“Every uncorrected error and unrepented sin is, in its own right, a fountain of fresh error and fresh sin flowing on to the end of time.” (C.S. Lewis)
When Paul looked in the mirror, when he took a long, honest look at himself, he knew there was nothing good in him (Romans 7:21-24). But his great expectation is that one day Jesus would rescue him from his body of death.
Paul taught, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Reading this used to bring me great discouragement because my flesh never seemed like it was crucified: sin seemed alive and well within me after coming to Christ. It felt like I was born again breach.
But as we look closer at this statement from Paul we realize that he is stating a theological fact about our salvation, not necessarily a description of our quality of godliness. He’s talking about our position with Christ, not our condition in life. He mentions our condition several verses prior: “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” (v.17).
So the burning question for the man trapped in sin is: How do I make my condition more like my position? If the flesh really is crucified, how do I experience freedom from it?
The Works of the Flesh
Paul uses some very strong words to describe the works of our sinful nature: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21).
As a Christian you may have been surrounded by a number of graces in your life that have kept your flesh at bay, such as social restraints or a good moral upbringing. Thank God for such graces. But do you believe that at your core, that in your flesh nothing good exists (Romans 7:18)? Do you really believe that if all the external fences of behavior modification fell down, that your flesh would run wild unless God restrained it?
Read through Galatians 5:19-21 again. This is not just a stark picture of the “really bad” people among us: it is a picture of you and me. It is a picture of what we would become if God’s graces were lifted from our lives. Read it again, this time from The Message:
“It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”
Walking in the Spirit
Once we’ve rightly estimated the corruption of the flesh, we are prepared to begin the work of walking in the Spirit.
“I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This is an incredible promise given to us. But what does it mean to walk in the Spirit? The text gives us some clues.
- Paul amplifies this statement by saying we are to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25, NIV). The word Paul uses is the same as that of an army marching in line, following their marching orders. Lest we think walking in the Spirit is always a purely “mystical” experience, always following the breadcrumbs of God’s whispers, Paul here says that it is more like keeping in step with the Spirit’s clearly revealed orders and keeping in step with His people. This is where the written Word of God, inspired by the Spirit, comes into play. By constantly looking into and obeying His Word with a military-like devotion, we can be sure we are following the Spirit’s marching orders.
- Paul’s phrase, “walk in the Spirit,” can also be translated, “walk as you have been walking in the Spirit.” So we are invited to look back in this letter and see how Paul has been describing this Spirit-walk. In Galatians 3:2, Paul states that they are to continue living by the Spirit the same way they received the Spirit, by believing the message of hope preached to them. He says the same thing in Galatians 5:5: “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Walking in the Spirit is first and foremost a work of faith: we eagerly long for and trust in the promise that one day we will be completely righteous.
Keeping in step with the Spirit means that we eagerly and constantly long to be fully righteous, just like Christ. This is the same vision the Spirit inspired in us the first day we believed the gospel: the Day will come when our King returns, and the whole world (including us) will be made new. Fueled by this longing, walking in the Spirit means that we delight in and obey with all diligence the voice of the Spirit in the Word of God because it is a foretaste of this incredible life to come.
This is why it is so important to never underestimate or downplay the power and corruption of our flesh. If at any point we feel that the condition of our souls is not so desperate, we move our faith and longing from Jesus and His gospel, and instead we begin hoping in a man-fabricated righteousness.
Until we make the habit of recognizing that we are as evil, demanding, and loveless as the Bible says we are, we will never cling to Christ the way the Bible commands.
The great hope is that one day Christ will return and recreate the world anew, a home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13), and we will be like Him (1 John 3:2). Until that day we trust that forgiveness of sin is given in His name (Luke 24:47), and we receive a deposit of the Holy Spirit, a foretaste of the newness that will come (Ephesians 1:13-14). By faith, we nurture a lifelong yearning for Christ’s return and all the benefits He will bring us. We do as the disciple Peter urged: “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13, italics added).
How Much of a Taste Do We Get?
In this life, how much can we expect to overcome sin? How much of the new eternal age can we expect to experience through the Spirit today?
The Bible paints a picture of dynamic tension on this question. We are to be eager and hopeful realists. As long as we are in this physical body, our members still seek to tie themselves to this age and all its aimless, sinful values (Romans 8:10,23). But if we belong to Christ we are promised that we will put to death the deeds of the body, little by little (Romans 8:12-14). This is a dynamic tension that will exist until we die or until the Lord returns.
How then do we slay our sin?
Puritan author John Owen writes,
“Raise up your heart by faith to an expectation of relief from Christ. Relief in this case from Christ is like the prophet’s vision: ‘It is for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, yet wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.’ (Hab. 2:3). Though it may seem somewhat long to you, while you are under your trouble and perplexity, yet it shall surely come in the appointed time of the Lord Jesus; which is the best season.” (Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, ch.14)
We must approach our sin with the faith that Christ wants to slay our sin even more than we do, that He will finish what He started, and that He is perfect in his timing. While we live in the tension of this age and the next He is sovereignly using that tension to produce in us a greater longing for holiness.
Read Part 5