rock underwater

How do we know we are living by the Spirit, and not the flesh? Well, there is a contrast. The flesh does certain things. The Spirit results in different things. This isn’t about law. It is about knowing the difference between flesh and Spirit.

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Galatians #19 . Chapter 5:19-21

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21, HCSB)

There are many tensions in the Christian life. One of those tensions has to do with forgiveness and grace on the one hand, and sin and the flesh on the other. This is one of the passages that shows us the tension. Paul has spent almost five chapters explaining that we cannot earn God’s approval. We can only trust Jesus, and that through Jesus we have it. Our sins cannot keep us separated from God any longer, because through Jesus, sin has been dealt with, once and for all. And yet, that is not an excuse to sin. Paul explains that if we continue on practicing works of the flesh, we won’t be a part of God’s kingdom at all. How do we reconcile these things?

Paul gives us these descriptions as a guide. He has told us to not indulge the flesh, but rather, live by the Spirit. How do we know we are living by the Spirit? Well, there is a contrast. The flesh does certain things. The Spirit results in different things. If you find you are practicing the things of the flesh, it is time for a course correction.

Paul names several different things as works of the flesh. After that list, he says, “and anything similar.” So this is not a complete or exhaustive list. He isn’t making a catalogue of every sin of the flesh, he’s just painting an overall picture. I’m not going to go into each of these in detail, because the main point is the overall picture. These are just a few examples of what “the flesh” can look like. However, I do want to mention just a couple of the works of the flesh he uses as examples, because some of them are not recognized as wrong anymore. My point is not to just generally condemn people. We are all sinners; we are all saved by Jesus. But living according to the flesh, as we’re about to find out, is spiritually dangerous, and often destructive to our personal lives. So we ought to be clear about some of what society calls “normal” but the bible calls “the flesh.” PLEASE do not take this as condemnation. Take it as motivation to let Jesus lead your life, instead of living to please yourself or other human beings. Even if what follows is hard to listen to, stay with me. I think you’ll find some grace if you read on through the hard stuff and hear what else the Lord has to say to you today.

One of the works of the flesh is “sexual immorality.” This is a very broad term, and it means, “any sexual activity that takes place outside of marriage.” So it includes sex before marriage, adultery, homosexual sex, pornography and, well, anything that isn’t between a married couple.

I think the culture at large has stopped believing that sexual immorality is wrong. But truth is truth, regardless of how many people believe it. According to the bible – this very passage, in fact – it is wrong. People have changed their behavior, and they’ve changed their views to match their behavior. But the truth hasn’t changed.

I have some advice for young people who find themselves in a pattern of having sex without getting married: Just get married already. If you don’t love the other person enough to marry her, then you are just using her for sex, and isn’t that just a little despicable? But if you do love her enough to marry her, what’s the problem? Go on and tie the knot already. This is basically what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. You can send me a thank-you card on your twentieth anniversary.

Another one we don’t think about much, is idolatry. When I was a little kid in Hong Kong, I saw actual idols all over the place. There was a giant statue of some Buddhist god right next to the beach we went to every week, and we saw smaller ones scattered in all sorts of locations. But in the Western world that kind of idol is pretty uncommon. However the basic principle behind idolatry is alive and well, all over the world. An idol is a false god. It is something that we treat as God, even though it is not.

In the Western world, we don’t treat statues as gods. But many people treat money as a god. People seek comfort in money. They put it first in their lives. They dedicate their lives to its service. That’s idolatry. We can make other people into idols as well – seeking comfort in them, dedicating our lives to them, rather the Lord of all Creation. In this way, mothers can even treat their children as idols, or husbands, their wives. We might turn anything into an idol: success; food; being healthy and fit. Here in Music City, USA, I’ve met a lot of people who treat music as an idol. If you seek your main comfort in it, if it has a higher priority in your life than the one true God – even if it is religious activity, but not God himself – it is an idol.

Another thing Paul mentions is drunkenness. This is another thing that our culture accepts, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone much. But the bible calls it a work of the flesh, a sin. Now, some folks might ask, “How drunk do you have to be before you’re ‘Bible-drunk?’” (Did I just invent a new phrase?) If you are really asking that question, I think you are probably already in danger from the flesh. You want to know how far you can “legally” go in indulging your flesh. I’ll talk about that in a minute.

Paul describes the works of the flesh and then writes, those who prassontes such things will not inherit eternal life. The Greek could be transliterated as “prassontes.” The root form of the word is “prasso.” Prasso means “to practice; to do something repetitively.” Here are a few places where the word is used in a similar way:

“This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices (prasso) wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.” (John 3:19-21, HCSB)

Although they know full well God’s just sentence — that those who practice (prasso) such things deserve to die — they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice (prasso) them. (Rom 1:32, HCSB)

Prasso is used frequently in the New Testament. In Galatians 5:21, the form of the word is both present tense, and active. What is important about all that, is that Paul is not referring to occasional failures. He means a deliberately chosen, ongoing pattern of life – repeated practicing – of these works of the flesh. In Romans 2:25, Paul uses the word for people who “observe” the law. In that context it is clear. Those who observe the law do not simply do one part of the law once in a while. It is the pattern of their lives. So, here, with regard to works of the flesh, Paul is talking about a present, active, ongoing pattern of life. He says, those who live this way, who make it their practice to behave in this way – those people will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So, we need to be clear. We don’t mean that an alcoholic who falls off the wagon will be automatically excluded from God’s kingdom. On the other hand, someone who continues a pattern of drunkenness, is walking by the flesh, and walking further and further away from God. Let me say too, I’ve known many functional alcoholics who lie to themselves about whether or not they are really drunk. They might say, “I’m not drunk, I’m just a little buzzed is all.” If you have a pattern of being “a little buzzed” fairly often, you are in danger.

We aren’t talking about sometimes giving in to temptation. I’m not saying that to do that is right. But I am saying that the great spiritual danger comes when giving in to temptation becomes a way of life. If you want to know how many times a week it is OK to give into temptation, my response is, “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” If you want to know how much you can get away with, you are moving in the direction of flesh, not Spirit.

My struggle in preaching about this, is that I know there are some folks out there who live in an agony of guilty feelings. They worry that every little thing they do wrong is going to destroy them spiritually. To them, I want to say, “God is much bigger than that. The work of Jesus is much more powerful. Of course you should confess and repent, but don’t waste time with guilt and shame. Jesus came to remove those things. They are not part of you anymore.”

On the other hand, a new survey just this week shows that 62% of Americans think they are going to heaven when they die, and only 1.5% think they will go to hell. Other polls show that among people who believe in heaven (which is about 89% of the population), 85% think they are going there. The bottom line is, a lot of people who really have nothing at all to do with God, think they are going to be part of his kingdom after they die. And even some church-goers and people who call themselves Christians, are living completely according to the flesh.

I had a friend who was a Christian. He struggled with alcohol, and with sexual immorality (the two often go together). He was married, but at one point, he invited his mistress to live with him and his wife. As things got worse and worse, I spoke with him. I said something like this:

Imagine you are in a boat in the middle of an ocean, in water that is one thousand feet deep. You pick up a big, heavy rock, take a deep breath, and jump off the boat. You want to go down deep, and the rock will take you there fast. If you let go of the rock soon enough, you will be able to swim back to the surface. But the longer you hold onto the rock, the deeper it takes you and the more dangerous it becomes. Long before you get to the bottom, you will pass a point of no return, where you won’t have enough breath to make it back up to the surface before you drown, even if you let go of the rock.

This is you, my friend. Let go of the rock, before it is too late.

My friend did not let go of the rock. He destroyed his family, hurt many people, and died before he was 45 years old. Now, most people don’t die young just because they are living according to the flesh. My main point is that he never turned back. Once a strong Christian, he basically renounced his faith, rather than renounce his lifestyle of the flesh. And that is the point. Somewhere down the road, the choice between flesh and spirit becomes solidified. At a certain point, which is probably different for each person, at least some people become hardened and never do turn back to life with Jesus. Now, I don’t want to start a theological argument about whether or not you can lose your salvation. I am merely repeating what Paul himself wrote:

I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

The apostle John wrote something interesting that may have bearing on this. He said:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not bring death, he should ask, and God will give life to him — to those who commit sin that doesn’t bring death. There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin that does not bring death. (1John 5:16-17, HCSB)

Sometimes, a sin is the result of a moment of weakness. It’s still a sin. It’s still something we ought to avoid. We should still repent (that is, reject it as a way of life) and confess (own up to it). But it is not something on which to waste a lot of time and energy. What I mean is, we turn away from the sin, we apply the work of the Jesus on the cross to it, we cling to Jesus as our holiness and move on with life.

But sometimes a sin is part of a long-term pattern of living by the desires of the flesh. We are holding on to the rock. We are going down; it is leading us to death, to separation from the kingdom of God.

Some people may want to know, “Just how far down can I go, and still let go of the rock and get back safely?” In other words, “just how much sin, how much indulging my flesh can I get away with before it is a problem?”

I think that type question is asked by two completely different groups of people. Some people may ask that, because they are worried that they have passed the point of no return. They know they have given in to the flesh many times, and when they hear bible passages like this, they think, “Oh my gosh, have I screwed it all up? Have I lost my salvation?” They want to know the answer to that question because they are worried that their sins have disqualified them.

To that first group of people, I want to repeat Paul’s first words to the Galatians:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (Gal 1:3-4, HCSB)

Do not fear, the work of Jesus is stronger than the work of your flesh. Martin Luther says it like this:

“Those who sin because of weakness, even if they do it often, will not be denied forgiveness, provided that they rise again and do not persist in their sin.”

If you are worried about your flesh because you don’t want to be drawn away from Jesus, you are probably in a good place. You don’t have to worry. Just fix your eyes on Jesus. Remember that in him, you are already holy. Claim that as your identity, and live accordingly.

There are people, however, who simply want to know how much they can get away with. They ask the question because they want to indulge their flesh some more, if they can, and still go to heaven. These are the folks I worry about. Imagine a husband who comes to his wife and says this:

“Honey, how close can I get to having affair before it is a problem for you? Can I look at other women? Can I fantasize about them? What about flirting – can I do a little harmless flirting? What about kissing another woman? That’s not technically cheating, is it?”

I think it would be obvious that there is a problem in that marriage. If the husband wants to know what he can get away with, he is clearly not very interested in his wife, or loving toward her. These types of questions show that the relationship is in serious trouble.

It’s the same with Jesus. If someone wants to know how far they can indulge the flesh before it’s a problem, I’d have to say, “It’s obviously a problem right now.” Think about my illustration of the rock that is pulling you under water. When should you let go of the rock? Right now! However deep you are, let go of it immediately. If you are contemplating holding on to it a little longer, you already in the danger zone! If you want to know how much you can indulge the flesh (so that you can get the maximum amount of flesh-indulgence possible without losing salvation) you are already oriented toward the flesh, and not the Spirit.

