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6. The Cross And The Flesh (Gal. 5:19-25)

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On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that on January 1, 1863, all slaves would be “forever free.” Yet 100 years later many African Americans were still not free. This precipitated that great demonstration for freedom at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in August 1963 at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now famous speech, affirming his belief that freedom would one day still be achieved. In part he said: “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream…I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood…I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…And so let freedom ring…when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

I think those words echo the sentiments of our hearts. It’s our dream to be free from so many restraints. Some of us want to be free from the penalty and power of sin – from addictions, immorality, bad attitudes, broken relationships, memories that haunt you, behaviour that enslaves you, and a conscience that torments you. Others of us want to be free from the enticements of Satan, free from our sinful self and free to please God. The good news is that, if you’re a Christian, you have been redeemed and set free, free from slavery to sin, the flesh, the world and the devil - freed to a life of liberty in Christ. But if we have been set free, why do we still struggle with sin?

This message is the sixth in my series, “The Centrality of the Cross in Galatians.” The title of this message is “The Cross and the Flesh” and the subject is, living the Christian life in freedom through the crucifixion of the flesh. The overall truth in this passage is that the Christian life is a struggle from which we are freed only by crucifying the flesh and living in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, you’ll notice in our passage, firstly, that…

I. Living By The Spirit Is A Life Of Conflict (5:16-18)

It’s a life of conflict because we have within us two opposing factions - the “flesh” and the “Spirit.” The flesh and the Spirit are in irreconcilable conflict. We have a civil war going on within us, 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” (5:17). On the one hand, our unredeemed humanity (our sinful nature, what we are in Adam by natural birth) wants us to gratify our sinful desires, to please self. And yet on the other hand, the Spirit of God, who gives us new life in Christ and who indwells us, wants us to fulfill his holy desires - to please God, to be like Christ. These desires are mutually exclusive. They cannot co-exist because they are diametrically opposed to one another. The one generates selfishness, disobedience, immorality etc. The other generates godliness, holiness, righteousness.

Because of this conflict we don’t always act as we should. Sometimes we allow our sinful desires to influence us rather than our spiritual desires (cf. Rom. 7). When that happens, our old, fallen, sinful self says: “Go ahead! Gratify your fleshly desires. Do what makes you feel good. Indulge in selfish pleasures,” while the Spirit of God says: “Be holy for God is holy. Live for the glory of God who has redeemed you and set you free from sin.”

There’s a conflict going on inside us. It’s like the man who prayed: So far today, Lord, I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped. I haven’t lost my temper. I haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent. I’m very thankful for that. But in a few moments, Lord, I’m going to get out of bed, and from then on I’m going to need a lot of help.”

There’s an irreconcilable conflict going on inside us between the flesh and the Spirit. How, then, can we overcome this conflict?

1. You can overcome this conflict by walking by the Spirit. “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16).

To “walk by the Spirit” means to appropriate the Spirit’s power, to live in the newness of life that the Spirit gives us (Rom. 6:4), to be filled with the Spirit – to be controlled by him, to reflect his nature and character, to be governed by the Spirit in our conduct.

To “walk by the Spirit” means you will not be dominated by your fleshly desires because the Holy Spirit provides the power for holy living, and because by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13).

So, you can overcome this conflict by walking by the Spirit. And...

2. You can overcome this conflict by being led by the Spirit. “…if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18). Spiritual victory over this conflict is found not in trying to obey a set of rules but in following the Holy Spirit as he leads you in victory over sin, the flesh, and the devil.

To “be led by the Spirit” means that you allow the Spirit to take the initiative. He leads the way and you follow. He marks out your life and you submit. You go where He wants you to go and do what He wants you to do. You overcome the flesh by submitting to the Spirit.

That’s how we overcome this conflict, (1) by walking in the Spirit, and (2) by being led by the Spirit. It’s all a function of who controls us - the Spirit or the flesh, the truth of God or the lies of the devil, our spiritual desires or our fleshly desires.

If you’re discouraged with the conflict, don’t despair. We can have victory as we submit to the Holy Spirit, as we appropriate his power, as we turn away from our own desires and let the Holy Spirit reign in our lives.

First, then, living by the Spirit is a life of conflict. And second…

II. Living By The Spirit Is A Life Of Contrast (5:19-23)

Living by the Spirit is in total contrast to living according to the flesh. What’s the contrast? What’s the difference?

1. If you live according to the flesh, you produce the “works of the flesh” (5:19-21). The works of the flesh are our sinful desires. They are the product of the behaviour, the attitudes, and the thoughts of our unregenerate nature - those desires that please self. The works of the flesh fall into three categories …

a) Sexual works of the flesh (5:19) – offences against our bodies, such as “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality. In fact, this category includes any uncleanness, lewdness, any illicit sexual activity, sensuality, uninhibited sexual indulgence and appetite, such as we see all around us in our society.

