Home > Trinity 6-15 > Trinity 14, 2015–Freedom in the Midst of the Conflict with the Flesh

Trinity 14, 2015–Freedom in the Midst of the Conflict with the Flesh

14th Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

Galatians 5:16-24

September 6, 2015

“Freedom in the Midst of the Conflict with the Flesh”

Iesu Iuva


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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 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 shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 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. Galatians 5:16-24


In the Epistle reading Paul describes the deadly conflict that goes on in the life of every Christian. It is the conflict between the Holy Spirit and the sinful flesh that remains in Christians. This is not like the conflict you experience when you try to decide whether or not you are going to eat another cookie or have another piece of cake. This is a life-and-death conflict. In another place Paul describes the conflict like this: For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13) If you live according to the flesh you will die eternally—you will suffer eternal torment in hell. But if by the Holy Spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live eternally.

So this conflict between the Holy Spirit and the sinful flesh, our sinful flesh, has eternal consequences. It is a conflict that only Christians have and experience. It is given to us when we are baptized, because when we are baptized we receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit desires what the flesh hates. The Holy Spirit wants us to believe in Jesus and be assured that our sins are forgiven for His sake. The Holy Spirit also desires that our sinful flesh be put to death with all its desires, and that a new man, Christ in us, come forth producing all kinds of good fruit. On the other hand, our flesh still lives within us. It has been nailed to the cross with Christ in our Baptism. It has been subdued by the Holy Spirit. But it resists and strives to be free and alive again. It produces all kinds of sinful desires in our hearts and tries to get us to act on them. For this reason Paul says, “These are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (v. 17) The new man within us does not want to sin. He hates and flees even from sinful desires and thoughts, because he knows that sin is death. But the new man within us is kept from doing what it wants by the sinful flesh. Even when we restrain ourselves from evil actions and words, evil thoughts and desires are present with us. We may not strike or curse the person who hits us, but anger burns within us. So we Christians are in a conflict within ourselves. When we want to do good, to do God’s will, evil is right there with us. Our sinful nature presses us with sinful thoughts and desires and wants us to carry them out. But to carry out the desires of the flesh is death and hell.

We are not going to be free of this awful conflict as long as we are alive, unless we give in to the flesh and grieve the Holy Spirit so that He departs from us. Then there won’t be a conflict because we will belong entirely to the flesh and the devil. But if the Holy Spirit is in you, you will always be engaged in a bitter war with your sinful flesh. It will always be trying to lead you into sin. So Paul says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” (v. 16) Paul does not say we will be free from sinful desires and thoughts, but he does say: “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not carry them out.” Walk in the Spirit and you may be tempted to commit fornication—that is, sex outside of marriage—but you will not carry out the desires of your flesh. Walk in the Spirit and you may be tempted to jealousy or divisions in the Church, but you will not carry them out.

What does that mean, “Walk in the Spirit”? It means to walk by faith in Christ. It means to live believing in the promise of the forgiveness of sins that He won for us by His blood and crucifixion. It means that we consider ourselves as God promises He considers us in the Gospel—He promises that He considers us righteous and without sin. Paul says in Romans chapter 6: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11) We walk by the Spirit by believing that we are righteous for Jesus’ sake. And if we are righteous, that means we are also dead to sin. So we consider ourselves dead to sin and when sinful desires and thoughts present themselves to us we put them on the body of Jesus, where they died. Or we drown them in our baptismal water, where we died and were buried with Jesus. But we do not let sinful desires and impulses live. We do not give ourselves over to them as though we were still the slaves of sin and had to do whatever sin wants. We “present our members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” as we once “presented [them] as slaves to impurity and lawlessness…” (Romans 6:19) And when we stumble and in weakness fall into sin, we don’t give up and hand ourselves over to the flesh. We turn in faith to Christ. We return to Baptism, where we were promised forgiveness and where we pledged to fight against the flesh, the world, and the devil unto death.

This conflict with the flesh is not pleasant. It creates great sorrow, fear, and grief for us when we experience how much wickedness is still in us. When we suffer, we experience how much the flesh is still with us, how little we really trust God, how little we love Him, how little love we have for our neighbor. This is painful. But there is wonderful, comforting, blessed news for those who are engaged in this daily death struggle with the flesh. It says, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (v. 18)

What does that mean? It means that if the Holy Spirit is in you fighting against your sinful nature so that it does not gratify its desires, groaning within you that the Father would give you relief from your unbelief and desires contrary to the Law, you are not under the Law’s condemnation. If we were without the grace of God, the Law would condemn us to hell not only for our sinful actions, but our sinful thoughts and words. Everyone who does not believe in Christ as his Savior is under the Law, even though they may not feel its heavy burden. Everyone who does not believe in Christ and have the Holy Spirit in them crucifying the sinful nature is under the Law. The Law condemns everyone who is under it and who does not keep its righteous requirements to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves.

