Paul has been defending the one true gospel message which he received from the Lord whenever he met the Risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. The one true gospel message is that sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith in Christ who gave himself for our sins in order to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of God the Father. In other words, sinners receive eternal life in the presence of God through faith in Christ alone.
And Paul had to defend the one true gospel message, because the false teachers in Galatia were saying that faith in Christ is not enough. Faith in Christ will not save, they were saying. They were saying that in order to receive eternal life in the presence of God, you need to do what the law says. Faith in Christ is not enough, because in order to receive eternal life, you need to do what the law requires.
And do you remember Paul’s response last week? He said in verse 1 of chapter 5 that Christ has set us free. That is, he’s set us free from having to keep the law as the means to receive eternal life. Whereas the false teachers were saying that you have to work your way up to heaven by your good deeds, Paul made clear that the way to receive eternal life in the presence of God is not by keeping the law, but by believing in the Lord Jesus, who laid down his life as the ransom to set sinners free from condemnation; and who shed his blood to wash away the guilt of our sins. Believe in him and in what he has done for sinners; that’s the way to receive eternal life. And since faith in Christ is the way to receive eternal life, that means Christ has freed us from the law. He’s freed us from having to keep the law in order to receive eternal life.
And so, that takes us to today’s passage which is really answering an objection. The objection is this: If Christ has freed us from keeping the law as the way to receive eternal life, does that mean we can do whatever we like? If we no longer need to keep the law in order to receive eternal life, can we do as we please? Can we keep on sinning? If the only thing that counts is faith in Christ, does that mean it makes no difference whether I keep the law or not? Can I keep on sinning, because, after all, so long as I trust in Christ, God will pardon me?
Paul responds to that objection in today’s passage which can be divided into two main parts. Firstly, there’s verses 13 to 15 where Paul teaches us about true Christian freedom. And secondly, there’s verses 16 to 26 where Paul teaches us about the fruit of the Spirit and how we’re to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. And we’ll look at those two parts in turn.
Verses 13 to 15
In verse 13 Paul says to his readers that they were called to be free. So, through the preaching of the gospel message, God has called them to believe in Christ. And since believing in Christ is the only way to receive eternal life, they’ve been set free from keeping the law as the way to receive eternal life. Instead of having to rely on the law and on their good deeds, they’re to rely on Christ for eternal life.
So, you’ve been set free from having to keep the law. However, says Paul, don’t use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature. A better translation of what Paul actually wrote is this:
Don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.
We’ll come back later to what he means by ‘the flesh’, but Paul warns about using our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. The Greek word translated ‘opportunity’ is a military word and refers to the place from where an army might launch an attack. So, we’re not to use our freedom in Christ to launch ourselves deeper and deeper into sin. Yes, Christ has set us free from having to keep the law as the way to receive eternal life; but we’re not to misuse the freedom which Christ has given us.
And instead of misusing that freedom, we’re to serve one another in love. And the Greek word for ‘serve’ is related to the Greek word for ‘slave’. So, there’s a certain paradox here: Christ has set us free, but he’s set us free so that we’ll serve one another as slaves.
So, we’re not to do as we please. We’re not to live selfish and self-centred lives. We’re not to put ourselves first. Instead Christ calls on us to love our neighbour and to do what we can to serve the people we meet everyday. Do you remember how the Lord Jesus said that he did not come to be served, but to serve? Well, those who belong to Christ, those who trust in him for eternal life, should adopt the same attitude:
I have come not to be served, but to serve you.
So, just because Christ has set us free from the law as the way to receive eternal life, doesn’t mean we can do whatever we please, because Christ calls us to love and serve our neighbour. And in verse 14, Paul explains that the entire law is summed up by one single command. And the one single command which sums up the whole of the law is from Leviticus 19 where it says: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ And what Paul is saying is that if you love and serve your neighbour, you’re actually fulfilling the law. You’re doing what the law requires.
Now, do you see? What Paul is saying here is what I’ve been saying on Sunday evenings as we’ve studied the book of Deuteronomy together. Do you remember how I said that the law is not the means to receive eternal life, but it is the rule for life here on earth. Let me say that again: the law is not the means to receive eternal life, but it is the rule for life here on earth. The law is not the means to receive eternal life, because no one will be justified by observing the law. No one is able to keep the law perfectly; and so, all the law does is reveal to us our sin and guilt and our need of a Saviour. The law does not save; it only condemns. So, the law is not the means to receive eternal life. However, having received the hope of eternal life by trusting in Christ the Saviour, we’re to regard the law as the rule for our life here on earth. The law shows us God’s will for us and how he wants us to live as his people. And his law makes plain that he wants his people to love their neighbour as themselves. Just as we care for ourselves, so we’re to care for the people around us. Instead of biting and devouring one another like wild animals, who attack and kill each other, we’re to love one another. That’s God will for us.
