Galatians is likely Paul’s first inspired letter, written shortly after the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Already he is combating, with apostolic unction and authority, attacks on the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is very important, in that day and in ours, to recognize that sola fide does not rule out a future day of judgment nor future acquittal at the judgment bar of God. There is a “future justification” in the sense that we stand fully acquitted, this time publicly before a watching universe, vindicated and declared to be God’s people and not guilty of our sin, based solely on the imputed righteousness of Christ and evidenced by a life of practical righteousness wrought by the Spirit. But still, justification is always and only a forensic, legal, external declaration, one of acquittal in God’s courtroom, not because of anything we have done, but only because of the perfect and comprehensive righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ which has been graciously and sovereignly credited to our account.
Indeed, as Paul writes so eloquently defending justification by faith alone, he is clear that that legal declaration is never made apart from the regeneration of the child of God. Regeneration leads inexorably to a sanctified life (however imperfectly) as the life of God rules and indwells the forgiven sinner. Though we are fully and perfectly justified forever before we do one righteous work, God nevertheless in distinct but inseparable acts regenerates and sanctifies all whom He justifies. So, as he defends justification from the attacks of legalism, Paul is quick to aver the truly justified are set free to obey God from the heart. Moreover, it is the very freedom from the law’s condemnation won for us in the gospel that also frees us to, enabled by the indwelling Holy Spirit, live a new life of fruitful and joyous obedience to God. Gospel freedom is ultimately freedom to obey God—freedom to live as God intended under His lordship, free from the curse of the law and the damage of the Fall.
This week’s sermon explored the idea of gospel freedom in relationship to the Spirit’s enabling of our sanctification. It was summarized in the following two points.
A. Gospel Freedom Does Not Manifest Itself Through Works of the Flesh (vv. 19-21)
We hear much discussion in our day of Christian liberty. Often, the concept is wrongly defined (e.g., if there isn’t an explicit command against it, Christians are free to partake), and wrongly applied, becoming effectively an excuse for worldliness, licentiousness, and indulgence of the flesh. This threat is so serious that it is understandable why some Christians would go to the other extreme and embrace legalism. But neither error is permissible. Christians do have freedom, but that freedom is predominately and overwhelmingly depicted in Scripture as a freedom to obey divine authority from the heart, not as freedom from authority or unto self-determination.
Paul has waxed eloquent on freedom from the law and justification as a sheer gift of God’s unmerited grace in Christ. But he now turns to the fact that justification does not free us from the responsibility to obey; indeed, obedience is both the evidence of our past salvation and (more importantly) the pathway to persevering to final salvation in heaven. Paul lays out the contrast between Spirit and flesh in these verses. The flesh is the corpse of the old man, the unregenerate person we were before salvation, that complex matrix of unique fallen desires, attitudes, attributes tendencies, attractions, inclinations, perspectives, opinions, and rationalizations that seek to exalt self and its desires and rebel against God. It is called “the flesh” because it is an expression of our humanness as corrupted by sin. This aspect still indwells believers and seeks to dominate them. Much of the New Testament is written to exhort believers to oppose their flesh, surrender to God’s authority, and replace the lies believed and acted upon by the flesh (resulting in sin) with the unadulterated truth of God (resulting in comprehensive practical righteousness).
To highlight this contrasts Paul lists fifteen expressions of the flesh. This is by no means a comprehensive list; Paul ends it with “and things like these.” He expects minds submitted to the indwelling Spirit to be able to discern the ways and acts of the flesh in self and others. He does not expect mature Christians need an exhaustive list. They have the principles of Scripture and the Spirit which are sufficient to counsel and discern in any number of complex or unique situations.
