Freedom to crucify the sinful nature by the Spirit (Gal. 5)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

Last week we started a new sermon series looking at the ways the Holy Spirit enables us to live a life that not only observes but fulfils the law. He describes this kind of life in terms of ‘freedom':

‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ (Gal 5:1)

Christians are set free from the need for continual perfect obedience to the law of God because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, which in turn brings about the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who put their trust in him. Christians are free in the truest sense.

But ‘free’ is probably not the word that springs to mind when the world thinks about Christianity, probably because they have different expectations about what ‘freedom’ means. Consider these common definitions:

  • President Roosevelt spoke in 1941 of ‘freedom of speech everywhere, freedom of worship everywhere, freedom from want everywhere and freedom from fear everywhere’;1
  • Rolling Stones sang: “I’m free to do what I want any old time / I’m free to do what I want any old time / So love me hold me love me hold me / I’m free any old time to get what I want”;
  • Every year, thousands of teenagers complete their HSC and go off on ‘Schoolies’ vacations to celebrate their newfound ‘freedom’.

Although this was probably one of his earliest letters, Paul was already a seasoned pastor by the time he wrote Galatians. He knew that when you tell people they are ‘free from law’ some just want to go out and break all the laws that previously bound them… just because they can! But what if there is no law to start with? For gentiles such as the Galatians, the limitations on morality prescribed by the laws of the Roman Empire were minimal. Blood and brutality in the circus, paedophilia, homosexuality, slavery, orgies… pretty much anything went. Were the Galatians ‘free’, then, to continue life as they had before?

According to the Apostle Paul, we must understand that freedom is either good or bad depending on the nature of the one set free. He describes two very different natures, the sinful nature and the spiritual nature. And each nature has its own set of desires that are completely opposite to one another and therefore in conflict (Gal. 5:17).

On the one hand, we have what Paul calls the ‘sinful nature’. He does not spell out the desires that emanate from the sinful nature, but let’s see if we can infer them from the acts and behaviours that Paul lists as characteristic of the sinful nature:

‘The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.’ (Gal 5:19–21)

These acts fall into a couple of broad categories. ‘Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery’ are all acts of sexual self-gratification. Pornography, adultery, masturbation, sexual fantasies, prostitution, molestation – all of these things are about how it feels for me, my needs and desires, what I can get out of it.

Idolatry and witchcraft, on the other hand, are about spiritual self-determination. Idolatry is the worship as ‘god’ of anyone or anything other than the triune God revealed in Scripture. I may call it ‘god': such as Allah, Mother Nature or Buddha. Or it may simply take the place of a god in my life, as I offer it my time, energy and money in worship: work, family, wealth, sport, health, beauty or whatever. I choose a ‘god’ that serves my needs and desires. Similarly, witchcraft is an attempt to coerce the spirit world into doing my bidding, so that I get what I want.

Next comes ‘hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy’. Here the goal is self-exaltation. In any group, what I want to be first and most important. It’s my opinion that matters and you’d better listen to me and join my side or else.

Finally, ‘drunkenness’ and ‘orgies’ are about self-indulgence. In this category we might put addictions of all kinds: drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, entertainment, sport, fitness or whatever. It’s all about the rush as your horse crosses the line first or the guilty pleasure of that block of chocolate after a bad day or the euphoria as you get high. It’s about the way it makes you feel.

Self-gratification, self-determination, self-exaltation, self-indulgence; do you see the pattern? Where the sinful nature is dominant, everything flows towards the self. It is about what I can get, what is due to me, my needs, my desires. And the worst of it is that we are all born with a sinful nature. It pervades our sexuality and spirituality. It is the ever-present but never-welcome shadow across our relationships. Its siren-like call draws us onto the rocks of substance abuse and addiction. When you snap at your kids over breakfast or talk about your colleague behind their back or blow your savings on the pokies that is your sinful nature at work.

And yet you are still responsible – for it is you doing those things. You cannot disavow your sinful nature, for it is part of you. More than responsible; you are culpable. Every single one of those acts carries a death sentence – as Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23) – and you and I have earned that wage over and over and over again.

