Do you recall when you first gave your life to Christ? I mean, the kind where you found yourself walking down to the front of the church with sweaty hands, perhaps with a burning sensation in your heart, and a driving need to connect and find out more about God? Maybe you weren’t in a church at all. You may have been down at the beach, on a mountain, caught in traffic, or stomping through the concrete jungle and you met someone, you read something, you heard something, and it clicked. You experienced a growing realization that there is a God who loves you and you desperately want to know Him. The still small voice of the Divine made the call and you responded, “Yes, Lord.” There are many situations and paths that lead us to Christ. The circumstances are always specific and personal but the problems of humanity are universal in scope. They affect everyone.
There is simply something broken in each of us and we witness it in the world everyday. From catastrophic storms to broken relationships, we need God to mend and restore the disorder of our lives and the suffering of this world. God is calling men and women, young and old to be a part of His glorious kingdom through faith, repentance and baptism. The reality is that after we join our lives to Christ, the struggles we go through remain, but they need not overcome us. Temptations are real. They linger, they hunger and feed on our weaknesses and unholy desires. Paul recognized how to deal with this and spelled it out in Galatians 5:16-26 because he struggled too. “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). The lesson this week looks at the problem of sin and what it means to ‘walk in the Spirit’. The specific issue that I want to deal with is, how to live the victorious Christian life.
Problem: Struggling with Sin
Recently, I had the privilege of visiting Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. As my husband and I were driving the loop around the park after having viewed Old Faithful, and the spectacular canyon, we came to some open plains where many cars had stopped at different points along the roadside for several miles. People were heading over the grassy fields to view something that we could not see. My photography buff husband was anxious to stop. To our delight, in the early evening, there was a large heard of bison that had come to drink by the water’s edge. These magnificent creatures, especially the males, were brute beasts. Their size and presence were commanding. While we were watching safely from the top of the hillside, two males broke out into a fight. Grunting, striking, and charging each other with all their might, they fiercely engaged each other. After locking horns for several minutes they backed off, and the larger of the two strutted around as though he had won the fight, while the ‘loser’ disappeared back into the herd.
In a way, sin is like a bullfight. It’s not always immediately to the death, but it can gain victory over time gradually starving our spiritual lives. Even as Christians, sin comes charging at us with all its might and gets a hold on us so that we behave in ways that seem natural (consistent with our sinful nature), but that deep down we know are wrong. Like a bull charging out of nowhere, believers can get caught up in behavior that they were unaware held any temptation for them, feeling impossible to let go. When it comes to getting victory over sin, saying and doing can seem so far apart. Paul says that “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish” (Gal. 5:17). Even the apostle Paul with his great knowledge about God, the Hebrew Scriptures, the law, and his encounter with Jesus Christ still struggled with fleshly lusts. His honesty and openness about his struggle is perhaps what has kept millions from quitting Christianity because they felt that they weren’t good enough for God, feeling that they can never make it because of a persistent sin problem in their life that keeps derailing their walk with the Lord.
Paul shares in Romans chapter 7 that he has this deep, dark struggle with sin in his life. There is a separation between what he wills, or wants to do, and what he actually does. “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:15). He recognizes that even though he wants to do what is right, to follow God’s commandments, that he cannot because another law is at work in him, the law of sin and death. “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:19, 20). Is this a split personality or just the longing of a man who wishes to separate from the bad he sees in himself? Like a kid who steals a lollipop and says, “It wasn’t me!” The truth of the matter is according to Paul, “that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21b).
More than just stealing lollipops, these are the works of the flesh Paul that lists in Galatians 5:19-22:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like…”
In the end, Paul says, when I sin its not really me, because its not what I really want. What I really want is to obey, but I can’t seem to do it. Can the followers of Christ ever overcome these things if Paul struggled too? If sin, then is not just action, but dwells in the believer in the heart and mind, then the solution must deal with the deepest part of our selves: our will. We cannot change our will, or the bent of our character, but we can surrender the will to God and ask for the Holy Spirit to take over.
Solution: Victory Through God’s Spirit
The only way out of the sin problem is to confess our sins to God, repent, and believe in Jesus Christ. Of course, to overcome the recurrent ‘lusting of the flesh’ problem that manifests in evil behavior and unholy desires, whatever that is for you, is to daily submit to God’s Spirit. This is a very real struggle for the Christian that doesn’t end when you come up from the baptismal tank. Walking in the Spirit is the only way that you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). What does walking in the Spirit look like? Because it’s an internalized, personal relationship with Christ lived daily through the Holy Spirit, the mystery of this joining of the Holy Spirit to our spirit and to Christ prevents a detailed explanation this side of heaven. We do learn from Scripture that the Spirit is in us, directing, guiding, teaching, and leading us into God’s truth (John 16:13, 14). The fruit of this relationship, the outcome if you like, however, should be evident to all.
Paul lists the kind of things that becomes apparent in a person who is committed to Christ and walking in the Spirit.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:22-24).
The idea of walking in the Spirit carries the suggestion that we move with God. It’s not just about indwelling, but acting. Walking in the Spirit is a synergistic relationship between God and our self that enables us to live a victorious Christian life.
Let’s go back to the bull charging at us analogy of sin gaining the victory in our lives. If we mentally submit ourselves to God’s Spirit, daily, hourly, the bull cannot overpower us. He may be there in the background. He can tempt, he can charge, but he cannot destroy. Putting to death the passions and desires of the flesh means that we no longer live to hurt others, ourselves, or God. We may trip up a thousand times. We may be broken in many ways, but stumbling onward and upward to heaven through Christ and His Spirit, we may gain the victory. This is why Paul explains to the Galatians that those who have the Spirit and practice love, faithfulness, self-control, etc. do not have a law operating against them, because the Spirit works in conjunction with God’s will and commandments.
When Paul teaches the Galatians in chapter 5:18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law,” he is saying that the Holy Spirit frees us to follow and obey Christ. He doesn’t want the Galatians to continue in their legalism, a.k.a., salvation by works. Those who walk in the Spirit are no longer under the condemnation of the law. The antidote to unholy desires is not to try to force ourselves to obey the law even harder, but to surrender to God’s Spirit and by faith in Christ, His righteousness takes the place of our own.
The victorious Christian life doesn’t consist as Paul says, in being “conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” as may occur in Sabbath school, church, or wherever. That kind of behavior gets old really fast and turns people off from our community, and more importantly, from Christ. Rather, the Spirit is manifested in the act of love. Building on last week’s lesson, fulfilling the law is not about circumcision, but about demonstrating love. This is Christian liberty. Walking in the Spirit makes it possible for the Galatians to serve one another in love. Because love is the cardinal virtue and chief attribute of God, it is the most important fruit of the Spirit for the Christian to manifest in their lives. It is made possible because God, the Holy Spirit who dwells within is love. This is the victorious Christian life.