Sex is a gift from God, exclusively for a man and a woman who are married to each other. If you engage in sex in any other relationship, it turns what God meant for blessing into a curse. Don’t let the world’s sexual standards influence you. TV beams sexual immorality into homes at prime time. Homosexuality is portrayed as normal and even desirable. Premarital and extramarital sex are promoted and trivialized. All kinds of aberrant sexual behaviour is displayed and condoned. The sexual deeds of the flesh are everywhere in our society. They’re public, condoned, promoted, displayed, and admired.

Remember, if you live according to the flesh you produce the works of the flesh. The first category of works of the flesh is sexual. These are offences against our bodies. The second category of the works of the flesh are religious…

b) Religious works of the flesh (5:20) - offences against God, such as idolatry, sorcery.” Idolatry” is the worship of anything other than God. It could be your work, your possessions, your hobbies, sports etc. “Sorcery” includes occult practices (mediums, palm reading, tarot cards fortune-telling, witchcraft), and the use and influence of mind-altering drugs.

The third category of the works of the flesh are social…

c) Social works of the flesh (5:20-21) - offences against others, such as 20 enmity (hatred), strife (quarreling), jealousy, fits of anger (like road rage and unprovoked attacks), rivalries (selfish ambitions), dissensions, divisions (factions), 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these (i.e. anything else that fits into this type of behavior). We see a lot of this today, don’t we?

As Paul had previously warned, so he warns again, that those who habitually engage in this kind of behaviour will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21b), because their behaviour indicates that they are not Christians - they are practicing the works of the flesh, they are not believers.

Perhaps this describes you? If so, you’re lost. You’re living life in the lust of the flesh. You’re not living by the Spirit. How do I know that? Because you’re producing the “works of the flesh.” And the only way to be freed from that lifestyle is to repent and turn to Christ in saving faith, to cry to God for forgiveness. And if you do, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

If you live according to the flesh you produce the works of the flesh. But in contrast to this…

2. If you live according to the Spirit, you produce the “fruit of the Spirit” (5:22-23). Fruit is not something that you work for; you produce it. You can tell a fruit tree by the kind of fruit it produces - an apple tree produces apples simply because it is an apple tree. Similarly, if you’re a Christian, the fruit of the Spirit in your life is the evidence of who you are, that the Holy Spirit indwells you.

The “fruit of the Spirit” also falls into three categories…

a) The dominant Christian virtues that are found in God (5:22a). Love” is the love that God demonstrated to us, that sacrificial love that God has poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 15:3; Rom. 5:5, 8).

“Joy” is that which springs from the security of knowing Christ as Saviour (1 Pet. 1:8), the spiritual well-being of abiding in the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s the joy of the Lord!

“Peace” is that tranquility of mind that stems from knowing the Prince of peace and the God of peace (Phil. 4:9).

b) The outward Christian virtues that we show to others (5:22b). Patience” is that willingness to bear with others, to accept other people for who they are, to recognize that not everyone sees things the way we do, to appreciate that God has made us all different. That requires patience, longsuffering, forbearance.

“Kindness” is a concern for others, gentleness, mercy, showing the grace of Christ to others.

“Goodness” refers to uprightness of character, generosity.

c) The inward Christian virtues that we live by (5:22c-23). “Faithfulness” is trustworthiness, loyalty.

“Gentleness” can be described as meekness, inward grace, submissiveness to the will of God (Col. 3:12), consideration of others (Eph. 4:2).

“Self-control” is the ability to restrain passions and desires, not giving in to the desires of the flesh but yielding to the control of the Spirit.

Against such things there is no law (5:23b). Against these types of Christian ethics and behaviors there is no law, so go ahead and manifest them in the power of the Spirit. No one is going to speak against them for even unbelievers recognize their value.

Is this fruit of the Spirit evident in your life? When others look at you, do they see a lifestyle that can only come from submission to the Holy Spirit? Do they recognize that your life is under the control of a power greater than yourself? Or do they see that you are under the control of your inner, sinful desires of the flesh? When you examine your own life, what do you see? A constant struggle between the flesh and the Spirit? Or that radical transformation that results from being led by the Spirit?

Clearly the apostle Paul’s exhortation here is that we must yield ourselves to the control of the Holy Spirit if we want to live a life of freedom in Christ, a life in step with the Spirit.

Living by the Spirit is a life of conflict. Living by the Spirit is a life of contrast. And…

III. Living By The Spirit Is A Life Of Crucifixion (5:24)

At this point in Paul’s dissertation, you could think, as some do, that he is describing the Christian life as one of a never ending cycle between the flesh pulling us one way and the Spirit pulling us the other. But that’s not what he is saying and he clarifies that here with this short statement of fact: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24).

