Saturday 19 January 2013

Unnatural living (Galatians 5:16-26)

So I say, live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
Galatians 5:16

The theme of our talks from Galatians 4 to 6 is called “Unnatural.” There is something different, strange, unnatural about the Christian life. That is true from the perspective of the world, but as we will see from today’s passage, that’s also true from the Christian’s perspective. To live by the Spirit, Paul says, is something that goes against our natural instincts, what our English bible’s call the “sinful nature”.

So it might surprise you to learn that the bible is speaking to Christians about their natural instincts to sin and to rebel against God. But ultimately, Christians are not to live by that nature. God has freed us from slavery to sin but he has also done something else. He has put his Spirit in us enabling us to live in obedience to him. That’s the main focus of today’s passage: What it means to live by the Spirit. What that Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered life looks like.

We will see three things in today’s passage: the struggle, the sinful nature and the fruit of the Spirit.

1. The struggle

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

One reason why we are afraid confessing sin is fear of embarrassment. “What would my friends think if they knew that I had this sin in my life?” Especially when it is a sin that we are struggling with - it keeps coming back again and again. So we try to hide it from our friends, even from God, because we think that struggling in this way means failure.

Paul says that the very fact that you are struggling with your sinful nature and not giving in to sin is evidence of the Spirit’s presence in your lives. The fact that you still wrestle in prayer, “God help me to overcome this sin and this temptation. God please change my desires to live for you and not for myself.” Paul calls this a conflict - a war - between the Spirit of God and the flesh of man.

It means that this is what the real Christian life looks like. It’s a struggle. The Spirit is at war with our sinful nature. It is not the guy who looks as if he has everything under control - no temptations, no struggles with his conscience - such a person is either faking it, or worse, he isn’t a Christian.

1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is not that one’s a sinner and the other isn’t. No, the difference is that the Christian is a forgiven sinner. The very next verse reads, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Do you believe that? That if you came to Jesus right now and said sorry; that if you brought before him all the horrible, shameful, wicked things you have done just this week, Jesus would forgive you; and more than that, he would purify you from all unrighteousness. You would walk away free and forgiven. Do believe you could do that right now and leave justified through the blood of Jesus?

The point is: Some of us think that we need to fake it here in church. We think that it’s expected of us when we come here on Sundays - to look presentable, to serve in Sunday School, to be an example to the kids.

And maybe we’ve never read a passage like this which says that it is that struggle with sin that proves you’re a Christian. That proves that God’s Spirit is working inside of you to bring you to repentance and prayer and trust in him.

And rather, it’s those who don’t have the Spirit who don’t have this problem of sinning and then hiding it from their friends. They think that God doesn’t see. They think that because their friends think they’re a good Christian it means they’re a good Christian, when in reality they are in denial. Or as John puts it, they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them.

That’s the first thing see in this passage: a struggle between the Spirit of God and the sinfulness of man. And I think what Paul does next is help us to get real with that struggle. He lists out for us the acts of the sinful nature.

2. The sinful nature

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.
Galatians 5:19-20

Right after this we will be looking at the fruit of the Spirit where we get another list. That’s the list Christian’s like to memorise and hang up on their walls. I have yet to see someone hang this list up on their bedroom wall - The Thirteen Acts of the Sinful Nature.

But it’s here for a reason. This is our sinful nature. Some translations use the word, “flesh,” that is, it’s part of our DNA.

What we often do is look at a list like this and start condemning the world out there, “All those sexual immoral people; all those idolaters; all those drunken alcoholics. I’m glad I’m in here in the church.” And we might even point to verse 21, “Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It’s those other guys who do these horrible things who won’t get in.

And what happens is that we forget that we, too, have a sinful nature. Verse 21 begins with Paul saying, “I warn you.” You guys need to watch yourselves, that you don’t do these things. You have a sinful nature, too.”

Again, it’s that denial of sin that keeps us from taking this list seriously; from actually memorising this list - not just the one that comes after that talks about love, joy, peace and patience - but acknowledging that we need to be watchful of our own tendencies to sin.

The first on the list is sexual immorality. What you do with your physical bodies matters to God. The bible is clear that sex is to be enjoyed between a man and a woman exclusively in marriage. Anything outside of that is what the bible calls sexual immorality. Impurity and debauchery just widens scope to include pornography, adultery or sleeping with someone who isn’t your husband or wife.

Then we have idolatry and witchcraft. Idolatry is worshipping something as God that isn’t God. It can be a statue of Kuan Yin in the temple. It can be your work, your money and your health. Anything that we put before God and treat as God, that’s idolatry.

