Let battle commence! No, I’m not talking about the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns currently going head-to-head in the EU referendum campaign. Nor am I referring to next Saturday’s Cup Final between Crystal Palace and Manchester United! The battle I’m talking about is the conflict described in our passage from Galatians 5 this morning - the battle against our sinful nature – the fight against temptation. It’s a battle that every Christian is called to fight. A battle we can win with the help of God’s Holy Spirit.
If you have been here over recent weeks, you will hopefully have understood the main message of Galatians. Its a message that’s good news for anyone who wants to become right with God and rescued from his righteous judgement. Good news for anyone who wants to enjoy God’s forgiveness and friendship forever.
And the message is this - we can experience God’s forgiveness by faith in Christ alone. By simply trusting that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, we can have our slate wiped clean - we can become a child of God on our way to glory. Faith in Christ ‘justifies’ us, it puts us God’s good books. Faith in Christ offers us what religious rituals and rule-keeping could never achieve. Our eternal salvation is a gift of grace, not something we could ever earn.
That is the heart of the Gospel, the main message of Galatians. So far so good - but now what? As Christians await Heaven, how are we to live now? As Paul says in verse 13 today, Christ has set us “free” - but free for what?
In particular, are we now free to behave as we wish? Does the Gospel of grace give us a license to sin? Should Christians do whatever they want, to whoever we want, whenever we want?! In short, are Christian believers at liberty to “indulge” their sinful nature?
Certainly not, says the apostle Paul in verses 13 and 14 today. The better option - the correct alternative - is to “serve one another in love”. Christ has saved us so that we can “love our neighbour” and glorify God with our good deeds. Jesus hasn’t saved us so we can indulge ourselves with sin. Rather, every Christian’s ambition should be to live in a way that honours our Saviour, expresses our gratitude to God and shows love to our neighbour. Every Christian is called to wage war on their sin - to battle against every temptation.
Thankfully this is not a battle we fight on our own. Because God has given every Christian his Spirit to help us oppose our sinful nature. Ever since the first Pentecost 2,000 years ago, God been giving every Christian his Spirit to help us be holy. As verse 16 says this morning, if we “live by the Spirit” we will not “gratify the desires of our sinful nature”. He will enable us to engage and defeat ‘the enemy within’.
But before we look at this conflict more closely, let me pray: Father, as we look at your Word today, help us to appreciate the work of your Spirit in our lives. And help us all to understand how we can walk with him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
The opposing forces: The sinful nature and the Spirit
One of the first rules of war is ‘know your enemy’. Before entering a battle, a good general will want to know who he’s up against – how many infantry do they have, what ammunition, armaments and air power does the enemy have at its disposal? And in sport, a good team will try to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their opposition. A good football manager will identify those opposing players to be most frightened of – that skilful winger or deadly centre-forward who will need man-to-man marking on the pitch!
The principle of ‘knowing your enemy’ also applies to Christian life. Because in our Christian life, one powerful enemy we face is our “sinful nature” - and we need to know what its capable of.
Our sinful nature is that part of us that tempts us to sin:
- It’s that distorted, disordered part of ourselves that makes us go after things that aren’t good.
- Its that ‘fallen’ part of our psyche which makes us selfish and self-absorbed.
- Its that proud part of us that is instinctively rebellious against God.
To give a light-hearted example, our sinful nature is that part of us which sees a sign saying “Don’t walk on the grass” and thinks “Don’t tell me what to do – I will!” And any parent will know a sinful nature is something no child needs to be taught – I’m afraid it really does comes naturally to us all in this fallen world!
Most seriously, our sinful nature - if indulged - will damage our relationship with God and with other people. That’s why Paul warns the Galatians against “destroying each other” in verse 15 today. If its given free rein, our sinful nature will lead us into social strife, spiritual rebellion and sordid behaviour.
In verse 19 Paul actually lists the character traits of people whose sinful nature has completely run riot. These include: “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.”
Thankfully, most people’s behaviour doesn’t get quite that far. Even in non-Christians, their sinful nature is partially restrained by their conscience, and by things like peer pressure and the fear of punishment.
But Christians have a far greater weapon at our disposal. If we are followers of Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit resident in our lives. God’s Spirit is personally present within us, and he wants to give us his guidance and his power to fight against our sinful nature. To use theological jargon – Jesus has already justified us, and the Holy Spirit now wants to sanctify us. You see, God’s Spirit wants to change our character for good. He wants to make Christians more like Christ. He wants us to give us victory in our daily battles against temptation.
Sometimes new Christians come up to church leaders like myself looking quite depressed. They say that since they began following Jesus they have become more aware of their sinful desires, and more conscious of daily temptations to do what is wrong. Maybe that’s your experience? Well if so, be encouraged, because it’s actually fantastic news! Because if we’re increasingly conscious of temptation and the daily struggle against sin, it’s a great sign that God is at work in your life! It’s evidence that his Holy Spirit is at work within you – it means he’s active highlighting temptations he wants you to fight, and aspects of your character he wants to change.
Like most people, I don’t eat enough fruit. I rarely manage my 5-a-day, and normally prefer to munch on a biscuit or open a packet of crisps than eat an apple or peel an orange. But in my better moments I do reach for the fruit bowl - because I know they are sweet, tasty - and very good for me.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to the fruit of the Spirit – the very good character traits that he wants to produce in our lives. Paul gives us a list of them in verse 22 today. Listen again to that glorious list: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” It’s a list of qualities I hope we all long to possess. A list of qualities that our Lord Jesus had ‘to the max’.