But if you are walking according to the flesh – if you are in a pattern of indulging the flesh – it is time to let go of the rock. Luther puts it this way:

Persistence in sin is the worst of all. If they do not return to their sense but stubbornly go on gratifying the desires of their flesh, this is the surest possible sign of dishonesty in their spirit.

We aren’t saved by refraining from sin, or by doing good works. But the orientation of our soul does matter. Sometimes we fail. I get that. PLEASE don’t let that discourage you or hang you up. Just don’t fall into the trap of indulging the flesh as a pattern or lifestyle.



The flesh is loud and insistent. It demands its own way. Above all, the flesh wants self-gratification. The Spirit is quiet, but clear. Above all, the Spirit wants to bring you closer to Jesus, and to bring others closer to Jesus through you.

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I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal 5:16-18, HCSB)

I have struggled to prepare this message, because what is said is here actually quite simple, but at the same time, it is very deep. It isn’t hard to grasp the obvious meaning, but sometimes it is hard to grasp how profoundly this could affect our lives.

We need a little background as we talk about flesh and spirit. The bible describes human beings as made up of Spirit, Soul and Body (Hebrews 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; numerous other verses). We each have a body. We know what that is. Our body life is what our body does – what we do and say, how we behave. We also have a soul. The Greek word in the New Testament for “soul” is “psuche” which we have changed in English to “psyche.” Just like that English word, the soul is your personality, your emotions, your thoughts and decisions. The third part of a human being is the Spirit. The New Testament word for Spirit is a lot like the word for breath. The spirit is the part of the human that interacts directly with God.

Your flesh is located in your body. The soul – your emotions, thoughts and decisions – is the battleground between flesh and spirit. Your soul can give attention and power to the flesh, or to the spirit. Before you are in Jesus, your spirit is dead. The flesh has free reign to do what it wants. The soul may occasionally make an effort to do some good thing, or refrain from something especially bad, but it is not empowered by God to that. It has nothing to go on but what it gets from the body, and that is heavily influenced by the flesh. However, when we come to Jesus, he makes us fully alive, fully perfect in spirit. Now, God’s Holy Spirit has a means to speak to us, to our souls, through our spirits. Now, the battle is on.

It is important to remember that the Spirit is eternal. The soul is also eternal. But the body, and the flesh, are dying, even as you read this. What that means is that the flesh is not the “real you.” The real you is going to live on eternity, either with Jesus, if you continue to trust him, or in the eternal torment of separation from him. If you are with Jesus, your spirit and soul will get a new body at the resurrection, a body that is free from what we call “the flesh.” This idea that the Spirit is the “real you” is very important when it comes to walking by the Spirit and not by the flesh.

I think one of the first questions I have about Paul’s statement, is: “how do we recognize the Spirit?” In order to help us understand, I want to reference a text that I preached on about two years ago. Bear with me if you know it, because I think it will help us. Turn to 1 Kings 19:1-13 (if you are new to the Bible, that means the book of “1 Kings,” chapter number 19, verses 1 through 13). This is a story about the prophet Elijah.

Elijah had some tremendous victories in his life. There were times when he was full of faith, and God did amazing things through him. But there were also times when things were not going well for him at all. His life was a little bit like a roller coaster – up, because things were good, and down, because things were bad. At one point, he got so down that he ran away and lived in a cave. After a time of recovery, the Lord spoke to him, and told him to come to the entrance of the cave, because he was going to reveal his presence to Elijah.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, a thin silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1Kgs 19:13, HCSB)

I think the Lord was making a point. Elijah was drawing his life from what was going on externally. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. When God was working miracles and Elijah was feeling bold, everything was great. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”

God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”

And so God sent a storm. Raging wind, splitting rocks, this beats any tornado you’ve ever heard of. It was noise, excitement, huge, awe-inspiring. But the LORD was not in the storm. So he sent an earthquake. Nothing is solid anymore, everything is shaken. There is nothing to hold on to, no security. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then came the fire. I’ve heard many people – even preachers – pray for God to “send your fire.” But the LORD was not in the fire.

Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So he was in them in a sense – they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.

What this story shows us, is the difference between flesh and spirit. Flesh is loud and insistent, even demanding. Elijah, even though he was a prophet, had been living according to the flesh. When things were good, he was OK. When things were bad, he was not. His focus was on the clamoring, demanding flesh. But what God showed him is that God’s truest presence is in the spirit. And the spirit is not loud, noisy, or demanding.

I’m reminded of a line from song by the Indigo Girls:

Now darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable;

And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear

I don’t know why that should be true, but it certainly is. This passage calls the call of God a “still small voice.” But it is an odd Hebrew expression that is hard to capture. I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. But a literal rendering might be “a voice, silent and intangible.” The voice of the spirit is like that. It wasn’t in all the ups and down of Elijah’s circumstances. It wasn’t even in the wind or fire or earthquake. It was a quiet whisper from God’s Spirit to Elijah’s spirit.

But here is something very important: Elijah recognized it. It was small. It was silent and intangible. And yet, it was truly there, and when it came, Elijah knew it. The New Testament seems to take for granted that we too, will recognize the voice of God’s Spirit, when we are in Jesus.

Paul gives us another clue. He says the Spirit and the Flesh are opposed to one another. They desire things that are opposite to each other. So here is a very practical help: If you sense a battle within you, if you want two different things, then one of those things is the voice of the Spirit; the other is the voice of the flesh. Now, I’m not talking about ordinary decisions, like what brand of jeans you should buy, or things like that. But if you are in Jesus, and you are presented with a choice of the flesh, there will be another voice, almost intangible, but recognizable, wanting to make a different choice. That is the voice of the Spirit.

The flesh is loud and insistent. It demands its own way. Above all, the flesh wants self-gratification. The flesh wants to do whatever is necessary – including sin – to gratify itself. Bear in mind, the flesh doesn’t always want to sin overtly. This is not the devil, but rather your corrupted flesh. Flesh just wants to get what it wants. It doesn’t care if it sins to do it, but it doesn’t have to sin to do it. So, you can do some things that appear to be good, and still be doing them in the flesh. I know of a large ministry that is built upon the flesh of the founder. The founding pastor may not be overtly sinning. He’s building a large ministry, which undoubtedly has some positive influence on some folks. But he’s doing it out of his own effort, his own focus on outward success, and ultimately, for his own gratification. It may look outwardly good, but it is still flesh.

The Spirit is quiet, but clear. There is a sense of “goodness” and “rightness” to what the Spirit wants. I don’t mean a religious goodness – I mean a clear, positive feeling, thought or conviction that what it wants is good – good as in positive, and good as in morally right. The Spirit’s goal is not your personal success or immediate gratification. Instead, what the Holy Spirit wants, is to bring you closer to Jesus, and to bring others closer to Jesus through you. Sometimes outward success will do that. Sometimes it won’t.

A lot of what it means to walk by the Spirit has to do with belief and focus. You need to trust it is true when the Bible tells you that the flesh is not the real you:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor 5:16-17, ESV2011)

We don’t consider the flesh to be our true selves any more. We need to trust this, trust Jesus has really done this for us.

For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1John 2:16-17, ESV2011)

As we trust that Jesus has dealt with our sin and our flesh is on the way out, we start to see ourselves the way God sees us. The more you realize and trust that Jesus has made your righteous, the easier and more natural it will be for you to behave accordingly. We don’t need to struggle and strive with our flesh to change our behavior. Instead, we trust Jesus and what he has done for us. We cling to the truth that he has not only forgiven us, but he has changed us in the inmost being and through Him we have put off the old self and put on the new, which is righteous, holy and pure like God himself. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will begin to act as we believe. Paul says it like this to the Colossians:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:1-5, ESV emphasis added)

Very few translations include this, but in verse 5, it says literally: “put to death your body parts, the earthly ones…” In other words, the sins Paul names afterward are sins of the flesh and body. And the way to deal with these, the way to put them to death, he tells us in the preceding verses: set your minds on things above. Set your minds on the fact that you died and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. You fight temptation by believing that Jesus has already broken your connection with sin. You walk by the Spirit when you believe that you don’t have to gratify every impulse of your flesh, because real life is in the spirit, and in the spirit you are perfect and complete, and God has already met every need.

Part of this is about focus. We should seek the things that are above. We should set our minds on the things of the Spirit. Paul puts it like this to the Romans:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Rom 8:5, ESV2011)

As I write this, I am on a “detox diet” with my wife. There are certain foods that I am avoiding for a certain period of time. I am hungry right at this moment. The truth is, I really want some pizza, but I’m not supposed to have any. There’s no good pretending I’m not hungry. And there’s no good pretending I don’t want pizza. But there is also no point in fantasizing about a crisp crust and Italian sausage and jalapenos and the most wonderful cheese. The more I do that, the more I want it, and eventually, it will lead me to go get pizza and ruin the effect of the detox.

I have three things that help me in this situation. First, I recognize that though I want it, I don’t have to have it. I’m not going to die without it. It won’t hurt me at all to abstain, and it will probably be good for me. So I commit to something higher than my own immediate gratification. Second, except for the purposes of this illustration, I refuse to focus on what I should not have. I know it’s available. I know I want it. But I’m not going to waste my time or sap my willpower by continuing to think about it. Third, I am going to get up as soon as I’m done here, and go eat some of the good satisfying food that I am perfectly free to have.

I think walking by the Spirit is very much like that. Of course we are tempted to gratify the flesh. That’s why Paul writes about this. But temptation isn’t sin. You’ll be tempted, so what? It won’t hurt you to abstain, and you can commit to something higher than your own immediate gratification. Second, refuse to focus on it. Instead, focus on the good things you already have in Jesus, and the more good that he wants to give you. Third, satisfy yourself in Jesus with the good that he provides, and especially with his presence and his Word.

Paul also says walking by the Spirit means you are not under law. I think there are two things we should think about in connection with this. First don’t worry about messing up. God’s moral law has not changed. It cannot change, because it is a reflection of his holiness. But Jesus has met that standard on our behalf. If, as we try and walk by the Spirit, we screw up and give in to the flesh, you are not now obligated to be perfect again. Romans 8:1-4 says this:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4, ESV2011)

We shouldn’t deliberately continue in a pattern of fleshly living. To do so takes us farther away from Jesus. But if we screw up sometimes, we are not condemned. Sin has already been dealt with for those who walk according to the Spirit. When you fail, get back up and move on in the Spirit. Don’t waste a lot of time condemning yourself, because in Jesus, there is no condemnation.

Second, the fact that we are not under law means we don’t live by a list that tells us how to behave in every situation. Instead, we make our goal to stick close to Jesus, to pay attention to the spirit. If we do that, the Spirit himself will guide us, and we don’t need a set of rules for every situation.

There is a lot here in these two verses this week. Let the Holy Spirit talk to you about it right now.



Loving others is another antidote for the flesh. The flesh is focused on itself, on getting what it wants. But love is focused on others, on serving, encouraging and honoring them.