First, he identifies Christians as “those who belong to Christ.” We have renounced our allegiance to self, sin, and Satan and have proclaimed our allegiance to Christ. We belong to Him. We are his possession, his redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9-10; Tit. 2:14) who seek to live “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12).

Second, he describes Christians as those who “have crucified the flesh.” Unlike Galatians 2:20, the crucifixion of the flesh here is not something done to us but by us. While we continue to live in the flesh we do not live according to the flesh (see Rom. 8:5-11; 2 Cor. 10:2-3). Rather, we deny ourselves (Mk. 8:34) by renouncing self-control over our lives and submitting ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s control. In so doing, we take up the cross, “share (Christ’s) sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). In other words, we participate actively in putting to death our old self, the flesh “with its passions and desires / longings.” The implication clearly is that such desires are sinful in nature (see Rom. 7:5), desires that spring from our sinful nature and that are driven by sinful passions.

What this means is that at our conversion to Christ we were united with him in his death and the power of the flesh was broken. Indeed the flesh is “crucified” and dying, sin’s passions and desires no longer reign over us. But this does not imply that all influences of the flesh cease at our conversion, or else Paul would be contradicting his point that spiritual conflict with the flesh is a reality. The flesh is a defeated foe, but the crucifixion of the flesh will only be fully celebrated and known at our glorification. “Like a chicken with its head cut off, the flesh has been dealt a death blow, although it continues to flop around the barnyard of earth until the last nerve is stilled” (MacArthur, Galatians, 171). In the meantime, we can live in freedom from sin’s tyranny through the power of the Holy Spirit, by turning our backs on the old life and living in the newness of life in Christ.

Paul’s answer, then, to the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit in the Christian life is that, first, at conversion a true Christian crucifies the flesh such that it no longer has dominion over us (Rom. 6:12-14). Second, not only do we crucify the flesh, consigning it to a place of death, but also the Spirit dwells within us, enabling us (1) to control any desires that may respond to the temptations of the flesh, and (2) to live in the power of the Spirit, growing more and more in Christlikeness (Rom. 8:29). This is the process of sanctification by which we continuously keep the flesh in the place of death and continuously submit to the control of the Holy Spirit through (1) the daily reading of God’s word and prayer, and (2) through walking in the power of the indwelling Spirit, who enables us to overcome the influence of the flesh and, thus, live as those who have been crucified with him. Living by the Spirit is a life of crucifixion. This is the mark of a true Christian, the crucified life that gives us true freedom (Gal. 5:1).

Are you living in this freedom? If you’re living in the truth that your flesh is crucified, you won’t make excuses for it. You won’t say “Well, my tongue plays me up once in awhile; but others do the same.” Or, “That’s how I was brought up – I can’t help it.” No, you won’t tolerate it. You won’t be like the department of highways which, instead of fixing the road, puts up a sign: “Bump.” That’s how some Christians treat their flesh. They tolerate it by putting up a sign but do nothing about it. If you’re living in the truth that your flesh is crucified, you won’t try to cover it up. You won’t paint over the surface to make you look good, knowing full well that underneath there is rottenness. You won’t concede to it, won’t give in to it. You won’t say: “I can’t help it - that’s just the way I am. It’s in my DNA. My mother or father was just like it. I come by it honestly.” No, you won’t pamper it, spoil it, encourage it, or make a joke of it. But rather, you’ll fiercely reject it and live as those whose flesh is “crucified” with Christ. Martin Luther once said that Christ’s people nail their flesh to the cross “so that although the flesh be yet alive, yet it cannot perform that which it would do, forasmuch as it is bound both hand and foot, fast nailed to the cross” (A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians).

So, the question is: How do you live as one whose flesh is crucified? The answer is: By putting into practice what is true of you in fact. Stated negatively you do this, (1) by “not (letting) sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Rom. 6:12), and (2) by not (presenting) your members unto sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (Rom. 6:13). Stated positively, you do this (1) by “(considering) yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11), (2) by being obedient to the Scriptures, (3) by living as the aroma of Christ on earth (2 Cor. 2:15-16), (4) by yielding to and relying on the Holy Spirit, (5) by allegiance to the Saviour in his suffering and death.

That’s the crucified life! That’s the life to which we are called! That’s the life that signifies that you are a Christian - a life that conforms to the sufferings and death of Christ and a life that is reflective of the life of Christ.

