Following the Spirit, Crucifying the Flesh

Do you have a dog or two at home? If so, walking your pooch in the beautiful weather is probably delightful but walking in bad weather isn’t much fun. I’ve been praying about getting a pooch next year, maybe an older, little one that doesn’t require too much of my time, since I’m the only one to care for it. But every cold or rainy day I am glad not to have one. Like other interests, pet ownership comes with benefits and responsibilities—unconditional love and fun vs. vet and food bills and exercising in all kinds of weather. I’m not yet convinced that the benefits are worth the costs for me. I will continue to put money and effort into my little patio garden to have flowers. I will keep exercising regularly for flexibility in my joints, but a dog…not so much yet. If I do decide to rescue a pooch, I know that my perspective and attitude will change, but there will still be some days when I will push myself to do what is necessary. When it comes to the work of Christian spiritual warfare, God gives us the desire to put in the effort, while he does most of the heavy lifting. When we are redeemed, our longings and aspirations are transformed to align with Christ’s purpose: to walk in the Spirit. But the battle of our new and old natures isn’t over until we finish our journey on earth. The fruit of the Holy Spirit will grow in us because God has determined that it will—we have his promise to stimulate our growth in sanctification. We participate in the process by recognizing and rejecting sinful desires when they pop up and yielding to the Holy Spirit. Believers are called to embrace the battle within, to fight sin for maturity and fruitful living.

Eventually, we will get to the nine fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23. Before we do, let’s consider Paul’s context: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:16-18, 24-26) We battle within ourselves to conquer our unholy desires to do what is right, for the sake of our Christian family (vs. 16-17). We do so because “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Galatians 5:14) “The context of Paul’s exposition is not about our isolated, personal growth, but on its impact on others and on our relationship with Jesus Christ. The gospel devours the very motivation you have for sin. It completely saps your very need and reason to live any way you want. Anyone who insists that the gospel encourages us to sin has simply not understood it yet, nor begun to feel its power…if you truly understand through the gospel who Jesus is and what He has done for you, then you will ask: How can I live for Him? And the answer will be—look at the will of God expressed in the law. The gospel frees us from the law, for the law. It does away with our old, selfishly motivated and unloving law-obedience. And it motivates us to obey the law out of love.” (1)

You may be the only one to walk a dog, or do any number of chores, but we have lots of help to grow into maturity for greater spiritual fruit: brothers and sisters in Christ, pastors, elders, theologians, counselors, and especially the Holy Spirit. “If the Christian life looks too hard, we must remember that we are not called to live it by ourselves. We must live it by the Spirit of God. The command of love is not a new legalistic burden laid on our back; it is what happens freely when we walk by the Spirit. We must learn to ‘walk by the Spirit.’…As Romans 8:7 says, ‘The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law.’ The basic mark of the flesh is that it is unsubmissive. It does not want to submit to God’s absolute authority or rely on God’s absolute mercy.[So] conflict in your soul is not all bad. Serenity in sin is death…So take heart if your soul feels like a battlefield at times. The sign of whether you are indwelt by the Spirit is not that you have no bad desires, but that you are at war with them!” (2) We are called to embrace the battle within to fight sin and encourage fruitful living.

Christ has given us the Spirit and crucified our unholy aspirations. “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:18, 24) “As a person fastened to a cross may be alive, though he cannot act and move as before, being under restraints, so the old man, though crucified, and under the restraints of mighty grace, and cannot reign and govern as before, yet is alive, and acts, and operates, and oftentimes has great sway and influence; but whereas he is deprived of his reigning power, he is said to be crucified: and though this act is ascribed to them that are Christ’s, yet not as done by them in their own strength, who are not able to grapple with one corruption, but as under the influence of the grace of Christ, and through the power of his Spirit.” (3) Here is the good news of the gospel—sin no longer reigns over us, and the law can no longer oppress us, and we no longer want to rebel. Now we belong to Christ and as “belongers,” we delight in what delights him and desire what God desires. But this is not an unconscious, automatic work of God. We stimulate our spiritual fruit by actively rejecting sinful desires and yielding to the Holy Spirit, following his lead.

The Holy Spirit leads us to yield to God holy fruitfulness. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:25-26) The keyword of Galatians 5:16-25 is “Spirit” and the verbs in the passage reveal our relationship with him. We are to walk, gratify, keep from, want to do, are led, belong, keep in step, not becoming conceited, provoking, or envying. We are to “keep in step” with the Spirit to “keep from” the desires of the flesh. Instead of “gratifying” them, we “crucify” them. Gill writes that we are to be wary of “Provoking one another; not to good works, which would be right, but to anger and wrath, which is contrary to Christian charity, or true love…Envying one another; their gifts and abilities, natural and spiritual; their rank and station in the world, or in the church. These were sins the Galatians very probably were subject to; and where they prevail, there is confusion, and every evil work, and are therefore to be watched and guarded against.” (4)

“Believers are engaged in a conflict, in which they earnestly desire that grace may obtain full and speedy victory…The fruits of the Spirit plainly show, that such are led by the Spirit. By describing the works of the flesh and fruits of the Spirit, we are told what to avoid and oppose, and what we are to cherish and cultivate; and this is the sincere care and endeavor of all real Christians.” (5) The question is, are we willing to engage in spiritual warfare internally to conquer our unholy desires? What personal ungodly aspirations did we crucify last year? Which ones do you want to vanquish now? Will you pray for the Spirit’s guidance, trusting God to be victorious in your battle for holy fruitfulness? Be encouraged.  “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

(1) Keller, Tim, Galatians For You, “Gospel Freedom”, (Galatians 5:14), The Good Book Company, United Kingdom, 2013.

(2) Piper, John, Desiring God Ministries, “Sermons,” http://www.desiringgod.com

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Galatians 5:24, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/galatians-5.html

(4) Gill, Galatians 5:25, ibid.

(5) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Galatians 5:25, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/galatians-5.html

January 17, 2020

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