As we wrap up Galatians 5, we’re also wrapping up this series on the fruit of the Spirit. As we’ve done for the last two weeks, we’ll begin by reading Galatians 5:16-26. Today we’ll be focusing on the last three verses.
Throughout the book of Galatians, Paul makes references to the Spirit and the flesh. In fact, Paul contrasts Spirit and flesh in many of his epistles. But just exactly what he means by flesh can be a bit tricky.
When he talks about living by the flesh, it’s easy to assume that he’s talking about living in a way that is in violation of God’s laws. Indeed, there are plenty of verses where that’s the implication. Some of the verses in our Scripture reading today have that meaning; Paul talks about the deeds of the flesh, and then he talks about the passions and desires of the flesh.
But the subject of the flesh is a little more complex than that; we find verses like Galatians 3:3, which says:
And if you remember Paul’s allegory involving Isaac and Ishmael (Galatians 4), you’ll remember that Paul equated being born of the flesh with being in slavery to the law.
Even outside the book of Galatians, Paul uses “the flesh” this way. In Philippians chapter 3, Paul addresses the fact that he used to take pride in the flesh, but does so no longer. Listen to this:
Paul is saying, “I was once a perfect citizen who did all the things that were expected of me. I had confidence (or faith) in my own goodness and my own ability to be a law-keeper. But now I reject that mindset, realizing that my slavery to the law accomplished nothing, and only faith in Christ could save me.”
In other words, taking all these things together, “living by the flesh” can mean “living in violation of the law,” but it can also mean, “living in slavery to the law,” or “living in the pride of law-keeping.”
How can such contradictory ideas both be true? Author John Piper explains it this way: “The flesh prefers to use the legalistic or licentious resources in its own power to fill its emptiness.”
If you’re not familiar with the two words that Piper uses here, licentious means “I have a license to do anything.” A licentious person says, “I’m free from the law, so I can do anything I please, regardless of consequences.” Legalistic means being tied to a rigid set of rules and guidelines. A legalistic Jesus would not have healed the man with dropsy on the Sabbath, or allowed His disciples to pluck grains of wheat on the Sabbath, or eaten without doing ceremonial washing first.
Apart from the Spirit, life seems empty and barren; humans combat that emptiness by trying to fill it with something. The two obvious choices are to fill it with pleasures that will end up controlling us, or (for the more religiously minded) rules and rituals that will also control us. But both licentiousness and legalism “fill” us up in all the wrong ways, while still leaving us empty. Licentiousness and legalism seem to be completely opposite mindsets, yet they are both symptoms of the same problem.
I think the easiest way to picture this is with a simple scenario, and we can imagine ways of handling the situation that are licentious, legalistic, and Spirit-led. Seeing the differences will help us understand the contrast between flesh and Spirit.
Here is the scenario: you are having a disagreement with someone (disagreements can be a good and healthy thing if they are handled wisely and graciously). In the midst of this disagreement, the person you are talking to makes an argument that seems particularly silly and maybe even absurd to you. You are frustrated by their argument, and you are faced with the sudden temptation to call them a fool.
I can imagine five different people responding to this situation in five different ways. There are probably other ways, but these five responses help us visualize a wide spectrum of thoughts and actions that might come out of this situation.
Person A, who lives in the flesh in a licentious way, might remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that calling someone a fool is such a heinous crime that one could be in danger of hellfire for it (Matthew 5:21-22). Whether Person A knows or remembers this instruction from Jesus doesn’t matter a bit; either way, they know that they can fill up their own emptiness with the cruel pleasure of calling their opponent a fool. So they do it.
Persons B and C are both living in the flesh, but in a legalistic way. Person B says, “Oh! Jesus commanded me not to call anyone a fool. So I will resist the temptation to do that! How good of me to obey!” This person has done exactly the opposite of Person A, and yet they have also used the situation to fill up their own emptiness. Person A filled their emptiness with pleasure; Person B filled it with pride. “See how good I am,” they tell themselves. “I have refused to stoop to such terrible behavior!” They have become like Paul, full of confidence in their own flesh.
