If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 5, verses 16 through 26.
I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. 26 We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
There’s a handful of terms Paul uses in today’s passage that we need to clearly define. And by the time we’ve finished defining them, it’ll be about time to head out so we can all beat the Methodists to lunch.
We need to define what Paul means when he says, “flesh.” And we need to define what Paul means when he says, “Spirit.” And we need to define what Paul means when he says, “Kingdom of God.”
Now, your translation might say something very different than mine. When Paul says the term, “flesh,” your translation might say “sinful flesh,” instead. Or it might say “sinful desires.” Probably the best translation would be “sin nature.”
You could translate verse 21 as “Nobody walking intentionally in sin will inherit the Kingdom of God.” Or you could translate verse 17 as “The Spirit desires different things than your sinful nature desires.” That would be a less literal translation, but it captures what it means better than the term, “flesh.”
Because flesh sounds like Paul’s talking about your “body,” right? Ever heard a sermon where somebody got up in the pulpit and said, “Your soul’s good, but your body’s sinful. So what you really need to do is get rid of that body.” Right?
One time, I heard a guy say that “One day, God will take your soul up to heaven and you won’t struggle with sin anymore, because your unclean and sinful body will be a thing of the past.”
And that sounds real nice, and it’s pretty simple and easy to understand but it’s just not biblical.
Because when Paul says that the “desires of the flesh” are against the “desires of the Spirit” he’s not saying that your body’s bad but your soul is good. He’s using a “figure of speech.”
We use a lot of figures of speech. We use so many that we usually don’t realize that we’re using them, right? 500 years from now, some archaeologist is going to be combing through whatever written documents are left from our civilization and if they don’t have a solid grasp on how people use figures of speech in everyday conversations they’re going to think that, for whatever reason, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries cats and dogs regularly fell from the sky in the Americas.
They’re going to read some journal entry from somebody living in Spokane, WA, that says it was “raining cats and dogs” today, and they’ll say, “OK, so that’s what it was like before the ice caps melted.”
Paul’s using a figure of speech.
Because the term that is frequently translated as “flesh” has nothing to do with literal, actual, flesh, and has everything to do with the way that your sin nature clings so tightly to you that it’s like the skin on your bones, except it’s tighter than your skin and deeper than your bones.
Doesn’t that ring true? Like, I don’t know about you, but there’s something in me that just sabotages everything I do. It’s like there’s a little terrorist just living inside my brain or something, and he bends everything toward selfishness. He bends everything towards bitterness. He regularly tries to destroy relationships and wreck my marriage and so on and so forth – he bends everything in me towards brokenness.
But there’s no point talking about him in the 3rd person. He doesn’t live in my brain. He’s not a tiny little terrorist sabotaging me. He’s just me.
The person sabotaging my life is me, right? I can run from my problems, but I am my problems.
(Slow): That’s my sin nature. And people would use the term “flesh” back in the day to describe that phenomenon because you can’t take your sin nature off any easier than you could take off your own skin.
So that’s the first term we needed to define: “Flesh.”
But there’s another term. Because he also uses the term “Holy Spirit.” And what I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t just assume that people know what you’re talking about when you say that.
Paul says that we have the “Holy Spirit.” But what is the Holy Spirit?
The short version is that the Holy Spirit what you get when you get God. I need to clarify that sentence, too. Because the Holy Spirit is not some kind of weird force that flows through things. It’s not a feeling that you have when we dim the lights in church and play a song by Chris Tomlin. The Holy Spirit is a person.
The Holy Spirit is God, every bit as much as Jesus is God, every bit as much as the Father is God. The Holy Spirit is the 3rd person of the Trinity, and I don’t know how that works.
What I do know is that we see the Holy Spirit all throughout the Old Testament: In Genesis chapter one, God’s Spirit is hovering over the waters of nothingness like a dove before God creates everything. So the Holy Spirit helps create everything.
And throughout the Old Testament, we see the Holy Spirit “descending on” important people in Israel – the Spirit rests on Joshua and empowers him to lead Israel through the wilderness after the death of Moses.
