Walking in Freedom by the Spirit, Galatians 5:13-26

“I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.  And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.  And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land, God bless the USA.”  We sing that song from the heart in this country.  And in our national anthem, “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave  o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”  That freedom that we cherish and thank God for and are willing to fight to keep, that freedom that makes us proud to be Americans and makes us feel that we live in the greatest nation on earth (while certainly something to be very thankful for) is not even real freedom, but only, barely a tiny sampling of freedom.  In the eyes of the Lord Jesus…

The star-spangled banner yet waves o’er a land of slaves.

The Lord looks at America and He’s sees a remnant who are free, but mostly He’s sees people who are horribly enslaved and oppressed.  And some of those enslaved, oppressed people may be here this morning.

In John 8:31-33, Jesus said to some Jews who were starting to believe in Him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”  Jesus said, John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is the slave of sin.”  Anyone who has their life’s chronic behaviors and attitudes, kinds of speech, addictions, ways of treating people, contrary to the will of God, are slaves of sin.  And their sin afflicts them in many ways: with shame, guilt, regret, heartache, stress, broken relationships, conflict and strife, alienation from God, and no real hope of anything beyond the here and now.  And they do not have the strength or power, on their own, to overcome sin, to not practice sin; they’re too entangled in it.  Some may even want to stop, but they can’t do it on their own.  Remember the description in Romans 7 of the Jew outside of Christ in the bondage of sin (7:14).  He agrees that the commands of God’s Law are right and good and he’d like to be a person that lives that way, but he can’t seem to do it.  He says, “what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate…  The good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want…  Wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free from the body of this death?”  (7:15,19,24).  Sin or the flesh, with its passions and desires, owns them.  They’re in bondage.

And not only does Jesus see people enslaved to sin, but also, to use the words of I Peter 1:18, He sees people enslaved to futile ways of life, to ways of living that are just meaningless, pointless, that have no lasting value, or lives lived to amass material wealth that is then all left behind when their short stay on this earth is over, lives lived for fleeting momentary unfulfilling pleasures, or lives lived for positions of power and status that are just momentary and then given up to someone else.

Jesus sees people not only enslaved to sin and fruitless ways of life, but also imprisoned in darkness in their understanding; their minds are so clouded with misinformation and deception and input from the sinful world, that they can’t see where they came from or their Maker or where He’s bringing us or what life is all about or what’s right and wrong.  They are imprisoned in darkness.

Jesus sees people enslaved to bitterness and anger, because of all the injustice and unfairness in the world, and they can’t see that there is somebody who is going to right all the wrong.

People are enslaved to Satan’s influence and control.  The world lies in the power of the evil one, says I John 5:19.

Jesus also sees people enslaved to death.  The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).  So death owns them ultimately; the second death, death that’s eternal, will have them forever.

And people are enslaved to the fear of death, says Hebrews 2:15.  Aside from brief moments here and there, they are never really at peace and happy, because they don’t forget for long that they are mortal, everything they have here, all that they love, their families, all of this, is just temporary.  They’re going to be dead in not too long and they have no assurance that there is anything good after that.

People are enslaved to law, Paul explains in Romans, meaning that if they want to be right with God outside of Christ they’ve got to earn it themselves by living up perfectly to God’s holy standard of right and wrong.  And of course they’ve already blown all chance of that, for none are without sin.  And even if they were granted forgiveness for all their past sins and given a fresh start, they wouldn’t be right with God for long because pretty soon they’d mess up again.  They’ve got no chance on their own.

So this land is full of people who have never experienced real freedom.

The very heart of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has made freedom available to everyone.

That is, freedom from all of that, freedom from sin, from the flesh, from futile meaningless ways of life, from darkness and Satan and death and fear and law.  He has paid for our freedom.  We can choose to have Him as our one and only master and be free from all others.

