Freedom to fulfil the law by the Spirit (Gal. 5)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

Last week, Tim challenged that if we want to see the lost saved we must first commit to being a church where Jesus rules. Together we stood with him and affirmed, ‘Jesus reigns’.

But what does that look like? Should our church look more like the early church or the church down the road? How do we balance the elements of the Great Commission – going, making disciples, baptising, teaching – in the life of our church? Where should we invest our resources? And what about your life and my life? Should I be a mechanic or a missionary, a teacher or a typist, a barista or a barrister? If we want to be a church who can truthfully say that ‘Jesus reigns’, we have so many areas of our individual and corporate lives that we must give over to him. Each of us must be able to say ‘Jesus reigns’ over my finances, my relationships, my work, my pets, my ministry, my commute, my body, my family, my house, my car, my hobbies.

This is a daunting challenge. But it is not a new one. Rather, it is a challenge the church has been facing since its very earliest days. Take the church in Galatia, for example. During his two visits to their area (Acts 16:6; 18:23), the Apostle Paul had taught them about Christ crucified (Gal. 3:1) and called them to acknowledge that Jesus reigns; but now, in Paul’s absence, they were trying to apply his teaching to their individual and corporate life… with mixed results.

As so often happens, some well-meaning people had showed up offering a plan to solve all their problems. The best thing to do, they said, was to adopt the the Jewish law, the Torah, known to us today as the Old Testament. The first step would be for the males to be circumcised, the sign of the covenant given to Abraham. Then they ought to obey the 613 commandments prescribed in the law. In so doing, they would secure the blessings promised in that covenant to Abraham and would be able to live righteous lives in the favour of God.

I can understand the attraction. Though difficult, here was a concrete plan that could be followed, with an ironclad promise of blessing and righteousness to follow, a plan with more than a thousand years’ track record! For those of us trained to set SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bounded – this seems like just the ticket. Is this what West Penno needs in order to follow through on our commitment to be a church where Jesus rules, made up of people in whom Jesus reigns?

Well, the Apostle Paul would shout an unequivocal, ‘No!’ In fact, when he heard that the Galatians were seriously considering this, he was all but apoplectic. Though chapter 5 is the first time the specific issue of circumcision comes into focus, it is clear that he has been building a case against reliance upon law observance (including circumcision) since the beginning of the epistle, calling it a ‘different gospel':

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:6–7)
In chapters 1 and 2 he defends his credentials as a teacher of the definitive gospel, tracing its origins to the risen Christ himself and commending it as consistent with the teaching of the other apostles. In chapters 3 and 4 he argues that the blessings promised to Abraham are not contingent upon observance of the law, but rather upon faith in the one who made the promises. In fact, by the end of chapter 4 he is comparing law observance (represented by Mount Sinai, where the law was given to Moses) to slavery (Gal. 4:21-5:1).

As Christians, he says, we are not meant for slavery but for freedom (Gal. 5:1).

What was the problem? Wasn’t the law God’s word? Isn’t the law a good thing?

The key problem in Paul’s eyes is not with the law itself but with way the Galatians were intending to use it. They were trying to be ‘justified by law’, to make themselves righteous before God by their own actions and thereby achieve some sort of leverage over God. They were like my son, Aedan, when I ask him to help with tidying the house. He wants an itemised list of things he needs to clean up and a definite description of the reward to be gained when he does before he will sign on to do the work. That way, he can point to the list with neat ticks next to each item and demand his reward… and he can exclude any tasks that he really doesn’t want to do, or at least negotiate for better rates up front!

Listen to Paul’s description of the consequences of this kind of attitude:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:2–4)

Christ died in a free act of grace in order to secure their adoption – and ours! – as sons and daughters of God. Trying to ‘earn’ their way into the family of Abraham by observing the law was redundant. Why work to become a child of the servant, when you are already a child of the master?

Worse than just being pointless, though, this behaviour nullified Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf. It was like they were saying, ‘Thanks, but we don’t really need you after all; we can do it ourselves’. They became ‘alienated from Christ’ and ‘fallen away from grace’ (v. 4). You want to be pretty sure of yourself before you do that. If you are swept out to sea when swimming at the beach, you don’t tell the lifesaver, ‘It’s OK, I can swim back.’ You get in that boat and stay in it until you are back at shore. Similarly, if you’re going to count on your obedience to the law for salvation, you’d better be sure you can obey the entire law else it will not go well for you. And I have to tell you that the odds are not good: in all of history, only one man has achieved this feat, and that is Jesus himself.

