Open your bibles to Galatians 5.
Summer is drawing to a close. How many fall people do we have in here? Who is a summer person. I’ll be honest; I’m going to miss summer. Warm weather, cookouts, swimming pools, driving with the windows down.
As you can tell by my lobster-red face, I spent some last-minute time on the lake yesterday. (No, this isn’t my natural skin tone.) My favorite part about summer is summer camp.
Tug of war
Working at scout camp, almost 15 years. I got to visit this summer and spend an entire week playing in the woods like a kid again. My favorite game from camp is tug of war. If you were deprived as a child, tug of war is a game where two groups of people pull on a rope and try to knock the other one down.
Even better with a mud pit.
The secret to winning a game of tug-of-war isn’t necessarily to have the biggest and strongest people — though it doesn’t hurt — but to be most perfectly coordinated.
All it takes is for one person on one team to lose their footing or relax their grip, then the other team gets a little leverage, and they gain momentum, and as the momentum builds, you just see the odds tip in their direction and they pull the other team into the mud pit.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that the game of tug-of-war is actually a pretty good metaphor for my walk with Jesus.
I was saved in my early 20’s, and ever since, there has been this tension deep down in my soul between what I want to do and what Jesus wants me to do. Between my desires and Jesus’ desires.
And in some seasons, I’ve been on fire for Jesus. I would get up in the morning, a bible in one hand, a golden harp in the other, and a ray of sunshine over my head, thinking, “Good morning, Father. I love you. What are we going to do today?”
And then in other seasons, I would be a totally selfish jerk, I wouldn’t pick up my bible for a week — okay, I lied, a month — and, to be perfectly honest and transparent with you, I didn’t really care what God thought about what I was doing. I didn’t even like me.
Have you ever been there? You’re nodding — it’s okay to own that, we’re family.
We all experience ups and downs in our walk with Jesus — times when we feel closer to God and times when we feel like we’re just going through the motions.
But have you ever wondered why that is…? Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to live a godly life? Why, when Scripture tells us that we have been “set free” from sin, when Scripture tells us that we have been “made alive” with Christ… Why do we still struggle with sin?!
It’s because of the tug-of-war going on in your soul this morning. On one end of the rope are your fleshly desires, and on the other end of that rope is the Holy Spirit working inside of you to make you more like Jesus.
And this morning, we’re going to interact with that tension — the struggle between the passions and desires of the flesh and the passions and desires that the Holy Spirit is creating in you — and we’re going to learn how to recognize those two things at work inside of us, and we’re going to learn how to grow through them through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s read together. Galatians 5, starting on verse 16.
The power of freedom: Walk by the spirit
Right off the bat, Paul gives us both the problem and its solution. “Walk by the Spirit,” verse 16, “and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
We are tempted to “gratify” or to indulge our human desires, and the solution is to learn to “walk by the spirit.”
The reason it’s so hard to live a godly life is because we are a work in progress. You are a work in progress.
When Paul talks about “walking” according to the Spirit, or “walking” according to the flesh, he’s talking about what it is that motivates, propels, and directs you as you go through life.
Either you’re being moved and led by the Holy Spirit, which is from God, or you’re being moved and led by your own desires.
And it is only through an encounter with the living God of the bible that you can begin to turn away from the passions of the flesh and begin living the life that God desires for you.
Have you met him this morning, church? Have you experienced the power that God has promised to all who trust in him — the power to turn away from your sin and follow him in spirit and in truth?
If you’ve never experienced his grace and forgiveness this morning, I’m going to show you how it’s available for you.
But even if you have experienced his grace, oftentimes in the life of the believer, these two passions — these two desires, to walk in the Spirit or to walk according to the flesh — are at odds with one another. It’s that game of tug-of-war; the Spirit and the flesh are pulling on your soul in two opposite directions and, like the rope, there’s enormous tension at the intersection of those conflicting desires.
Look at verse 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.”
Now, that last phrase is the source of a lot of disagreements. What does Paul mean when he says they “keep you from doing the things you want to do?”
Does that mean the flesh keeps us from doing the good things that we want to do in the Spirit? I don’t think that’s the whole story, because we know that God is all-powerful and there is no sin too great for his grace to cover.
Maybe it means that the Spirit keeps us from doing the selfish things that we want to do? But that can’t be the whole story either, because if you’re anything like me, not a day goes by when you don’t wrestle with the sinful passions and desires of your flesh.
So then what does Paul mean? I think it’s a little of both. There will come a day when, if you are a Christian, you will be given a new, glorified body that is free from the corruption of sin and death, but until that day comes, the Holy Spirit is working inside of you to make you more and more like Jesus each and every day.
And there are days where you will feel like you are filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit — days when you feel like you’re walking so closely with Jesus that if you were hanging out at the pool, you couldn’t get in because you could walk on water.