The negative side of living by the Spirit, then, is that living by the Spirit is “a life of crucifixion”. The positive side is that …

IV. Living By The Spirit Is A Life Of Conformity (5:25)

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” The grammatical structure of this verse indicates that it is a conditional statement in which the truth of the first part of the statement supports the exhortation in the second part of the statement. Thus, the first word is probably better translated “since” than “if.” Or, to put it another way, this is an “if” of reason, not doubt.

Here is Paul’s conclusion and summary of this passage. After having discussed at length the various aspects of living by the Spirit - namely, (1) living by the Spirit is a life of conflict, (2) living by the Spirit is a life of contrast, (3) living by the Spirit is a life of crucifixion – he now concludes this section with this statement that (4) living by the Spirit is a life of conformity – i.e. conformity to the Spirit. This is Paul’s response to and conclusion concerning the potential question that we raised earlier (see comments on 5:24) about the nature of the Christian life as to whether it is a life of constantly being pulled in two different directions. No, he says, just as we have “crucified the flesh” (5:24), so also we “walk by” (5:16), are “led by” (5:18), and “live by” (5:25) the Spirit.

“Since we live by the Spirit…” reminds us that our spiritual life is derived from, granted to us, and directed by the Holy Spirit. To “live by the Spirit” is a life of conformity to the Spirit. The Spirit is the source of our divine life and the sustenance of it. As Jesus taught (1) his disciples, It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63) and (2) Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5).

On this basis, Paul instructs us, “… let us also keep in step with (walk by) the Spirit.” Our life is granted to us by the Spirit and thus our walk (conduct) must be “in step (in line) with the Spirit.” To “keep in step with / live in accordance with / walk by the Spirit” is to yield the control of our wills to the Holy Spirit, who fills us with holy and godly and Christlike desires, such that our desires are his desires. This is how we overcome “the flesh with its passions and desires” – not in our own strength but in the Holy Spirit’s power. To “keep in step with the Spirit” means to reflect our submission to the Spirit’s control and leading in the way we conduct our lives. Indeed, the leading of the Spirit must be so powerful in us that our manner of life (our “walk”) reflects that reality in our thoughts, words, desires, actions, relationships etc. The Spirit leads us and we, accordingly, are exhorted to “keep in step with the Spirit.” Precisely because He leads us, we must “keep in step / in line” with his leadership, walking in the way that he marks out for us, following in his footsteps, marching in lockstep with him. We must live as those whose lives are rooted in, directed by, and conformed to the Spirit, by following his leading, by submitting to his reign over us, by showing in our actions and attitudes that he controls our lives.

The story is told about “The Sign of a Christian.” As a result of poor planning, Dennis (from Katy, Texas) needed some same-day dry cleaning before he left on a trip. He remembered a store on the other side of town with a huge sign, “One-Hour Dry Cleaners,” so he drove out of his way to drop off a suit. After filling out the tag, he said, “I need this in an hour.” The clerk replied, “I can't get this back to you until Thursday.” “I thought you did dry cleaning in an hour?” “No,” she replied, “That's just the name of the store.” Sometimes Christians are like that. The way they live doesn’t conform to the name they bear. Their lives don’t conform to the Spirit who indwells them. If you’re a Christian, then live like one by living in conformity to the Spirit who gave you new life in Christ and who empowers you to live for Christ.

Final Remarks

The reality is that, for the Christian, the Spirit, not the flesh, is the one who leads us and to whom we must cede control. And when we yield control of our lives to the Spirit, we are free from the tyranny of the flesh with its sinful desires (5:17-21). As our thesis states, the Christian life is a struggle from which we are freed only by crucifying the flesh and living in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Once again in the epistle to the Galatians we see the centrality of the cross as the defining marker of our lives by which (1) we can overcome the internal “conflict” with sin; (2) we can live a life of “contrast” to what we once were; (3) we can live a “crucified” life with the flesh nailed to the cross; (4) we can live in “conformity” to the Spirit, bearing the fruit of the Spirit 5:22-23), following his leading and example.

Living by the Spirit is a life of freedom not fighting, a life of restraint not rules, a life of liberty not licence. Living in freedom is something we all crave - freedom from fear (fear of the past and / or of the future), freedom from a bad conscience, freedom from the power, penalty, and pleasure of sin, freedom to live for God.

And you can have that freedom by trusting Christ as Saviour, for Jesus promised: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24). That’s freedom!

So, live by the Spirit and let freedom reign. Let it reign in your home and in your church. Let it reign in every heart that has been set free through the cross, for it is the cross of Christ alone that gives us true and lasting freedom. By the grace of God may we all know what it is to be set free - set free from the flesh and its lusts by the saving work of Christ; set free by the Holy Spirit to live a life of freedom in Christ, so that everyone of us can say in truth: “Free at last. Thank God almighty I’m free at last!”

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

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