The Spirit descends on the prophets and empowers them to speak God’s truth into the lives of others. The Spirit descends on the priests and empowers them to guide God’s people as spiritual leaders. The Spirit descends on David and empowers him to govern God’s people as a godly king. So there’s a pattern.
But something changes after Jesus arrives.
In the early chapters of Matthew, we see Jesus visiting John the Baptist out in the wilderness, and John sees a dove – the same dove that hovered over the waters of creation in Genesis – he sees that dove, God’s Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus, just like he descended on the prophets, and the priests, and the kings in the old days – and so John knows that Jesus is somebody with an important role in God’s mission.
But he also knows that Jesus is more than Joshua, and he’s more than David, and he’s more than just a prophet or a priest, or a king. Because something in John cries out with joy and we see him pointing towards Jesus and saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
That’s quite the sentence. That’s high praise. But it’s not just “high praise.”
Because when John says that, what he’s saying is that Jesus is the person who’s gonna fix that bridge we broke when we abandoned God in the Garden of Eden. Jesus is the one who’s gonna bring us back to God.
And he does.
One of my favorite passages of scripture is 1 Peter 3:18. And it says that Christ “suffered once for all,” the “righteous one” for the “unrighteous many,” to “bring us to God,” after being “put to death in the fleshly realm” and “made alive in the Spiritual realm.”
That’s a weird sentence. There’s a lot of those, here. But it says a lot.
It says that Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” and he brings us to God by suffering for our sin. It says that Jesus doesn’t just get punished for our sin so that we are no longer counted as sinners, although that’s certainly there. There’s more.
It says that what we get in the death of Jesus is we get God. It says that Jesus brings us to God, and Jesus brings God to us. It says that what you get in redemption is you Get God in a way you could not have him beforehand.
It’s like Ezekiel where God promises that, “I will pour out my Holy Spirit on you.” He says, I will give you myself. It says that we were separated from God when we abandoned him in the garden and we could not go back, but God says I will make a way to give myself to you.
So when Acts chapter 1 rolls around, Jesus ascends into heaven, but he says “I will send a counselor to you.” Your translation might just go straight for the jugular and say, “I will send my Spirit to you.” And what he’s saying is that the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation, and who descended on the prophets, priests and kings in the old testament, and who descended on Jesus when he visited John the Baptist now descends on you.
That Holy Spirit now lives in you. Jesus brings us to God, and in something I can’t really explain or understand, he brings God to us.
And what that means is that you are citizens of God’s kingdom again. You are a citizen of God’s kingdom. Christ has brought you back you back to God so closely that he says in Luke 17 that the Kingdom of God is within you. That the Kingdom you were banished from in the Garden isn’t closed off to you anymore. And it’s so not closed that it’s quite literally inside you. It says “the Kingdom of God is within you” because Christ has placed it within you, because he has sent his Holy Spirit to live in you and transform you.
So that’s the third term that we need to define: “God’s kingdom.”
Because reading through the gospels, it eventually becomes clear that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he isn’t talking about “heaven.” He’s not talking about a place you go when you die. And he’s not even really talking about a place. Even in translations where it says “kingdom of heaven” instead of kingdom of God,” it becomes clear soon enough that Jesus isn’t talking about someplace you go when you kick the bucket. The “Kingdom of God” is not a place, because soon enough, it’ll be every place, everywhere.
Instead, reading through the New Testament, eventually it becomes clear that the kingdom of God is what happens when God gets ahold of us and transforms us by grace so that we abandon the “desires of the flesh” and instead submit to the Holy Spirit’s good work in transforming us.
(Shift gears): So I like the way 2 Timothy describes it. It says we are “given repentance.” That’s a good sentence. We are “given repentance” from the outside. We are transformed from the outside. We are transformed from people who are not repentant into people who are desperately and joyfully repentant. God makes us desperately and joyfully repentant.
Now, when I say “joyfully repentant,” what I mean is joyfully repentant. Repentance is joyful. Right? More than that, repentance is joy.
Because here’s what repentance is not: Repentance is not a call to feel bad all the time. You know what I’m talking about? Like, most of the time when we hear about repentance what people mean is walking around with your head hung low, sorry that you exist.