And there will be days when you feel like you’re in the middle of a game of tug-of-war where it’s just you on one end and the entire Redskins defensive line is on the other end, and they drag you right through that puddle of mud.
We live in this tension between the power of the Holy Spirit and the corruption of our flesh.
You may relate well to Paul when he says in Romans, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
If you don’t understand the gospel, those two things make no sense together…
“So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. “
This is the apostle Paul. This is the guy who saw Jesus face-to-face on the road to Damascus. This is the guy who wrote a third of the New Testament.
Even when you are discouraged, church… Even when you feel like a failure. Even when you feel like you’re not good enough, or not strong enough, or not repentant enough… Even when you’re discouraged, you need to keep your eyes on the cross and on the risen Lord, because it is the power of God working in and through you for the long haul that will make you more like him, not the temporary shortcomings we experience along the way.
Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!
“Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
So how do we know?
How do we know whether we’re walking according to the flesh or according to the Spirit?
In order to grow as followers of Jesus, we need to learn to recognize the temptations to walk in our flesh and learn to shift our heart, mind, and soul to walk in the Spirit.
Fortunately, Paul gives us two lists of characteristics that help us to identify whether we’re walking according to the flesh or according to the Spirit.
He lays out the tug-of-war rope and he calls out the teams, with the works of the flesh on one side and the fruit of the spirit on the other.
Walking by the flesh.
Verse 19 — “Now the works of the flesh are evident…” Evident means “clearly seen or understood.” Paul is saying that it doesn’t take a seminary degree to identify the works of the flesh. So what are they?
Verse 19 — “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
That’s a long list. Let’s break it down. I see three categories: sexual sin, misplaced worship, and social sins.
Sexual sins destroy our body and harm the church. Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality. We live in a culture that is obsessed with sex. The average child is first exposed to pornography when he or she is 11 years old. For me, I was 8 years old when I first found a pornographic magazine near the house where I grew up.
You say, “Rob, things are different inside the church.” Are they? Studies show that more than half of Christian men and women confess to viewing pornography on a monthly basis. One in five Christian men — these are born again Christians — believe that they’re addicted to pornography.
Church, there is a reason that the word of God is so clear when it comes to issues of sexual sin! Our fleshly, human desires, particularly in the area of sexual sins, destroy our body and harm the church.
1 Corinthians 6, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body…” Paul says that we are members of one body in Christ, and when we commit sexual immorality, we become “one flesh,” and dishonor the whole body.
“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” If this is you this morning, there’s hope in Jesus Christ.
The second category of works of the flesh that Paul gives us is misplaced worship. Misplaced worship destroys our relationship with God. Idolatry, sorcery.
You may think, “I’m not worshiping golden calves or practicing witchcraft.” Tim Keller says that “an idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’”
Idols can be good things — family, money, career, tradition… But when those good things become ultimate things… When you become controlled or driven by your work… When you have your kids in so many extracurricular activities that you have no time for one another… You turn those things into functional saviors in your life and you subject them to a burden no one or no thing besides God was designed to bear.
One theologian says that our hearts are idol factories, and the switch is stuck in the “on” position.
Idolatry destroys our relationship with God by redirecting the honor, praise, and glory that belongs to him and giving priority to the worthless false gods of the world that cannot save us but only enslave us.
The final category that Paul gives us is social sins. Social sins destroy our relationships with others. “Enmities, strife, jealousy, bursts of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”
Some things to note from this list:
- Enmities and strife — this is the heart condition of hatred and contention that divides the body of Christ and produces the seeds of discord. The petty arguments, the jealousy, the envy that can sneak into our relationships and tear us apart.
- Rivalries — can also be translated “selfish ambition.”
- Dissensions and divisions (or factions) — these are the divisions that occur within a community of God’s people.
Did you notice that 2/3 of Paul’s list are social sins? I don’t know about in Drakes Branch, Virginia, but where I come from, we church people can be really good at social sins.
In fact, notice that this entire section was written to the church. It wasn’t written for us to look outside and wag our finger at all the sinners who walk by our front door. Paul wrote this letter to church people like us as a warning to examine our hearts to see where we might be walking in the flesh.
When did you last examine your heart, church, to see if any of these things were present? Because listen… Walking in the flesh has consequences…
Paul warns in verse 21, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Now you might be thinking, “No, no, no… Jesus died on the cross for me and he has covered my sins, and I’m accepted not because of what I do but because of what Jesus has done.” That’s true. But Paul is warning his readers to examine their lives to see if they are marked or characterized by these things, because if these things characterize their lives, they may not have experienced the saving grace of God.
The question isn’t whether or not you do them. The question is whether or not you make a regular practice of these things rather than repenting. The bible tells us that the righteous man — the righteous man — falls seven times and gets up again.
God knows you’re not perfect. That’s why he sent Jesus to die for our sins. But once we’ve believed and received the power of God in the Holy Spirit, Jesus says, “Go and sin no more.”
