The Sinner, the Spirit and the Saviour (Gal. 5:16-25)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

As we look around the world today, there is much to be concerned about: fighting, executions, domestic violence and sexual assault, to name a few. People are addicted to gambling, alcohol, pornography and drugs, often bringing great hardship on themselves and their families in the process. Locally, some of you will have been impacted by two young men walking into Eagle Vale High School, setting fire to a stage curtain and causing $50,000 of damage1. Or maybe you own or work in one of several local stores robbed at knife-point.2

Why do these things happen? What can we do to fix these problems?

According to the Apostle Paul, the problem is not that we are not doing the right things or that we are not trying hard enough. Rather, the problem stems from not having the right nature. On the one hand, there is a sinful nature; on the other, a nature that grows out of the work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Paul describes the sinful nature according to its acts:

“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. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
– Galatians 5:19–21

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it helps us to get the picture. Our sinful nature 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 – ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23) – and you and I have earned that wage over and over and over again. The ‘problem’ is not ‘out there’ but rather ‘in here’.

When a newspaper posed the question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response: “Dear Sirs: I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton3

When I read the Bible I am confronted with an awful reality: I am part of the problem, not part of the solution. What is wrong with the world? I am. You are. We are.

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 16.4 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,5 robbery6 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.”
– Galatians 5:22–23

Fruit grows according to the species of the plant. Apple trees produce apples. Grape vines produce grapes. Do you think my son will have to work hard in order to grow tall like me? Or will my daughters have to strive to grow as beautiful as their mother? Of course not. These things will happen naturally, for they are part of their genetic makeup.

Where the Spirit of God is, this fruit 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 rarely in any kind of balance.
For example, some people are temperamentally gentle and diplomatic (gentleness). But the sign that this is not due to the work of the Holy Spirit is that such people are usually not bold or courageous (faithfulness). Because of what Paul says about the city of the fruit, this means that this sort of gentleness is not real spiritual humility, but just temperamental sweetness… Some folks seem happy and bubbly (joy) and are good at meeting new people, but are very unreliable and cannot keep friends (faithfulness). This is not real joy but just being an extrovert by nature. Some people seem very unflappable and unbothered (peaceful) 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 desensitizes you and makes you much less approachable.7

But 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.8 The image is a military one – marching with the Spirit, following the Spirit’s leading and orders.

I think most of us would agree 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.

Some visitors to Galatia, the place this letter was written to, had come with a plan for dealing with the sinful nature. They argued that God had given a plan long ago, when he gave the law to Moses. If only the Galatians would follow this law, they could be saved from their sinful nature and live a life pleasing to God.

That 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.”
– Galatians 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.9

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 accept lust; we pursue peace and find apathy; merriment and drunkenness substitute for joy; and so on.

Why is this? I think part of the problem is that, though we want love, and joy, and peace etc., we want them 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 invert our hierarchy of needs and wants such that we prioritise smoking and alcohol over food to eat. 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. Today we commemorate Mothers’ Day, and in so doing we celebrate the ideals of motherhood: women who love and nurture their families. Yet we know that even such noble ideals can turn nasty when mum lives vicariously through her child, or becomes overly protective or controlling.

Paul says our desires are in conflict, ‘so that [we] do not do what [we] want’ (Gal. 5:17b).
Law is not very good at dealing with desire. The best it can do is to invoke some deeper desire, usually either a desire for respect or to avoid punishment. It cannot by itself eliminate the sinful nature, but only contain its symptoms. In fact, Paul says that by itself the law is another form of slavery, no better than having an unrestrained sinful nature.10

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.

Yet, like the legal plan, this wilful plan suffers from the fatal flaw that it does not address our desires but only our actions. Worse than that, 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?

The second reason a plan that relies on us is deficient is that anything we do is tainted by our sinful nature. A friend of mine carefully prepared a baking tray ready for baking. Upon completion of this task, his wife decided to take out the trash and, in the process of removing the garbage 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!11 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, God had a plan ready,12 and that plan was to send his Son, Jesus.
Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God, meaning that 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, 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. 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!13

This means that we have a responsibility to act when we recognise the acts of the sinful nature in our lives. We must confess and repent of our sin, both before God and before those we have sinned against. The trouble is that crucifixion, whilst a certain death, is also a lingering death.14 Too often, we hang around at the foot of the cross, to pity it, 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.15

If that were the entire story, it would be more than enough to qualify as great news indeed. But God loves to give us ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Eph. 3:20). And so he offers us new life, life in the Spirit after the death of the sinful nature. Picture 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. That is to say, we will grow more and more like Jesus, the one who displayed the same fruit in his own perfect obedience to his Father.

Living by the Spirit is the root; walking by the Spirit is the fruit, and that fruit is nothing less than the practical reproduction of the character (and therefore the conduct) of Christ in the lives of his people.16

Though showered with hate, he demonstrated his love. His joy was such that he could ‘endure the cross, scorning its shame’ (Heb. 12:2). He brought peace to the storm, was patient with wayward disciples, and kind and gentle to outcasts. His goodness, faithfulness and self-control saw him walk all the way to the cross for our sake. Praise be to God for his willing obedience!

So, what is the problem with the world today? Men and women continue to ‘live’ in their sinful nature. The only solution is to belong to Christ and thereby crucify their sinful nature and live instead by the Spirit.

Will you choose a ‘life’ that leads to death? Or a death that leads to life?

Bibliography

  • Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Galatians : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
  • Keller, Timothy J. The Prodigal God : Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. New York: Dutton, 2008.
  • 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. http://www.macarthuradvertiser.com.au/story/3039318/campbelltown-police-news/
  2. http://www.macarthuradvertiser.com.au/story/3054051/campbelltown-police-news/
  3. Timothy J. Keller, The Prodigal God : Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 46.
  4. http://www.casa.org.au/casa_pdf.php?document=statistics
  5. e.g. http://www.domesticviolence.com.au/pages/domestic-violence-statistics.php
  6. e.g. http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/facts/1-20/2013/2_profiles.html
  7. Timothy J. Keller, Galatians for You (Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013), 141.
  8. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).
  9. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.
  10. To a group of people with a pagan background now considering submitting to the law, he writes, ‘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)
  11. cf. ‘“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal. 5:9).
  12. 1 Pet. 1:20.
  13. 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).
  14. Stott, The Message of Galatians, 151.
  15. Stott, The Message of Galatians, 152.
  16. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).
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