But those who are led by the Spirit are not under the Law. They are not under its condemnation. They are not imprisoned by its curse. This is wonderful news to all who groan in the conflict with their sinful nature.

Earlier in the letter to the Galatians Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) But a Christian who is engaged in the conflict with the flesh doesn’t feel free. He feels chained and imprisoned by his sinful nature. He sees the flesh working in him, waging war against the Holy Spirit “and making [him] captive to the law of sin that dwells in [his] members.” (Romans 7:23) He cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) A Christian engaged in the conflict with the flesh doesn’t feel free. But he is free. He is “not under the law” (v. 18) There is no condemnation for him, because he is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The Law does not speak condemnation on those who are led by the Holy Spirit because it has already spoken its condemnation on Jesus, who gave Himself for us. If you are led by the Holy Spirit, you are free from condemnation. You are a son and an heir of God. Even though you are suffering in the conflict with your flesh, you are a free son of God who is not under the Law’s condemnation. You are an heir of eternal life in the midst of your conflict with the flesh.

So how do you know if you are led by the Holy Spirit? Paul tells us first how we may recognize if we are not being led by the Holy Spirit. We are not being led by the Holy Spirit when we do the works of the flesh. “Now the works of the flesh are evident,” says Paul (v. 19). They are obvious to anyone who has the Spirit of God.

First of all, sexual sins, which includes all manner of sexual intercourse not between a man and his wife in marriage. Secondly, idolatry and sorcery or witchcraft. This refers to false worship, superstition, and occult practices, including trying to communicate with the dead, tell fortunes, and other things like this. Third, Paul lists a group of sins that flow from hatred or lack of love toward our neighbor: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions.” Finally, “drunkenness and orgies,” which refers to drunken partying.

After listing these sins, Paul adds the solemn warning, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (v. 21) People who do such things are not led by the Spirit of God, but by the flesh. A Christian doesn’t allow the flesh to rule him. He considers himself dead to sin through Jesus Christ and repents and flees from evil desires. This is why those who live in sin without repentance are not allowed to partake of the Lord’s body and blood, whether the sin is sexual immorality, drunkenness, or fostering divisions in the Church. No one who falls into sins like the ones Paul lists, unless he repents and desires to do them no more, is being led by the Spirit of God. And those who are not led by God’s Spirit are not His children and heirs.

But those who are being led by God’s Spirit daily battle against the flesh and put it to death. And in them God works by His Holy Spirit to produce fruit that leads to life, not death. The Holy Spirit produces love in the hearts of Christians. First He proclaims to us the message of God’s love that gave His only-begotten Son to die for our sins. Those who believe this message begin to love like a flame produces heat. They begin to love God, who first loved us and gave His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. And they begin to love their neighbor, who Jesus died for. All the fruits of the Holy Spirit grow out of the seed He sows in our hearts, which is the good news of the death of Jesus in our place to free us from death and the curse of the Law. Joy comes from knowing that we are God’s heirs and children through Jesus’ death. We have peace in our hearts through faith that Jesus made peace with God for us through His blood, and we begin to seek to live in godly peace with our neighbors. Patience for one another is formed in us as we rely on God’s patience toward us in daily forgiving our sins. Faithfulness grows in us because we experience God’s faithfulness to us, not forsaking us but daily forgiving and leading us. As the Lord deals gently with us in the Gospel, not condemning us but justifying us through His Son’s meek death, the Holy Spirit works within us to create a gentle spirit toward those who sin against us. And finally the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of self-control in us because He testifies to us that we have greater treasures awaiting us at God’s right hand. We don’t need to experience every pleasure the world has to offer; we have greater pleasures in Christ—now through the forgiveness of sins, and in eternity when we put off the flesh entirely and put on our glorious bodies that share the glory of the Son of God.

Knowing that you are walking by the Spirit is not as simple as counting up the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. As Christians look at their lives, they often see that they are lacking in the fruits of the Spirit. The Spirit’s fruits are not as evident as we would wish. That is part of our daily conflict with the flesh. We see its evil impulses daily. The fruits of the Spirit are not always as easy to see in ourselves. So what do we do? The same thing we do daily in our struggle with the flesh. We cling to the promise God made us in our Baptism—that we died with Christ and were justified. We rise up by faith, forgetting what has gone before and striving toward those things that are ahead. We take hold of the eternal life Christ won for us in His death and resurrection from the dead. We claim righteousness before God and eternal life as ours, because God has said they are ours in Baptism and the Gospel. And we rejoice in the midst of this painful conflict with our sinful flesh. We rejoice because the final victory is guaranteed. Our flesh has been crucified with Christ in Baptism. And while we live engaged in this struggle to put our flesh to death, we are free. We are not able to do what we want and live without sinful thoughts and desires. But we are not under the Law. It no longer condemns us. We are led by the Spirit. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14) By the Spirit we cry, “Abba, Father!” And because we are sons of God, we are also heirs—heirs of the eternal glory, life, and freedom from sin that will be ours in the new heavens and earth.


Soli Deo Gloria

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