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Galatians #17 . Chapter 5:13-15

For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another. (Gal 5:13-15, HCSB)

Picture a man who is addicted to drugs. He lives for the high that comes from the drugs. He hates the low that comes afterwards. But love it or hate it, he is a slave to it. He has to have it. Now, imagine that God came to this man, and set him free from his addiction. He doesn’t have to have it any more. He’s free from the need. He doesn’t have to have the high anymore. He’s free from the awful lows. He’s been saved and healed from a life of slavery to the drug. He didn’t do it, God did it for him. There’s nothing he could have done to earn it. His relationship with drugs has been broken. There is no more connection between this man and drugs.

Now, picture the man, full of gratitude for his deliverance. He says, “I’ve been set free! I can do whatever I want now. The impact of drugs has been removed from me!”

After considering for a little bit, he says, “Since I’m free, I’m going to go celebrate by getting high!”

How foolish that would be! God delivered him from slavery to drugs, but he’s going right back to it. He’ll end up addicted again, enslaved again. He’s throwing away what God gave him. What’s the point of being freed from drugs if he’s just going go back and become enslaved all over again?

Paul is shifting his thoughts from explaining the freedom that Jesus got for us by dying, and moving to some ideas about how to live in that freedom.

His first concern is that the Galatians do not use their freedom in Christ as an “opportunity for the flesh.” We need to consider what Paul means by “flesh.” The Greek word is sarx and it just means, essentially, “meat” or “muscle.” The apostle John uses it as a neutral term, generally meaning physical body. Paul sometimes uses it that way also. But more often, and certainly in Galatians, Paul uses “flesh” as a special theological term. He usually means basically, an orientation that is based upon outward things, and is turned away from God. There are several important things to understand here. First, Paul sees that orientation as coming from your physical life; and from a focus on your physical life. He doesn’t mean that your body is evil. But he means that once you are in Jesus, the most common pathway for sin is through your body and your physical mind. We’ll get into this in greater depth in a week or two, but listen to what Paul says about the flesh a few verses later:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21, HCSB)

Obviously, these things are sinful. They drive a wedge between us and God. They hurt ourselves and others. Ultimately, they separate us from God completely – but we’ll talk about that next time. For now, we just need to understand that these are typical works of the flesh. They aren’t the flesh exactly, but they are results of allowing the flesh to have its way.

So, Paul is saying, “This freedom that we have in Jesus is not an excuse to indulge the flesh. Don’t let the flesh use this as an opportunity.” It’s like the drug addict who was freed from addiction. It makes no sense to use your freedom from drugs as an opportunity to take drugs. You are just entering into slavery to drugs again. You might as well not be free in the first place.

Now, sometimes, I understand, you don’t feel completely free from sin in the first place. Something in you still seems to want to sin. So are you really free? Listen carefully: that “something” inside you that still wants to sin is what Paul calls the flesh. If you are in Jesus, you are free from sin in your spirit. The deepest part of you doesn’t want to do it. The penalty has already been paid for it. You aren’t an addict anymore. Your deepest, most true identity is “New Creation in Christ.”

The flesh will say, “we must have this. We need it.” Paul recognizes that when we first hear that in Christ everything has already been accomplished for us, the flesh will say, “We are now free to satisfy ourselves however we want.” But it’s a trick. First it is a trick, because indulging the flesh never actually satisfies you. There may be a moment or two when you think you are satisfied, but it doesn’t last long, and there is always something missing.

Secondly it’s a trick, because if you follow that road, you will eventually end up enslaved to sin again. Note my words: “follow that road.” We all screw up from time to time. I’m not talking about that, and I don’t think Paul is either. What Paul is talking about is a deliberate, long-term pattern of indulging what the flesh wants, and choosing that consistently over what the Holy Spirit wants.

Paul wrote about this elsewhere. So did Peter and Jude:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey — either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? (Rom 6:12-16, HCSB)

Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves. (1Pet 2:16, NET)

For certain men have secretly slipped in among you – men who long ago were marked out for the condemnation I am about to describe – ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:4, NET)

Fighting temptation is tough anyway. But don’t give the devil another weapon by saying, “Well, if I’m truly free in Christ, I can do whatever I want, can’t I? And what I really want, is to get drunk.” Fill in whatever temptation you have for “get drunk.” See that’s the thing: It’s your flesh that really wants to get drunk (or whatever your temptation is). It isn’t the deepest truest part of you. It isn’t your redeemed spirit. It isn’t Jesus living in you who wants that. So Paul says, “Deny your flesh. Don’t give it that excuse.” The trick is to listen to the truth of God’s word, and pay attention to that, while at the same time, ignoring the insistent loud cries and desires of the flesh. God’s word says now, you are holy.

You still fight with the desires you used to give in to. You still fight with the ways you learned to sort of satisfy your flesh. But that truest, most authentic part of you is not your flesh – not anymore, if you are in Jesus Christ. So let the flesh whine, and ignore it as much as possible. Focus on the truth that in Christ you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Look at it this way: your flesh dying. That’s right. It’s your flesh that is doomed to die. If you are in Christ, your spirit and your soul will live on, and you’ll get a new body that is free from what we call “the flesh.” The flesh is dying, so let it go ahead and die. All that noise and temptation and activity is just the death throes of the flesh.

Now, we have been focused on one half one sentence: don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. The second half says this: “but serve one another through love.”

Loving others is another antidote for the flesh. The flesh is focused on itself, on getting what it wants. But love is focused on others, on serving, encouraging and honoring them. Paul repeats something here that Jesus also said: “For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). I spoke last week about how this is sometimes generalized to become almost meaningless. This isn’t some vague principle about “as long as what I do is loving, it is righteous.”

Love always honors and seeks the very best for the person that is loved.

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1Cor 13:4-7, HCSB)

In fact, let’s cut to the chase. The main thing everyone wants to be free to do, is to have sex with whomever they want. Isn’t sex loving? Doesn’t that make it OK?

Sex outside of marriage is not loving. Yes, I just wrote that. Why not? Because there is no permanent, unconditional commitment to the highest good of the other person. If there is no marriage involved, ultimately, the message is, “I am keeping my options open. I may be committed to you for now, but I’m not ready to commit to you in lifelong love.” Marriage is supposed to be the declaration of a lifelong, unconditional commitment. It is that decisive, unchanging commitment that is true love. Feelings are great, but they aren’t love. Love is commitment. Of course, our society has mostly ruined marriage, and it doesn’t really mean that to most people. But it should still mean that to people who are in Christ.

Sex in any other context is physical and emotional bond that falls short of true love. Because sex is so powerful, entering that bond without true love (commitment-love, that is marriage) ends up scarring people emotionally and making them harder; eventually it makes people less able to love in a commitment relationship.

Of course, Paul isn’t only talking about marriage when he talks about love. He is talking about Christian community. How about affirming others? Isn’t it always loving to affirm other people in whatever choices they make? Let’s go back to the drug addict. Which is more loving:

  • a. Telling the drug addict that he’s special to you, and you support whatever choices in life he wants to make, including destroying his life with drugs.
  • b. Telling the drug addict that he is wrong, and you will not encourage him or support him or give him comfort as he destroys himself.

It’s hard, but option b is almost always the more loving choice.

Loving others also means getting involved in their lives. It’s hard to love someone you don’t see very often. You can’t really have community with people you don’t know at all. Paul is saying, don’t focus on indulging yourself. Focus on valuing, honoring and blessing others. Be in community with them. Commit yourself to the good of those in your community.

Early Christians all correctly understood that one of the first places for this Christian love to play out was in their church community. Typically, they met in small churches in the homes of their members. They shared their lives and struggles with each other; their joys, hopes and disappointments. Their love for each other (which Jesus commanded) was supposed to spill out, and show the world what Jesus is like. Real love does that. But it started in the church community.

The call is to really love each other. This doesn’t mean we just endorse each other, or lie to each other that we think everything is great. It doesn’t mean everything is OK, as long as we can slap a “love” label on it. This is a commitment to honor and value one another; to keep the real best interests of others in your church community at heart.

If we can learn to love each other, I think we will naturally learn to love others outside of our community as well. In fact, that process is a reflection of the nature of God. God exists in three Persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They love each other. There is true loving community at the heart of God’s nature. But his love couldn’t be contained there. It spilled out to create and love the universe and all its creatures. If we welcome his love in our midst, it will spill out and bless others also.



Jesus has done everything for us. But being Christian is not really just about agreeing to the fact that Jesus has done it all. It is about personally trusting Jesus. It isn’t about a fact, it is about a person. We aren’t saved by facts; we are saved by Jesus himself.

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Galatians # 16 . Chapter 5:7-12

You were running well. Who prevented you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from the One who called you.

Paul says that up until this point, the Galatians had been running well. I want to talk about that word-picture he uses: running. The Christian life is not a one-time ticket-purchase. It is a race. And I will add that it is not a sprint, but a marathon. There are several places where Paul makes this analogy, and the writer of Hebrews also uses it.

Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1Cor 9:24-27, HCSB)

Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us. (Heb 12:1, HCSB)

Too many “Christians” look at Christianity like life-insurance. Their attitude is, “Sure, it’s something you need, but you don’t really benefit until you die.” So they get baptized, or “make a decision” or get “confirmed” or something like that, and then they ignore Jesus for the rest of their lives, unless, of course, they get into trouble and need his help. Some of these folks think that “going to church” is part of the ticket price, so they may go to church too, but it doesn’t affect how they live here and now. Incidentally, it is those people, and their typical pattern of behavior, who are mostly responsible for giving Christians such a bad name.

But Paul says, “No, that’s not how it is. This is a race we have entered.” We are supposed to remain in the race, committed to, and focused on the goal. It isn’t a little side-part of our lives. It is our life. It isn’t life insurance. It isn’t something we do when the mood strikes us. Yes, we still go to work and pay our bills and take vacations, but all these things now come under the context of the marathon, the race we are running toward heaven. As Paul says, we don’t live aimlessly any more. We aren’t running for no purpose. Marathon runners are not people who just get up on day and say, “I feel like running twenty-six miles today.” They train. They focus. No real marathon runner starts the race, and then, half a mile later, says, “I’m stopping for coffee. Maybe I’ll get back in the race later on.” No, once they are in the race, they don’t stop until they cross the finish line.

That is what it is like to become a Christian. We have entered something. We are engaged upon a lifelong quest. We don’t embark upon it lightly, and we don’t abandon it lightly.

We Christians have sometimes mixed up the gospel. Becoming a Christian is not primarily about agreeing to a certain set of facts. You’ll meet people who present it this way. If you believe A, B, and C, and utter prayer D, then you are a Christian. I remember in college, getting some training in evangelism. That’s how they trained us. We were supposed to share certain facts with people, support the facts with bible verses, and ask for their agreement:

A. The bible says that all people, including you, have sinned (Rom 3:23).

B. Our sin means we are under condemnation from God (Rom 6:23). We can’t fix it ourselves (Eph 2:8-9)

C. God took it upon himself to restore us to him, by coming as Jesus the Son (John 3:16).

D. Everyone who believes in Jesus is saved from their sins and will have eternal life (1 John 5:11-12; Rom 10:8-13).

E. Do you believe this? If so, say this prayer with me….

These things are all true. But the way I first learned to present them might very well have given someone the impression that all they had to do was agree with the facts, say the prayer, and then get on with life.