In Luke 4, early in Jesus’ public ministry, He went to His hometown of Nazareth and on the Sabbath day He went to the town synagogue and stood up to read some scripture to the congregation.  The synagogue attendant took out of the cabinet of sacred scrolls, the scroll of the prophet of Isaiah and handed it to Jesus.  He opened the scroll and rolled it until He found the passage that He was looking for.  We call it Isaiah 61.  And He read this to the congregation, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord [which is what the Law of Moses called the year of Jubilee that came every 50 years when all debts were to be canceled and all slaves were to be set free].”  So He reads this passage about someone being sent by God and anointed with His Spirit to help Him in the task of proclaiming the good news of release and freedom to the destitute and the captives and the blind and the oppressed and the slaves, and to not just preach a message that they can be free, but to effect that freedom, “to set free those who are oppressed.”  And then Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the synagogue attendant and sat down, which was the typical teaching posture for a Rabbi; they would sit down to teach.  And all eyes were fixed on Jesus, everybody wondering what He was going to say about that passage.  Then Jesus said to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  The mission of Jesus was all about setting people free (cf.  Luke 1:68-75; 19:10).  The gospel is a message about how we can be free from all those things that enslave and oppress us.

There’s a text that I wanted us to look at this morning that speaks of our freedom in Christ and how to live free and not put ourselves under a yoke of slavery again.  It’s in Galatians 5 if you’d like to turn there.  We’re going to look at the later part of this chapter.  Now, the whole chapter of Galatians 5 is about staying free in Christ and not falling back into bondage again.  The chapter deals with…

Two threats to our Christian freedom

That is, two powers that call for our allegiance and service, but that will pull us from our Master Christ and will enslave us to the things we were enslaved to before.

The first threat the chapter deals with in verses 1-12, which we’re not going to look at this moment, is the threat of religious law that is not Christ’s law for us today.  Paul deals with that actually throughout the letter because there had come in among the Galatian Christians these people that we call Judaizers, these people who were starting to persuade the Galatian Christians that in order to be right with God they must not only believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but also convert to Judaism; they must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses, observe the Sabbath and eat kosher and all that.  And so Paul has been arguing that these Judaizers were pulling the Galatians back into bondage and away from Christ.  They were getting you to listen and serve another master, and you can’t do that.  We must fully trust Christ and listen and follow Him for our relationship with God.  So watch out for any law or rituals or practices, for a relationship with God, that are not commanded of us by our one Master, the Lord Jesus.  These things can pull us back into bondage if we let them.

The second threat to our freedom, Paul deals with in verses 13-26.  It’s the threat of the flesh.  The flesh wants to enslave us again.  Let’s read this passage: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 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. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”

The Flesh and the Spirit

When Paul speaks of “the flesh” as something that competes for control in our lives, he doesn’t just mean our physical body.  He sometimes refers to it as the old self.  It’s our own way of thinking and our own focus and values and desires and passions when we are not under the influence of God, and it also includes our own ability without God’s empowering.  The flesh is basically us on our own, the way we think and are apart from God’s guidance and help.  And so to do something according to the flesh is to do something simply according to your own way of thinking and your own desires, not God’s thinking and desires, and it’s to do it without His help, just on your own.

The Spirit is identified in Galatians as the Spirit of Christ.  4:6, “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!  Father!’“  Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…”  And interesting, Paul calls the same Spirit, the Spirit of God.  Paul will also refer to the Spirit in us, not only as the Spirit of Christ and Christ in us, but also as the Spirit of God in us.  Romans 8, “9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.  But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.  10 If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.”  Now, just like something done according to the flesh is done according to man’s way of thinking and man’s way of doing things and without God’s help, something done according to the Spirit is done according to Christ’s way of thinking and His way of doing things and with His help; it’s done in keeping with His will and with His empowerment.