Like, 90 percent of the messages I’ve heard throughout my life about repentance boiled down to, “You don’t hate yourself enough, you need to hate yourself more.” Right? And in a weird way, that becomes its own kind of “works-righteousness.” It become an arms-race to see who can hate themselves the most deeply and trash-talk themselves the most aggressively, as though God takes special favor on you the more you pile on yourself.
Like, you know that old Ben Franklin quote that says “God Helps those who help themselves”? It kinda mutates into “God helps those who hate themselves.” Right? So you get people walking around, diving headlong into the same sinful patterns week in and week out, year in and year out, mumbling to themselves that they’re worthless and terrible and no-good-very-bad Christians and “why-can’t-I-do-better,” “woe-is-me” and they’ll quote that Psalm that says “I-am-a-worm-and-not-a-man” and self-flagellate but change absolutely nothing about their lives because they’re convinced that they can’t. They’re convinced that there’s absolutely no hope. That they can’t change or improve or be free from the sin that’s plagued them since they were children.
And when you walk around like that, people call it repentance, but it’s not repentance.
Listen closely: It’s just a form of self-abuse. It’s cruelty to yourself. It doesn’t please or honor God and it doesn’t motivate you to change your behavior. It just poisons everything else about your experience, right? It just feeds into your neurosis by dressing it up in religious language.
(Slow): But that is the opposite of repentance.
Church, repentance has nothing to do with hating yourself. It’s the other way around.
Because repentance is absolutely “turning from your sin,” but real repentance happens when your trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ to justify you before God. Because when you trust in the gospel of Jesus to justify you before God, it allows you to rest in the knowledge that God has redeemed you and will restore you, so you can be confident in God’s love for you and turn from your sin out of gratitude for that love.
Because God’s love for you is a love that reaches back to the time before there was time. It reaches back to the time before there was a “you.” Like, God loved you before you were anything. And then he loved you into existence. And then he loved you back into his family on the cross of Jesus Christ. He “brought you near” when you were “far off.”
And if you will allow yourself to believe in this love that God has for you, then slowly, over the sprawling period between today and eternity, God turns your heart of stone into a heart of flesh, says Ezekiel, and his deep, abiding love for you seeps into your heart and becomes your own deep, abiding love for yourself.
I mean that. It sounds strange saying it, but listen: God wants you to love yourself. God created you to love yourself. I’m not just parroting Oprah, here. This is literally the Bible. There is no 11th commandment that says thou shalt not love yourself . It’s the opposite: When Jesus says to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he means it. “Love your neighbor” as you love yourself. You love your neighbors with that same deep, abiding love that God gives you for yourself. God enables you to love other people with that same kind of love that you also need because God has given you that love.
And that becomes the first step in repentance. It’s strange to think about, but repentance is about love. It’s about loving yourself and others with the love of God, that he pours out onto you so it overflows out to everyone else. Repentance is very much a process of “learning not to hate yourself.”
And what we see is that as God trades out our old natures, from when we “walked according to the flesh” and replaces it with a new nature, and new desires, and a new will, we start to look more, and more, and more like citizens of God’s kingdom. (Slowly): We start to “bear” what Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit”: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Instead of “walking according to the flesh,” we start to “walk by the Spirit,” verse 16.
And anywhere God’s people gather to submit to the Spirit’s transforming process to make us loving, and make us joyful, and peaceable, and patient, and kind, and good, and faithful, and gentle, and self-controlled, God’s kingdom is visible.
All of this is either very encouraging or very discouraging. Because if you’ve been walking with God for years and can’t see any evidence that the Spirit is at work in you, every line of today’s passage might feel like another knife to the gut.
Because the metric Paul gives us to measure our godliness pulls the rug out from underneath us by refusing to let us lie to ourselves about what holiness looks like. Right? It says “Am I more loving than I was one year ago?” Am I more peaceable than I was one year ago? Am I growing more patient as the years go by? Am I growing kinder? Am I growing gentler? Am I more faithful than I was? Am I more self-controlled? That’s the metric Paul gives us.
