By 1938, most of Europe was completely terrified that another massive War was about to break out. Adolf Hitler had been in power in Germany for about 5 years. He’d invaded Czechoslovakia, and set up concentration camps. He had started his attempt at wiping out every Jew living in Europe.
In September of 1938, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlin, went to Mu to meet with Hitler to try and avoid a full-blown European conflict. The agreement was that Hitler could keep the part of Czechoslovakia he’d taken as long as he didn’t invade any other countries. So on September 30th, Chamberlin arrived back in the UK and waved a signed agreement between himself and Hitler and declared to a huge crowd in front of him that there would be “Peace for our time.” People were happy and relieved. They wanted peace and it looked like they’d get it.
Unfortunately, history has judged Chamberlin a fool. That piece of paper he waved above his head was as useful as an ashtray on a Harley. Hitler had no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. Within a year, he’d invaded Poland on his way to attacking most of Europe. France and England both declared war on Germany. Chamberlin was defeated at the next election and Winston Churchill became the British Prime Minister—and the rest, as they say, is history. “Peace for our time” sounds lovely because no one wants to be at war, but in reality the war had already started.
It seems to me that most Christians are a bit like Neville Chamberlin in 1938. So many of us wander about in this dreamland thinking there will be peace in our lifetime and we just don’t realize we’re already at war.
We are at war with our culture. We live in a post-Christian country. Now, I know our State and Federal governments still make concessions for Christians, and that’s great while it lasts, but those concessions aren’t going to be there forever. And while around 60% of Aussies say they believe in God, less than 5% of us are in church on any given Sunday. Our media is quite opposed to Christianity and you all know what happens to you on social media when you take a stand for Jesus: you get hammered. We are at war with our culture.
We’re also at war with ourselves, and I don’t mean at war with other Christians. I mean that every Christian is at war internally. We have peace with God through Jesus. That is done and dusted. If you’re a Christian your sin is paid for by Jesus. It’s gone. God has forgiven you and me and he’s even forgotten our sin, which is amazing and fantastic. There’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus and we’re free in Christ. Look at the start of Galatians chapter 5, in verse 1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”, and then down in verse 13, “You my brothers and sisters were called to be free.”
So we have peace with God. But we don’t always have peace with ourselves. There’s an internal war going on in the heart of every Christian. This is the big problem Paul tackles in the back half of Galatians 5.
Up to this point in his letter, Paul’s been getting stuck into some pretty heavy theology. Paul’s Galatian friends, those to whom he wrote, heard about Jesus and said ‘yes’ to Jesus. God has forgiven them because he’s full of grace and mercy. At the same time, God has taken up residence in their hearts by his Spirit, so they have been born again. But in more recent times they’d been listening to a few dodgy preachers who had been telling them that they needed Jesus PLUS, that is, they needed Jesus but they also needed to obey all of the laws in the Old Testament. Basically, the false teachers were telling the Galatian Christians that they had to become Jewish if they wanted to really be Christians. Those dodgy preachers were wrong and Paul spends most of Galatians telling his friends that all they need is Jesus. Jesus plus anything isn’t going to work to save them.
Paul has said this in a few different ways using a few different illustrations, but he’s been saying the same thing over and over again. As far as being a Christian goes, the way in is the same as the way on. The way you become a Christian is the same as the way you stay a Christian. You just need faith in the Lord Jesus. That’s it.
But here in Galatians chapter 5, Paul gets practical. And the best thing about this part of Galatians is that it helps us understand why our lives look the way they do—because the reality is that every Christian lives with conflict. We are at war in ourselves and while we all want peace in our lifetime. We all long for peace in our lifetime but we so rarely find it and here’s why. I think the key part in this section is verses 16-17:
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (NIV)
I reckon we try to ignore this feeling most of the time, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we all know what Paul’s talking about.
We’ve all been there, every day. This is the elephant in the room. We’re free, we’re forgiven, there’s no condemnation for us, so why do I still struggle with sin? I hate sin. I don’t want to do the wrong thing. I want to do the right thing. So how come I still sin? Every Christian asks these questions. And the answer is this: this side of heaven, if you’re a Christian, you have two natures living in you. God has given you his Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit has a job description: he makes us aware of our sin. He points us to Jesus for forgiveness. He makes us want to live God’s way, and day by day, he transforms us so that over time we look more and more like Jesus. That’s our Holy Spirit-inspired nature.
