Galatians 5:16-18, 25
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. . . . If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
Walk by the Spirit
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Luther taught that the one who could properly distinguish the law from the gospel should have a doctorate in theology. CFW Walther gave a series of evening lectures for the seminary students in his day about how to distinguish the two in Scriptures and preaching, and that lecture series was published from student notes and has become Walther’s best selling book, and is still a hot seller today. In principle, telling the difference is not that hard. The difficulty arises when it comes to teaching it, preaching, and practice – that is, in living it out.
Let me illustrate. The law tells us what to do, what not to do, and how we are to be. If it is bossing you around, it is the law. Pretty simple and straight forward, eh? The Gospel tells us what Christ has done for us and what God gives to us and promises us for Christ’s sake. If it is a gift and free, it is the Gospel. The difference is pretty clear, right? So why do so many preachers get them mixed up, and often try to turn the law into a gospel of some sort and the gospel into the law? And why do you Christians continue to try to make the law the measure of your standing before God and direct your lives by it?
Paul is working on the problem, aiming to help you out in our Epistle lesson today. Once again, in theory it seems to be simple. It is putting what Paul writes into practice that shows us the difficulty. Let us take a few minutes, this morning, and consider what Paul has to say here under our theme, Walk by the Spirit.
Paul tells us to walk by the Spirit. He contrasts that to carrying out the desires of the flesh. Those are the poles of law and Gospel. The flesh and its desires is about the law, and the Spirit – or walking by the Spirit – is about the Gospel. The flesh refers to our human nature, sinful from birth since Adam and Eve. If we do what is natural and follow the desires of the flesh, we are living in sin. That is true even when we try to live by the law. The flesh and the Spirit are set as opposites. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit, and He would lead us as the children of God. The flesh at its best is hostile to God due to sin. That is what Paul means when he says that it sets its desire against the Spirit. We are, in the words of our Catechism’s enchiridion, “blind, dead, and an enemy of God” by nature. That is what sin does to you.
If you try to live by the flesh, you have two choices: do what appeals to you or try to be a reasonably good person by following the moral law. The end result is very much alike. Doing what appeals to you will lead you into sin and corruption and perversion, as we see in our society all around us. If your try to be a reasonably good person by following the moral law, you will fail to keep even that law which you know to be good and holy, and will end up frustrated, and either outwardly decent seeming and inwardly corrupt, or even more outwardly flawed and failing because that is how the law works on us sinful human beings. The law was given by God to show us our corruption in sin, and it works well. We fail to be the people we know we should be, and we fail to keep laws that we ourselves pronounce as good and right. We show ourselves to be slaves of sin in so doing.
We cannot help it. It is who we are since the fall into sin all those generations ago. We are simply unable to do what is right for very long, and even when we do it, we do it for the wrong reasons. We do it for profit or attention or glory or ego, rather than doing the right thing simply because it is right. You know how it works: when you decide to go on a diet, you get hungry, usually even if you have just eaten a good-sized meal. If someone tells you not to think about something, even something as unusual as a hippopotamus, you can’t help but think about it, wonder why you should not think about it, and ponder the hippo. We have ways of talking about this phenomenon even outside of the religious language of the church: how forbidden fruit is sweetest, how it is fun to be naughty, to go where you are not supposed to go, how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
Walking by the Spirit, on the other hand, means to walk in the light of the Gospel, to walk by faith. What is the Gospel, the light of which is to be our guide? It is good news that Jesus died for your sins, and that you are forgiven. Note that the Gospel is not that you can be forgiven, as some teachers like to say. That would make the Gospel a law - you know, do what you are supposed to do to ge this forgiveness (and keep it) and you can be forgiven. But that message tells you what to do, not what God has done or what His gift to you is. Can you see how easily the two switched places right there, and the Gospel became a law?
The Gospel tells you that you are forgiven. God has accepted you already. You don’t have anything to prove. You are already saved and alive for eternity and God loves you. He has made you part of His family and claimed you as His child – not potentially but really.
Walking by the Spirit means to walk in the light of that Gospel, to walk by faith. This is not so natural to us. It can only be done really well with the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, which is why it is called “walking by the Spirit”. This means to walk as one who is already forgiven all of their sins. It means to live your life aware of who you really are – the sinner – and how God has taken your sin away and declared you to be His righteous child. It involves doing what you know God would have you do for no other reason than that you know God would have you do it. It doesn’t change anything for you. You get no profit from it. It doesn’t make heaven more likely for you. Heaven is already yours, according to the promise of God. This ‘walking by the Spirit’ is merely the right thing to do, and God-pleasing, so you do it even if it is not welcome by the world around you, and they call you funny names, and not so funny names. Your sins are forgiven and so you live like the holy person God has called you to be, and empowered you to be, and made you to be by forgiving you.
You cannot do what the flesh desires and still be faithful. Still, you are not able to keep the law, no matter how much you want to. You will always find yourself sinful, and need to humble yourself like the tax gatherer in the parable of Jesus, and cry out, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!” Although you may find different words in which you express that thought. Luther expressed this truth when he wrote that the life of the Christian was a life of repentance.
One of the traps our flesh sets for us is to tell us that our sins do not matter, after all, they are forgiven. But sin always matters. Sin is the reason Jesus had to come into this world and then suffer and die on our behalf. The Gospel doesn’t tell us that sin doesn’t matter, it tells us that our sin is forgiven! As the holy people of God, made holy by Him, being holy in all our conduct is important as a confession of faith, and as an act of thanksgiving and praise to God.
After all, if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law, so it no longer really applies to you. The point at which that matters is when we consider the will of God toward us. Is He benevolent or hostile? Can we trust Him with our needs and our hopes or must we be constantly afraid? Do the difficulties of our lives, or our sorrows, speak to us about God and His attitude toward us, or are they a reflection of the broken-ness of this world and an opportunity for us to demonstrate what it is that we believe about God?
Well, Paul writes that if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. That means that if we believe, we want to also show who we are by living it out. Living out faith. Living out forgiveness. Living out our confidence in God and His love and not acting like we don’t know or as though everything depends on us. The “if we live by the Spirit”, is not really just a possibility for the Christian. We do! The Spirit makes us Christians and holds – keeps us in faith. We Christians definitely live by the Spirit. Paul was simply making the point that the two go together. You live by the Spirit? Walk by the Spirit. Walk like one who is set free – one who has been forgiven a great deal. Walk like one who understands sin and death, and has been rescued. Walk like the chosen of God.
What does that mean? Do good. Be humble. If you make a mistake – or even if you sin deliberately, and then regret it, confess it. Repent. And trust in God to forgive you –or rather, that He already has forgiven you. Pray like you depend on God, because you actually do. Rejoice in all of your blessings, and remember if it happening to you, God knows, God sent it, and it part of a blessing. Give thanks to God always and sincerely, and frequently, and, sometimes, out loud. Remember that your life is not primarily about you. Jesus’ life was about you. Your life is about Him – and the people He has given you to love and serve, like your husband, or wife, or parents, or neighbors.
It is difficult to say exactly what it will look like because everyone has different opportunities and different challenges. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. So, the one who is walking by the Spirit is going to end up looking a lot like that – and confident in God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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