I don’t want us to get confused in the series on Galatians. Jesus has done everything for us. But being Christian is not really just about agreeing that Jesus has done it all. It is about personally trusting Jesus. It isn’t about a fact, it is about a person. Because it is about a person, it is about personal trust and personal relationship with the One who has saved us. Don’t get me wrong: the things that I preach about Jesus are factually true. But we aren’t saved by facts; we are saved by Jesus himself.

The goal of all we have been learning so far in Galatians is not to get people to say, “Great! I agree that Jesus took care of all it for me. Now I’m off to do my own thing.” No. The goal is for all of us learn to trust and love Jesus. If we already do, it is to increase our trust and love for him. The facts should be inspiration and motivation to do that.

So Paul says that the Galatians were in the race, running well. He goes on:

Who prevented you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from the One who called you. A little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough. I have confidence in the Lord you will not accept any other view. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. (Gal 5:7-10, HCSB)

When he was with them, it seemed that they got it. But now suddenly someone has cut them off, changed their conviction. Paul says that the persuasion that is changing their minds is not from Jesus. He then quotes a proverb that Jesus himself said: “a little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough.” We make bread in much the same way that people did in New Testament times. You combine, flour, water, oil, honey salt and yeast. In a 1kilo (2 pound) lump of dough, you use about 10 grams of yeast (1 tablespoon). By weight, that means the yeast makes up about 1% of all the bread. And yet it profoundly affects every bit of the dough, changing it dramatically. Both Jesus and Paul meant two things by turning this into a proverb:

First, like yeast, false teaching tends to spread and have a much wider influence than you might expect. It only takes a little bit of false teaching to start affecting a lot of people.

Second, I think this comparison shows that many times, false teaching might be just a little bit of lie combined with a lot of good truth. This is one of the favorite tricks of the devil. When he came to Adam and Eve, he said: “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’? ” Of course, God said they couldn’t eat from just one tree, that was true. But he insinuated the lie that God had forbidden all trees. Then he said,

“No! You will not die,” the serpent said to the woman. “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:4-5, HCSB)

That’s true, in a way. Once they sinned, suddenly they knew about evil in a way that they never did before. They had a greater understanding. But it wasn’t the kind of understanding that the devil led them to believe it was. It was a half-truth. False teaching and temptation often work like this.

One of the most prevalent false teachings in America now is the “prosperity gospel.” It comes in several different forms, but basically it goes like this: “God loves you, and wants to bless you. If you get right with him, and have the right attitude of faith, if you claim what is yours in faith, he will bless you financially.” Subtler forms of this message might end instead with he will heal you; or, he will give you what you want; or, he will make your life easy. There are many different things people add in there. Now, in many ways, a lot of this is true. God does love us. He does want to bless us. We should approach him in faith. There are just two small lies here. The first lie is that if you simply do your part by having enough faith, or the right kind of faith, or testifying to your faith in the right way, God will always do what you want him to. That’s not true. Faith is not lever that we pull to manipulate God. It is the abandonment of ourselves to the One we trust.

The second small lie is that the blessings we want to have are exactly the same as the blessings that God wants to give us. Many times, we want things that, for reasons we may never understand, are not what God wants to do for us right now.

In any case, the point is, false teaching – whatever the specific lie – is very dangerous and powerful. It is often just a few small lies combined with a lot of truth. Paul says those who are doing this – leading the Galatians astray – will pay the penalty. He doesn’t specify what the penalty is, but we can assume it isn’t good.

Paul goes on,

Now brothers, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. (Gal 5:11, HCSB)

The doctrine of the cross of Christ is offensive. To the Jews, it was offensive to say that the law was irrelevant, that you could be saved through trusting Jesus rather than doing the law. It took away the power and influence of the leaders of Jewish religion. In fact, it was a fundamental change.

But it is offensive to others in other ways too. For some people, it is offensive to say that Jesus is the only way to God and to eternal life. We covered that in more depth last week, if you want to go back and read it. Another offensive idea is this: there is something fundamental in each one of us that deserves crucifixion. The cross shows us how evil and ugly sin is. In fact, the cross was the physical judgment of sin, so in the cross sin is judged to be sinful. When we tell people that their favorite, self-serving or sinful activities need the forgiveness brought by Jesus’ death, they often get offended. A lot of folks are willing to acknowledge some petty little sin, or something they don’t mind not doing, or giving up. But if the cross shows up the sinfulness of their lifestyle or of a cherished activity, watch out! It is offensive.

Paul is entirely willing to suffer persecution for the sake of Jesus. That doesn’t stop him from being a human person who was irritated with those who oppose him. His final thought of these verses deserves mention:

I wish those who are disturbing you might also get themselves castrated! (Gal 5:12, HCSB)

With that pleasant thought, let’s pause and listen to what the Holy Spirit may be saying to us.

Have you been looking at following Jesus as sort of ticket that you bought for heaven, or a kind of part time hobby that you do when you feel like it? Let the Holy Spirit correct you and speak to you about that. Let him also speak forgiveness and restoration to you. Trust Jesus, personally.

Are you in danger of believing a lie because it sounds good, or because at least part of it is true? Let the Lord protect you and speak to you about that too.

Finally, are you prepared for the fact that the cross of Christ is offensive to people? Are you ready to run the race, in spite of the scorn and anger of others?

Above all, remember, all this is not about a set of facts, it is about a person, Jesus Christ, who love you, who gave up his life to save you and so that you could be with him.



The problem we often have with grace, is that when we depend upon it, we aren’t in control anymore. But when we embrace it, grace brings tremendous freedom and joy, precisely because we don’t have to be in control any more.

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Download Galatians Part 13



At the beginning of the letter, Paul says, “There are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news” (1:7). In 3:1, he writes, “Who has hypnotized you?” We are reading between the lines here, but it seems apparent that in the Galatian churches were some folks who claimed to be leaders or apostles, and were leading the people astray; specifically, they were trying to make the people conform to Jewish law in order to be saved. Paul must have some information that these people were very convincing and charismatic, saying how much they cared about the Galatians. They appeared to be “zealous” for the Galatians. But Paul says that the zeal of these false teachers has a purpose: they want to isolate the Galatians.

I want to pause here and echo something Paul said in the first chapter. There is only one message of salvation, and it does not come from human beings. Paul says, “These folks want to isolate you from the truth. Don’t believe them. They are not helping you.” We talked about all that, earlier in the series. If you hear anyone – including me – preaching a different message, do not listen to it, don’t fear it, don’t follow it. This is one reason why it is so important for each one of you to know the bible for yourself. If you know what the bible actually says, you will not easily be led astray.

Let me be very direct. I have seen many posts on Facebook, and in blogs, and in internet forums, that demonstrate a HUGE ignorance of what the bible actually says, while claiming that they are getting their thoughts from the bible. You can’t get your information exclusively from internet. Even if you follow this blog, understand, I am not the authority. The Bible is. Don’t just take my word for your spiritual information – read the bible for yourself. Don’t ever assume you know much about it, unless you have actually read the bible yourself.

If you rely on me, or any other human, for your spiritual information, you are putting yourself at risk. What if I’m wrong? What if those others are wrong? Even worse, what if some supposed “bible teacher” is deliberately leading you astray? Go to the source.

Now, of course, I believe there is a use for those who teach and preach biblical truth. The Holy Spirit calls, gives talents to, and empowers, all kinds of different people, for all kinds of work. Teaching the bible is one of those callings. We teachers can point out insights that the Holy Spirit has given us. The good bible teachers have spent the time to understand the background, culture and language – things that are not contained in the text itself. Since I know the bible well, I can often point out other parts of it that help us dig deeper into whichever passage we are studying. All that knowledge is very useful when we want to understand certain parts of the bible. The working of the Holy Spirit through teachers and preachers he has called can be a powerful thing We can point you in the right direction when you have spiritual questions. But ultimately, we are only here to help you and encourage you to know Jesus better for yourself. The final authority is the Word of God itself, not what we say about it.

Next, Paul uses an illustration from the Old Testament. Just to refresh your memory, I’ll summarize what he is talking about. When God first called Abraham, he was childless. God promised, among other things, that He would give Abraham, and his wife Sarah, many descendants. Abraham and Sarah followed God, and did what he asked, and generally lived a life of faith. But God didn’t give them any children. Years went by. Abraham got older. Sarah went through menopause. Now it was too late. There would be no children, so they thought. They gave up on God’s promise. They stopped believing that he would really do it for them.

Now, they didn’t entirely abandon God – they just began to believe that it was up to them to take care of things, up to them to make sure God’s promise was fulfilled. Does this sound familiar?

So they found a solution. Sarah had a slave girl named Hagar. She told Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and have a child with her. Then, Abraham and Sarah would consider that child theirs; Hagar’s child would be their heir. They took matters into their own hands, and did this. The son that was born to Hagar was called Ishmael.

Ishmael was the result of their planning and effort to make things happen. But he wasn’t God’s plan. When Ishmael was fourteen years old, when Sarah was ninety, Abraham and Sarah conceived, and she had Isaac. Isaac was the child that God had promised. He came in God’s timing, not in response to their efforts.

As it turns out, God blessed Ishmael, their mistake, because God is a gracious and loving God. But he chose Isaac, before he was even born, and it was through Isaac that the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, came into being. It was through Isaac that Jesus came, and therefore through Isaac, the child of God’s promise, that all people of the world were blessed. So, Ishmael, though he was also blessed by God, was sent away from Abraham, and he was not considered part of God’s specially chosen people.

Now Paul is using this story from Genesis as a picture. The Galatians want to be thought of as Jews – particularly, Abraham’s descendants. “Well,” says Paul, “Abraham has two kinds of descendants: a child of slavery to self-effort, or a child of trust in God’s goodness and his promise. One of them was born was born to a slave, and was the result of self-effort, work, and lack of trust in God. One was born out of God’s goodness and grace.” Paul says that Ishmael was a child born “according to the flesh,” and Isaac born “according to the Spirit” (v 29). The path of self-effort, self-reliance, work and pressure, is the path of the flesh. The path of trust and waiting for God is the path of the Holy Spirit. Ishmael came about because Abraham, Sarah and Hagar tried to make the promise appear by their own efforts. Isaac came about because God made him happen.

Paul says that the Jews of his time, regardless of the fact that they physically came from Isaac, are living like the children of Ishmael. Trying to be justified with God by obeying the Jewish law is the path of self-effort and slavery; the path of the flesh. He says to the Galatians:

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. (Gal 4:28, HCSB)

The Galatians had two paths in front of them. They became believers through God’s choice, through God’s grace, not through their own efforts and goodness. But these false teachers were trying to lead them in a different direction. They suggested instead, that the Galatians should make their own plans for getting God’s promised blessings. They taught that people need to work and earn God’s favor and goodness.

