Sermon 07-26-2020: “Living in Step with the Spirit”

July 27, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 5:13-25

My dog, Ringo, has a one-track mind. And I could describe what’s on his mind at any moment in two words: “tennis ball.” He loves playing fetch with tennis balls. So, yesterday, I thought I would take a couple to Lake Hartwell and have him swim out to fetch them. It’s the first time I’ve taken him, so there was a little bit of a learning curve. I stood on the bank with him and hurled the ball into the water. He stood on the bank and looked at me as if to say, “Oh, darn! That was one of my favorite balls!” And I’m like, “No, dummy, you’re supposed to swim out into the water and fetch it!

So I had to get into the water to show him how to do it. But once I did that, he was fine… a natural born swimmer! He did not require a swimming lesson. He was great at swimming on the first try!

My point in sharing this is, that unlike Ringo, who knew immediately how to swim without being shown how, we Christians are not naturals when it comes to being holy. We do not naturally know how to be righteous. There’s nothing natural about learning how to please God. And that’s what today’s scripture is all about.

Last week, I preached the boldest sermon I’ve ever preached about the radical, completely free grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I said that since there’s nothing that we can do to earn or deserve or contribute to saving ourselves, then it stands to reason that there’s nothing we can do, or fail to do, that will un-save ourselves… Remember: I talked about how hard the Corinthian Christians tried to un-save themselves, as described in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. But even they, Paul said, continued to be beloved sons and daughters of God, in spite of their sin. 

No, there’s nothing we can do to un-save ourselves… other than fail to believe that Jesus has done everything already… in order to save us.

And remember, this is precisely what the apostle Paul fears for these Galatians: that they are in danger of believing that Christ hasn’t done everything necessary for salvation; indeed, that we human beings must add at least a little bit to what Christ has done for us through his life, death, and resurrection. Just a little bit. “Get circumcised… don’t eat pork or bacon… follow these customs and rituals… no big deal… just add these small things to your faith in Christ.” That’s what the false teachers known as the Judaizers were teaching.

And Paul says no: if you try to add any requirement to faith in Christ alone for salvation, you lose Christ. And you won’t be saved. If you say good works are necessary in addition to faith in Christ alone, you won’t be saved.

I boldly preached that last week… 

And now… I have to deal with this week’s scripture—including these frightening words in verses 19 to 21:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom… 

If you’re like me, you read a list of sins like this, and you immediately start thinking, “Do I do that? Okay, but what about that other thing?” 

Obviously, some of these sins are sins that Christians like you and me might expect to be on such a list: because we judge that they are so-called “big sins”—sins that unchurched people, that “secular” people, that lost people, tend to commit—or be associated with. So maybe some of us—not all of us, but some of us—feel like we’re off the hook for those so-called big sins. But what about the rest: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy”… Can any of us Christians say, when reading about those sins, that we’re off the hook? And this is hardly an exhaustive list of sins! Notice verse 21: After giving us this list of fifteen sins, Paul adds, “and things like these.” He could have named many more sins!

My point is, these verses include what we often think of as big sins, and what we often dismiss as little sins! I mean, “jealousy envyfits of anger”! “Rivalries, dissensions, divisions.” I’m sorry… Does anyone use Twitter? If so, you’re probably familiar with these sins!

Yet Paul says that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” 

Any of you feeling uncomfortable about now?

Besides, didn’t I just say that salvation doesn’t depend on what we do or don’t do, and that we can’t sin away our salvation… that this is what Paul himself has been teaching in this letter? Yet right here it kind of sounds like Paul says that salvation does depend on what do, and we can sin away our salvation! 

Did I misinterpret Paul? Or is Paul contradicting himself—and now he’s saying that in order to be saved, we really do have to avoid all these sins?

Well, no… I don’t believe I have misinterpreted Paul. And Paul is not contradicting himself. 

Let me explain… 

First, notice that Paul says that there is a war going on within each one of us Christians—a war between what he calls “the flesh,” by which he means our old, unregenerate, sinful human nature, and the Holy Spirit. Now look at verse 17:  the result of this internal struggle is that our sinful nature can prevent us “from doing the things [we] want to do.”

I’m reminded immediately of Paul’s more famous, and similar-sounding, words in Romans 7: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” 

There’s a never-ending debate going on among Bible scholars and theologians about these words from Romans 7: Who is Paul talking about? He’s using first-person pronouns: I and me and my. Is he really talking about himself? He sounds like he’s talking about himself—and the Christian experience, in general, of the struggles of life on this side of eternity. But some scholars say no: that he’s speaking only of his pre-Christian experience, before he found Christ… or the experience of all unsaved people in general. I think horse scholars have a hard time believing that the apostle Paul admits to struggling with sin!