A helpful illustration is toward the end of Galatians 4, where Paul’s presenting an allegory that involves the two boys born to Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac.  And remember the story how God had promised Abraham a son through whom he would have many descendants.  But Abraham and his wife Sarah were getting older and older and they weren’t having a kid.  So Sarah said, “Abraham, why don’t you take my maidservant Hagar as a wife and have a son with her?”  And so Abraham did, and that’s how he got Ishmael.  But later God said, “No, Abraham that’s not the son I was talking about when I made those promises to you.  You’re going to have a son with Sarah.”  And then miraculously, when he and Sarah were way too old to be having a kid, he had that son that God promised.  That was Isaac.  Well, in Galatians 4:29 it speaks of Ishmael as born according to the flesh and Isaac as born according to the Spirit.  “According to the flesh” there, I think means according to Abraham and Sarah’s own way of thinking and their own way of doing things and their own ability.  That’s how they got Ishmael.  “According to the Spirit” means according to God’s way of thinking and His way of doing things and His power.  That’s how they got Isaac.

So walking by the Spirit, as Paul commands here, involves both; choice on our part and being helped by the Spirit.  It involves us thinking about what Jesus would have us do and say in our circumstances, what He would do and say if He were us, arriving at that by thinking about what Jesus has taught us and what Jesus has shown us and commanded of us and what we know about His character and His will, and then trying to do that and say that or have that attitude that Jesus would have in our circumstances.  And the Spirit of Christ will help us to do that in some way if that’s what we want and what we’re trying to do.  You know, the end of Ephesians 3 Paul prays for the Christians and that God would strengthen them through His Spirit in the inner man, and that they will know the love Christ and that they will be filled up to all the fullness of God, filled with God’s virtues and characteristics (likeness).  And then after that prayer, he says God is able to do far more abundantly, beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.  So I think Paul believed that there is this power at work in us Christians to help us be like Christ, if we want to be and we try.  So walking by the Spirit I think is basically like following Jesus with His help.

And Paul says that if we’re busy in doing that, if we’re busy trying to do and say the things Jesus would have us to and He’s helping us in that, then we’re not going to be carrying out the desires of the flesh, because the desires of the flesh and the Spirit take us opposite directions.  That’s evident in the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit.  Many of the deeds of the flesh are relationship destroying things.  The fruit of the Spirit are relationship building things.  And walking by the Spirit doesn’t mean perfection, it doesn’t mean you don’t stumble sometimes.  And I think that’s implied in verse 18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”  Paul talks in Romans of how being under the law is in contrast with being under grace; being under law means you don’t have grace, you’ve got to measure up to God’s perfect standard of right and wrong, you can’t fall short.  But Paul is saying, that if we’re led by the Spirit, we’re trying to follow Jesus in our lives and we’re receiving His help to do that, then we’re not lost and separated from Him because we may stumble along the way (when we fall short); there’s grace to make up for when we fall short.

Now, you notice in this passage…

The Paradox of Real Freedom

A lot of people think of maximum freedom as having no constraints, no restrictions, nobody telling you what to do and not to do, being able to just do whatever you want.  So people look at the commands of God and teachings of Jesus as enslaving and restricting and as basically to just keep us from having too much fun.  Why didn’t God just save time, instead of giving us all these instructions in the Bible, just say “Don’t have fun, period,” or “No happiness”?

And that’s exactly what Satan has wanted men and women to believe about God’s commands and guidance from the beginning.  He has always wanted mankind to believe that God is a big cosmic killjoy; that He is like a harsh grouchy old man that’s mad at the world, and happy people enjoying themselves just irritates Him and so He’s given laws to just prevent us from having fun.  It’s what Satan wanted to convince Eve of in the beginning.  He said to her in essence, “Has God really forbidden you this delicious fruit?  Oh my.  What a shame!  You realize don’t you, Eve, that He knows if you ever tasted from this tree, you’d be like Him in wisdom.  God wants to keep you from the really best life you could have.  Eve, true freedom means freedom from confining restrictions like these.”  Is that why God forbid them to eat of just one tree?  He gave them hundreds of other trees, all kinds of fruit, an endless variety of good things, and then told them not to touch one because He didn’t want them to be too happy and free?

You know when God gave the Law to the people of Israel, don’t follow other gods and observe the Sabbath and honor your parents and don’t murder and don’t commit adultery and don’t steal and don’t bear witness and don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff, you know what God had just done for them before that?  He’d just freed them from slavery in Egypt.  Was He trying to enslave them all over again by giving them a law?  If He didn’t want them to be free and happy, why didn’t He just leave them in Egypt?  What God was doing was showing them how to live in their new found freedom, and how to live in the way that is absolutely essential if they are going live a life of enjoyment and safety.  It was really for their freedom and happiness that He gave them the Law.