And you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that these qualities – these fruit of the Spirit - are directly opposed to the acts of the sinful nature. For example, love is the opposite of hatred, self-control is the opposite of sexual immorality, and so on. Paul certainly saw this clearly, that’s why he writes in verse 17 that “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.”
If you are a Christian here this morning, there are two opposing forces at work in you. A conflict is raging within your life. A sinful nature that wants to destroy you, but also God’s Spirit who wants to grow his fruit in you. Fruit that won’t grow mouldy, but will last for eternity.
Fighting the battle: crucify the flesh and keep in step with the Spirit!
Next Saturday afternoon there’s no doubt which side I’ll be supporting at the FA Cup Final. When the two teams walk out a Wembley, I’ll be cheering wholeheartedly for Crystal Palace, not Manchester United! And I hope its equally clear which side Christians should support in the conflict over our character. We want to live by the Spirit and resist our sinful nature. Or as Paul puts it in verses 24 and 25 today, we want to “crucify” our sinful nature and “keep in step with the Spirit.”
But how do we do this in practice? What does it look like to crucify our sinful nature and walk with the Holy Spirit day-by-day? How can we co-operate with God’s efforts to make us more like Jesus?
I’m sure you know that crucifixion was a form of execution used by the Roman Empire. It was a type of execution reserved for the worst offenders. A type of execution with a 100% success rate. The Roman Empire crucified those people it was really determined to kill. In a similar way, Christians should be determined to defeat our sinful nature. We should be clear in our minds that we want to fight temptation, and firmly resolved to avoid doing wrong wherever possible.
So in practice this may mean avoiding situations when we may well succumb to temptation. Are there certain times, places or people when we are especially likely to be led astray? Can we minimise those circumstances when we are more susceptible to bad language, lust, anger, greed or envy? Think about those times when you are personally most likely to let your guard down, and try to avoid them.
Our determination to crucify our sinful nature may also mean being careful what we watch on TV, what we listen to on the radio, what websites we view – and even what topics we talk about with our friends. Our sinful nature loves to exploit any impure thoughts and images we put into our head. They are ammunition for the enemy. So in our determination to avoid sin, we should take the advice of the apostle Paul in Philippians chapter 4. Because he writes there: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things”.
So in the conflict for our character we should crucify our sinful nature, we should be determined to give it no ground. To continue the military metaphor, we should keep guard, stay alert, and remain constantly ready to resist temptation.
But what about walking with the Spirit? How can we allow the Holy Spirit really take control of our life and produce his great fruit? How can we speed up the character change he wants to work in us? Well, here are some brief suggestions:
- Firstly, we need to make sure we listen to what God’s Spirit is saying to us, and then putting it into practice. The Holy Spirit speaks supremely through the Bible, which he himself inspired. The human authors of the Bible were guided by God’s Spirit. So read it regularly and become familiar with what it says. Let the Holy Spirit challenge you and change you as you read it.
- And secondly, pray for the Holy Spirit’s help. Ask him regularly in prayer for he power and courage to do what’s right. Ask him for the ability to resist temptation at those times when we feel we’re about to give in. Ask him to sharpen our conscience to see clearly what’s right and wrong.
- Thirdly and finally, meet regularly with other Christian believers for mutual encouragement. Our fellow Christians are all Spirit-filled, and we should encourage each other in godliness whenever we meet together. When you spot one of the Spirit’s fruit in a fellow Christian, tell them – and ask them to do the same for you! Its often much easier to see God’s Spirit at work in other people than in ourselves. So tell your Christian brothers and sisters whenever you spot them becoming a little bit more like the Lord Jesus. Tell them when you see them crucifying the flesh and walking with the Spirit.
Victory is certain!
I’ve never been brave enough to attempt the London marathon, although my sister has - and I know some of you have too. The nearest I’ve got was the Cardiff half-marathon about a decade ago. And the great thing about the Cardiff half-marathon is that it finishes inside the spectacular Millennuim Stadium – a stadium that dominates the Cardiff skyline. So as I was slogging my way around the streets of the city, thinking of giving up, I only had to lift my weary head to see the stadium. I could almost always see the finish line, and it kept me going to the end.
In a similar way, Christians can keep going in the daily battle against temptation because the outcome us secure. Victory is assured, the war will be won.
We know this is true because of the wonderful promises the Bible makes to every Christian. Promises of certain victory given to every Spirit-filled believer in the Lord Jesus.
- For example, however hard the battle may seen, however many temporary set-backs we may experience, the Bible promises that his Spirit will complete the good work he has begun in us. Look up Philippians chapter 1 to read that promise for yourself. Like any fruit, the Spirit’s fruit will take time to grow, but grow they will!
- And in Romans chapter 8, we are given another sure promise. A promise that the same Spirit who is currently giving us his fruit, will one day give us completely new bodies. New bodies without a sinful nature. New bodies that will no longer lead us into temptation. New glorified bodies, like the one Jesus himself received on the first Easter day.
So as I finish this morning, be encouraged by Paul’s words to us in Galatians 5 today. Yes, Christians are in a battle against our sinful nature. A battle that may seem long and hard. But the power of the Holy Spirit is on our side - and ultimate victory is assured!