But you and I also have another nature living in us this side of heaven: our old sinful nature, what Paul calls “the flesh” here. That old nature is the one that causes all the trouble. Satan is certainly a danger to the Christian, and he’ll do anything he can to trip us up and tempt us and make us doubt. But the greatest threat to my Christian life and witness isn’t Satan: it’s me. The greatest threat to your Christian life and witness isn’t Satan: it’s you. The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other. We want peace for our time, but we find ourselves at war.
You and I know this conflict intimately. What’s our worst day? It’s those days we find ourselves being tempted to sin. It might be any sin. It might be lying. It might be passing on a juicy bit of gossip to someone so we feel powerful and ‘in the know’. It might be flirting at work or with your neighbour. It might be drugs. It might be too many drinks. It might be looking at dodgy stuff on your computer. It might be sex outside of marriage. It might be anger that’s out of control, or lust, or jealousy, or it might be none of those things, in which case it’s going to be the worst sin: self-righteous pride and arrogance that convinces us we’re better than all our Christian friends.
Whatever it is, we can feel it coming, and we’re resisting for a while and fighting it, and we can hear the Holy Spirit tell us to walk away, but that old sinful nature is yelling louder. It promises us so much and it’s so tempting. On our worst days, we give up the fight, we stop struggling and we sin. We hate those days. They are our worst days. We feel miserable, depressed, angry with ourselves, and worthless, like we’ve just totally let God down. It’s horrible, isn’t it?
Now, what are our best days? Those are the days when we’re faced with all those temptations I just mentioned, and the struggle is just as real, and we can hear the Holy Spirit cheering us on, we can hear that dodgy old sinful nature telling us to just get into it anyway, and we’re fighting and struggling, and slowly that old sinful nature’s voice fades and the voice of the Holy Spirit gets louder, and soon enough the temptation passes. And you have that euphoric moment when you’ve just put a sin to death, and you feel like you could go five rounds in a UFC title fight with Rob Whittaker. They’re our best days.
The thing is, of course, that these two natures are complete opposites, so the sorts of lives they produce are also complete opposites. It’s totally obvious when the old sinful nature is running the show, and it’s equally as obvious when the Holy Spirit is running the show. Have a look at Galatians chapter 5 verse 19:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, faction and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)
Here’s the most important thing in those few verses: every Christian I have ever known, including myself, has moments when we’ve fallen into some sin or other, and we feel like we’ve gone too far, or that God will run out of patience, out of mercy and forgiveness for us. As far as I can figure, every Christian thinks that at some point. If that’s you, please look at the second part of verse 21:
I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Now, this is something that’s been plaguing Christians for about 2,000 years. If we misunderstand what Paul is saying here it will seriously damage our sense of assurance. When I say assurance, I mean that God doesn’t just save us—he wants us to know with total assurance that we are saved.
So, when Paul gives us that list of sins in verse 19, and he says that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God, we really need to get our heads around what “live like this” means. So I’m going to tell you what he does mean, and then I’m going to tell you what he does not mean.
He does mean this: that those who continue to do these things—day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month, habitually doing the same dodgy stuff over and over again without any sense of regret or guilt—those people are demonstrating by their lifestyle that they are not Christians. They’re not the worst people in the world. They’re not dreadful people. They’re regular people who are just your average person who doesn’t know Jesus just yet. That’s what Paul does mean.
He does not mean this: he’s not talking about Christians who love Jesus and try to live a life that pleases God, but who fall into sin from time to time, who feel regret and sadness at their sin, who feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit and are compelled to repent and go back to Jesus for forgiveness. Paul isn’t talking to that sort of person.
Maybe think of it like moving house. I grew up in the Blue Mountains in Blaxland East. When I was a kid we lived at the end of a dirt road. Over the years it was tarred and extended and more houses were built. I moved from there to Springwood when I was 21. But from time to time over the past 25 years, I’ve driven past my childhood home. I’ve had a look around my old neighbourhood. I’ve seen a few of my old neighbours and hung out with a few of my old friends. But I don’t live there anymore. I don’t have a set of keys to the house. I can’t park my car in the driveway. I can’t collect the mail. I’ve moved to a different house.
When you become a Christian, it’s like you’ve moved house from your old neighbourhood. You have a new address. You park your car in a different place. You sleep in a different room. But from time to time you feel like you want to go back to your old neighbourhood. You go back and look around, maybe catch up with your old neighbours and friends. But pretty soon, you realize you don’t live there anymore. You don’t belong. You don’t have keys to the house. You can’t park your car there or sleep there. And then it dawns on you: you’re not actually comfortable there either. You used to be, \but now you’ve moved on. You feel ‘out of place’, like you just don’t fit in there anymore. And you realise you’ve got to go home.