Circumcision is not a popular sales pitch these days. But there are plenty of people who hold up their adherence to some portion of scripture as evidence of their right to be respected as ‘good, moral people’. For some, it is the Ten Commandments, commands towards social justice, the so-called Golden Rule, or even Jesus’ ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). This last one is particularly ironic, because it misses the key point of Jesus’ teaching, which is that what is required transcends what is written down in the law.

“You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.” (Matt 5:38–39)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:43–45)

Bare law observance would have us avoiding adultery, limiting ourselves to proportionate retribution when we are wronged and loving our neighbours; but Jesus demands much more than that. The law’s requirements fall short of Jesus’ expectations. Keeping the law may make you righteous in your own eyes, but not in God’s eyes. The law by itself is not enough.

So what alternative does Paul propose then? What does ‘freedom’ look like to him?

But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Gal. 5:5–6, emphasis added)

There is a righteousness for us, for which we hope; a true righteousness in God’s eyes, not just our own. But it does not come to us by our efforts; rather, it is the free gift of God. And that righteousness is intimately bound up with the work of the Holy Spirit, for it is through his agency that this hope is realised.

So what is the relationship between the Christian, the Spirit and the Law?

The first thing to understand is how Christians come to be in possession of the Holy Spirit, and to do this we must turn to Galatians 3:

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:10–14, emphasis added)

The logic is clear. Jesus died on the Cross (i.e. was hung on a tree) to redeem us from the cursed necessity of continual perfect obedience to the law. And he did so for a purpose: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit. Paul puts the same thought in different words in chapter 4:

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Gal 4:4–7, emphasis added)

Once again, it is the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming us that is decisive. It is by this redemption that we become sons of God. Paul uses ‘sons’ here not to exclude women but to emphasise inheritance, for it was sons and not daughters who inherited in his culture. Male and female, if we belong to Christ we are sons of God in the sense that we are heirs. And because we are heirs we receive the Spirit. This means we are no longer slaves but free.

We who are in Christ are heirs of God, we have the Holy Spirit and we are free. And it is all because of the completed work of Christ. His sacrifice on our behalf is what makes it all possible.

So we receive the Holy Spirit because of Christ, but how does that help us?

Think of an athlete who has broken his back. He needs a surgeon to address the brokenness within him, or else any attempt to exercise will make things worse rather than better. This is the work of Christ in redeeming us from our sinfulness. If you are not a Christian, this is where you must start: call upon Jesus, put your trust in him, and he will redeem you from your brokenness and receive you into the family of God.

But once the surgery is done, the athlete will also need someone to coach him on how to walk again, let alone run, and this is the role of the Holy Spirit.

Some of you have noticed that I have been trying to lose some weight. Part of that effort has involved me taking up running. Never having been a runner, I decided to follow the so-called ‘couch to 5k’ plan to get me started, and that has been really helpful. I will never be an olympic athlete – unless they finally get around to making procrastination an olympic sport! – but the plan has helped me to improve. However it can’t tell me everything. It can’t tell me how to adapt to wet weather, or illness, or family travel commitments, or injury. Nor can it help me identify or address my specific weaknesses in gait or posture etc. It is a basic plan, general enough to be useful to a majority of people. Much like the law.

The law, used for its intended purposes, is good. But there are some things it is just not designed to do. Though it may set out relevant principles, the law cannot tell us how to serve our community here in West Pennant Hills; or whether we ought to pursue IVF; or when to seek specialised care for our ageing parents. It cannot produce in us the kind of life that Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount. Much as we would like a black and white response plan, that is not the way God works. Instead, he wants us to rely on our coach; for it is the coach who sees most clearly and can come up with the right plan at the right time.

That coach is the Holy Spirit.

To be sure, the Spirit uses the law as one of his key training methods. As Christians, we need to be familiar with scripture, both Old and New Testaments, for the Spirit will show us there many things such as the nature and character of God; the sinfulness of men and women; and the awesome grace found in Jesus Christ alone. But the Spirit will also help us to grow by sending us challenges in the form of contentious coworkers, the loss of a loved one, financial crisis or illness. These things are to the Spirit what hill running and interval training are to a running coach. They help to build speed and stamina for the marathon that is the Christian life (Rom. 5:3-5). They serve to grow in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… among other things.