Verses 16 to 26
So, Christ has set us free from the law as the way to receive eternal life. However, we’re not to misuse our freedom. Instead we’re to love and serve one another, for this is God’s will for us.
And in the second part of today’s passage, Paul goes on to teach us about the fruit of the Spirit. Now, he’s already made clear that whoever believes in the Lord Jesus not only receives justification so that they’re pardoned and accepted by God, and they not only receive the hope of eternal life so that they’ll live with God forever, but they also receive the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit comes and lives in the believer. And the Holy Spirit enables the believer to do God’s will more and more.
And so, Paul says in verse 16:
[Live] by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
Unfortunately that’s not a great translation, because what Paul really says is:
Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Think of how God rescued the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and he brought them through the Red Sea and into the wilderness. And in the wilderness, he showed them the direction they were to go by means of the pillar of cloud and fire which went before them and showed them the right path to take. Well, just as the pillar of cloud and fire showed the Israelites the direction they were to go as they made their way to the Promised Land of Canaan, so God’s Holy Spirit will show us the direction we’re to go as we make our way to the Promised Land to come. He will lead us along the right path and show us how to live as God’s people. And so, so long as we follow him, we’ll not give in to the desires of the flesh, but will instead do God’s will more and more. And the Holy Spirit leads us by continually reminding us of what the Scriptures say we’re to do. And he helps us to become more and more obedient to God’s word and to follow God’s law which is the rule for our life here on earth.
But our life here on earth as believers is a life of conflict, isn’t it? It was a life of conflict for the Israelites in the wilderness, because God was trying to lead them on to the Promised Land, but often they thought about returning to the land of Egypt. And believers today face this constant battle between the flesh and the Spirit. As Paul says in verse 17 the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit; and the Spirit desires what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with one another: one wants to lead us to greater obedience, the other wants to lead us in the opposite direction. And so, because of this constant battle, because of this spiritual conflict, we do not do what we want. Well, the way I’ve illustrated this for years is by thinking of those occasions when I’ve gone into the kitchen and Yvonne has left a pot to soak in the sink. And sometimes I look at that pot and I think to myself: ‘I’ll wash that for Yvonne.’ And then, almost immediately, I have a second thought: ‘No, I can’t be bothered. I’ll leave it for her to do.’ But then sometimes my first thought is: ‘I’ll leave that pot for Yvonne to do.’ And my second thought it: ‘No, I’ll do it for her.’
Do you see? It’s this battle between the flesh and the Spirit: the Spirit wants me to do what’s good and right; he wants me to love and serve my wife; and then there’s the flesh, which wants me to live a selfish, self-centred life; it wants me to please myself all of the time. There’s this constant battle.
And Paul adds in verse 18 that if you’re led by the Spirit, then you’re not under law. Well, he’s made the point before that the law is like a prison which imprisons us as sinners who deserve to be condemned. And the law is a like a supervisor, with the authority to rebuke us for our shortcomings. The law is like a legal guardian which treats us as slaves and which orders us about. The law enslaves us and oppresses us. But not when we have the Spirit of God; not when we have the help of the Spirit. Because once we have the Spirit of God in our lives, and are led by him, then the law no longer enslaves and oppresses us, because we have the help of the Spirit to do what the law requires. And so, if you follow the Holy Spirit, if you’re led by him, then he’ll help you to overcome the desires of the flesh and to do what the law commands.
And in the verses which follow, Paul contrasts the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. The works of the flesh are obvious, he says. And he lists some of them here. And the list can be divided into sexual sins and religious sins and social sins and then sins connected to the abuse of alcohol. The sexual sins include sexual immorality and impurity and debauchery. People who are guilty of debauchery show no restraint and do whatever they please. The religious sins include idolatry and witchcraft. The social sins include hatred and discord and jealousy and fits of rage and selfish ambition and dissensions and factions and envy. The sins connected to the abuse of alcohol include drunkenness and orgies; or we might say wild parties. The fact that Paul says ‘and the like’ at the end of the list tells us that this is not a complete list, but only a sample of the works of the flesh. And Paul warns that those who live like this — and he means those who continue to live like this without repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness — will not inherit the kingdom of God. They will be shut out of God’s eternal kingdom to be punished forever for what they have done wrong.
