One of the many things that marriage celebrants have to be aware of as they prepare couples for marriage is the possibility of marriages of convenience. In such marriages the relationship between the couple is based not on love but on some business arrangement; and there is no intention that the marriage will last for life.
I recall an occasion when a sailor came to me after our ship had spent some R&R time in Dubai to discuss his intentions of taking a girl back to Australia. The girl in question was a Russian prostitute with whom the sailor had spent some time (and money!). Out of a benevolent desire to rescue the girl from her life of prostitution, he wanted to take her back to Australia as his wife. Well, I had my suspicions that the marriage wouldn’t last much beyond the legal requirements for the girl to remain in Australia and fortunately the sailor came to realize that she was just using him.
Had they married there would have been no commitment to a long term relationship. The marriage would have been based upon legal requirements and rules to hold it together just long enough to suit the girl’s purpose. For a marriage to last and grow strong, it must be based upon a relationship of commitment and love, with the couple growing to know each other better every day.
In the same way, the Christian life must be lived by relationship and not by rules and regulations. I have often said that if I was to use just one word to describe Christianity it would be the word ‘relationship’. First there is the relationship within the very nature of the Christian God, ie between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Secondly there is the relationship between the Christian and God. And thirdly there is the relationship between the Christian and other Christians.
Now, it is this third aspect of relationship, arising out of the first two, that Paul is particularly concerned about in the passage from his letter to the church in Galatia that we heard read this morning.
The issue that Paul has been addressing in this Epistle is that there were some Jewish converts to Christianity who were persisting in pursuing righteousness through observance of the law, instead of accepting God’s liberating grace in faith. In last week’s passage, Paul explained to them that when they came into a relationship with Jesus Christ they were set free from the yoke of the law.
This means that in Jesus they, and you and I, have freedom from the condemnation of the law and now have salvation by grace through faith.
However, we still have freedom of choice - and can still make bad choices. And so, in Chap 5, verse 13 Paul says, ‘Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence...’, or as other translations express it, ‘...to indulge the sinful nature...’ Instead, we are exhorted to stand firm against the possibility of slipping back into the old sinful way of living. The indication here is that even though we have become a Christian, there are still three ways that we might live, two of which are contrary to the way that the Christian life should be.
1. We might live by the Flesh.
By the ‘flesh’ we mean the tendency within each person to operate independently of God and to centre our interests on ourselves. This is a mindset, i.e., it is a learned independence from God. So ‘living by the flesh’ is being driven by our self-centred nature, which has been inherited from Adam, and indulging in the desires of the mind and the desires of the body.
In the natural state, the flesh influences the mind to have obsessive thoughts; it encourages negative and destructive emotions and influences the will to follow after the flesh. This results in the ‘works of the flesh’ that are listed in verses 19-21.
Now this is the state of someone who has not accepted Jesus into their life. But, it is also possible for a Christian to ‘live by the flesh’ and this is why the writer of the letter to the church in Galatia, and also to the church in Corinth, was concerned to warn them not to ‘live by the flesh’.
Paul was concerned that the Christians to whom he was writing were still being ‘worldly’. Even though they had possibly been made spiritually alive by receiving the Holy Spirit to dwell within them, they were still allowing the habit patterns of their old nature to appeal to their mind to live independently of God. They were choosing to follow the impulses of the sinful nature, rather than the Holy Spirit. But, the freedom that we have in Christ is not license to indulge ourselves, but freedom to serve God and each other in love.
The outcome of living by the flesh is quite serious. It prompts the warning in verse 21b that such people ‘will not inherent the kingdom of God’, or more simply, will not go to heaven.
So we are not to live by the flesh, for to do so would be using your freedom (in Christ) to indulge the sinful nature ...’ and is contrary to the Christian life. It would be slipping back into the old sinful way of living.
