“Freedom” is, of course, a word that resonates in the United States. Our nation was founded in the American Revolution out of a desire for freedom – the freedom to rule ourselves and not be subject to a king across the ocean in a foreign land.
Many of the fundamental freedoms held dear by the founders of our country are explicitly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. We have freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom to assemble.
But while the founding fathers of our country were deeply concerned with freedom, they did not think that people had unlimited and unbridled freedom. The religious perspective of the first American leaders is a much debated, and at times an uncertain topic. It is clear that many were committed Christians. It is clear that a few were deists – men who believed that there was a higher power behind the universe, but did not believe that a person could interact with this power in any way or that this power was concerned about us. And then there were men who fell somewhere in between. They believed in a higher power, which wasn’t the Triune God of Christianity. However, this also wasn’t the impersonal force of deism, but rather a god to whom they could pray and who was in some way responsive to human beings.
No matter what they believed, all of these men were united in the belief that you weren’t free to do anything you wanted. Instead they believed in natural law – the idea that the universe was ordered in certain ways by a higher power and that people needed to abide by this ordering. There are rights and wrongs that are inherently part of this world.
Things have changed a great deal in a little over two hundred years. For many people today, “freedom” means that they have the right – the autonomy – to do whatever they want. If it makes them happy, that is all the justification that is needed. Thus, while two “X” chromosomes means that you are a female, and “X” and a “Y” mean that you are male – a fact that is accompanied by anatomical features that leave no doubt about whether you are male or female – there are people in the world today who say that we aren’t limited by biology.
They don’t speak about the “sex” of a person, but instead about their “gender.” In this understanding, gender – being a male or female – has nothing to do with biology. If biologically you are a male, you can decide that you are really a female in gender, and vice versa. And the courts and the federal government have begun to support this idea. So recently the federal government ordered a California school district to allow boys and girls to use the locker room of the opposite sex if the individual has declared that this is in fact their “gender.” Boys free to shower and dress with girls, and girls with boys – this is not the freedom that founding fathers had in mind because it so obviously is opposed by natural law – the basic way that this world has been ordered.
In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul has been speaking about freedom – the freedom provided by the Gospel. Over the course of four chapters he has been urging the Galatians to understand that they have been freed from sin by faith in Christ and not by doing things of the Law. Yet now at the end of the letter, Paul swings around and reminds the Galatians that the freedom of the Gospel does not give them freedom to do whatever they want. Instead they are to walk by the Spirit as they serve others in love.
Paul had evangelized the Galatians – he had preached the Gospel to these Gentiles. Yet some time after Paul had left, teachers with links to the Jerusalem church had arrived. They had called Paul’s apostleship into question, and so also the Gospel he had shared. They told the Galatians that if they really wanted to be part of God’s people, they needed start to do some parts of the Torah – the law God had given to Israel at Mt. Sinai. The males needed to be circumcised. They needed to start following the Jewish food laws and they needed to observe days like the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals.
Somehow Paul had found out about this, and he responded with one of his most emotional and driving letters. Omitting his customary thanksgiving, he jumped right into the body of the letter and said, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
Paul responded to this by telling the Galatians that we are saved by faith in Christ apart from the works of the law. He wrote, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” The reason we can’t be justified by works of the law is because no one can do them all; no one can do them perfectly.
Almost no one today in Christianity would say that you flat out earn salvation by what you do. But then again, neither did Paul’s opponents. They knew salvation ultimately was based on God’s grace and what he had done in Christ. They were saying that you had to do your part too.
And that’s what still happens in our day. There are many Christians who talk about the faith as if it was all about “principles of a Christian life.” This is appealing because it puts us in charge – or at least actively involved. When you boil things down to seven principles for this and ten principles for that, it seems manageable; it seems doable. And this is appealing to us too, because deep down the old man in us wants to get credit for being able to do his part.
Paul says that ultimately it is all or nothing. It is all Christ, or it is all you. And the good news is that it is all Christ. He says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Christ has redeemed us – a word that means he has freed us from slavery to sin. This has occurred through faith in Christ, a faith grounded in the baptism we have received. Through faith and baptism we are in Christ, and therefore we receive the forgiving and saving benefit of his death and resurrection. Paul says, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
Yet all this talk about freedom and about not having to do anything to be saved can have unintended consequences. Paul urges the Galatians not to lose the freedom they have in Christ by taking up the law as a requirement of salvation. He says, at the beginning of this chapter, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Yet having urged this, in the verses immediately before our text, Paul plays off this when he says, “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.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul says that Christians fulfill what the law is all about, not by doing the law with some deep seated hope for benefit, but by loving one another as they are led by the Spirit.
More often than not, this is our great challenge. We have been catechized well about the fact that we are justified on account of Christ through faith alone. But our great temptation is to allow that freedom to become an opportunity for the flesh – the old man in us. You see on the one hand, through faith and baptism we are in Christ – we are linked to him. Paul says in this letter, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Christ lives in us through the work of his Spirit. But until the Last Day, the old man is still there too. And so Paul says in our text, “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.”
There is a struggle. The problem is when we think our freedom in Christ – the free gift of forgiveness and salvation – frees us from having to take part in that struggle. The problem is when we think that since we are saved in Christ it doesn’t really matter all that much what we do. After all we are Christians! We are saved!
In our text, Paul seeks to rid us of this mindset. He says, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 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.” It is possible to lose salvation. We can’t choose to continue to engage in these kinds of activities and still receive the blessing of God’s reign.
Instead, where they are present we need to repent. We need to confess the sin and then turn away from it. We need to stop. Paul says that God has equipped us for this ongoing struggle – and it is an ongoing one. He says in our text, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Paul says that those who walk by the Spirit – those who are led by the Spirit, will not carry out the desires of the flesh. He uses the strongest negative available on Greek.
In order to walk by the Spirit – to be led by the Spirit – we must be nourished and sustained by the Spirit. We must make use of the means by which the Spirit comes to us and gives us strength. These means are the Means of Grace. It is through the hearing and reading of the Scriptures that the Spirit renews and changes us to live in ways that overcome the old man. It is through baptism that the Spirit has given us new life and become the means by which the power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection life is at work in us. It is through Holy Absolution that we are renewed by the word of forgiveness so that we can go forth to live by the Spirit. And it is in the Sacrament of the Altar that the new man in us is fed with the bread of life – nourished to take up again the struggle against the old man.
If we are to walk by the Spirit then this is what needs to be the focus of our life. For God’s Means of Grace are not empty. The Spirit works through them and produces in us the fruits of the Spirit. As Paul says in our text, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
You don’t need ten principles to know what this looks like. Paul has already said it very simply: “Through love serve one another.” It is summarized in one little phrase: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Think about how you want to be treated. Think about how you would appreciate being helped. Think about how you need to be supported. And then, do those things for others. You have been freed by Christ so that you can freely serve. At those times when you fail and the old man gets the upper hand, repent and return to the Means of Grace. At those times you are led by the Spirit and live with faith active in love, return to the Means of Grace for until the Last Day it is there at that we receive forgiveness and it is there that the Spirit enables us to walk by the Spirit as we produce the fruits of the Spirit.