Witchcraft makes us think of movies like Harry Potter, but the Greek word pharmakeia is where we get the English word “pharmacy”. It’s describing poisons and drugs that can cause harm. The two - idolatry and witchcraft - go together in that the worship of a false God doesn’t just destroy you, it harms those around you. Pharmakeia is the action of producing poison and while that can describe Professor Snape’s potions in Harry Potter, it can also describe the drug dealer who worships money and produces substances that kill, it can describe the corrupt executive who worships success and is willing sell merchandise that are harmful to the consumer for the sake of profit.

Hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, factions and envy. It’s again tempting to think of examples “out there,” but what about right here in the church? Is it possible to lift up your hands worshipping God with your voice while at the same time you are hating your brother or sister who is just next to you; your heart is going, “I can’t stand that person”? Is it possible to serve together on the same team but use ministry as a stepping stone to get your agenda across? Come on! Of course it is. We did a bible study on this passage this week at Rock Fellowship and the first thing that came out a sister’s mouth when I asked, “What do you think of when you read this?” - her very first words were, “Church politics.”

Can we get real for a moment? We struggle with this. I struggle with this - hatred, discord, jealousy, ambition. We have to call it what it is. It’s sin. Now later on, we’ll see that we don’t deal with sin just by focusing on sin, we focus on Jesus. But many of us are in denial over our sin. We think sin is something that’s out there when it’s in here in our lives and we need forgiveness for our sin when we come before our Saviour. It means that church leaders mess up and when they do, the solution is not to cover up but to confess to Jesus, not act like it’s not a big deal.

The list ends with drunkenness, orgies and the like. I would replace “orgies” with partying. Are you the kind of guy who knows how to have a good time? Just because you are in University and all your friends are out partying on a Friday night; just because you have that freedom and opportunity to stay out as long as you want; doesn’t mean that you should. I know there’s a part of you that says, “I’m young now, I need to enjoy life, I know my limits, I am free to make my own choices.” And what I am saying to you is: Can you distinguish the voice of your conscience from the voice of your sinful nature?

Now the reason why Paul calls this list the actions or the works of the sinful nature is because our actions reveal who we are listening to. Get this, the point is not whether or not you have a sinful nature - we all do. Rather the reason for this list is for us to get real about whether we are following that nature or following the Spirit. And Paul begins the list by saying, “It’s obvious.” The acts of the sinful nature are obvious. When you look at the things you are doing in your life, our actions which can be seen reveal our motives which are unseen.

And Paul ties up this list by saying in verse 21, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live in this way,” - literally, those who do these things (hoi ta toiauta prassontes) - “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It is your actions; what you’re doing, that reveal who you are listening to and where you are headed.

The sinful nature produces sinful actions which are obvious, says Paul, but in contrast, the Spirit shapes your character. It literally changes, not just what you do, but who you are to be like Jesus. This, according to verse 22, is the fruit of the Spirit.

3. The fruit of the Spirit

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5:22-23

Earlier on, we saw thirteen actions of the sinful nature. (Paul even adds the words, “And the like,” meaning there could be lots more.) But here we see just one fruit.

Why is this important? If you have the Spirit, you will produces all nine characteristics of this fruit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control - because they all form one fruit. All of them should be present in some degree and form in your life.

To be loving means to seek another person’s good at the expense of yourself. To be joyful means you have found something of true value and meaning to pour out your love upon, such that even if circumstances are tough and you might be suffering, your joy still remains because your treasure still remains. To be peaceful means your relationship with God is rock solid - your conscience is clear; and therefore you are always seeking to reconcile others who aren’t at peace with God, we who aren't at peace with their friends or with themselves.

To be patient means you’re not someone who’s quick to get angry; some translations have “long-suffering,” meaning, it’s painful when others sin against you, but you are still keeping your cool. To be kind and good is another way of saying that you are generous and merciful; you are actively looking serve others whether or not they deserve your help and generosity. To be faithful means that you are trustworthy; you are dependable; you are reliable. To be gentle means you respond to sin the way God does; you don’t condemn, but you want to forgive. In Galatians 6:1, Paul says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” Finally, the self-controlled means that you do have temptations; your sinful nature is still there, but you are not using that as an excuse to sin. It’s your life, your actions are your responsibility and you are keeping a check on your behaviour and actions.

Nine characteristics but just one fruit. You can’t pick and choose. All of them are present in the life of the Christian.

But then Paul rounds of this list by saying, “Against such things there is no law.” Think with me for a moment: Why does he say that?

If you have been following our series through Galatians the past few months, you might know the answer. Throughout the letter of Galatians, Paul has been telling us that there is a big difference between the law and the gospel. The law tells us what we need to do. The gospel tells us what God has done.

That’s really, really, really, really important because the fruit of the Spirit is something that Spirit does. That’s why it’s called fruit. It is a result of trusting in the cross of Jesus Christ.

And after giving us this list of nine character traits, Paul wants us to be absolutely clear - You don’t get saved by doing these things. You don’t get saved by being loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled.