Be that as it may… I’m confident that Paul is talking about himself and all of us who are in Christ—the struggle that we face between our old, unregenerate, sinful selves and our new life in Christ. And I think Paul’s words in today’s scripture lend support to my conviction: when he talks about this similar-sounding struggle in verse 17, he’s definitely speaking about people who already have the Holy Spirit within them, who are already born again; so he’s definitely talking about Christians! 

And if you’re a Christian, I’m sure you agree that the struggle between your old sinful self and the Holy Spirit is real! We all face that struggle—and according to Paul, we are sometimes going to lose battles between the Spirit and our flesh… or we’re often going to lose these battles… we’re often going to do what our sinful nature desires instead of what the Spirit desires… Which means… we’re going to sin.

This is true for all of us who are born again! Look at verses 19-21 again: We Christians are committing at least some of these sins, right? And many more besides.

So getting back to my earlier question… Does this mean we’re in trouble? That we’re in danger of losing salvation depending on whether or not we commit these sins? Is it possible that in spite of Paul’s insistence that we’re saved by faith alone, apart from what we do—is it possible that we who have faith in Christ still won’t “inherit the kingdom of God”?

No! How could Paul be saying that when he suggests that all Christians struggle this way with sin?

But let me give you more reassurance: First, I notice that the English Standard Version, which I love and read every day, was modified slightly in verse 21 back in 2016. Now there’s a footnote on the verse to better explain the meaning of the words “those who do such things.” It doesn’t mean Christians who give in to temptation and sin and later repent and confess the sin. No… as the more recent ESV says, it means “those who make a practice of doing” these sins. The NIV says, “those who live like this.” 

In other words, Paul is talking about a life characterized by a persistent, ongoing pattern of sin—a lifestyle of sin—without repentance, without godly remorse, without confession of sin.

Does that ever describe an authentic Christian life? By no means! 

Does it often describe the lives of people who merely call themselves Christians? Yes, it does!

You know it does! And so there’s a warning here! See, I’m not interested in simply letting us all off the hook, and saying Paul’s warning doesn’t apply to any of us. It might! I can’t look into your heart and know whether you’ve been born again. And maybe you don’t know whether or not you’re born again. If so, Paul is giving you a test to find out: Is your life characterized by persistent, ongoing sins. Are you routinely engaging in them—without godly remorse, without repentance, without confession? 

If so, you could be a Christian in name only… If so, the Lord is calling you right now to confess your sins, to repent of them, and to believe in him today. I hope and pray you will!

But for the rest of you, who know you’re born again, yet you struggle with sin and feel guilty about it… please consider this: Every week in church—and perhaps more often in your private prayer lives—you pray the Lord’s Prayer. Remember: this is the model prayer that Jesus gives his disciples to pray. It begins “Our Father.” That’s because through our faith in Christ, we have been adopted into God’s family as his sons and daughters. So we have the privilege of calling God the same name that Jesus himself calls him: Abba… Father… That means that because we’re in Christ, we enjoy or have access to the same intimate relationship with God that Jesus did, and that our Father loves us the same way he loves his only begotten Son Jesus.

Next, there are several things we ask our Father to do in the Model Prayer: to hallow his name—to glorify his name, to make his name great in the world and in our hearts… to bring his kingdom on earth… to enable us to do his will… Then we ask him to “give us this day our daily bread”—that is, to give us everything we need that day, day by day. 

What’s next? “Forgive us our trespasses”—in other words, we ask him to forgive us our sins. That includes even sins like the ones that Paul mentions in verses 19 to 21—“big sins” and “little sins.” We can trust that our Father will forgive them. As John says in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But here’s my main point in mentioning the Lord’s Prayer: Jesus doesn’t tell us Christians to begin prayer by begging for forgiveness for sins before he’ll listen to us, before he’ll answer our prayers, before he’ll start treating us like his children again!

Also, this is a prayer that Jesus expects us to pray how often? Every day! This means that according to Jesus, there will never be a day when you won’t have sins for which you need to ask forgiveness—yet your Father still loves you and accepts you as one of his children.

[Some of you don’t believe this…]

If you’re a Christian who thinks that unless or until you successfully overcome sin in your life, you will never “earn” the privilege of being loved by your Father, or listened to by your Father, you are believing a lie from the pit of hell. Satan would love for you to believe that this is true! Satan would love for you to think that you’re not good enough or righteous enough or sinless enough for God to treat you like his child! 

Let me be clear: I’m not speaking of anyone other than those who are already Christians. These words of assurance don’t apply to anyone who hasn’t yet received eternal life through Christ.