Person C, on the other hand, remembers Jesus’ words and says, “Aha! I’m not supposed to call him a fool, but Jesus never said anything about calling him an idiot!” And so Person C replaces the word “fool” with the word “idiot,” and thereby fulfills the letter of Christ’s statement while completely ignoring its spirit.
Interestingly, Person C has managed to double-up on his own satisfaction; like Person B, he gets the smug satisfaction of knowing he technically obeyed the law, and at the same time gets to revel in the pleasure of having been cruel to his opponent.
Now let’s consider two possible results for the person who is walking in the Spirit instead of the flesh.
Person D, like B and C, remembers that Jesus said not to call anyone a fool. And, like Person B, Person D chooses not to call their opponent a fool. But the mental process behind the choice is much different. While Person B takes pride in their obedience, Person D recognizes that their desire to call someone a fool, since it is contrary to the words of Christ, must indicate that there is something wrong in their heart. “Surely,” Person D says, “this behavior must be contrary to one of these fruits of the Spirit that God is building into my life. My desire to do this thing reminds me that God still has much work to do in my life.” Rather than leading to smug pride that Paul experienced, Person D’s reaction leads to humility of spirit. They may even be led to pray, like King David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
And Person E? Person E may not even realize that Jesus said not to call anyone a fool. Person E immediately recognizes that to call their neighbor a fool would be unloving and therefore against the Spirit of God. Person E does not even need the commandment to know that the behavior is wrong. This is what Paul has been driving at all along; when you are living in the Spirit and walking in the Spirit, when the fruit of the Spirit are strong and growing in your life, the law becomes unnecessary.
Remember what we looked at earlier from the book of Jeremiah? The true and deepest law of God is being written on our hearts!
It’s interesting that while B, C, D, and E all resisted the temptation to call someone a fool, the end result was different. For B and C, their hearts become filled with pride. For D and E, the situation instead fills them with humility.
This is a general principle of life: walking in the Spirit leads to humility, while walking in the flesh leads to pride. “See me!” the flesh declares, “I did so much better with this situation than so-and-so would have done.”
Meanwhile, the life of the Spirit makes no comparison at all, except a comparison to the glorious, godly character of the Savior.
Paul will follow up on this idea of not comparing yourself to others in chapter 6. In the meantime, we can see clearly why Paul wraps up all of his talk about flesh and Spirit with a caution against pride: “Let us not become conceited.”
As we think about the flesh and the Spirit, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the word crucified, which appears in verse 24. For the Romans, crucifixion was not just punishment and death. There were two very key elements to crucifixion that we need to understand. Those elements are: repudiation and shame.
When a criminal was crucified, the Roman government was not just saying, “This man is a criminal,” they were saying, “We absolutely reject and repudiate what this man stands for.” Crucifixion was reserved for when Rome wanted to send a very clear and unmistakable message to its citizens. And crucifixion was not just horrible, gruesome and painful; it was also shameful. Hebrews 6:6 describes crucifixion as “subjecting him to public disgrace” (NIV), and again, Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus didn’t just endure the suffering of the cross, He also endured the shame of it.
So when we consider that Paul says not just to put the flesh to death, but to crucify it, we understand that he is not saying to punish ourselves for bad behavior, but to hold up that bad behavior for repudiation and shame.
Neither the licentious person nor the legalistic person crucifies the flesh. The licentious person embraces the flesh, while the legalistic person simply pushes the flesh away for a time, and instead of feeling shame, feels pride in the accomplishment. It is the Spirit-led person who, through understanding of the work the Spirit is doing in their life, sees the inner brokenness that leads to the bad behavior, repudiates the sinful heart condition, and pleads for God’s Spirit-work in their life.
Lord, help us to not become puffed up with pride when we resist temptation; instead help us to recognize that our desires indicate work that still needs to be done in our lives. Help us to resist pride and conceit as You build the fruit of the Spirit into our hearts. Strengthen our resolve, our self-control, so we can say “no” to ungodliness even as we depend wholly on You for the work of Your Spirit. Amen