The sinful nature also encompasses the effects of the sins of others against us. According to some Australian statistics 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually abused before the age of 16.2 In other words, in a room of 50 adults, we might estimate 12 people to have been victims of sexual abuse. We could cite similarly disturbing figures in relation to domestic violence,3 robbery4 and so on. Though each survivor will have their own unique response to both the sin and the sinner, there are common themes: anger; sorrow; anxiety; depression; shame. Though they are not the ones to have sinned, nevertheless the sins of someone else have brought brokenness to their life.

The sinful nature has a lot to answer for.

In stark contrast is what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22–23)

The desires of the sinful nature focus exclusively on the self, but the fruit of the Spirit embraces God and others. The love grown by the Holy Spirit is love for God and love for others. The joy grown by the Spirit is joy in God that overflows toward others. We serve a patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, merciful, and self-controlled God, and so we manifest those qualities to everyone around us as witnesses of his work in us.

We will look at the fruit in more detail over the next two weeks. But for now, it is enough to note that this is a much more attractive list than the last one! That is the kind of world we wish we lived in, the kind of life we wish we lived. And we are meant to think so. It is like one of those Jenny Craig posters that show before and after photos with the caption ‘I lost 30kg in 16 weeks’. We are meant to be amazed at the difference and – crucially – to ask the question, ‘How can I do the same?’

So, how do we move ourselves and our world from perpetrating the acts of the sinful nature to exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit? I want to share with you two plans that don’t work, and one that does.

The first plan is the one put forward by the advocates for the Jewish law. ‘Even if Paul is right and the law can’t help you become a Christian,’ they would say, ‘you still need the law to avoid immoral behaviour and live a life pleasing to God once you are a Christian.’

This is a pretty common response in modern-day Australia as well. We look at issues like global poverty, sex trafficking, domestic violence, drunkenness, welfare cheating and drugs and we say, ‘We need better laws; our government should do something.’

Another popular plan – now as then – involves the will. You need to resolve to control your temper, speak kindly, go to the gym, give up alcohol, stop looking at pornography and so on. And then discipline yourself to follow through on these resolutions come what may. You must be like Boxer, the cart horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm, whose solution to every adversity was, ‘I will work harder.’ And so we enrol in twelve-step programs, seek counselling, change our diet, read the latest research and generally invest all our efforts towards improving ourselves.

These plans might work if the problem was simply our actions that need changing. But Paul says it’s bigger than that; it is a question of desires.

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Gal. 5:17)

Desires by themselves are not bad. C. S. Lewis wrote that,

[I]t would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.5

One of the tragic ironies of the sinful nature is that it longs for the fruit of the Spirit, but it settles for counterfeit versions instead. We seek love and find lust; we desire peace and settle for apathy; merriment and drunkenness substitute for joy; and so on. We want the fruit but we want it on our terms. We want to be in control. So we ‘agree to disagree’ instead of seeking reconciliation, otherwise we might have to admit we’re wrong. We choose ‘gods’ we can control – work, family, hobbies – to offer our ‘sacrifices’ of time and money, rather than submitting to a God who might ask more of us than we are ready to give.

Law and will are not very good at dealing with desire. The best they can do is to invoke some deeper desire, usually either a desire for respect or to avoid punishment. They cannot by themselves eliminate the sinful nature, only contain its symptoms. A study done some years ago found that nearly 60% of smokers undergoing surgery for heart disease continue to smoke after their procedure.6 Their symptoms were dealt with, but not their nature or desires. And its the same when we try to treat the sinful nature by applying law.