But if you’re a Christian, remember: you already stand before God as perfectly righteous… clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Your sins have already been decisively accounted for and punished on the cross. 

So your Father isn’t mad at you anymore. He isn’t disappointed in you anymore. He isn’t holding your sins against you anymore… Not if you believe in Jesus! 

This is what it means to be a Christian! Do you believe me yet?

Because we find even more reassurance in Paul’s discussion of the “fruit of the Spirit.” This image of fruit tells us many interesting things:

First, you can’t take duct tape and tape some healthy apples to a dead apple tree and make the tree come alive! By all means, fruit will be a sign of a living and healthy tree. But fruit plays no role in making the tree alive and healthy. Again, this gets back to what we’ve been saying throughout Galatians: only faith can save us, not works; works, like fruit on a tree, can only be a sign of eternal life that is already present within you. 

Second, fruit grows very slowly. So unless you have some kind of time-lapse photography going on over the course of weeks or months, you can’t see it at all.

So it is with “fruit of the Spirit.” Growth is inevitable, Paul says, but it is also slow and often unnoticeable in our perception. So… you’re still struggling with sin and unbelief? Be patient with yourself and others. And be confident that the Spirit is still at work!

Third, the “fruit of the Spirit” is not fruits of the Spirit. You don’t get to specialize in one particular fruit and not the others: Like “I’m producing really good apples, but my oranges and bananas are pretty awful.” No: don’t confuse “fruit of the Spirit” with “gifts of the Spirit.” Gifts are given discriminately; fruit is not. If you are truly growing in the “fruit of the Spirit,” you can be assured that you are growing in all of them at once.

Fourth, and most importantly, “fruit of the Spirit” is not something you can make happen or you can control. Fruit of the Spirit depends on God. Remember the parable that Jesus tells in Mark 4:26-29:

And [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Our own spiritual growth—the development of “fruit of the Spirit” in our lives—is a part of the kingdom of God that Jesus describes in this parable. So it grows in the same way: it ultimately depends on God!

But… we have a role to play in the process: In fact, Paul gives us a command in verse 25: “keep in step with the Spirit.” How do we do that? Well, what does the Spirit do? Jesus describes the main thing that the Spirit does in John 16:14: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Holy Spirit is sometimes called the “shy member” of the Trinity because he constantly directs the world’s attention away from himself and on to Jesus. He works constantly to glorify Jesus. He works constantly to make Jesus look great!And if we are to live our lives “in step” with the Spirit, that’s what we will do, too!

See, I believe that all the sins listed in verses 19 to 21 are ultimately the result of our efforts to glorify ourselves—to live for our own glory. 

What makes me angry, after all? When I’m not getting the glory or when someone is diminishing my glory! 

What makes me feel jealous! When someone is getting glory that I think I deserve! 

I could go on… 

We think we need glory to be happy, and in a way we do. The problem is we think we need to seek our own glory; the Bible says we need to seek the glory that belongs to Jesus alone! John the Baptist got it exactly right when he said, “Jesus must become greater, and I must become less.” John 3:30. We were made to bask not in our own glory, but in the glory of the Lord!

“O taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” Psalm 34:8. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37:4. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Matthew 13:44.

I want happiness, I want joy, I want my heart’s deepest desire satisfied. Don’t you?

Here’s the way: “Keep in step with the Spirit.” And like the Spirit, live your life for the glory of Jesus Christ! Amen.

One Response to “Sermon 07-26-2020: “Living in Step with the Spirit””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great! Among other things, you point out that someone who does not see the fruit of the Spirit becoming manifest in this life should check out whether he is really saved, really a Christian or not. “Test yourselves, whether you are in the faith.” I am not totally certain, though, about the position that there is nothing you can do to “break the relationship”–that sounds more like traditional Baptist theology than Methodist! I will say that this has been my longstanding position as well; but a friend of mine at work, a former minister himself, has been arguing very persuasively, relying on multiple scriptures, that one can, indeed, become apostate. He has not totally won me over yet, but he has me seriously considering the issue. (If I recall correctly, I emailed you a copy of his lengthy essay on the point.) Finally, while I agree with you to some extent about the “fruit of the Spirit” being, indeed, the work “of the Spirit,” we do have some role in that. You agree to a point, saying that our role is to glorify Jesus. But what glorifies Jesus? Isn’t it in some measure our obedience to him? He says, “Let your light so shine among men that they may SEE YOUR GOOD WORKS and glorify your Father in Heaven.” And there are plenty of “costly discipleship” passages as well. And even the farmer illustration does not leave this entirely up to God–even though the farmer does not make the grain grow, he still has to plow the furrows, fertilize, pull the weeds. It does take “work” on our part to “bring in the harvest.”


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