In other words, by his work the Holy Spirit remakes us in the image of Christ. Christ himself was all of these things, and we need look no further than the cross for evidence. His love, kindness and goodness were proved on the cross where he died for his enemies (Rom. 5:8). Hebrews tells us it was ‘for the joy set before him,’ that he, ‘endured the cross’ (Heb. 12:2). In the garden of Gethsemane he disciplined himself to obedience to God’s will rather than his own (Luke 22:42), demonstration of his faithfulness and self-control. In gentleness and peace he made arrangements for the care of his mother even as he died (John 19:26-27), and sought forgiveness for those who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34).

And he did all this by the power of the Holy Spirit, who came down and remained on him (John 1:32-33).

John the Baptist makes a special point of the fact that the Holy Spirit remained on Jesus, for this was unheard of. In the Old Testament accounts of the Holy Spirit coming upon someone – Moses, Saul, David, and many of the prophets and judges – it was usually for a specific time or purpose. But with Jesus, the Holy Spirit came down and remained. He was different from everyone who went before… but not after. For as we already saw, by his obedience and sacrifice Christ ensured that the same Spirit would come upon us when we put our trust in him (Gal. 3:14; 4:6).

The Spirit who remained on and empowered Christ is the same Spirit who now lives in our hearts; our coach has serious credibility!

This is not to say that there is nothing required on your part. An athlete can have the best coach in the world, but if he doesn’t run when the coach says, ‘run,’ and rest when he says, ‘rest,’ the coach will do him no good. The point of the fruit metaphor is not that we sit back and relax whilst the fruit magically grows; rather it highlights our dependence on the Spirit. The type and quantity of fruit is determined by the nature of the tree and the quality of its roots, rather than by any special effort on the part of the tree. If we want to live a life that is pleasing to God we must depend on the Spirit to teach us how (Rom. 14:17-18). Paul describes this as ‘walk[ing] in step with the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:25), and the image is of walking in a line, following the Spirit. He leads, and we follow.

So, brothers and sisters, let me ask you: Is the fruit of the Spirit growing in your life? Do you see growing evidence of love, joy and peace? Is your day-to-day characterised by peace, patience and kindness? Is the Holy Spirit prompting you in the areas of goodness, gentleness and self-control? If not, the answer is not some new regime of law-observance but to once again cast yourself on the Holy Spirit, depending on him to lead you. When he leads you in the direction of reconciliation with that co-worker you can’t stand or prompts you to spend more time with your family; when he convicts you of your lustful or envious thoughts or calls you to step out in faith as a missionary; when he brings you into a time of suffering or grief; when he does those things you have a choice. You can choose to go your own way and follow your own plan; or you can choose to follow him and in so doing grow more like Christ. You can walk away from the Spirit, or you can walk in step with him.

And as we choose to walk in step with the Spirit, we will find that we naturally do the things that the law commands. We will do more! We will leave lust not just avoid adultery. We will seek reconciliation rather than revenge. As the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control of Christ grows in your life, you will find that you naturally, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Gal 5:14)… and your enemy as well! In chapter 6, Paul calls this ‘fulfill[ing] the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2).

It is only in the power of the Holy Spirit that we can do this.

Throughout the month of June, then, we will look more specifically at the ways in which the Holy Spirit leads us to fulfil the law. We will explore his role in overcoming the sinful nature (week 2); in growing in our knowledge of and love for God (week 3); and in serving one another in love (week 4).

And as we do, may he teach us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ so we can truly say, ‘Jesus reigns in my life and our church by his Spirit’.

Let’s pray:

Father God, of the many wonderful gifts brought to us through the death and resurrection of your son, none are as precious to us as your Holy Spirit. We rejoice that we have a counsellor to coach us in living a life that is full of righteousness, peace and joy, and pleasing to God and approved by men. Thank you that he guides us into all truth, speaking to us what he hears from you. May he continue to bring glory to you by his work in and through us (John 16:7-15; Rom 14:17-18).

For our church here in West Pennant Hills, I pray that you would grant us a spirit of unity among ourselves as we follow Jesus Christ, so that with one heart and mouth we may glorify you, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And may you, the God of hope, fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in you, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:5, 13).

Finally, for any here this morning who are depending on their own righteousness, I pray that you would convict them of their folly. Show them that, no matter how good or moral they may consider themselves, such righteousness is as filthy rags when compared to that which is freely available in Christ Jesus (Is. 64:6). Convict them of their guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). And draw them to yourself, so that they too may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit promised to Abraham but now available to all because of the finished work of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:14; 4:4-7).



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