If we don’t get this we make the mistake of thinking that Sunday School is about teaching kids how to be good. If we don’t get this we make the mistake of thinking bible study is about how to be loving. If we don’t get this we make the mistake of thinking worship is about us trying to make our way up to God.

You can’t legislate people into being good and loving. The best you can do is enact laws that keep people from doing evil and acting out their sinful tendencies. That’s why the acts of the sinful nature are obvious. You can come up with a new rule every day on what shouldn’t be done. But if you try to do that with Christianity, you don’t understand the gospel. It’s not about what you do, but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. In verse 24, Paul brings us back to the cross to remind us of that.

Those who belong to Jesus Christ have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.
Galatians 5:24

This is how you deal with sin, you bring it to the cross. Paul began in verse 16, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Meaning, keep your eyes on the Spirit not on your sinful nature; keep your eyes on Jesus, not on your sin.

In other words, the fruit of the Spirit is really the fruit of the gospel. It is the by-product of trusting in Jesus for our justification and our sanctification. The point of having a list like this is not be burdensome - to check up on Christians, “Are you loving, peaceful, patient?” - these are not rules are reflections of God’s presence in our lives. He has put his Spirit in us!

Keeping in step with the Spirit

Think about that for a moment. God who is holy and awesome and gracious and loving, lives inside this human body. Let that sink in!

The Spirit is mentioned seven times in this passage, don’t miss that. God’s Holy Spirit is literally inside this body. He’s not just up there in heaven, he is right here with us; he is right here inside of us. That is an awesome thought!

And yet, if that is true, why is that we still sin? Why is it that, at times, we still live as if God didn’t put his Spirit in us? It’s our sinful nature. The bible says that there’s that part of us that is at war with God. That’s the whole point of this passage, to open our eyes to that struggle.

Paul keeps saying to us, “Live by the Spirit. You are led by the Spirit.” That is, he is telling us that we need to be consciously seeking to be obedient to God at every moment. In verse 24, it means coming back again and again to the cross to be forgiven and restored. But the way he puts it in verse 25 is to say that following the Spirit is like marching to a rhythm.

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:25

It’s saying that life has a rhythm, a pace, a momentum to it. It’s saying that what matters aren’t just the big decisions - career, marriage, where you’re going to live, what huge siginificant thing you are going to do with your life. If we think that way, we are still thinking in terms of the law; in terms of things we have to do.

Yet Paul says you live by the Spirit by keeping in step with the Spirit. What does that mean?

Years ago when I joined the music team at my church in Singapore, I had learned an invaluable lesson: Listening to others and playing together as a team. I thought that since I had been playing the piano for years; since I’d been playing in my student fellowship for years, it was not a problem playing in this church and I was so wrong!

When you’re playing by yourself it’s just you and the music score. You just play. But when you are playing as a team, you are listening out for the voices, for the other instruments. In particular, you are listening out for the drums, because the drums keep everyone in step and in sync.

I remember how much I hated it when my music coordinator would point me and say, “Piano and bass; play!” “Piano and drums; play!” She would isolate each pair of instruments and force us to play each piece over and over again, not so that we would get our parts individually, but so that as we played our parts, we were in sync with the other instruments. So that we were listening to one another.

It’s the same in our Christian lives. There is a rhythm to this life and God’s Spirit is prompting us to always seek him every step of the way, such that He is setting the pace, He is setting the direction, He is leading us. And it shows, not just in our actions, but in our character.

That’s the point of the nine characteristics of the Spirit - to be loving at all times, to be peaceful at times, to be joyful in all situations - not just in the big life decisions and the rest of the time you are a totally different person. No, you are constantly seeking to live out your life rooted in the gospel, standing at the cross, keeping in step with the Spirit.

And just in case we forget that, Paul slips in verse 26.

Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Galatians 6:26

Did Paul forget something from the list of sinful actions? Is that why he says, “Don’t be conceited”?

No, the reason is Paul knows that even this can be turned into a law; into a work that we do. “Look at me, I’m following the Spirit.” “Check this out, my church is sooo loving!”

And Paul is saying, “Don’t use this as another burden to lay on people’s shoulders.” It’s sad when we use godliness as a cover-up for putting people down in the church; as a way of making people feel small. That’s not the gospel.

The gospel is about Christ taking our burdens of sin, death and judgement. The gospel is about Christ freeing us from slavery to sin and restoring us as sons.

So each time we hear this gospel, we hear Christ calling us to come to the cross and lay down our burdens; to confess our sins - the things we have done against God this week, the things we have left undone for God this week - and ask that he cover us with his righteousness and empower us by his Spirit to live by his grace. Each time we hear this gospel, we hear Christ calling us to lay down our lives and pick up our cross and follow him.

In our closing song, we sing these words:

Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me.
Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose.
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You.

Let us pray,

Father, use our ransomed lives in any way you choose
and let our only boast be in You.
In Jesus’ name,

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