If you have kids, I suspect you have laid down some laws for them like I have done for mine.  Like “Don’t eat anything that you pick up off the ground.”  Or I used have to tell them, “Don’t eat anything stuck to the underside of a table, or to the underside of a church pew.  Don’t eat it!”  Now, are we wanting your children to starve?  Do we want to keep them from good food?  No.  We want them to not get sick and gross people out.  You’ve probably told your kids, “Don’t poke each other or throw things or spit things at each other and definitely don’t hit each other.”  Are you hindering the free expression of those kids?  No.  You want them to have the kind of environment where they are safe, and they enjoy peace, where they may grow up to know loving relationships, and can learn to deal with disagreements in a better way.  You want what’s best for them.

God is a Father.  We are his children.  Jesus is the good shepherd.  We are His sheep.  The Lord knows how this world (He made) works, He’s watched life on earth since the beginning, He knows how relationships work, He knows what’s good for us really, and He so cares about us that He suffered and died in our place.  His guidance, His teachings, His commands are not arbitrary or enslaving.  It’s, like what we tell our kids, it’s for our greatest good and happiness.

And we can see that here.  Verse 15 describes what often happens when we let the flesh run our lives.  Like animals, we bite and devour one another.  I think of this marriage book a small group of us have been reading and discussing together on Monday nights, it’s called Love and Respect.  The whole book is about how important is it for husbands and wives to unselfishly love and respect each other, and what that looks like in action.  And throughout the book the author includes a lot of letters and emails he’s received from people about what a difference these principles made in their marriage.  Repeatedly you read these stories where a married person explains how horrible their marriage was, how they were like cat and dog to each other and just murdering each other slowly.  But one of them attended a “Love and Respect” seminar and heard about unselfishly loving your wife and unselfishly respecting your husband and what that looks like in real life.  And how you might feel like doing that is to just become slave of your spouse, but how that is deception.  And how that spouse went home and gave what they learned a try; they starting serving their spouse in this way and that and starting talking respectfully to their spouse.  And it’s amazing how their spouse responded and how their spouse then became the kind of spouse they always wanted and that they used to yell at them to be and what a wonderful marriage they have now.

Well, you think about it, if we let the flesh, the old self, the self apart from God’s guidance and help, run our lives, then we’re letting a very selfish, ignorant, inexperienced, corrupt person run our lives.  But if we let Christ rule our lives, we’re letting somebody who knows what’s best, who knows how relationships and everything works best, run our lives.  And life is going to be much better letting Christ run our lives.

And I notice that the word fruit in verse 22 is singular, it’s the fruit of the Spirit, singular, not the fruits of the Spirit.  It’s just one fruit with 9 different flavors.  The one fruit is love, joy, peace, patience…  Now, I don’t know for sure if Paul wrote that as a singular instead of a plural on purpose.  But I think it’s likely he did make it singular on purpose, because these 9 character qualities like the different parts of one fruit, all grow and develop together.  They grow simultaneously, not in isolation from one another.  In other words, you don’t develop love without also developing joy and peace and patience and kindness and so forth.  You don’t develop joy without also developing love and peace and patience and so forth.  You don’t develop peace without also developing love and joy and patience….  These don’t develop one at a time.  They all grow together.  It’s one fruit with 9 flavors.

And so life in Christ, if you continue to walk by the Spirit, letting the Spirit develop these in you, then as you get older and older and older, life is should get better and better and better, more joy and more peace.  Fruit gets sweeter as it ripens.  The good days are still yet to come if you’re walking by the Spirit.

So paradoxically, real freedom is in letting the Spirit of Christ run your life.  And what’s primary in that, you see in verses 13-14.  It’s being a servant of others out of love, caring about others as much as you care about yourself.  Real freedom is being a servant of Jesus and others.

-James Williams


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