Further, both plans rely on us for fulfilment, and that is bad for two reasons. First, anything that we can do we can also undo. I’m sure that many of us have gone on a diet, only to find ourselves drifting back into old eating habits and gaining weight again. If my deliverance from the sinful nature relies on the continued application of my will then what happens when I inevitably screw up?
Second, anything we do is tainted by our sinful nature. A friend of mine carefully prepared a baking tray ready for baking. However, in the process of taking out the garbage his wife managed to drip ‘bin juice’ into the baking tray. I can’t imagine there was a vast quantity of ‘bin juice’; yet just a little was enough to spoil the effort!7 Would you drink a glass of water with just one drop of poison in it? Would you wash your dishes in a muddy puddle? So it is when we try to cleanse ourselves of our sinful nature by the exercise of our sinful nature.

Are you doomed, then, to a life where ‘you do not do what you want’ (Gal. 5:17b)? Not at all! For though any plan that depends on us is doomed to failure, there is a plan which is completely dependable. You see God was not surprised by the sinful nature. It is not as though he saw Eve committing the first sin and thought, ‘Whoops, didn’t see that coming.’ Rather, even before the creation of the world,8 God had a plan ready, and that plan was to send his Son, Jesus.

Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God; there was no sinful nature within him. Yet the world rejected and killed him. They crucified him, killing him in the most painful, shameful way they knew how. And, though he could have set himself free,9 Jesus endured the mocking, the beating, the agony and, ultimately, ‘became obedient to death – even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). Because he knew what they did not: that cross was the only way that we might be delivered from our sinful nature.

Paul puts it like this: ‘Those who belong to Christ have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires’ (Gal. 5:24), and it is on the cross of Christ that it has been crucified.

Do you ‘belong to Christ’? You can, you know. He invites you to come to him, to give up the pretence of being able to deal with your own sinful nature and instead trust him to deal with it. Remember, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23), and so your sinful nature must die; if it is not crucified on the cross of Christ then you will die with it.

Unfortunately crucifixion, whilst a certain death, is also a lingering death.10 Sadly, we do not immediately achieve sinless perfection when we turn to Christ; in fact, we will not be perfect until Jesus makes us so at his return. Too often, we hang around at the foot of the cross, to pity our sin, to long for its release. We need to learn to leave those sins there. We have crucified the flesh; we are never going to draw the nails.11 The apostle wrote in another of his letters,

For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom. 8:13-14)

Or, to put it another way, if you are not crucifying sin, sin is crucifying you!12 As Christians, we must not tolerate the acts of the sinful nature in our lives – whether or not they are included in the list Paul gives here. The desires of the sinful nature are in fierce, pitched battle with the desires of the Spirit. Just as we are reliant upon Christ for our salvation, we depend upon the Spirit in the fight against the sinful nature.

Paul says we must ‘walk in step with the Spirit’. The image is a military one – marching with the Spirit, following the Spirit’s leading and orders. So how do we ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ in this battle against the sinful nature?

Firstly, the Spirit helps us by convicting us of our sin. Sometimes we are too close to our sinfulness to see it for what it is. But the Spirit lives within us and is intimately aware of our sin. He shows us in the Bible how our thoughts and actions, our sins of commission and omission, fall short of what God requires. When he does, our response must be to take it back to the cross of Christ, confess it and repent of it. It is progress, rather than perfection, that characterises the life of the Christian.

What is the Holy Spirit showing you today? Is your mind flooded with the thoughts and attitudes of the sinful nature? Anger? Resentment? Envy? Cynicism? Apathy? Is he convicting of things that you ought not to have done, words you ought not to have spoken? What about things that you should have done but have not? Are there relationships where you ought to be seeking forgiveness and reconciliation?

We are granted freedom in the Spirit to continually crucify the sinful nature upon the cross of Christ. We ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ by confessing and repenting of those things which he shows us spring from the sinful nature.

Secondly, the Spirit helps us in the battle by replacing our sinful nature with a new, spiritual nature. He gives us new life, life in the Spirit after the death of the sinful nature. As I said last week, we are like a man with a broken spine. He needs a surgeon to deal with the brokenness within him; but he also needs someone to teach him to walk again, to walk with him as he mends, to push him when he needs encouragement and stop him when he needs to rest. Jesus Christ has granted us the freedom to walk the way we were always intended to walk. He has provided the means by which the sinful nature may be crucified. But he has also sent the Holy Spirit to teach us how to live in the light of that freedom and actually walk!