I reckon that’s a good way for us to get our heads around what Paul is saying in verse 21. Some folks are just stuck in their sin without remorse or conviction, not really interested in living God’s way. They are “living like this” list of sins in verse 19, and so they’re not saved. And that’s a very different thing to a regular Christian who loves Jesus but from time to time falls into sin, and is remorseful about it, regrets it, repents quickly and wants to do better next time, and has another go at getting it right tomorrow. That person is saved.
Any and every Christian has this struggle with the old sinful nature. On our bad days, we resemble that list we just talked about, and we hate it. On our good days we look like we’re meant to look.
So here’s what life looks like when we’re following the Holy Spirit, in verses 22 to 25:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (NIV)
I reckon that sounds just fantastic! Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Even if you’re not a Christian just yet, that’s an attractive list. You’d love people to say that about you character. I want my life to look like that. Sometimes it does and that’s brilliant! But the trouble is that there are days when it doesn’t look like that and it actually looks a bit more like the first list, the dodgy one.
So that makes me want to ask Paul a question. See, I get what he’s saying, that we have two natures—one’s evil and the other’s good. I get that he’s saying our lives are meant to look like this second list rather than that first list. I get that. No problem. My question is, How? How am I meant to do that, Paul? Because, I’m a pretty realistic sort of bloke, and it’s hard to do this. It’s hard to live a consistently Christian life that honours the Lord Jesus. I want to do it, but I don’t always get it right.
And if he was here, Paul would sit down beside me, and put a pastoral hand on my shoulder, and he’d gently say, “I get it, Steve. I know how you feel, brother.” Then he’d probably say a little less gently, “I figured pretty much everyone would find it hard, so I repeated the most important thing 7 times in 10 verses. Did you miss it, brother?”
See, Paul mentions the Holy Spirit seven times from verse 16 to verse 25. Have a look at all of them, and you can count them out for me as we go if you like.
v.16: So I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
v.17: The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.
v.18: But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
v.22: But the fruit of the Spirit is …
v.25: Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
This is how we live the Christian life: we listen to the Holy Spirit and we follow his lead. It sounds so jolly simple. There has to be more to it, but there really isn’t. The Holy Spirit speaks to us a few ways. He speaks to us through great Christian songs—that’s why music and singing have always been such a huge part of worship—the Psalms are God speaking to us through song and we have an incredibly rich tradition of great Christian songs through which God still speaks to us today. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit speaks to us through our Christian brothers and sisters—a word of encouragement or maybe a word of rebuke. Sometimes he even speaks to us through creation—Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God, the stars proclaim the work of his hands. But 99% of the time he just speaks to us through God’s Word: frighteningly simple! Yet how many of us leave our Bibles unopened most of the week?
I tell you this: God hasn’t made the Christian life impossible. There’s no question that it’s difficult from time to time. All of us know this. We also know that nothing is impossible with God. God makes all things possible. You want to keep in step with the Spirit. Listen to him speak to you through your Bible, and then you’ll know what pleases God and what displeases God and day by day. The Holy Spirit will enable you to put to death that old sinful nature and live more consistently for Jesus.
I reckon we overcomplicate this stuff so much. But listen to how simply Paul puts it: “Walk by the Spirit and you won’t want to gratify the desires of the flesh. It’s so straightforward, and when you think about it for a moment you reseal it’s just so true. If you’re living your life walking by the Holy Spirit—you’re reading your Bible and you’re praying heaps, you’re sticking close to Jesus, you don’t actually want to do the wrong thing. You don’t want to lie, you don’t want to be that crazy gossipy Christian, you don’t want to steal stuff from your work or cheat at school, you don’t want watch porn or get drunk at that party on the weekend or that night off when no one’s home, and even better, you don’t want to be proud or self-righteous about any of those sins you’ve managed to avoid either, because you know you’re a sinner saved by God’s grace through Jesus and it’s the Holy Spirit who’s at work in you—so you’ve got no room to boast anyway!
Think of it like this: Spurgeon said, “a Bible that’s falling apart is usually owned by someone who isn’t!” So if your Bible is in really good condition, there’s a solid chance your life will be falling apart. If your Bible is falling apart there’s a solid chance your life will be in good condition and you’ll be keeping in step with the Holy Spirit, and isn’t that what all of us really want, deep down?