Lord God, heavenly Father,
Your Word instructs us
that 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.
Help us, dear Father, to walk by the Spirit,
that we may not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Help us to avoid the works of the flesh,
for those who do such things
will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Help us to bear the fruit of the Spirit—
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
As Your baptized children, we belong to Christ Jesus.
Help us, then, to crucify the flesh
with its passions and desires.
We ask all this
in the Name of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one true God, now and forever. Amen.
Galatians 5:16–24 (ESV)
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: 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. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Lutheran pastors love to warn their flocks to not trust in their good works and to not misshape Christianity into a religion of keeping rules. However, upon hearing this warning, the Christian-in-the-pew may mistakenly conclude that we need not strive to do good works and keep the Ten Commandments. We might even end up thinking that we do not have to concern ourselves with making progress in the Christian life and growing in sanctification.
But what does the Bible teach? Of course, for salvation, we trust in Christ and not in our good works and our keeping of the Law. Christ alone has set us free from our sins. But the question is: “are we now free to commit the evil we want to do and to break God’s commandments?” In today’s Epistle, St. Paul answers that question definitively. We who are in Christ are not free to disregard God’s Law and to do evil, for that would be to return to a life of slavery to sin.
Christianity is not a religion of self-righteousness and rule-keeping. But neither is Christianity a religion of self-gratification, in which our freedom in Christ becomes an opportunity to serve the evil desires of our sinful flesh. In Christ, we are free from sin, not free to sin. Listen to how St. Paul explains our freedom: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.…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 (Galatians 5:1, 13). Do you see? As those set free by Christ, you and I should always be concerned about making progress in resisting our sinful flesh and in serving our neighbour in love.
On that fatal day in the Garden of Eden, the first two humans declared their independence from God. “We know what is good and what is evil, and we have the right to make our own choice.” But the freedom of choice for which Adam and Eve yearned turned out to be a deceptive lie, for the fallen, natural will is in bondage to sin. To be independent from God is to be bound to the impulses, lusts, and desires of mind and body and places us under the curse. As Scripture says: Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them (Galatians 3:10).
Only in Christ Jesus do you and I have true freedom. [For] Christ [has] redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). The judgment of the Law—the soul that sins shall die—has been carried out; the sinner has been executed (Ezekiel 18:4). Not the sinner we expect to have been executed—not you, not me—; but rather, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who for our sake [was made] to be sin…so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). What the Law demands when it binds us to our sin has been fulfilled by Jesus. Therefore we are now free children of God.
Through faith in Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit, who gives us the mind of Christ and the freedom of children who have been born again according to the Spirit (see Galatians 3:14; 1 Corinthians 2:16; Galatians 4:29). The Holy Spirit teaches us to cry out “Abba”, which is a term of endearment for and trust in our heavenly Father (see Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Holy Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life,” who has made us alive together with Christ (see Ephesians 2:5), and who transforms us by the renewing of the mind (see Romans 12:2). We become God’s new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and are given the will to do the will of God (Philippians 2:13).
Baptized into Christ, we have received the Holy Spirit and we have been set free to live the new life of the Spirit. And now, we must be careful not to surrender our freedom by permitting the flesh to have unbridled license and thus lord it over us.
The new life of the Spirit can be lost by our surrendering to the lusts and impulses of the flesh. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” that is, the flesh, the “old Adam” (Luther, SC, Baptism IV), the “natural self,” which would have us walk in the old ways, in the futility of our minds, darkened in our understanding, alienated from God because of the ignorance that is in us, due to the hardness of our hearts (see Ephesians 4:17-18).
Walking in the old ways results in our doing the works of the flesh, which St. Paul describes in four groups. First are the sexual sins that stand in sharp contrast to the purity of heart which enables us to see God (see Matthew 5:8; Ephesians 5:3, 5). Second are the ceremonies and rituals of those who do not worship the triune God. Included in these idolatrous acts are the practices of witchcraft, sorcery, and all the modern ways of being spiritual apart from Christ. Third are all the ways in which we show animosity toward others: hatred, hostility, personal enmity, quarreling, strife, jealousy, envy, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambition, and seeking the pursuit of power for the sake of controlling others. And the final group of fleshly works is self-indulgence of sensual pleasures without self-control.
Do you see now how grave a mistake it is for Christians to conclude that they need not strive to do good works and keep the Ten Commandments? In Christ, we are truly free from sin, but we must never misshape our freedom in Christ into an opportunity to serve the evil desires of our sinful flesh. For that would be to return to a life of slavery to sin.
The truth is that we are both flesh and spirit. The flesh—the “old Adam”, the “natural self”—will be with us until the day we die. But in Holy Baptism, we have been made a new man, a new Spirit-filled creation, that should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever (Luther, SC, Baptism IV). In this life, the flesh and the spirit will always be at war. By surrendering to the flesh, we lose our faith and forfeit our inheritance (see Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:6; Romans 8:12–13). Those who live like this—that is, those who continue to do these things—will not inherit the kingdom of God. They forfeit their salvation, for where there is no contrition and repentance, there is no faith.
This means we need daily renewal.
The old Adam should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die. This is one of the spiritual sacrifices that we are to bring daily to God (see 1 Peter 2:5). The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise (Psalm 51:17). Like the whole burnt offering of the Old Testament, we are to bring the flesh and its lusts and desires to God and say, “Kill this evil thing!” The Law, the holy Ten Commandments, is the means by which this contrition, the terror of conscience before God, is formed in the heart. Thus the Spirit puts the flesh to death.
And then, a new man also is daily to come forth and arise, a new person who will live before God in righteousness and purity forever. True repentance is contrition and faith in Jesus by which we receive the benefit of His holy obedience and death. Such faith is the work of the Spirit through the Word of the Gospel, the promise of our Baptism (Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:1–4), by which the Spirit prompts us to pray, “Abba, Father!” Then the fruit of the Spirit is produced by such faith: love, joy, peace, patience.
The Spirit also produces kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our lives. These are the Spirit’s fruits, not human works. The Holy Spirit produces these in our lives. They are good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). There is no Law against these. In other words, there is no commandment that says: “Now, be careful not to love too much or to be too patient, or too kind”. Do you see? You can never be guilty of indulging in too much of the fruit of the Spirit. The love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that the Holy Spirit produces in your life— these are the evidence of the freedom you have as God’s free children and as heirs together with Christ.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, you are free to ever increase in the fruits of the Spirit and to ever diminish in the works of the flesh. To be sure, it is an ongoing battle that proceeds in much weakness on your part and with many setbacks. But in Christ, you press on in resisting your sinful flesh and in serving your neighbour in love. Yes, in Christ, you press on relentlessly to the final victory at the Resurrection on the Last Day.
Meanwhile, as God’s baptized children, you and I have the freedom of not living in the flesh but of walking in the Spirit, of living in the Son of God, who gave His life for our freedom. In Christ, we now live in the freedom to daily crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, and we are now free to live by the Spirit and to keep in step with the Spirit (see Galatians 5:24-25). This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Amen.