The first category of fleshly deeds is sexual sins. “Immorality” is a catch-all term for any kind of sinful, unlawful (against God’s law), unnatural sexual act. This means it covers everything from heterosexual fornication to use of pornography to adultery, homosexual behavior, and any manner of unspeakable fetishes, addictions, and other unmentionable sexual exploits. These kinds of sins were utterly engaged in without shame and celebrated in much of pagan culture in Paul’s day, which may be why he lists it first, as a direct attack of the kingdom of the world by the kingdom of Christ. “Impurity” is a similarly broad word referring to any kind of continuation or uncleanness in thought, desire, word, or deed. It refers to a moral defilement or filthiness. “Sensuality” refers to a lack of sexual self-discipline in the pursuit of pleasure. Next are pagan practices; “idolatry” is the formal or informal worship of anything other than Jehovah God; “sorcery” is a very broad term referring not merely to all forms of witchcraft and the occult but can include drug use (legal or illegal), addiction to alcohol, and the use or sale of abortifacient medication. Relational sins include “enmities,” the multifaceted expressions of antagonism and active hatred of another; “strife” is contention and rivalry; “jealousy” is a more passive kind of envy and dislike aroused by another’s blessings and good circumstances, while “envying” refers more to the emotional pain, resentment and indignation caused by someone else’s good; “outbursts of anger” refers to the explosion of bottled-up anger and rage; the last three terms all refer to division in relationships where there ought to be unity. Finally, Paul lists sins of self-indulgence— “drunkenness” and “carousing” (the latter term referring to unruly and lavish drinking parties laden with debauchery and sexual indiscretion).
These acts and anything like them are the antithesis of the Spirit and the rule of Christ. He saves His people from their sins—He separates them from the individual sins themselves. How can gospel freedom be compatible with indulgence in the very thing from which it rescues us? Paul’s answer is, it isn’t! Paul ends by saying not that people who live in the flesh impenitently aren’t really Christians (through that is true), but that they will not enter heaven. For the NT writers, salvation was not so much a past decision evidenced by an obedient life as it is persevering in obedience, looking ahead to the full consummation of the kingdom. People who live in unrepentant sins should not merely be told their “decision” was not saving; they should be warned hell awaits them in the future if they do not repent.
B. Gospel Freedom Does Not Fail to Produce Fruit (vv. 22-25)
Not only is the freedom of the gospel the opposite of fleshly expression, but it does not fail to produce godly fruit. True faith in Christ does not merely justify the sinner; it also works in the sinner’s life to choose God’s way over self, to trust Christ enough to do what He says, and to connect to the Spirit’s power to actually, personally, joyfully obey. The fruit of the Spirit’s ruling presence in the believer is beautiful, and it too is not an exhaustive list (thankfulness, truthfulness, compassion, submission, humility, and other virtues are not listed). Note that “fruit” is singular; this means the fruit is a unity and all ought to be present to some degree (even if you must look hard!) in the believer’s life if he is filled with the Spirit. “Love” is that affectional, intellectual, and willful devotion to another person, self-sacrificing if necessary. “Joy” is the exuberance and confidence that comes from knowing all is well with you under the control of a sovereign God. “Peace” is the weighty and lovely shalom of the Old Testament; it does not merely mean the absence of conflict but the presence of wholeness with all as it should be. Here it is primarily between God and the believer (including fellowship, confession, devotion, joy, and delight), but obviously extends to right relationships with others. “Patience” is the calm willingness to endure difficult people and circumstances with grace and kindness. “Kindness” is a tender heart concern for others’ needs. “Goodness” is expressed in kindness; it is a deep-seated, heartfelt generosity devoted to meeting the needs of others. “Faithfulness” is trustworthy loyalty to God and men. “Gentleness” is a humble sweet reasonableness and entreatabiltiy. It is the opposite of harshness and is an inviting, kinds welcome to the hurting and fearful. “Self-control” is the discipline of self-restraint and holding back of the flesh.
Is this person not a beautiful representation of Jesus Christ? For He manifested all of these virtues and a thousand beside to the most perfect degree. Moreover, Paul says that there is no condemnation of these things and thus no condemnation of the person who is characterized by them. He writes that those who are Christ’s have died to the flesh, which expresses itself in passion and desire. That is why Christians live differently—they are dead to the old ways! He closes with an exhortation to the believer: You have been raised by the Spirit. You have His life. So, walk in unity with Him. Go where He goes. Keep up with Him, all the way to the happy completion.
Oh Christian! Ours is a hard road to heaven, but even now it is glorious. Embrace the powerful liberty that is yours in Christ; you have been set free from the flesh and enabled to fulfillingly and joyously obey the Lord in all areas of life. No bondage is to strong for Him to break, no temptation beyond His power, no grace too impossible for Him to cultivate in you. He has given you His Spirit and Word. Use them to bear the fruit He means for you to bear, so that one day you will stand before Him “having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11).