But, this is not the only way that we might slip back into the old sinful way of living. Paul exhorts us to stand firm against a second possible way of living that the Christian might slip back into despite having been set free by Jesus, and that is ...:
2. We might live by the Law.
Jesus was concerned that the Pharisees were living by the law. These religious leaders followed very strictly a set of religious laws as a means of trying to earn righteousness.
Such people still exist today – people who do not seem to understand that the law is the means to an end and not the end in itself. As Paul says in verse 14, ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’’.
Such people might be seen as being ‘religious people’ who diligently attend church and adhere strictly to ritualistic practices; but, who do not show in their lives any evidence of the love and compassion for others that Jesus had.
Now please do not misunderstand here - observing religious practices in itself is not wrong; in fact, quite the contrary. Someone living by the spirit would also be observing religious practices, such as obeying God’s moral law, daily reading the bible, praying regularly, attending church on a determined day of the week, etc.
But, a problem arises when observing religious practices becomes more important than Spirit led practices regarding how we relate to one another. Or, a problem exists when such people see observing religious practices as the means of obtaining righteousness. Further, seeking to attain status with God and man by mere observance of law breeds a self-righteous, critical spirit. The outcome of this, Paul says in verse 15, is, ‘If … you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’. This might be clearer in in the NIV translation: ‘If you keep on biting and devouring each other ... you will be destroyed by each other.’
So, now we have the two ways of living that are contrary to the way that Christian living should be expressed. We must stand firm against allowing the old self-indulgent nature to reassert itself, and we must also not live entirely for religious practices without being influenced by God’s Holy Spirit. What then is the right way of Christian living? In verse 16, Paul comes to the desired way:
3. We must live by the Spirit.
Verse 24 tells us that if we belong to Jesus, we ‘have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’. Now, what does this mean?
It means that we are no longer subject to being driven by sin. ‘Sin’ is living independently of God. For those who have accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour, the power of sin to dominate our mind, emotions and will, has been broken through Jesus Christ’s victory over sin on the cross.
Instead, of being driven by the flesh, i.e. the tendency to operate independently of God and to centre our interests on ourselves, we have another influence in our being. This is God’s Holy Spirit who has come to dwell within the Christian so that we can have a direct relationship with God.
But we do have to exercise our will to allow the Spirit to guide us – we still have free choice and can choose either to follow our self-centred nature, or the leading of the Holy Spirit.
If we are choosing to ‘live by the Spirit’, then we are daily seeking to live in intimate relationship with God. We are seeking to know the leading of the indwelling Holy Spirit and to allow him to influence our mind, emotions and will, rather than being driven by the self-serving flesh. The indwelling Holy Spirit subsequently produces Christian virtues in the believer’s life - the outcomes known as the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
So we must choose to not live by the flesh, which in reality no longer has power over the Christian. Also, we must not live entirely by religious laws. Instead we should seek to live in relationship with God and his leading through the Holy Spirit.
We might return to the illustration of a strong marriage relationship as an analogy of living not by the law but by the Spirit.
A strong marriage is not built upon having a list of rules for living as a married couple; even though it is important to hold God’s moral law in the highest regard – truth, morality, honesty, honouring parents, and preserving life.
But the fact is that there is no way that a couple could anticipate all that the future holds when they promise “to have and to hold for better and worse, richer and poorer, and in sickness and health.” There is no way that any set of rules or any book on marriage could tell the couple how to cope in all circumstances.
To grow and remain strong, the marriage must be based upon a relationship – a relationship of commitment, love, and growing to know each other better every day.
In the same way, the Christian life must be lived by relationship - not rules. The Christian’s relationship with God is based on love and commitment, holding God’s moral law in the highest regard, but depending on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God to live out God’s morality in everyday circumstances.
It is based upon standing firm, and making choices to live by the Spirit, and to serve one another in love, no longer indulging the desires of the sinful nature, or biting and devouring one another.
As we are led by the Spirit, we should observe that the Holy Spirit will change us on the inside such that the fruit of the Spirit, the Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control will be developed within us.