I think most Christians are aware of the obvious trap of thinking we can earn God’s favor for salvation. But far too many of us, once we are saved, act like we must take matters into our own hands in order to live the Christian life or get the Blessings that God has promised.

Just think of this for a moment. Abraham and Sarah longed desperately for a child. They felt like life could not possibly be complete without a son. But they couldn’t make it happen. God did not seem to make it happen for them either. Their only choice was to sin, in order to get what they longed for. So they tried that. Even though the Lord took care of their mistake and blessed the child that resulted, it still did not get them what they really wanted. They had to trust the Lord and his gracious timing and provision.

I want to point out one more thing. Paul says: “the child born according to the flesh persecuted the child born according to the spirit, and so also now.” This is true in several ways, more ways than Paul even knew. The descendants of Ishmael are the people that today we call Arabs. Even as we speak, those descendants are enemies of Isaac’s descendants, modern-day Jews. So Abraham’s reliance on the flesh to bring about the work of God has had extremely long term and far-reaching consequences.

Paul of course, has something more spiritual in mind. Those who live by self-effort and works of the flesh typically do not appreciate those who live by grace. Grace is outrageous, offensive at times. A drug addicted prostitute can come to Jesus just as she is and be forgiven and accepted, while the hard-working pillar of the community who is too proud to admit her fundamental need for Jesus cannot come to feast unless she admits her need and turns her life over to the control of Jesus. Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 proclaiming honor and blessing for a childless woman. In those days, childlessness was a big deal, even seen as a curse and a mark of shame. Paul is reminding them of the grace of God, that can give such a woman honor.

The other problem we often have with grace, is that when we depend upon it, we aren’t in control anymore. We don’t get to demand what we want, when we want it. And we can’t control others either. We are all on equal ground, standing a place of need and dependence upon God. But when we embrace it, grace brings tremendous freedom and joy, precisely because we don’t have to be in control any more. It doesn’t have to be up to you. You don’t have to deserve it. In fact, you don’t deserve it, and you can’t make yourself good enough to. You can only surrender and receive.

Do you have a Sense of Blessedness?


The sense of being blessed is one of the key differences between living by law and living by grace. If you think it is up to you live the Christian life, up to you to please God, it will be hard to feel blessed.

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Galatians # 12. Chapter 4:12-16

This next little section of Galatians is a very personal appeal from Paul, and it contains a kind of buffet of several different spiritual truths. Please ask the Holy Spirit to show you what he wants to show you here, and then we’ll dig in.

Up until this point, Paul has been pretty stern with the Galatians. Here is a sampling of his tone so far:

As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ. (Gal 1:9-10, HCSB)

Now from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism) — they added nothing to me. (Gal 2:6, HCSB)

You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? (Gal 3:1-3, HCSB)

Paul was clearly upset about what was happening in the Galatian churches. He wasted no time in telling them how wrong and foolish they were. But at this point, (4:11 and following) he moderates his tone a little bit. First, he says, “Become like me, for I became like you.”

I think Paul is referring to the fact that although he was a Jew and Pharisee, he lived with, ate with and associated with the non-Jewish Galatians. He became like them, living as if we were not Jewish. Through Christ, he had the freedom to do this. Now, he urges them to do the same. Remember, certain leaders in these Churches were telling them they had to obey all the Jewish laws to be a Christian. Paul reminds them, that was not how he behaved. He was like them. He is saying, “Look, I was Jewish, and I became like a Gentile. Now you, who have been trying to be Jewish, become like Gentiles again!”

Now, most of us have already become like Paul, in the sense that we don’t strictly follow Jewish regulations. But I think there are two places where this might possibly to speak to us. First, I think it says something about reaching out to others. People do not have to act like us, look like us, talk like us or dress like us before they can become part of our church. They didn’t have to become like Paul – that is, Jewish – in order to receive Jesus. If anything, Paul became more like them. There are, of course some bottom-line aspects to Christianity. To be a Christian, you have to trust Jesus, and surrender your life to him. But once a person does that, we can trust the Holy Spirit to begin manifesting the life of Jesus in that person. We can trust the Holy Spirit to lead that person away from sin. But it doesn’t say anything in the Bible about us all looking the same. The life of Jesus is available to anyone who is willing to surrender control of his or her own life to Him.

Second, it is a reiteration of our freedom in Christ. Some Christians try to put rules on silly things. For instance, you must dress a certain way at church (or all the time); you cannot drink, even in moderation without getting drunk; you can’t watch certain movies, or listen to certain types of music, or dance, or….you fill in the blank. These things are not essential to faith in Jesus Christ. They are external rules. Paul says in Colossians that these rules have little value, spiritually speaking:

If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence. (Col 2:20-23, HCSB)

Next, Paul makes this statement:

You have not wronged me; you know that previously I preached the gospel to you because of a physical illness. You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you.

Bible scholars debate what exactly Paul’s physical ailment was. Martin Luther believes that when Paul came to the Galatians, he was suffering from the effects of physical persecution. We know that many times Paul was beaten up by mobs. Sometimes he was arrested and whipped. Several times he was imprisoned, and we can assume during some of those incidents, he suffered at the hands of the jailers and the other prisoners. In the Galatian area, in one place he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19).

Other people thought that Paul had a recurring illness. In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul speaks of a “thorn in the flesh,” that sounds like it might be a recurring physical problem. Many people suspect that he had some disease of the eyes. We know that on the road to Damascus, Paul was blinded for three days. Here in this passage, he says the Galatians would have torn out their own eyes to give to him. At the end of the letter, he writes this:

Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting. (Gal 6:11, HCSB)

Most of Paul’s letters were actually written down by other people (often, his friend and colleague, Silas). Usually, he just signed them personally at the end. 2 Thessalonians 3:17 is typical of the end of many of his letters:

This greeting is in my own hand — Paul. This is a sign in every letter; this is how I write. (2Thess 3:17, HCSB)

All this suggests that maybe Paul’s vision was not very good, and perhaps he had a condition that flared up and worsened at times. In any case, far from coming to them as strong and having it all together, he first came to them in weakness and in need. This again, is a helpful thing for us as we consider how to reach out to people who don’t know Jesus yet. We don’t have to have it all put together. In fact, sometimes, when we have some kind of need, it opens a door to relationship with others, and opens a door for us to share Jesus with those who help us.

Paul’s other point here is that in spite of all of his rebukes and strong language, he is not upset about their personal interactions. His intensity is not about personality conflicts. It is about the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ. He is saying, “Look, this isn’t personal. I know how you cared for me.” He is reminding them of the joy and friendship that existed between them when they were together. He doesn’t want them to think he is angry for some offense against himself. It is about the truth, not personal conflict. In verse sixteen He says, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?”

I have to say, I have very strong feelings about this subject. Paul is making a distinction here that is absolutely critical for Christians in the world today. In essence, he is saying this: “I love you and appreciate you as people. We have a wonderful friendship. I am even indebted to you. What I say to you does not negate that. You do need to know, however, that your belief, and the direction that your life is going, is wrong.”

The fact that he calls them wrong, takes nothing away from his love for them. In his mind, at least, it doesn’t affect their friendship and the close feelings that existed between Paul and the Galatian Christians. It is simply that, because he loves them, he must make sure that they know the truth. The world rarely understands this. Rick Warren, author of the Purpose Driven Life puts it like this:

Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense

That is exactly what Paul is saying here to the Galatians. He is saying, “I love you and appreciate you. This letter isn’t about that. But this letter is about the truth of what we believe and how we live.” The world usually doesn’t understand this attitude. But it is something that we Christians need to keep practicing anyway. Perhaps you have friends or family members who claim to be Christians and are living together, but are not married. The truth is, according to the Bible, that is a sin. But there is no sense in which we should hate someone who does this. There is no way in which we should ever treat them badly, or speak to them hurtfully. If the subject comes up, or if the Holy Spirit leads you to bring it up, we do need to tell the truth. But the fact that we believe as we do does NOT mean that we hate everyone who disagrees with us, or who lives according to different moral standards.

The big moral issue of our present time, of course, is homosexuality. Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:27-29; 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Jude 1:9 all teach that homosexual sex is sinful. The bible doesn’t say it is wrong to be tempted, or to consider oneself gay, but it does teach that rather than engage in gay sex, people should remain celibate. Now, many people who call themselves Christian disagree with me. They either ignore some or all of those verses, or they have a different way of interpreting them. For many reasons, I think their bible scholarship and interpretation is very poorly done; and of course, they don’t like my way of understanding the Bible.

But I don’t think acting on gay feelings is worse than any other sin. We are all saved only through Jesus, and I am no better than anyone else. I do not hate gay people. No Christian should. I do not fear them, or what they represent. We shouldn’t mock or hurt gay folks, or deprive them of any civil right. In a free society, everyone ought to have the right to live as they see fit. I have gay people in my family, and I love, respect, and accept them as they are. And we should not hate people who disagree with us about this issue. I certainly don’t.

I’m sure many people have difficulty understanding this, but disagreement is not the same thing as hate or bigotry. If it was, everybody would have to hate billions of people for millions of reasons. If you think you have to agree fully with someone before you can love them or they you, you are in a sad, sad situation. The world is a very big, very diverse place. There are very few people in any group in the world who agree upon everything. If you threatened by people who disagree with you, maybe you need to get out more, and spend more time around such folks. We don’t have to be enemies. In fact, for our part, Christians should not think of anyone besides the devil and his cohorts as the enemy.

Let me give you one more example, as long as I’m in the middle of such controversy. In the course of my life, I have had many friendships with Muslim people. They honestly believe I am going to hell for believing that Jesus is in nature, God. I believe they are going to hell for refusing to receive God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus. I have discussed these things openly with every Muslim friend I have had. And it has never been a problem for those friendships. I know there are Muslim extremists out there, obviously. But I am telling you, in my personal experience with Muslim people, this is how it has been.

If Muslims and Christians can disagree so fundamentally, and still accept each other, and get along and be friends, certainly we Christians ought to be able to do that with people who are more similar to us. Actually, we are supposed to do that with everyone.

I want to look at one more thing in this passage. In Galatians 4:15 Paul says to the Galatians:

What happened to this sense of being blessed that you had?

This is an important part of the entire message of the book of Galatians. The sense of being blessed is one of the key differences between living by law and living by grace. If you think it is up to you live the Christian life, up to you to please God, it will be hard to feel blessed. If it is up to you to get God to act on your behalf, you might feel obligation. You probably, at some point, feel fear, guilt and especially shame that you aren’t good enough. Sometimes, maybe, you manage to do pretty well, or at least to think you are doing pretty well. Then you might feel self-satisfied; you might even fall into sinful pride. Even so, you’ll feel the pressure to keep doing well. But either way, you probably won’t feel blessed.

