Living by the Spirit
Ninth in a series
(April, 2003 POL)
Topic: Christian Liberty
Today we are privileged to zero in on three Biblical principles.
Spiritual Principle One: You and I are called to be free.
This is the main emphasis of the entire book of Galatians. Paul has hammered away on this theme, coming at it from every possible direction.
Now he nails it down to this straightforward assertion: “You, my brothers, were called to be free” (
At one level, that is a very exciting statement. At another level, that’s a bit scary for those of us who have a modern notion of freedom which says that “anything goes.”
Perhaps that is the great problem of our day, and any day. Some of us love to hear talk about “freedom.” There’s part of us that wants to live in the reality that anything goes.
There is something in each of us, at the same time, that pulls back from this concept of freedom. We feel more secure where we are surrounded by rules that confine us. We get a bit scared out there in that big, wide world where there is no security of fences to help us feel secure in our own territory.
This year, Anne and I have adopted two, adult male dogs, King Charles Cavalier Spaniels. The first one, Monty, we brought home on Christmas Eve. He is a little five-year-old Blenheim. The second, Travis, we brought home on Labor Day weekend. He is a little Tri-Color. Both these dogs love the freedom to roam. At the same time, we discovered from the breeder that they are happiest when they have a secure space, quite limited in size, where they feel comfortable. To bring them to a brand-new environment, as we did, and give them immediate access to the entire house was quite disconcerting. It is better to make clear what is their safe space to which they can return, so they are not insecure, than suddenly thrust them into a whole new environment of freedom. It is too much for them to handle.
When we did that too quickly, we saw that it produced anxiety in these perfectly housebroken little fellows. They reverted to some anti-social behavior, making their mark on some of our prize furniture in an endeavor to create a safe place, familiar to them.
True freedom does not mean that “anything goes.”
Anything does not go!
Remember the woman we talked about last week who was puzzled by this series in Galatians? For her, Christian faith was defined by her endeavor to obey the Ten Commandments and to live by The Golden Rule. All this talk about living under grace, not Law, became confusing. Her response was, “So I don’t have to obey the Bible? I can just go out and commit adultery? It doesn’t make any difference?”
No. You see, that’s the old nature at work in which we don’t quite know how to handle the freedom that is ours in Jesus Christ. In some ways, we are more content to be surrounded by a fence of “do’s and don’ts.” Set us free to roam, randomly, in a much larger environment, and we become inclined to mess up and be counterproductive in what the Bible calls “sinful ways.”
All through this book of Galatians we have been confronted with the term “circumcision.”
Last week brought this teaching against circumcision to a hyperbolic point making conclusion that was quite confusing. One man, who met me at the door of the church, had obviously not been exposed to some of the earlier messages in this series. With a panicked look on his face, he said, “Dr. Huffman, I am worried about what you said. I am circumcised. Is there something wrong with that?” With his wife, standing at his side, equally perplexed, I tried to get across the bottom-line point that Paul is making. No, there is nothing wrong with circumcision. Physical circumcision, even to this day, is viewed as something very positive in terms of hygiene, even in the most secular, non-religious world. In the Jewish religion, it is a very important ritual act, to be carried out on all Jewish male children on the eighth day, so that they bear on their body a sign that they are Jewish.
What Paul is saying is that a Gentile adult male does not have to become a circumcised Jew prior to qualifying for salvation through Jesus Christ. Paul is heartbroken that a little group of false-teaching, Jewish-Christian zealots, who were following him everywhere he went in his missionary journeys, were trying to reverse his message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone. They were trying to reconvert these new Gentile believers to a highly sectarian Jewish/Christian sect. They were demanding that adult Gentile males be circumcised.
After church, I mentioned to a friend the conversation I had just had at the door with this confused man who was fearful that he couldn’t be a Christian because he had been circumcised.
Later this week she e-mailed me this little story:
Two little kids are in a hospital, lying on stretchers next to each other, outside the operating room.
The first kid leans over and asks, “What are you in here for?”
The second kid says, “I’m in here to get my tonsils out, and I’m a little nervous.”
The first kid says, “You’ve got nothing to worry about. I had that done when I was four. They put you to sleep, and when you wake up they give you lots of Jell-O and ice cream. It’s a breeze.”
The second kid then asks, “What are you here for?”
The first kid says, “A circumcision.”
And the second kid says, “Whoa, good luck, buddy. I had that done when I was born. Couldn’t walk for a year.”
In all seriousness, Paul is trying to make clear to both Jew and Gentile that the technical observance of the Law is not what brings right relationship with God. No Gentile has to be circumcised to be saved. In fact, in
So this is the transition point. Paul has made the Magna Carta statement of the freedom which is ours in Jesus Christ, both as Jew and as Gentile.