I feel like a lot of times when we hear about holiness, what we’re hearing about is these grandiose gestures that people do. We hear about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor who eventually got executed for conspiring in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. If the 20th century had any “heroes of the faith,” he’s almost certainly on the list.
Or you hear about William Wilberforce, the 18th century politician who helped lead the charge to end the slave trade in Britain. If the 18th century had any great “heroes of the faith” he is very definitely on the list.
But most of us aren’t going to assassinate Hitler – right? – and most of us aren’t members of the British parliament (I think), so we’ll never be in a Wilberforce position. It’s absolutely true that faithfulness will sometimes require gigantic things from us, but the reality is that 99% of the time holiness looks like obedience in the small and seemingly inconsequential details of our lives.
Like, look at the things Paul actually mentions in this passage. In verse 26, he doesn’t say “Go fight the Nazis,” although you should. He says, “Do not become conceited.” He says, “Do not provoke one another.” “Do not envy each other.”
That’s the holiness you rarely hear about. It’s mundane holiness. It’s boring. But that’s the bulk of what happens in the Christian life.
That’s what people rarely tell you. “Spiritual warfare” is boring. “Growing in godliness” is boring. Most of the time, “growing in godliness” looks like becoming a kinder, gentler, more patient and understanding person. That doesn’t sell. It doesn’t make your heart race. It will not gratify that part of you that’s looking for a new adventure every week. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will find genuine Godliness to be excruciatingly boring.
And yet it’s also satisfying. Godliness is satisfying. That’s the other thing nobody really tells you. Godliness is satisfying. It’s boring and it’s satisfying. And if you’ll bear with me, I want to make the argument that it’s the only thing that’s satisfying.
Like, ask yourself: How satisfying – and I mean genuinely satisfying, over the long-term, not momentarily satisfying or exciting or enjoyable – but how genuinely, deeply satisfying can you actually say your favorite sins are? Like, those things you know you shouldn’t do but you’re gonna do anyway because you just wanna be happy – level with yourself, here – when’s the last time any those things actually made you happy?
They can’t. Of course they can’t. Trying to satisfy yourself by disobeying God’s will is like eating bricks for dinner. There’s no nutritional value. It cuts your throat on the way down. It’ll give you a full stomach but you still starve to death because there’s nothing in it that gives you life. Nothing that’ll nourish you.
Because, like the book of Ecclesiastes says, God has “placed eternity in our hearts” and nothing that isn’t eternal can fill that vacuum. So if you’re tired – if you are desperately tired, if you’ve done everything you can think of to satisfy yourself and absolutely nothing has done it – you should ask yourself, why you wouldn’t be tired. Why wouldn’t you be tired? Sooner or later, even “the desires of flesh,” to use Paul’s phrase from today’s passage, will let us down.
You’ll keep reaching back for it in the hope that this time it’ll fill you, and it won’t. Nothing in the world will thrill you forever.
And yet: Pursuing godliness is satisfying. Of course it’s satisfying. It’s satisfying because God made it to be satisfying. God created us to relate to each other a certain way, and when we relate to each other in the way that God created us to, it’s like pouring water on your flower-bed instead of gasoline. It actually waters it. It actually feeds it.
Pursuing godliness actually waters you. It actually nourishes you. Chasing after God’s will actually gives the you rest you need rather than robbing it from you because that’s what you were created to do. That’s what you were made for.
So one of the things that we will invite you to do this morning is to seek out your satisfaction, not in whatever the world is currently trying to sell you, but in following Jesus.
Seek out your satisfaction in following Jesus. Because you’ve seen what the “works of the flesh” have to offer you, and I doubt I have to convince you that it’s all come to nothing. Run toward the “desires of the Spirit” instead.
So we’ve transitioned into the part of the service that we refer to as the altar call. What that means is that as we respond by worshiping the Lord through song in just a moment, I’ll be standing awkwardly here at the altar. Like 1 Peter says, Christ suffered for your sins to bring you to God, to give you himself. To invite you into his Kingdom. Like he says in John 14, Christ has made a place for you when there was no place for you. And if you would like to come and claim that place that Christ has made for you by throwing yourself on his mercy, I would like to walk you through that – we would like to walk with you through that. So come talk to me.