We feel blessed when we know – truly know – that we are loved. We feel blessed when we know we have received far more than we could ever earn or deserve, and that it is all given freely, with no thought that we could, or even should, try to repay it. We feel blessed when we are secure in the love and grace and approval of God. All this comes only through Jesus; we get it when we trust him and surrender control of our life to him.

Do you have a sense of being blessed? Or is your life all obligation, shame and fear, or self-satisfaction and pride? At times we lose the sense of being blessed because Jesus is not a very big deal in our lives. We sweep him off into a corner of our lives that we call “religion” or “church.” If he doesn’t have much room to be in your life, naturally, there is not a large sense of being blessed.

For others, sometimes, even after we receive Jesus, he needs to work healing in us, to deal with shame and guilt that is left from our past. But through him, we can receive that sense of being blessed.

Take a minute now, to let God show you that because of Jesus, he approves of you. That’s right, through Jesus, we have God’s approval. Let that sink in, and receive again that sense of being blessed.



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GALATIANS #11 . Chapter #4:8-11

8 But in the past, when you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things3 that by nature are not gods. 9 But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and bankrupt elemental forces? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? 10 You observe special days, months, seasons, and years. 11 I am fearful for you, that perhaps my labor for you has been wasted.

The Galatians probably worshipped the Roman/Greek pagan gods, and this is mostly likely what Paul is referring to when he refers to their past. But this makes it an interesting statement. The Galatians are not trying to go back and worship pagan gods – they are trying to follow Jewish Laws and earn something from the true God. But Paul says, this would be just the same as going back to the pagan gods. He says “How can you go back again to these bankrupt elemental principles?” Elemental principles is that word “stoikeon,” which we talked about last time. It is the idea that one thing necessarily follows another; the idea that you earn what you get, and you get what you deserve. Although many things in the universe do generally operate this way, Paul explained last time that this is not how God operates spiritually with those who are in Jesus Christ. Last time we saw that what God says to us is this: “Stoikeon doesn’t work for you, because you aren’t able to do anything of real value to me. So instead, we’ll let Jesus do all the work, and through Him, I’ll adopt you as my dearly beloved children. Let’s have no more of this ‘you do something for me, and in return I’ll do something for you.’ Instead, through Jesus, I’ll treat you as my kids, and you treat me as your daddy.”

Paul says here that going back to that idea of trying to do something for God in order to get him to do something for us, is the same as going back to the old pagan worship that the Galatians used to practice. Even if they are following Jewish Law, they are doing it with the same attitude and relationship with God that is exhibited in their old pagan worship. Pagan worship was all about “stoikeon” or “sequential principles.” If you wanted the help of a god, then you made some sort of sacrifice or vow to the deity you need to please, and you got his or her help in return. Usually in pagan worship, you had to follow the rituals of worship precisely. You had to do and say the right things at the right time in order to get the desired result.

Paul says that when they seek to follow the Jewish law, the Galatians are doing exactly the same kind of thing. They are attempting to do things for God so he will do things for them. Jewish Law emphasizes following certain rituals, and doing things the right way. Paul says, “You observe special days, months, seasons and years.” And he says that the fact that they do this scares him. It makes him think they are losing their faith.

What were the special days and seasons they were observing? The entire letter was written because the Galatians were starting to believe that in addition to believing in Jesus, they had to follow the Jewish law. We need to understand a little bit about Jewish law. The Old Testament, of course, contains many rituals and laws that Jews were supposed to keep. But there is more to it than that. Over the years, Jewish rabbis taught extensively about the Old Testament, and their teachings were passed down orally from one generation to the next. These teachings, or commentaries on the Old Testament, came to be seen as an essential part of Jewish doctrine. Eventually, these commentaries were written down and collected, and today they are called “the Talmud.” So Jewish law came to mean much more than even just the Old Testament. Paul himself, before converting to Christianity, was a rising star in the Talmudic tradition of Hillel.

Though the Talmud was still in development during New Testament times, many of its teachings were already established at that time. So, for instance, the Old Testament commands us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Over the centuries, the Jews grappled with what exactly that means, in practical terms. By the time of Jesus, most Jews accepted to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, there were “sub-rules,” you had to follow, rules found in Talmudic teaching. For instance, you could only take a certain number of steps, or carry certain things.

I suspect that the Galatians were following both Old Testament commands, and also commands and rituals that were part of the Talmudic tradition. They probably followed a strict Talmudic interpretation of the Sabbath, and celebrated the Jewish events like New Moon, the first and seventh month and the Feasts of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the festival of Booths. Paul writes about these things more specifically to the Colossians:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col 2:16-17, ESV2011)

Now, it isn’t that these things are bad in and of themselves. Our church, New Joy Fellowship, celebrates the Jewish Feast of Passover every year. But there are two important things to remember, and this is what Paul is getting at:

  1. Such things, in and of themselves do not contribute to our salvation or worth in God’s eyes. Celebrate the Passover, or don’t. Eat Pork, or not – it doesn’t matter, spiritually. You won’t be more holy if you do these things; you won’t be less holy if you do. Following laws and traditions will not get God to love you more, and they won’t manipulate God into blessing you. God doesn’t relate to us according to sequential principles.
  2. Such things are shadows; the substance is Christ. Sometimes they are helpful, but they are only helpful if they point us to the real thing, which is Christ. Tradition is nothing, Christ is everything. Tradition is great if it points us to Christ, it is inherently spiritually dangerous if it does anything other than that.

I heard a great quote last week. A pastor at a conference said, “Tradition is the living faith of dead people, but traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.” Tradition can be good. When we remember how people who have gone before us lived their lives in faith and hope, it encourages hope and faith in us. We can use memories and repeated traditions to remind us of those faithful believers who have gone on to their reward. We can use traditions to keep pointing us toward the substance, which is Jesus Christ. But sometimes our faith becomes tied to the traditions. We start to feel that we must keep certain traditions, and if we don’t, we haven’t done it right. We sort of get the idea not that traditions is there to help encourage us, but rather, that certain traditions are a necessary part of our faith. This is what Paul is so concerned about.

Let me give a few examples of good traditions that can lead us astray when we think they are necessary. One of those is the altar call. That is a tradition in most Baptist churches. Sometimes it is helpful. But if you find yourself thinking that no worship service is truly complete without an altar call, you are in danger. If you think the only proper way to get saved is to come to the front of church during an altar call, you are in grave of becoming traditionalist, of confusing living faith with tradition. Lutherans have a lot of traditions in worship too. Some of them can be helpful at times. But if we get the idea that it isn’t really a worship service unless we say the Lord’s prayer, or stand for the reading of the gospel, we are in danger of confusing living faith with tradition.

Our church typically doesn’t fight over these kinds of things, but there are thousands of churches that do fight over traditions; things that are not necessary to true and living faith in Jesus Christ. The reason it becomes such a big deal is that people start thinking traditions are the same thing as faith. They are not. They are only there to aid it, and when they are not useful, they should not be used. The danger of relying too much on tradition is that some people end up with only tradition, and no real faith that is active and alive.

Picture a battery powered radio, the kind of thing we used to call a “boom box.” Imagine someone brought one of these radios to a remote village in Papua New Guinea where there was no electricity. Picture the villagers amazed and thrilled as they hear the music coming from the radio. Imagine the hours they spend, uplifted and made joyful by the music. Every evening at the same time, after they are done with their hard work, the villagers gather together around the radio to listen to the music. They call it “music time.”

But as time goes on, those batteries will die. Picture a time when the music starts to fade, and then imagine one day, it is gone. Now, what will those villagers do? If they are sensible, they will make their own music and enjoy it, and perhaps hope for a time when someone will bring new batteries to the village, so that the radio may be refreshed. But it is entirely possible that after a long time of gathering together every night to listen to the music, they may retain the habit, even after the batteries die. The radio is no longer bringing them music, but still they gather and look at it. Eventually, the villagers may even forget why they gather each night to look at the radio. It’s just what they do. If asked, many of them will say they do it because of music. As they forget, they have started to think of the evening time gathered around the radio as their “music time,” even though music has long ceased to be a part of it.

That is how some of us are with traditions. Tradition is there to bring us the “music” of faith. But tradition itself is not the same as faith. It can bring the music, but it is not music in itself. Sometimes we continue to follow traditions long after they have ceased to encourage our faith. Sometimes we get mixed up, and we forget that our faith is something greater and more alive than the traditions that once helped us in it. We even sometimes start to think that the traditions are faith, or at least an inseparable part of it.

So, we think we haven’t worshipped if we didn’t say a certain prayer or have an altar call or sing a certain song. We think it is isn’t a real church if it doesn’t have candles, or an altar, or a cross, or if it is in someone’s home, or…[you fill in the blank]. We start to think you have to have a guitar, or you can’t have a guitar and many other silly things.

Now, let me be clear. When tradition brings you closer to Jesus and makes you more open to the Holy Spirit, it is a wonderful and useful thing. There is nothing wrong with embracing those kinds of traditions. We need all the help we can get. But we need to be careful that we do not start to think that traditions are necessary to faith, or that they are the same thing as faith.

This is a normal, human tendency, and this is why Paul was so frightened when he heard about the Galatians mindlessly following the Jewish traditions. They were perverting the true gospel, adding on requirements, as if what Jesus did was not enough. They were confusing things that were designed to help faith, with the substance of faith itself.




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Galatians #10 . Chapter 4:1-7

1 Now I say that as long as the heir is a child, he differs in no way from a * slave, though he is the owner of everything. 2 Instead, he is under guardians and stewards until the time set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were in slavery under the elemental forces1 of the world. 4 When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to * redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our2 hearts, crying, “* Abba, Father! ” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God

The last thing we looked at was how Paul describes the law as a Chaperone, or Guardian. This is a continuation of that thought. He says that the heir lives as a slave until he comes into inheritance at the time set by the father. The heir is not free when he is a child – he needs to obey the guardians and stewards in his life.

So, Paul points out that even the chosen people of God (the Jews) were “slaves” in a sense – slaves to the guardian, the Law. We too, before coming into the full inheritance of Jesus Christ, were slaves. We were slaves to the “elementary forces” of the world. The Greek word is “stoikeon” (stoiceion, if anyone cares). Essentially it means “basic, sequential principles.” You might say it is the idea of “one thing leads to another.”

Here is an example of stoikeos in action. You bend down to pick something up off the floor in the kitchen. Next, someone opens a drawer above you. Then, you straighten up and hit your head. Finally, your head hurts. Next time you are there when a friend or family member bangs her head, and exclaims that it hurts, say, “that’s just stoikeos in action.” She’ll appreciate it greatly.

If you take two things and add two more things, you have four things. That’s stoikeon. You might even call it natural law. Here’s another example of a stoikeon: If you sin, the presence of God is so holy that it will destroy you. Sin separates you from God. The spiritual side of stoikeos, is that you get what you deserve. You earn God’s favor and blessing, or his wrath. That’s the natural state of things. It is similar to the idea of karma – you get what you deserve. Your actions lead to either things that are good for yourself, or bad for you.