You want to know why it’s so hard to live a godly life? It’s because the works of our flesh are stacked up against us!
Now… if I were to pack up my bible and go home, you’d probably go home thinking, “That was the worst sermon ever… That guy from the Summit church just came in and told us how rotten we are.”
But listen, church! That’s only half the news!
Walking by the spirit.
Verse 22, “But…”
I love reading that word in my bible, because you know something good is coming after it.
“But… the fruit of the Spirit is love… joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control…” Do you see how the fruit of the spirit is opposed to the works of the flesh?
Love opposes enmity. Peace opposes division. Patience opposes strife. Kindness opposes jealousy. Goodness opposes impurity. Faithfulness opposes idolatry. Gentleness opposes fits of anger. Self control opposes drunkenness.
On one side of the rope we have the works of our flesh — all of the brokenness and rebelliousness that flows out of our sin nature — but for every one of those things, God has something perfect and beautiful ready and waiting to take its place, to be received not by working harder for them, but by simply resting in the free gift of salvation that we find in the completed work of Jesus Christ!
Notice that the works of the flesh are things that you do — things that you cause — but the fruits of the Spirit are things that are produced in you over which you have no control.
And no matter how hard you try, if you have been saved by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is working inside of you to grow and change you from the inside out.
See, both the flesh and the Spirit compel you to some action. Both living by the flesh and living by the Spirit have some consequence on your life.
While walking according to the flesh compels you by tempting you with the desires of your flesh — cheap and worthless idols that will never give you the love, acceptance, and fulfillment that you’re looking for in the things of the world — walking according to the Spirit compels you from the inside out by changing your desires.
Maybe you think you’re too far gone.
Maybe this is the first time you’ve been to church in a long time. Maybe you’ve run through these lists and you’ve stacked up all of the works of your flesh on one side, and you’ve stacked up all of the fruit of the spirit on the other, and the flesh side looks like it’s winning. By a long shot. And you think there’s no way that you can make up for all of those mistakes.
Here’s the beautiful thing… You don’t have to.
We fundamentally misunderstand the gospel if we view it only as a set of rules and expectations that we need to live up to, because you cannot become right with God through behavior modification. You cannot be good enough. And that’s the point!
Notice that Paul doesn’t tell the Galatians to fix what they’re doing wrong. He doesn’t say, “You need to stop being so angry.” He doesn’t say, “You need to stop being so idolatrous.” He says, “You need to trust God and walk by the Spirit, and as you walk by the Spirit, he will produce in you new desires that will change you from the inside out.” He will produce a contentment and joy that overcomes your anger. He will produce a heart of faithful worship of God that overcomes your idolatry.
When you trust God and walk according to the Spirit, God’s desires become your desires. God’s will becomes your will. You just need to hold your daddy’s hand and walk!
And you see, walking in the Spirit and growing in the fruit of the Spirit frees you from the condemnation of the law because…
[Verse 23] against such things there is no law.
There is no law against love. There is no law against joy. Against peace. Against patience, and kindness, and goodness, and faithfulness, and self control.
You would be out of your mind to create laws against these things.
If you’re not disposed to break the law — if you have no desire to break the law — the law no longer applies to you.
If you’re not a bank robber, laws against bank robbery don’t apply to you.
If you’re not a murderer, laws against murder don’t apply to you.
If you love the Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, laws against idolatry and sexual immorality no longer apply to you.
If, through the strength and power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, you love your neighbor as yourself, laws against jealousy, anger, and dissensions don’t apply to you.
See, verse 24…
24 [T]hose who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
As Paul says earlier in his letter, “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
When you become a Christian and you receive the grace of God, you begin a process in which you die to yourself and live for Christ.
And, while the passions and desires of the flesh and the work of the Spirit are at odds, as Paul tells the Philippians, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
“Keep in step” here sounds like soldiers marching in formation. It represents discipline, it represents harmony and unison…
When you tune your heart to the pattern of the Holy Spirit and you listen for His voice, you discern where he is leading you, it brings you into sync with the will of God.
Let that be the cry of your heart this morning — that you would seek God’s grace in aligning our heart with his will. That you would rely on the wisdom and leadership of the Holy Spirit as you seek his will in the areas of education, of relationships, of work, of parenting…
Because here is what God has promised in his word this morning, church. Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
That even in the midst of the battle between your sinful desires and the working of the Holy Spirit, God is faithful to bring you through it and there will come a day where you will experience the fullness of the promised freedom from the chains of your sin.
That when you feel like you’re standing alone at the end of a tug-of-war rope and the whole world is stacked up against you on the other side, the all-powerful creator of the universe is standing right behind you, and he will make good on his promises. Through his Spirit, he will get you through your struggles in the flesh. Through his Spirit, he will deliver you to an ultimate victory over sin and death.
Church, I exhort you to seek the Holy Spirit this morning, to tune your heart, mind, and soul to hear him, to let him guide you and empower you as you keep in step with him this morning.