Now he comes to the point where he addresses the question of the woman who says, “Oh, you mean then that anything goes?”
Spiritual Principal Two: True freedom is not license.
This book of Galatians is a scary book. Take it seriously and it can be life-transformational, leading you to a whole new world of what it is to understand God’s grace, and to be set free from religious legalism. Misunderstand this book and it can wreck your life.
There is a very fine line between freedom and license.
This was driven home to me during my Princeton Seminary days. All of us students were required to successfully pass exams in the Greek language. Then we had a required course in the New Testament exegesis of the Book of Galatians. In order to pass this course, we had to be able to read the entire book in Greek. Each day in class, the professor would randomly call on us to give our oral translation, and each of us was assigned a passage on which we were to write a major exegetical paper.
Some of the students who came from fundamentalist/conservative backgrounds were very strict in traditional “do’s and don’ts.” The lifestyle of a Christian, as you know, has lists that vary from one denomination to another, and from various regions of the country and world to another. I, myself, was raised in an environment that looked askance at smoking, drinking, gambling and dancing.
Take drinking, for example. The Christian church in the United States was in the forefront of warning how misuse of alcohol was a key contributor to spousal abuse, wasting of paychecks, loss of jobs, accidents, and broken health. As time went on, some Christians defined whether a person was a believer in Jesus Christ or not on the basis of whether or not they used alcoholic beverages. The Bible itself could be interpreted to allow for moderation, although it speaks clearly against drunkenness. What, so subtly, can happen is that a person can define another as outside the circle of faith because of the fact that they use alcoholic beverages and define themselves as virtuous and worthy of salvation because they are total abstainers. It is so much easier to define oneself by external behavior instead of internal spiritual reality.
I remember one evening, a wonderful young seminarian from Hollywood Presbyterian Church, who had gone all through college without touching alcoholic beverages, egged on by some fellow students who made a theological point out of the freedom we have in Jesus Christ, overdid that freedom and ended up being carried into my dormitory, falling over drunk. For him, the teaching of Galatians, at least at that time in his life, became not just access to the positive freedom which is ours in Jesus Christ, but to the negativity of license.
There was one godly international student from India, on a scholarship sponsored by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. He was being trained to be one of the up-and-coming leaders of the church in India. Alcohol consumption had no part in his life because of a combination of biblical, ethical, cultural and economic reasons. Again, encouraged by young theologues, flaunting their new-found freedom in Christ, he became a permanent casualty. The last I heard of him he had never made it back to his family and church in India. He was a tragic derelict, wandering the streets of an American city. A tragic loss, for him, his family, his country, the church of Jesus Christ.
Ironically, the text that I was assigned to exegete was today’s text. How stabilizing it was to dig into the Greek, to understand Paul’s cautioning word when he writes, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (
It is by grace that I am saved through faith. It is not of works in which I boast. I do not qualify for God’s salvation because I do a grocery list of “good” things or avoid a grocery list of “bad” things. It is not the “dos and don’ts” that qualify me. It is what God has done for me on the Cross. I am set free from having to earn my salvation. That has been done by Jesus Christ.
To make the statement in the negative, this freedom is not the liberty to indulge our sinful nature. God desires us to have victory over our sinful nature.
In a contrasting way, let’s state this in the positive – this freedom is to serve one another in love.
Paul gets very graphic, does he not, when he talks about us biting and devouring each other? Can you think of any areas in your life in which you are engaged in this biting and devouring activity? It happens very frequently in husband-wife relations. Too often it is the mark of how we function in the tensions between the generations, in parent-child conflict. We see it in the church, whether it is biting and devouring each other over matters of architecture, budget, styles of worship (all of which are pretty superficial matters), all the way to the in-depth issues of theology and biblical interpretation.
One of the most valiant upholders of the historic orthodox faith is a man by the name of Francis Schaeffer. You may remember him as the founder of L’abri, that study center near Geneva, Switzerland, where, during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, young people, trying to find a handle on life, could come and stay. They could raise any question they wanted and become engaged in vital conversation with this man who was so faithful to the historic faith. Schaeffer had seen the toll that the angry defense of the faith had taken on some of his colleagues who had been true defenders of the faith but had not done it in a spirit of love. He tried to model what it was to provide an environment in which everyone was treated with love. No matter how radical were their lifestyles and theologies, he never compromised the true faith, and he did his best to uphold salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone, while treating whoever came to L’abri in the spirit of total acceptance and love. One of his greatest writings was a little book called The Mark of the Christian. His whole theme was the importance of not using our freedom to indulge the sinful nature and actions and theologies, but to hold to the faith in a way that communicated this bottom-line love.
Transpose this now into the realm of everyday Christian living and you understand that this text is saying not that the Christian is a person who is free to sin, but that a Holy-Spirit-empowered believer in Jesus Christ is free not to sin.