But then, there are the fruit of the Spirit. And Paul perhaps uses the word ‘fruit’ to indicate to us that these virtues are not things which we produce ourselves, but there are the outcome of the Spirit’s work in our lives. And, once again, this is not a complete list, but only a sample of the kind of virtues and qualities which the Holy Spirit produces in the life of the believer. The Spirit’s fruit includes love and joy and peace; and patience and kindness and goodness; and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. With the help of the Holy Spirit, believers display love for others; and they’re able to rejoice in all circumstances; and instead of stirring up trouble, they live peacefully with others. With the help of the Holy Spirit, believers are patient with others; and they’re kind and they do good to the people around them. With the help of the Holy Spirit, believers are faithful and dependable; and they display the lamb-like gentleness of the Saviour, so that they’re not demanding; and they have the Spirit’s help to control themselves and what they say and do.
Against such things there is no law, says Paul. The law does not forbid these things. In fact, those who have the fruit of the Spirit and who display these qualities in their daily lives are in fact doing what the law commands, because the Holy Spirit enables us to love and serve the people around us, which is what the law requires.
And in verses 24 and 25, Paul refers to a death and to a new life. First, there’s the death. He says that those who belong to Christ have crucified, they’ve killed, the flesh with its passions and desires. So, we’re to think of the flesh here as a wicked master who bosses us around and tells us to do evil. However, now that we belong to a new master, now that we belong to Christ, we’re to regard that old master as dead. Dead and gone from our life.
And then there’s the new life. So, now that we belong to Christ by faith, we live our lives by means of the Holy Spirit. So, we’re to rely on him to sanctify us and to make us more and more obedient to the Lord. We’re to keep in step with the Spirit, relying on his help everyday to walk in the ways of the Lord and to do his will.
And those who keep in step with him, will not become conceited; and they’ll not provoke and envy one another. That’s the kind of thing we did when the flesh was our master. That’s the kind of thing he commanded us to do. But now, we have a new master: Jesus Christ the Lord. And he’s given us his Spirit to help us to love our neighbour as ourself.
You’re to walk by the Spirit so that you’ll not gratify the desires of the flesh. So, what does Paul mean by ‘the flesh’? Paul uses the word ‘flesh’ in different ways. Sometimes he uses it to refer simply to our physical flesh. We’re made of flesh and blood. Sometimes he uses it to refer to a person, a human being. But he also uses to to refer to our human existence and especially to our existence after the fall when Adam disobeyed the Lord in the Garden. Ever since that time, our existence here on earth has been characterised by weakness and by death and by sin.
And in that sense, our flesh — which is weak and mortal and sinful — is associated with this present evil age. Do you remember that phrase ‘present evil age’? Paul used it in verse 4 of chapter 1. According to the Scriptures, the whole of time can be divided into two eras: there’s this present evil age, which is now in its last days and it’s destined to perish; and there’s the age to come which will never end. This present evil age is evil because it’s marked by sin and shame and by weakness and death. And those who belong to this present evil age live according to the flesh, doing what is evil, because they’re unable to do what the Lord requires.
But, as Paul wrote in chapter 1, the Lord Jesus gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age. He gave up his life to deliver us from a life that is dominated by the flesh and which is marked by weakness and death and sin. He came and he died in order to rescue all who trust in him from all of that, so that instead of belonging to this present evil age, which is destined to perish, his people belong, by faith, to the age to come.
And if you believe in Christ the Saviour, God gives you his Spirit to renew you inwardly in his likeness, so that instead of doing what the flesh desires, you’re able more and more to do what the Lord requires. Outwardly, you’re wasting away, like everything else in this fallen, broken world which is destined to perish. Outwardly, you’re wasting away; but inwardly, you’re being renewed and transformed by Christ’s Spirit, who has been poured into your heart, so that instead of living in conformity to the ways of this present evil age, he helps you to live more and more in conformity to the age to come. He produces his fruit in your life so that while you continue to live in this present evil age, you’ll live as someone who belongs to the age to come, which is perfect and everlasting.
And so, if you’re a believer, then every day you should remind yourself of two things. You should remind yourself that the flesh is no longer your master, because when you first believed in Christ, you crucified the flesh with its evil passion and desires. So, instead of doing what the flesh demands, you should do what the Lord requires, because he is your master. And he’s a master who loved you and who gave up his life for you.
And you should remind yourself that Christ has given you his Spirit to teach you God’s will and to help you to do it. And so, you should be careful to follow his lead and to pray for his help to obey Christ your master, who gave himself for your sins to rescue you from this present evil age, which is destined to perish. And with the help of his Spirit, you will live as one who belongs to the age to come.