LIVING CRUCIFIED #7: SIN and GRACE

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Being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus. Let’s talk about how all this looks.

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 Living Crucified Part 7

I want to add a few more brief thoughts about fighting sin. The first is this: being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus.

It is easy to get confused about this, for a couple of different reasons. First, it is our sin that separates us from God. Our sin is the problem that keeps us apart from ultimate joy, which is found only in the presence of God. It is also sin that makes the world such a terrible place at times. All war is caused by sin. All violence grows out of sin. Selfish actions, abuse of children, rapacious greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, and hatred are all outgrowths of the root of sin. Depression, self-loathing, self-centeredness, apathy, lack of love – all this proceeds from sin. Even disease and accidents are the result of the fact that sin is embedded in the world.

Since sin is the major problem, it is natural to make the mistake of believing that the solution is to commit fewer sins. And that leads to the second thing that confuses us: many churches do indeed seem to be teaching that the whole point of being a Christian is to control sin. Now, if we could, in fact, control our own sin, that would be a good thing to do. But, if you have tried very hard to do it, you realize that doesn’t get you very far. Even if you can control your behavior (and some people are quite good at that) when you look into your heart honestly, you recognize a deep commitment to get your own needs met, no matter what it takes.

Some people don’t realize what a problem this is, because they can get their needs met through things that are outwardly righteous. But even if the means are righteous, the heart that uses them is not. So maybe you go around helping people and quoting Bible verses in all circumstances. Both of those things are good to do. But it might be that you do them because it makes you feel secure, and good about yourself. It makes you feel like no one can find fault with you. So, even though the activities aren’t wrong, you are doing them for the wrong reasons. It is wrong to get your sense of security, or self-worth, from anywhere but God Himself. It is wrong to believe you can be justified by your own actions.

The bottom line is that every one of us is committed to ourselves, and to making sure that we get our own needs met, no matter what it takes. That is the essence of what the bible calls “flesh,” and we all have it.

As we have been learning through this series, God has dealt with human sin through Jesus. In a spiritual way, God crucified our own sinful hearts on the cross with Jesus. We died with him, and so now we are dead to sin. The way to “control” sin is not to think about it all the time, but rather, to immerse ourselves into the love and joy and grace that are found in Jesus Christ. We trust what the bible says: that we are new creations in Christ Jesus, holy, and blameless. We let Jesus live his life through us. The more we trust him to do that, the more we turn toward him, the less we are controlled by sin.

I want to use Romans chapter 7 to help us understand all this. Please take the time to read all of Romans 7:4 – 8:17. It is about the length of one chapter of scripture. Please do stop reading this right now, and open your Bible and read that. Seriously. Please stop reading this, and go read the scripture passage. Please?

Thanks for reading that. This is a section of scripture that is often misunderstood. In the first place, we ought to read the section I just gave you as one unit. The verse and chapter markings we find in our modern bibles are not part of the original. In other words, they were added to make it convenient for us to quickly find places in the Bible, but they were not inspired by God. So, if I were the one dividing up the book of Romans, I would have the section I just gave you as all belonging together. It would be a mistake to read chapter 7, and then stop without reading any of chapter 8.

In the first part of chapter 7, Paul is making two main points. First, that law is good. It was given by God to show us what sin is. Second, though the law is good, it shows us that we are not good, and the law cannot help us to become any better.

Next comes a section with which we are all familiar:

14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. (Romans 7:14-23, NLT)

We usually read this and think: “Yup. That’s me. I want to do the right thing, but I just can’t get it together. I keep sinning and sinning.” So far so good. But many people miss the main point Paul is making. He repeats it over and over again. The point is not that he sins all the time. The point is this: he wants to do what is right.

I had friend once who was not a Christian. After a lot of time and people praying for him, and some long conversations, he gave his heart to Jesus. Afterward, we started to meet together to pray and talk about the Bible and generally encourage each other in faith. One time the subject of lust came up. He said, “You know, before I became a Christian, I did not struggle with lust. Now I struggle with it all the time.”

I was shocked. What had we done wrong? I asked him to explain.

“Well, before I was a Christian,” he said, “there wasn’t any struggle. I lusted, and it didn’t bother me. But since I came to Jesus, it bothers me when I lust because I don’t want to do that now.”

You see the fact that he didn’t want to sin any more was proof that he had died to sin. In his deepest heart, he knew that he didn’t desire sin. In his inner being, he delighted in God’s perfect standard and holiness.

So, in Romans 7, Paul’s main point is not that he sins all the time. The main point is that now, he does not want to sin all the time. That fact shows that he has died to sin, and has been raised to be with Christ. He has a new heart, a new Spirit, and his new self does not want to sin.

Now, it is natural to ask: “If I am already dead to sin, if I’m already a new creation, freed from sin, why do I keep sinning? If I don’t want to sin, why do I do it anyway? Doesn’t this prove I am half-sinner, half-redeemed?”