Sin is serious business. God’s heart is broken by sin. Good works make the heart of God glad. A true follower of Jesus is one whose life is marked by righteousness. That righteousness doesn’t earn God’s favor. It is the result of a person who genuinely is in a love relationship with God and others and wants to, in love, serve God and others.
All through the Scriptures you will see references to this. This week, I was reading, devotionally, through the One Year Bible, and
May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord,
your salvation according to your promise;
then I will answer the one who taunts me,
for I trust in your word.
Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth,
for I have put my hope in your laws.
I will always obey your law, for ever and ever.
I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.
I will speak of your statutes before kings
and will not be put to shame,
for I delight in your commands because I love them.
I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love,
and I meditate on your decrees.
Or, isn’t this what James is saying when he declares, ” . . . faith without works is dead” (
What we do and don’t do is not what saves us. We are set free from the Law by God’s grace, what Christ has done for us on the Cross. It is not license to do that which destroys a relationship with the Lord and with each other. It is freedom in love to serve the Lord and each other.
Spiritual Principle Three: What we are really talking about is living by the Spirit.
The central core of this teaching comes in
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
Paul makes a very dramatic contrast between what we might call “flesh works” and “spirit works.”
Flesh works, or what we would call living by sinful nature, looks like this: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (
Can he be any more specific? He is not speaking out against our physical appetites. What he is doing is noting what happens when we are wholesale driven by these fleshly appetites to the neglect of the Holy Spirit’s activity in our lives.
The King James Version and the Revised Standard Version use the phrase, in
The biblical distinction is made between that which is fleshly and that which is spiritual. It does not mean that our physical hungers are wrong. What it is he is speaking against is the worshipful attitude toward these physical hungers, the chief of which are food and sex. God gave us these appetites to be used to His glory. It is when we distort these and make them ends in themselves that life spirals downward and we live lives in which our appetites control our lives, instead of being used as a vehicle to bring glory to Jesus Christ and to serve others.
A classic evidence of this downward spiral is the following. In William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies, a plane carrying a group of schoolboys crashes, killing the pilot, and the boys are left without supervision on a remote island in the Pacific. At first they try to maintain order and discipline, so they elect a leader named Ralph. But in the absence of moral restraints, many of the schoolboys eventually become savages and even murderers. At the conclusion of the book, Ralph is running for his life from the boys, who plan to kill him and put his head on a stake. At the last moment, he runs out of the jungle and is saved by a naval officer, who is astonished at the transformation in the schoolboys.
Imagine that all civil and criminal laws were abolished in your community. How and why might this affect the people who live there?
Spirit works, or living by the Spirit, looks like this, which Paul describes in
I went back to my sermon files this week and discovered, much to my shock, that until this series I have never preached from the Book of Galatians except for a series I did several years ago on the fruit of the Spirit, the verses I just read. I will resist with all my energy going back and repreaching those nine messages, each one concentrating on one of these fruit.
Instead, let us emphasize the difference between what naturally emerges from our sinful nature, what we have called “flesh works,” and what naturally emerges from our spiritual nature, what we have labeled ” spiritual works.” Paul uses the analogy of a fruit-bearing tree. Life given over to the sinful nature will bear negative fruit. Life given over to the Holy Spirit of God will produce spiritual fruit.
Again, do you catch the depth of the meaning? I don’t tell myself, “I dare not engage in sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies. If I avoid all these things, God will love me and accept me, and give me His salvation. In contrast, I need to work real hard to show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and if I do all of these things, God will accept me.”
No, he is talking about being truly free, saved by God’s grace, being given the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life that produces this fruit. I can’t produce it in my flesh, in my sinful nature. I can work at it, do some things that look like it.
If I walk into the back yard and look at my lemon tree, what kind of fruit is hanging from its branches? It grows lemons. On a particular day, I might prefer to have raspberries or pears. Perhaps an apple would be my choice on another occasion. And when I head out to play golf, I’d like to take a banana from that tree so I get an adequate supply of potassium.
You say, but agriculture doesn’t work that way. You are right. Lemon trees grow lemons. I can tell that tree until I am blue in the face to grow other kinds of fruit. But it’s not another kind of tree or bush. No way can it produce raspberries.
Paul is saying that it is only by the Holy Spirit you and I are able to genuinely produce the fruit of the Spirit. Our old nature produces this other kind of fruit. It’s like we have two trees growing up within us. One can produce all this negative fruit. We are not saved by avoiding the negative fruit and producing the good fruit. We are saved by God’s grace, and His Holy Spirit within us minimizes the desire to produce that negative fruit and, increasingly, in the process of sanctification, produces good fruit.