That is how the law works. If you do the right thing, you get the good thing. If you do the wrong thing, you get the bad thing. Remember, the law isn’t bad. It isn’t wrong or inaccurate. It just isn’t possible for us. Because of that, this arrangement really didn’t work out for us.

Paul has been telling us that there is a new arrangement. The law can’t be eliminated. But we can’t do it. So Jesus did it on our behalf. And he took on himself, our consequences for failing to do it. The law is now satisfied, not broken. And we can move on, in the presence of God, without being destroyed.

Now, I don’t mean to say that now we should sin all we want to. I have talked about this in every message for the past several weeks. We admit we cannot do it; we believe that Jesus can and will do it for us, and we trust him to do it in us and through us.

But a lot of believers are mistaken about how things work now. We think, “OK, Jesus saved us from being destroyed by God’s presence. Now, I am in relationship with God. If I take care of his stuff, he’ll take care of mine.” This is a trap. We think that if we are good little boys and girls, then God will reward us with candy: that is, earthly blessings. Then, when that doesn’t work out the way we think it should, we get angry and upset and disappointed with God. We did our part, why didn’t God do his part? Or, maybe we didn’t do our part, because we didn’t hear from him what we were supposed to do. Why didn’t he make it more clear?

We do not live in relationship of karma. We don’t have the kind of relationship with God where if we do something for him, he does something for us. Instead, God says, “That won’t work, because you can’t do anything that is worthwhile to me. How about instead, I treat you as my children, my heirs? I will do for you what I know is best for your eternal self, and you just keep trusting that what I am doing is good, and good for you.”

We sometimes say, “I don’t care about my ‘eternal self,’ I just want to feel good now.” I understand that attitude. I’ve had it at many points in my life, and I won’t say I’ll never have it again. But it is not a mature attitude. It isn’t wise, or even smart. We see this in three year olds, who think they want many things that will not actually make them happy. Three-year-olds aren’t mature enough to distinguish what is truly best for them, so wise, loving parents do not always give them what they want.

Now, I am not saying that there is no order in the universe. Often times, one thing really does lead to another. If you manage your money wisely, it is likely that you will have enough. If you spend your money frivolously and without thought, you might end up short. Even morally, there is order. Wrong-doing tends to lead to bad results. Avoiding sins like drunkenness and promiscuity and dishonesty often leads to a better life here and now than engaging in those things. That’s because that is how the universe works – God made it that way.

But we don’t have a quid-pro-quo relationship with God. It isn’t “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.” It is, this: “Lord, I owe you everything and I can’t repay it. I trust you. I’m in your hands.”

Jesus was born under the law, as we are. He was born of a woman – that is, in addition to being Divine, he was also human, like us. Because of that, he could fulfill the law. The result is our adoption as sons.

I pointed this out last time, but it bears repeating. We are all sons. Not that we are all male-children, but that we are all the legitimate inheritors of God’s family name, the legitimate inheritors of his riches and grace. Through Jesus Christ, we truly belong to God, and belong in his family.

Paul adds this:

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father! ” (Gal 4:6, HCSB)

“Abba” is basically the Aramaic word for “Daddy.” Through Jesus, we are such legitimate, dearly loved children, that we can call God “Daddy.” Paul writes something very similar in Romans chapter 8:

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father! ” The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, (Rom 8:15-16, HCSB)

I am fortunate in that my earthly, physical, father has always been an overwhelmingly positive influence in my life. But I know many people who do not have a positive view of fathers, because their own dad was distant, or troubled, or even abusive. Some people respond to this by saying we should not talk about God as a Father, because that is negative for a lot of folks. Nobody has a perfect dad – not even my kids. So, for some, the picture of God as a father may at first be negative or scary or distant. But the point is, God is a perfect father. He loves us perfectly. He cares for us more than any earthly father is capable of. What your earthly father lacked, God does not lack. What your earthly father did wrong, God does not do. The love, attention and affection you may have craved and never received from your earthly dad, is available to you now, in your heavenly Daddy.

Take a moment to Listen to the Father’s heart:

“But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine…

Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth – everyone who is called by my name…” (Isaiah 43:1,4-7)

This is God’s attitude toward us – his children. He calls us his sons and daughters and he says we are precious and honored in his sight. He says we are his. He loves us and is willing to make huge sacrifices for us. He is on your side. You can feel safe when you talk with him.

I took a break from writing this to pick out the songs for the service this week. I realize we don’t have many songs written specifically to God the Father. We praise the Lord and we worship God. We praise Jesus quite frequently. There are a few songs that praise God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but very few indeed that invite us to worship and praise the Father in his Fatherhood. Even the old hymns don’t have a lot of this.

But this is a tremendous gift.

Jesus once told the parable of the prodigal’s son. When the younger, irresponsible brother returned, the Father embraced him, loved on him, and threw him a party. But the older brother was not pleased.

But he replied to his father, ‘Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ “ ‘Son,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. (Luke 15:29-31, HCSB)

The tragedy is this: The older brother had been living like a slave, when he was truly a son. So Paul says to us in verse seven:

So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God

You are no longer a slave, but a son. Again, not necessarily, a male, but the bearer of God’s family name, a dearly beloved child who can walk into the Father’s presence and say, “Hi, Daddy!” Your position as a dear child is not based upon your performance. It is based upon the performance of Jesus.

You don’t have to live like a slave. All that the Father has is yours, in Jesus.



The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person.

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The Law shows the absolute necessity of the promise. The law shows us our need for the promise. If we didn’t have the law, we wouldn’t understand the holy character of God. If we didn’t have the law, we would not realize that sin is a problem, and one we cannot overcome. The Law isn’t wrong. The problem is, we can’t do it.

The Law is not in contradiction to the promise. It was given as complement, to show that the promise was needed. God gave the promise first, to invite his people to live by faith. But he gave the law later, to help them understand why they needed to live by faith.

In Galatians 3:24 it says that the law was our guardian. Although the Greek word sounds like “pedagogue,” (which in English means “instructor of children,” or “teacher”) it has a different meaning here. The best English translation might be chaperone.

In the culture of New Testament times, the guardian, or chaperone, was there to make sure that boys who were intended to be great and noble did not “go bad.” They were there to keep them from making stupid mistakes, or compromising moral character. They protected them from both physical harm and moral harm.

That was the purpose of the law, and in some ways, is the continuing purpose of the law. Sometimes we view the law as a restriction – it seems to be a fence, keeping us in, restricting our freedom. But what there is a cliff on the other side? What if the wall is actually preventing us from great harm?

We considered the first commandment last time. Let’s look at it again. “You shall have no other Gods besides me.” This means that God is supposed to be the most important thing in our lives. He is to be number one, to have precedence over everything. Now, we could look at this and say, “Hey, that’s not fair. What if I want to make sports my number one priority – at least for a period of time? What if I want to make money, or my career or my spouse or my pleasure to be first priority? What’s wrong with going for it? Didn’t God make me with certain desires? Why shouldn’t I embrace them to the fullest?”

All right, let’s say you did make sports your number one priority. What happens when you get too old to compete with younger, fitter people? Your whole life crumbles. You are still alive, but you can’t live for sports anymore. The command protects you from this.

Suppose I decide that being a pastor should be the most important thing for me. That sounds good and reasonable, doesn’t it? But if I put that in front of my relationship with God, look at what happens. If the church does well, I am doing well. But if someone complains, or people start leaving, it destroys my whole world. I have nothing left if I can’t succeed as a pastor. The first commandment protects me from that. If God is the first thing, the most important thing, than no matter what else in the world crumbles, I am ultimately OK.

The other commandments protect us in similar ways. I am sure that adultery must be pleasurable and exciting. But ultimately it destroys marriages, it handicaps the lives of the children conceived by it, and the lives of the children whose parents divorce because of it. It often spreads diseases. Eventually, it destroys society as a whole, and we are even now starting to see the unraveling of Western culture because so many people have run away from the protection of the commandment against adultery. Now, let’s be clear that God forgives it, and works in the lives of those who have failed to obey it, and brings healing and redemption. But my point is that the commandment is to protect us, not to spoil our fun.

So Paul says, the law was a chaperone, a protector. In Greek and Roman culture, the chaperone’s job ended when the child became a man. The idea was that by that time, the young man had internalized good moral character. He knew right from wrong, and was willing to do right. He was strong enough to protect himself from physical harm also. It isn’t that he should no longer live morally or safely. The idea was that now those attitudes were inside of him; he would behave that way because of the character that been formed in him.

The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. Our lives should still look more and more like the character of God as shown in the law. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied about this new relationship to the law:

“Look, the days are coming” — this is the LORD’s declaration — “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant they broke even though I had married them” — the LORD’s declaration. “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days” — the LORD’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them” — this is the LORD’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.” (Jer 31:31-34, HCSB)

In the case of the noble Greek and Roman families, the chaperone/guardian did not take a child and turn him into a nobleman. No, the child was born a nobleman. They did not become noble by following the guidance of the guardian; rather, they were made noble by their birth. Something preceded the guardian, and that was noble birth.

So with Christians, following the guardian (that is, the law) is not what makes us Christians. It is our spiritual re-birth into Jesus –what we call “being born again.” We are born according to God’s promise to save and transform all who trust in Jesus Christ. The law is good and right. But the promise is greater. The law serves the promise, not vice versa.

Paul puts it this way:

The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:24-29, HCSB)

In the Greco-Roman culture of the Galatians, the sons in the family were the ones who inherited everything and carried the family name. But they did not have the rights and privileges of sons until they reached adulthood Until then, they were still under the authority of their chaperone. So Paul says – we are all “sons.” I think he means sons who have come into adulthood. We are no longer under the chaperone of the law, but in the trust-relationship of the promise. When he says were are “sons,” he doesn’t mean we are all male, he means that all of us – whether male or female, Jewish or not, slave or free – are inheriting the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We are all counted as legitimate and free, we all carry God’s family name, through faith in Jesus Christ. The Jews in Galatia have been telling the Christians that being Jewish is necessary and important, that anyone who is not Jewish is, in a sense, “illegitimate.” But Paul says, “No. We are all the same in Jesus Christ. We are all legitimate in Jesus Christ. Jews aren’t better than Gentiles. Free people aren’t better than slaves. Men aren’t better than women. The only thing that counts is Jesus Christ. In him, we are all legitimate inheritors, legitimate bearers of the family name of God.”

Paul wraps it up by saying that if you are in Christ (that is, if you trust Jesus) you are a true Jew – you are a “descendant” of Abraham. You stand in the true tradition of Abraham, which is salvation by trust in God’s promises, especially trust in the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus.

So, what does this mean for all of us today?

First, it is important to realize that the law is good and right. But we don’t become righteous through it, because we cannot do it all, or consistently. We don’t live by a set of rules. We live by a relationship of trust in Jesus, and reliance upon the Holy Spirit. He has already fulfilled the law for us. We are already completely righteous through him. He will guide us so that our lives do reflect the character of God as expressed in the law. But that character and that behavior forms in us not through our strenuous efforts, but through listening to the Holy Spirit and obeying his guidance.

