Galatians 5:13-26 (click to display NIV text)
Sept. 16, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson 

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”

In Galatians 5, Paul writes of issues that were very prominent in the ancient world and remain so in our world as well. He writes of freedom, law, flesh and Spirit.

Freedom: for us it is often a patriotic word. We are thankful for freedom in this country, although we are not always able to articulate just what those freedoms are. Some speak of the freedom to do whatever they want to do. Some might speak of the freedom from being hassled by parents or police or rules or school. Others will speak in a more noble sense of freedom from oppression. Those especially who have lived in places where there is real oppression and persecution speak of a freedom that allows worship, learning, and discovery to take place. They speak of a nation that values expression of varying political convictions and allows debate about what is true. Such freedom leads a nation to prosperity and a better future. So the issue becomes how do we move from merely indulging various passions and desires to experiencing true worship, transparent politics and real learning? Freedom ought to lead us to a better place.

The other way we use the word “freedom” is in talking about skills: the discipline and repetition that leads to creative, free and effective motion or sound. This is the freedom of the musician to play well, the freedom of the athlete to move with strength and grace, the freedom of the craftsman to form wood into fine furniture. It is a freedom that is based in discipline. The freedom to play the piano means nothing until you have practiced long and well.

What did Paul mean by freedom? “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (5:1). Scot McKnight writes, “Being free is a relationship with God. In the presence of God we are free from the curse of the law and a sin status so we can live as his free children.” Being free is the result of the death of Jesus Christ. We who were captive to sin and the law have been set free by the cross. Freedom is our redemption from slavery to sin. Freedom is also the life we have in the Spirit of God.

II Corinthians 3:17: “Éwhere the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

Romans 8:2: “Ébecause through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death.”

“Freedom is not being turned loose to do whatever we want. Freedom is being liberated to be what God wants us to be and to do what God wants us to do.” (McKnight)

Some people in Paul’s day had a problem with that definition. They held to the Old Testament Law and they believed that the Spirit does not give adequate moral guidance. They felt you need the law in addition to Christ and the Spirit. They feared that life apart from the Law always leads to indulgence in various sins and desires. These people of the Law felt that the Old Testament law was an adequate moral guide for people. It gave a code so right from wrong could be easily understood. It also provided rituals for people who broke the law, sacrifice in the temple for forgiveness of sin.

When these people spoke of “the Law” they were not first of all thinking of the Ten Commandments, as we might. Rather they were thinking first of keeping a kosher diet, restricting table fellowship to fellow Jews and insisting on circumcision of believers. So the Law had become prideful and nationalistic.

Paul had lived the law for many years and he found it did not do what its teachers promised. In his zeal for the law he became an angry and violent man, a persecutor of the Son of God and his people. When Jesus met him, Paul had to face that he had become “the foremost of sinners.” So Paul did not find life and righteousness through keeping the law. Paul came to understand the power of sin. He saw that sin actually places a shackle around your will, so that just as in prison a shackle will fasten your feet together or to a wall, so sin takes away your power to do what is right. The shackle must be broken before you can live in a right way, before you can live for God. That is what the cross of Jesus does. Then you are free to do what God wants, you are free to love, you are free to see the fruit of the Spirit grow in your life, you are free to neglect the barriers that social conventions have erected, barriers between slave and free, between rich and poor, between Greek and Jew, between male and female.

The word Paul uses to describe this universal human tendency to turn away from God is “flesh.” The NIV translates it as “the sinful nature.” The “flesh” does not mean the body or the physical part of life in contrast to the spiritual. McKnight defines flesh as “the total person living outside of God’s will and apart from God’s guidance through the Spirit.” Flesh is a way of thinking, a way of living. Indulging the flesh is not the same as having a piece of pie or taking a hot bath. It is turning away from the will of God. Paul says that leads to internal divisions, biting and devouring one another. And it leads to a list of sins in verses 19-21. He lists 15 sins and then says “and the like.” This is not a complete list. Some describe immoral actions: sexual sin, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, drunkenness and orgies. Others describe relationship sins: hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, and envy. These are the results of living by the flesh, by a way of thinking that leaves God out of our decisions and actions and attitudes.

This is surely a description of our world as well. In fact, many of the items on the list get magnified in our world by powerful social media where people hurl insults at each other, or by the surrounding pictures and images constantly promoting a life outside God’s will. We live in a time where it is difficult to live in community, whether that community is family or congregation or neighborhood or town or school. Biting and devouring is a common description of relationships. The flesh as a way of thinking and behaving is very much in our midst.

What is it then that life in the Spirit offers us? First, through Christ there is grace, forgiveness and love. In Christ’s death, the power of flesh is put to death. Perhaps you have experienced some of these on the list being taken away as you asked Christ for help and relied on the power of the cross. I remember a time when I was experienced a good bit of inner anger. I had an opportunity in worship to write the word “anger” on a slip of paper and then to actually nail it to a large wooden cross. I was surprised when the anger simply left me, and stayed away for several weeks. When it began to return, I had some insight on how to deal with it. The cross puts to death the power of the flesh in our lives.

Next, Paul says we are to “walk by the Spirit” or “live by the Spirit.” Life in Christ is to be a guided life. It is a life of prayer and practice. Paul says “Serve one another humbly in love,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is our walk, our practice. It is what we are to be doing as the Spirit guides us in our lives. Notice it is the Spirit’s work, but we are to cooperate.

We desire the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. We cannot manufacture it on our own. Just try to be joyful and kind and patient and good all the time. You can’t do it. But we do not just wait for the fruit of the Spirit passively either. We are to practice what the word tells us and then the fruit grows in us. Serve one another humbly in love. When we do what the Word tells us to do, the fruit grows in us. We may not even be aware of it. We tend to see the fruit more in others. We do not boast. But the Spirit begins to develop in us love, joy, peace. The Greek word for kindness is “chrestos.” People used to name servants “Chrestos.” It was a servant’s name. That is what Paul is saying. Practice leads to identity leads to the Spirit working in us.

But notice we speak here of fruit, and not of work. This is of God. It takes time. We do not control it or manufacture it. But the Spirit is able to draw us out of sin, out of flesh thinking, able to begin something new in our lives, and then bring it to maturity.

Our final hymn reflects this work of the Spirit in us:

“Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow, give us peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow.

“You who know our fears and sadness, grace us with your peace and gladness, Spirit of all comfort, fill our hearts.

“You who know each thought and feeling, teach us all your way of healing, Spirit of compassion, fill each heart.”


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