wants what the heart wants." What that means is, I'm going to do whatever I darn well please. That's why Paul said what he said in verse 17. "The heart wants what the heart wants."
Paul spelled out an intentionality about how we not give in to the desires of the flesh. It's quick, direct, and to the point. You nip it in the bud. How's that for decisive action? You write that scathing email or blistering text message, and as your finger hovers over send, you quickly adjust and hit delete. Decisive action. There was an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, where Opie Taylor comes under the influence of a spoiled kid. Barney tells Andy he needs to nip it in the bud. "Nip it!" Barney exclaims.
Stop the problem before it starts.
So how do you do that? How do you walk by the Spirit?
God gives us faith. Remember, salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That is a gift from God. So you are walking by the Spirit when your heart is resting on the promises of God. The Spirit speaks the promises of God into your heart…that Jesus' death and resurrection fills you with joy because your sin has been erased and your eternity has been secured. Those truths drive happiness down to the depths of your being. And then - BOOM! - you are walking by the Spirit.
Here's something you might want to write down:
GENUINE FAITH ALWAYS PRODUCES LOVE.
Genuine faith always produces love because genuine faith pushes out guilt
and fear and greed. Because you know your sin has been forgiven and you will be with Jesus forever, you have no need for selfish or self-centered wants or desires. You are resting and delighting in the promises of God.
Many of you…and I would never say this is something you all should do, because that would be legalistic…many of you…I can, though, commend the practice to you…many of you…and I wouldn't commend it to you just because others are doing it; we don't want to be sheeple…many of you keep highlighted Bible passages or spiritual insights in a nightstand or on fridge doors, or someplace else you can see them. That's always a good thing. It keeps your heart and mind tracking with God's promises. And when you know God's promises, you trust in them…your delight in them… you rest in them.
I love how George Müller, evangelist and director of Ashley Down orphanage in Bristol, England in the 1800s, put it:
I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to
which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, or how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished…Now, what is the food of the inner man? Not prayer, but the Word of God.
When you know the truths of God's Word, and what is said about the truths of God's Word, your heart is happy in God. And so you will be filled with love to overflowing.
Finally, one more unavoidable consequence of being human grows out of verse 16:
"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh."
What is assumed in that verse? In fact, it's assumed in the entirety of this short passage. The assumption is that even when you are in Christ, you sin. Walking by the Spirit doesn't mean we will never sin again. Even as our hearts are filled with the truth of salvation and eternity, we will sin.
Martin Luther tried to live a godly life. Yet there were times when he was
not only tempted to sin, but he fell into sin. What's the phrase young people use? "Been there, done that." This made Luther question his faith.
Do you know what passage of Scripture Luther said helped him the most in his spiritual struggle? Galatians 5:17:
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.
Perhaps this is why Luther said that the Christian is "partly righteous and partly sinner." That there is what might be called a paradox. We should not be surprised by our sin. The Bible never said God would make us perfect in this life. Perfection will only come in the life everlasting.
So how are you walking? The word for walk Paul uses in verse 16 describes a "way of life." What is the way in which you walk? We have the way presented by the culture and the way presented by the gospel. How are you walking? What is your way of life? Whatever way you choose will define how you cope with the daily struggle against evil. When you walk by
the Spirit, out of your life will pour love and blessing for others.
As you walk by the Spirit, you will become less vulnerable to the desires of the flesh. You will be lead away from temptation. And you will know the true joy and contentment which come from resting on God's promise of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
SOLI DEO GLORIA…
To the Glory of God Alone!
*This observation from Charles Spurgeon spoke to today's passage:
"Sinners are never saved apart from the Spirit of God. No moral suasion, no force of example, no potence of logic, no might of rhetoric, ever changed the heart. The living Spirit alone can put life into dead souls."