How does this work? Some things are quite obvious. It’s silly to pray, “Jesus, do you want me to commit adultery?” Of course he does not. Although the law can’t save us, it is still true and right and good. A better prayer might be “Jesus, prevent me from even having the opportunity to commit adultery.” Or, “Jesus I give you my will and my body, to use as you want. Keep me from sinning.” Remember and recognize that through Jesus, you are already holy in spirit. Keep up that conversational prayer. It’s hard to be talking to Jesus, while at the very same time you are doing something unrighteous and unholy. His character within you doesn’t want to do it. If you feel a strong desire to sin, be honest with him about that, and keep up that conversational prayer.

Second, as I read these verses, I have a strong sense that some of you need to hear this: you are legitimate. You aren’t second class. You are a full heir of God, you carry His family name. No one who trusts Jesus is any worse – or any better – than you. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Your failures are irrelevant. Your socio-economic position is irrelevant. Your gender is irrelevant. Your ethnicity is irrelevant. Through Jesus, you have become one of God’s Chosen Ones.


Jesus Comforting Kids

The Christian life continues in the same way as Christian salvation. We keep coming to Jesus with all our inner emptiness, with all our desire for sin, all our hypocrisy, our lack of will-power. He takes us each moment, as we truly are, and his presence, through the Holy Spirit, does the work of forming the character of Jesus within us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 8

Galatians #8 . Chapter 3

You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing — if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:1-5, HCSB)

In many ways, the things we spoke about last week are also applicable here. Paul is continuing on his theme of living by faith. But here, he makes a clear parallel between being saved by faith, and living by faith. Most protestant Christians understand that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. With our minds at least, we believe that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. We recognize (to some degree) that we can’t address the holiness problem, and Jesus did that for us.

But far too many Christians proceed from there like the Galatians. The Galatians seem to have had some vague idea that it was necessary to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation, but that they had to continue on afterwards by obeying the Jewish law. The idea was this: “OK, Christ gives us salvation. But now that we are part of God’s people, we must act like it by obeying the Jewish law.” In other words: salvation is up to Jesus. Holy living afterwards is up to us.” Many Christians still think this way. Most do not think we need to obey the Jewish law. But there is a moral code, given in the Old Testament and reiterated in the New Testament. It is true that our lives should reflect the moral standards of God’s character. But, too often, we think it is up to us. We think we can get our lives to conform to those standards by our own efforts. We some kind of vague idea that Jesus’ part was to save us from hell, in and in return, our part is to put for the effort to become holy.

Brothers and sisters, that is lie from the pit of hell. I say it is from hell because it leads to the destruction of many lives, and even the destruction of faith. What happens when we believe this depends on the person.

Some people come from a relatively healthy home and are born with a strong will. These folks can push along for quite some time without screwing up in a major way. They don’t have affairs. They don’t get drunk or cheat their employers. They live productive, even giving, lives. Truly, it is better to live this way than not. A good, upright life generally leads to stable, loving relationships and benefits society as a whole. But this is far short of the real holiness that is necessary to stay in the presence of God. Those who do not realize how far short of holiness they still are, tend to become superior and legalistic. They may use their “success” at religion to put others down, and even control them. They put pressure on others to “just do it.” But even when you seem to be able to do it, it is a lot of work and a lot of pressure to feel that it is all up to you to keep on this way. These people are never at peace, never at rest. The closest they come to peace is a kind of smugness.

Other folks seem to screw up a lot more. In despair, they feel like they are poor excuses for Christians. Some of these people pretend they have it together. Then, when they are found out, non-Christians accuse them of being the worst kind of hypocrites.

Sometimes a person who fails at lot at living a holy, Christian, life ends up just giving up altogether. She might say, “Christianity isn’t for me – I just can’t seem to do it. It doesn’t work for me.”

Another person who often fails might say, “Well, I guess I’ll just squeak into heaven by the skin of my teeth. I’m just a dirty rotten sinner, and that’s all I’ll ever be until I get to heaven.” Then that person decides to go ahead and get drunk (or whatever his area of failure is), because he knows he’ll do it sooner or later anyway. He has no hope of seeing the character of Christ formed inside of him during this mortal life.

But all of these people have one thing in common: they are trying to live the Christian life by their own effort. In effect, having been saved by grace, they are now trying to live by law and works. That’s exactly what the Galatians were doing. Paul calls them foolish. He says:

After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh?

In salvation, we come to God as we are: snotty nosed, selfish, dirty and smelling of rotten garbage; unable to clean ourselves up. We come, and he takes us in his arms, snot and smell and all, and we realize that through Jesus, he has transformed us into clean, beautiful children. The Christian life continues in the same way. We keep coming to him with all our inner emptiness, with all our desire for sin, all our hypocrisy, our lack of will-power. He takes us each moment, as we truly are, and his presence, through the Holy Spirit, does the work of forming his moral character within us.

The reason so many Christians struggle to live the Christian life, is because they are still struggling to live the Christian life. What I mean is, they still think they can pull it off. They can’t. You can’t. You live the Christian life the same way you got salvation – through trusting in Jesus. As Paul says, it happens when you hear the word of God, and trust it (Galatians 3:5).

Now, shouldn’t we do the right thing? There are a lot of verses in the New Testament telling us to avoid sins, and to practice good works. But the question isn’t whether we should do them. The question is how. Do we live the Christian life by our own effort (which Paul calls “flesh” in the passage) or do we do we trust Jesus to live his life through us?

This is important, so please pay attention. A lot of folks feel that Christian faith ends up being just another set of requirements that we follow imperfectly at best. It’s true that we Christians aren’t perfect. But the Christian life isn’t about following a set of requirements. It is entirely about trusting a person: Jesus Christ.

We need to admit that we are powerless to manifest the character of God and his holiness. Even after salvation, we are powerless to do this. Then we need to trust God to do it for us, to turn it over to him, and rely upon him daily to live his life through us.

Does that sound a little vague? A little like hocus-pocus religious crap? Tell that to the hundreds of millions of people who have overcome drug and alcohol addictions in exactly this way. I just gave you the first three steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) twelve step program. Not coincidentally, AA was created by a Christian, and the twelve steps came directly from the bible. Alcoholics in AA don’t say, “Well I’m powerless to change on my own, so I might as well just keep drinking.” No, recognizing that they can’t control it, and say, “therefore, I will trust God, rather than my own efforts.”

You see, when you give up hope of doing it yourself and put your trust in Jesus, he can, and he will change your life. Giving up, when combined with trust in God, does not lead to despair or dissolution. It doesn’t lead to more sin and failure. It leads to healing and wholeness, to recovery. It is self-effort and moral self-reliance that leads to failure.

The wonderful thing too, is that in giving up on our own resources and efforts, we can experience tremendous freedom. The burden is lifted. The pressure is off. It isn’t up to you to do it. It is up to you only to trust Jesus to do it.

Just in case, you aren’t convinced, let’s follow Paul’s argument a little further. Remember, the Galatians were kind of wanna-be Jews. They thought you had to be Jewish to be a Christian. Now, one definition of a Jew was “descendant of Abraham.” So Paul says, “Do you want to be connected with Abraham? Do you want to be counted as one of his descendants? The understand, the only way for that to happen is through faith.”

Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, which says that God considered Abraham to be righteous, not because Abraham always behaved well, but because he trusted God. So, all those who have faith in Jesus are the true spiritual descendants of Abraham. They are the “true Jews.” I’m not trying to be offensive to any Jewish people. Paul is pointing out the spiritual heritage of being a descendant of Abraham is not about physical ethnicity, but about trusting God. It isn’t about observing certain rules or rites, it is about trusting God. In verse 11, Paul quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 – the “righteous shall live by faith.” What makes them righteous? What they do? No: they are righteous because of whom they trust.

By contrast, if you want to live by the law, you must live by the whole law. A lot of people don’t realize what this means. They say, “well, I’ve never committed adultery. I’ve never stolen anything. I’ve never lied or murdered.” Come on, people, those are the easy ones. How about this: has anything in your life ever been more important to you than God? If so, you’ve blown the very first commandment, and you are already out of the race. Jesus pointed this out to a man whom we call “the rich young ruler.” This guy came to Jesus and said, “Look, I’ve kept the commandments. I haven’t stolen, I’ve honored my parents, I haven’t lied, murdered or committed adultery.” Jesus said, “Good. Now, how about the first commandment? God in the flesh is standing before you. Put me first. Sell everything you have, and have only me instead.” Jesus was referring to the first commandment, of course. And the young man failed. He couldn’t put Jesus before his money (Paraphrase of Luke 18:19-23). If you’ve ever put anything in front of Jesus, you’ve already failed to keep the law.

So you’ve never stolen. That’s good. But have you ever wanted something that someone else had? If so, you’ve failed to keep the tenth commandment, and you are already out of the race. Folks, if you want credit with God for what you do (that is, for works) you have to do it all, without ever failing once. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. You have a choice. If you want to be self-righteous, then you need to be nothing less than perfect. Or, you can admit your problem, admit your inability to fix it, and trust Jesus to take care of it as you surrender your life to him.

I’m not talking about despair. I am not talking about using our inability to be good as an excuse to be bad. I am talking about giving up hope in ourselves, while at the same time, putting hope and trust in Jesus, who can and will transform you by his power, not your effort.

Recently, a family from our town moved to Florida. I did not know this family, but several friends of mine knew them well. The wife of the family was pregnant with their fifth child. She gave birth shortly after they moved to Florida – just a couple weeks ago. There were complications, and for the past week she has been in a coma, fighting for clip_image002her life. Just a few days ago, she died. A friend posted this heartbreaking picture of the newborn baby with the mama she will never know. The family did all the right things. Thousands of people prayed. They trusted the Lord. But nothing they could do saved this woman from death. We live by trusting, not doing. Yesterday, the husband wrote this note:

Two days ago I spent some time next to the shell of my best friend as she lay in the hospital. While I was devastated, my last words to her were “I will see you in heaven.” These have been the most difficult days of my life and I am facing a huge void that has been created. I wake up in the morning and realize that it is not a dream. Many of you have shared tragedies that have occurred in your life: The loss of a child, parent or a spouse; a painful divorce, or a battle with depression. These things we are going through are all things that as humans we are guaranteed to experience. I will be the first to admit that in the past when I have faced difficult circumstances I have many times tried to shoulder them on my own, or maybe question God and why he would let these things happen. The fact is we live in a fallen and broken world. I want to tell you that I have felt God’s presence in my life that passes my understanding. While I have my moments where I come apart, the presence of the Lord comforts me, putting me back together and assures me that a level path lies ahead.

These are not the words of a man who just happens to be very emotionally strong. These are words from someone who trusts Jesus, who is allowing Jesus to transform him and comfort him. That, my friends, is living by faith.