And as we walk, the fruit of the Spirit will manifest in our lives. Where the Spirit of God is, the fruit of the Spirit will grow. It may start small at first, but it will keep growing. And it will encompass all of the items in the list to some extent or another. The sinful nature is sometimes able to imitate one or two of these fruit, but never in any kind of balance. For example, some people seem happy and bubbly and are good at meeting new people, but are very unreliable and cannot keep friends. This is not real joy but just being an extrovert by nature. Some people seem very unflappable and unbothered but they are not kind or gentle. That is not real peace, but indifference and perhaps cynicism. It enables you to get through the difficulties of life without always being hurt, but it desensitises you and makes you much less approachable.13

But while the fruit grows naturally where the Spirit is, it would be a mistake to think that we are entirely passive in this process, for Paul also talks of walking in step with the Spirit.14 We rely upon him to provide the direction and depend upon him to sustain us as we walk, providing all that we need to do so, but in the end we must walk. We are dependent, yes, but not passive.

So, when the Spirit shows us the good work that we ought to be doing – caring for refugees, sharing the gospel with coworkers, feeding the homeless, teaching our children about Jesus, serving the church – we must act. We will have much more to say over the next two weeks about how that walk looks, particularly the ways in which it shapes our relationships with God and with other people.

In God’s grace, and by the completed work of Christ, we are granted freedom in the Spirit to turn from the sinful nature and instead walk in step with the Spirit. You have a choice: will you walk with him today?

Let’s pray:

Father God, I want to pray for all those among us struggling with the sinful nature… that is, I want to pray for all of us! Some here are captives of sin. Though they desire to do good, they find they cannot for they are held captive by their pride, anger, lust, apathy, ambition and addiction. Father, show us your mercy by delivering us from this captivity. Lead us to the foot of the cross where your Son died so that our sinful nature might be crucified with him. Proclaim to us the freedom to walk in step with your Holy Spirit, and so become more and more like Christ.

Others here are victims of sins not their own: violence, abuse, hate, neglect, bullying, conflict. Father of compassion and God of all comfort, comfort us in all our distress and brokenness. Lead us to the foot of the cross where your Son suffered all the anger, disgrace and shame that a sinful world could throw at him, so that just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so too our comfort might overflow.15 Grant us a new life, life by your Holy Spirit, life free from resentment, guilt or shame, for those things have been crucified with Christ.

Please God fill my brothers and sisters in Christ with the knowledge of your will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. May they live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of you, being strengthened with all power according to your glorious might so that they may have great endurance and patience. Let them joyfully give thanks to you, the one who has qualified them to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. Praise you Lord God that you have rescued them from the dominion of darkness and brought them into the kingdom of the Son you love, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.16

Amen.

Bibliography

Keller, Timothy J. Galatians for You. Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013.

Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Owen, John, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor. Overcoming Sin & Temptation. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of Galatians. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.


Endnotes

  1. Cited in John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 139.
  2. http://www.casa.org.au/casa_pdf.php?document=statistics
  3. http://www.casa.org.au/casa_pdf.php?document=statistics
  4. e.g. http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/facts/1-20/2013/2_profiles.html
  5. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.
  6. “Most Smokers Continue to Light up after Heart Surgery,” American Heart Association, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/11/981112075613.htm.
  7. cf. ‘“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal. 5:9).
  8. 1 Pet. 1:20.
  9. Matt. 26:53.
  10. Stott, The Message of Galatians, 151.
  11. Stott, The Message of Galatians, 152.
  12. cf. John Owen: ‘[B]e killing sin or it will be killing you.’ John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor, Overcoming Sin & Temptation (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006), 50.
  13. Timothy J. Keller, Galatians for You (Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013), 141.
  14. Stott, The Message of Galatians.
  15. 2 Cor 1:3-5.
  16. Col. 1:9–14.
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