Or another analogy is possible. I dress up in a costume. I walk in here Sunday morning dressed in my jeans, cowboy boots, western shirt, big, brass buckled belt, red kerchief tied around my neck and wearing a ten-gallon hat. You would laugh!
You’d say, “We have known John Huffman for 25 years, and John Huffman is no cowboy. He can dress himself up to look like one and maybe fool some outsider. We know, at heart, he’s a city boy.” You know me.
I have shown up for a golf game all dressed to the hilt with the very best equipment. But that doesn’t make a golfer out of me.
Friday night, Barbara Walters on, “20/20,” interviewed Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. He just finished a movie about to be released titled “Catch Me If You Can.” You know the story. Its about a con artist, that high school dropout who traveled the world in style with fake identities. He dressed up as a doctor and entered operating rooms. He dressed up as a lawyer and faked his way. He dressed up as an airline pilot and had access to stewardesses and traveled the world in airline jumpseats and cockpits. On one occasion he even ended up in the Captain’s seat, and the Captain motioned for him to take over when he needed a break. It is possible to fool a lot of people. He cashed tens of thousands of dollars worth of checks. On one occasion, he even conned a prostitute into taking what he said was a cashier’s check for two thousand dollars, subtracting her fee of four hundred, and she gave him sixteen hundred dollars in cash back. But, finally, he was caught. He went to prison for four years. When they interviewed him on “20/20” in real life, he said all those years he lived in fear of discovery, of arrest. He was so lonely. He knew that someday he would go to jail.
You see, that is what Paul is saying to you and me. We will be exposed if we try to look like something we are not. In my flesh, in my sinful nature, I can produce a facsimile of spiritual fruit, but it’s not the real thing. Sooner or later, it will become evident. Some of us even try to preach in the flesh for the self-aggrandizement we get out of it. You can fake some of the people some of the time, not all of the people all of the time. And we never can pull off our endeavors at being an imposter with God.
The flip side of this is true. For those of us who belong to Christ, the sinful nature with its passions and desires, have been crucified along with Christ. We have the privilege of living by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit, not being conceited, provoking and envying one another. We will have our differences, honestly and lovingly expressed, and ultimately what we do is not done in pride by the sinful nature, but humbly and in loving service of God and others.
Let me conclude by telling you the story of a woman who illustrates what it is to lose oneself in a downward spiral, Satan’s way, and to find oneself in the person of Jesus Christ.
Maxie Dunnam, tells the story of Marian Preminger, who was born in Hungary in 1913, raised in a castle with her aristocratic family, surrounded by maids, tutors, butlers and chauffeurs. Her grandmother, who lived with them, insisted that whenever they traveled they take their own linen, for she believed it was beneath their dignity to sleep between the sheets used by common people.
While attending school in Vienna, Marian met a handsome young Viennese doctor, and they fell in love and married when she was only 18. It lasted only a year, and she returned to Vienna to begin her life as an actress.
While auditioning for a play, she met a brilliant, young German director, Otto Preminger. They fell in love and soon married. A bit later, they moved to the United States where he began his career as a movie director. As you know, Hollywood can be a place with a lot of biting, devouring and destroying of one another. Marian was caught up in the glamour, the lights, the superficial excitement, and soon began to live a sordid life. When Preminger discovered it, he divorced her.
She returned to Europe to live the life of a socialite in Paris. In 1948, she learned through the newspaper that Albert Schweitzer, a man she had read about as a little girl, was making one of his periodic visits to Europe and was staying at Günsbach. She phoned his secretary, and was given an appointment to see Dr. Schweitzer the next day.
When she arrived in Günsbach, she discovered that he was in the village church, playing the organ. She listened and turned the pages of music for him. After their visit, he invited her to have dinner at his house. By the end of the day, she knew that she had discovered what she had been looking for all of her life. She was with him throughout the rest of his visit. And when he returned to Africa, he invited her to come to Lambarene and work in the hospital.
She did – and she found herself. There in Lambarene, the girl who was born in a castle and raised like a princess, who was accustomed to being waited upon with all the luxuries of a spoiled life, became a servant. She changed bandages, bathed babies, fed lepers . . . and became free. She wrote her autobiography and called it All I Ever Wanted Was Everything. She could not get the “everything” that would satisfy and give meaning until she could give everything. When she died, in 1979, the New York Times carried her obituary, which included this statement from her: “Albert Schweitzer said there are two classes of people in this world – the helpers and the non-helpers. I’m a helper.”
What a privilege you and I have to understand that true freedom is not license. We don’t need to buy the favor of God with good works. But neither is freedom license. As we open ourselves to the grace of Jesus Christ, He transforms us by His Holy Spirit to grow spiritual fruit. He saves us from a downward spiral. We are enabled to live our lives empowered by the Holy Spirit.