No. Although I like the New Living Translation (used above) it does have a major drawback. In verse eighteen, the right translation is this: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (Romans 7:18, ESV; formatting added for emphasis). In the original Greek it never, anywhere in the New Testament, uses a term like “sinful nature.” The problem is not that we have “bad self,” along with a “redeemed self.” What we have is a part of us that is that vulnerable to sin, called flesh. I mentioned in the beginning that one characteristic of what the bible calls “flesh” is that it is utterly committed to getting our needs (and wants) met, even if it means going against what God says. We all inherited this kind “flesh” from Adam and Eve. Before we became Christians, we all lived according to the flesh. We all found ways to do what it takes to feel better. We all depended upon ourselves, rather than God, to get our needs met. Sometimes we did that in ways that didn’t look so bad (like being a good student to gain approval from adults). Sometimes we did it ways that were clearly wrong (like getting drunk to numb our emotional pain, feel good, and gain acceptance from our peers). But both the good student, and the drinker, were looking to something other than God to meet their needs, and lead them to a satisfying life.

In addition to the word “flesh” Paul also says sin is located in his “members.” The Greek word is usually used as a generic term for “body parts.” In Matthew 5, when Jesus said it is better to lose an eye than to be thrown into hell, he calls the eye a “member.” He also calls a right hand a “member.” James calls the tongue a member of the body.

So, sin does not live any more in what we call our “(figurative) hearts”. It certainly does not live in our spirit. It camps out in our bodies. Let’s not forget that the brain is part of the body. Our brains are usually the main problem. So the problem is not that we have two natures. The problem is that we inhabit sinful bodies, with sinful brains. In fact, Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 7:24 (which you just read):

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24, ESV)

What are some important things we know about bodies? First, we know that human beings are more than our bodies. Our physical appearance is not the real us. It is, in fact, one of the most shallow things about the true people that we are in our hearts. And that is where sin is located. Sin is not part of your nature anymore than your hair is a part of your nature. Sometimes you have to deal with your hair (or lack thereof). In interacting with others, it is good to maintain a decent appearance. You might fail to get the job you are supposed to if you show up to the interview with your hair wild and askew. But your hair does not really say anything about the real you.

Now you might be tempted to say: “Well, if I have sin in my brain, that is a real problem, because my brain directs everything I do.” That’s not exactly true. This is a little bit complex, but the truth is often complex. There is a difference between your brain, and your mind. Your brain is a physical organ that operates on electrical-chemical systems. Your mind is your sense of self-awareness. Your mind uses your brain, and is linked to it, but your mind is greater than the physical electrical-chemical processes that occur in the brain. The ideas you have are more than electro-chemical processes. Your thoughts and ideas have existence apart from the physical processes that created them. In addition, your will – your capacity to make decisions and follow through on them – is part of your mind, but not your brain. Yes, your brain does exert influence on your mind (and will). But your mind, and your will are greater than your brain. They will live on when your brain (along with the rest of your body) dies. If you don’t believe that, you are an atheist. Therefore, says our text today, we set our minds upon the Spirit, not the flesh.

5 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. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.( Romans 8:5-11, ESV)

Notice that Paul, also, distinguishes between mind and brain (because our brains are part of our flesh).

When we are in Jesus, the sin that was in our souls and spirits has been crucified – killed and done away with. Our minds, too, have been awakened to God. The only sin left in us is found in our physical bodies. When our bodies die, what remains of sin will die with them. Then we will be raised again with new bodies, uncorrupted by sin. But we already have spiritual life, spiritual holiness, as a kind of down-payment of what is coming. The most important part of you – the part of you that you think of as “yourself” has already been crucified with Christ, and raised again in holiness. There is no connection between the “essential you” and sin. If there was, the Holy Spirit could not live in you without destroying you (Since the presence of God destroys sin).

So, let’s find some practical suggestions for setting your mind on the spirit, not the flesh. When you are tempted to sin, try having a little conversation with yourself.

“This is not what the real me wants to do. This is what my corrupted brain and body think will make me happy. But they are wrong. I don’t need to do this, because in Jesus, I am already whole and complete. This sin will not actually help me.”

Or: “You – my sinful body – are dying already, and everything you want leads to death. But the real me doesn’t want to do this. The fact that I don’t want to do this is proof that the most important part of me is already holy in Christ. I am going to act like I am already holy in Christ.”

Remember this: you don’t have to feel like this is true. You merely need to believe that it is true, and then act according to what you believe. We are talking about a mindset, not an emotion. We are talking about continually trusting that what the scripture says is true. You will not feel that continually, but your feelings can go jump in a lake.

Think about it like this. Have you ever met someone who felt things that are not true? Of course. Many people feel unloved even when they are deeply loved by others. Many people feel worthless when their friends and family value them greatly. Feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. God’s Word is. When you believe what God has done for you, it ultimately changes everything.  We will talk more specifics next time.

THE WORKS OF THE FLESH

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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.

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 19

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.

FOCUSING ON THE TRUTH

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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.

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 18

GALATIANS #18. GALATIANS 5:16-18

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.

FREEDOM, OR LICENSE?

Love_One_Another-760x504

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.