What would you think if I complained about the sin present in your lives – the ways that you abuse the freedom you have in Christ – and announced, “I do not want to be shepherd of such pigs”? What would you think if I announced that I was sick and tired of the way you use the Gospel as “cheap grace” to free you do whatever you want and said, “It annoys me to keep on preaching to you”? What would you think if I announced that I was so fed up with your ingratitude for the Gospel and your disobedience to God’s Law that I was not going to preach to you anymore?
Well, Martin Luther said those things to the people in Wittenberg. And in Jan 1, 1530 he announced to the people he would no longer preach to them. Luther did step in to preach on January 23 and 30 because the pastor John Bugenhagen was out of town visiting other congregations to check on the progress of the Reformation there. And then in fact he only preached twice more before leaving town. The Diet of Augsburg – for which the Augsburg Confession was written – was going to meet. Because Luther was technically an outlaw in the Holy Roman Empire, he couldn’t go to Augsburg. Instead, he went to one of the southernmost points in Fredrick the Wise’s territory and stayed at the Coburg fortress so that would be as close as possible to stay in communication with those at the Diet. The timing was fortuitous. Clearly Luther needed a break!
We think of Martin Luther as a theologian, and certainly he was a brilliant one who was engaged in the academic world of the University of Wittenberg. But it is easy to forget that Luther was very involved in pastoral matters. He preached regularly at the city church in Wittenberg. He was very much concerned about the everyday lives of Christians in his town.
And because this was so, around 1530 Martin Luther was very frustrated and concerned. The Gospel had come clear. People now knew that they didn’t have to do anything in order to be saved. They knew that God reckoned them as righteous by his grace on account of Christ. It was a free gift that was received by faith alone. It was grace alone and faith alone, because it was Christ alone that provided forgiveness and salvation.
It is difficult for us to understand how completely this overturned everything that people knew about Christianity. The entire practice of the medieval Church was built on the idea that people had to do their part. So they did things for penance; they paid money for masses and indulgences; they went on pilgrimages to holy sites in order get spiritual benefits. They did, and they did, and they did.
And then in the Reformation they learned from God’s word that there was nothing they could do. They learned that Paul really meant it when he wrote in Galatians, “yet 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.”
This was great news! And people embraced it. But Martin Luther began to realize that this victory of the Gospel was having an unexpected consequence in the lives of the people. People knew they no longer had to do good works in order to be saved. But now, they weren’t doing any works! They were abusing their freedom in Christ, and now were acting like they could do whatever they wanted. Luther lamented that before the Reformation there were works and no faith, and that after the Reformation there was faith and no works.
From about this time on Luther began to address the problem. Now naturally he never lost sight of the Gospel. He never ceased to put the focus on the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. But he also began to talk about how faith acts in love. He began to emphasize how the Christians seek to fulfill God’s law because they are in Christ.
The old man – the continuing presence of sin in you and me – is a curious guy. On the one hand, he wants to do things on the basis of the Law. He wants to say that he can do and earn his own salvation – or at least stake his claim to the part he does. And on the other hand he wants to be free to do whatever he wants.
It has always been this way. And it will always be this way. You are this way. If one side is stymied, the other one comes to the fore. You have had it drilled into you that you can’t do anything to be saved. You know that you can’t even create faith in yourself – that you cannot by your own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him. Like the people at Wittenberg, you know that God has reckoned you as righteous by his grace on account of Christ. You have received this free gift by faith alone.
But what does this mean? Well you find it easy not to worry about doing. You find it easy not to be all that concerned about avoiding sin – after all, Jesus has forgiven you! You find it easy to focus on yourself instead of serving others.
The apostle Paul knew all about this problem. So, in his letter to the Galatians he spent the first four chapters telling the Christians that works of the law could not justify them no matter what some people were telling them. He wrote at the beginning of chapter five, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
But then, Paul shifts gears. Just before our text 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 describes faith as something that is active in love.
We know this. But we also can find it hard to do this. And so Paul says in our text, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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.”
The reality is that the flesh, the old man, your residual fallenness is there and it opposes God’s will. That’s just a fact. But in our text Paul tells you another fact. He says, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Paul says the Spirit is there to lead you and to provide the means by which you can live according to God’s will.
Sin held you in its power. But through the work of the Spirit the Son of God entered into this world in the incarnation. Paul says in this letter that Jesus Christ is the One “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” Now through baptism you have received the same Spirit. And it is the Spirit who enables you to live in the way of faith active in love.
Paul says in our text that it is not hard to figure out which is which – whether it is the Spirit or the flesh who is running the show. 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.”
We do fail and sin in these ways. But Paul’s words tell us how we need to view this. Sin is a very serious thing. It cuts you off from God. And so we must confess it. We must repent. We must return to our baptism in faith for there through water and the Word we received the forgiveness of Christ’s death and resurrection. And there the Spirit gave us rebirth – the Spirit who is still at work in us.
The Spirit is at work in you. And Paul tells us what the Spirit produces. He says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” When we follow the Spirit’s leading, this is what it looks like.
The flesh – the old man – is there. The flesh doesn’t want to follow the Spirit. And so unfortunately, you can’t lead a godly life on cruise control. You are not entirely passive in this thing. Paul says at the end of our text, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” You have to put it to death. You have to kill it. You have to call it what it is – sin.
But then Paul goes on to say in the verse after our text, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit has made you a new creation in Christ. The Spirit seeks to lead you in ways that produce the fruit of the Spirit. But here’s the thing. This part does involve you as well. You had no part in what Christ did for you. You had no part in coming to faith in Christ. But when it comes to faith active in love you do have a role to play. The Spirit leads and you follow. The Spirit guides, and you do. Apart from the Spirit, none of this is possible. Apart from Christ, none of this is possible. But it does require that you live by faith as you put to death sin because it is sin. It does require that you live by faith as you seek to do those things that God’s Word tells you are good.
This involves you, but it does not come from you. And so if you want to produce the fruit of the Spirit – and this does need to be you goal – then you need to return constantly to where the Spirit works to sustain and nourish faith. You need to return to the Means of Grace. You can’t produce the fruit of the Spirit if you are not being fed by God’s Word. You can’t produce fruit of the Spirit if you don’t believe in what your baptism means for you. You can’t produce fruit of the Spirit if you are not fed by the body and blood of Christ. But when this is happening, Paul tells us in our text that we can walk by the Spirit.