Throughout history, there have been a handful of men who have stood out because of their ability to speak, men whose message and personality have so commanded the attention of others that they were able to shape history. Abraham Lincoln was one of those men. So was Winston Churchill. And so was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many of you have no doubt heard King’s greatest speech, the “I Have a Dream” speech given in 1963. Some would argue that it was one of the greatest speeches ever given in the history of mankind. And if you’ve heard that speech, you know that great last line where King builds to a crescendo and looks forward to a day when every person regardless of race, color or creed in this country can say, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.”
Dr. King spoke on behalf of a people who were not experiencing the freedom to which they were entitled. You see, the Civil Rights movement wasn’t about giving new rights to people of color in this country. It was about giving them the privilege to exercise the freedom that the law already said they were supposed to have. But there were people in this country who were trying to take away that freedom that was rightfully theirs.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Fred Gray speak at the Pepperdine lectureship. You probably don’t recognize that name, but Dr. Gray is a member of the Church of Christ in Tuskegee, Alabama and he was a civil rights attorney during the 1960’s. In fact, he was the lawyer who represented Rosa Parks in the famous bus boycott. He was also the lawyer who represented Martin Luther King on numerous occasions. Much of the civil rights litigation in this country was the direct result of your brother in Christ, Dr. Fred Gray. He was willing to fight so that all men in this country could be free at last.
And that was Paul’s desire for all Christians. He wrote in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Don’t let anyone take away that freedom that is rightfully yours!
But just as there were those during the civil rights movement who wanted to take away the freedom of men in this country, there are those who want to take away your liberty in Jesus Christ. And it’s easy to see why.
Rick Atchley tells a story about his children when they were ages 4 and 2. He said that he and his wife were lying in bed one Saturday morning when they heard the kids get up and start playing. And they thought to themselves, “Isn’t it nice that they’re finally big enough now to have a little freedom, they can turn on the TV set all by themselves and let Mom and Dad stay in bed for a while longer?”
They heard their children playing and giggling and they were enjoying the laughter until the laughter got to a point where it scared them a little bit. So Rick got up to investigate and what he found was that they were in the kitchen playing tag, but it was their own version of tag. The 4-year-old daughter had climbed onto a chair and crawled up to the sink and she turned the water on. Then she grabbed the water sprayer and she was spraying the 2-year-old while he was running all around the kitchen, and you can just imagine what that kitchen looked like with water all over the place.
Rick says that was the moment when he realized that freedom can be very dangerous. And I think we know that intuitively. There is something about liberty that seems to bring out depravity in some human beings.
Chuck Swindoll tells about when he was in the Marines. He was in basic training at Camp Pendleton. And after weeks of intense, rigorous, disciplined training, the Marines were given 48 hours of “liberty”. Swindoll says he watched with amazement as these freshly trained, disciplined men in 48 hours stooped to the lowest level of sin and evil one could imagine. And they called it “liberty.”
Freedom can be very dangerous. Liberty without restraint usually declines and becomes anarchy. That’s why we have government. Because to protect our liberty in this country from abuse, we need laws.
But what about spiritual freedom? There are those who would say that in order to keep people from abusing their spiritual liberty, they also need laws. They need lots of rules and regulations. But Paul says in Galatians that’s not the answer. You don’t restrain spiritual liberty with law. Instead, spiritual liberty is restrained with love – love that is the result of a life that is led by the Holy Spirit.
Now, as we’ve studied from Galatians over the past several weeks, Paul has said some rather negative things about law and some of you may have wondered where all of this is going. If we take all the rules away, what’s going to restrain Christians? Paul is going to answer that question in the last two chapters of this book.
We begin this morning in Galatians 5, verse 13:
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Galatians 5:13-18)
Keep in mind that the Galatian churches were being troubled by some Jewish Christians who were saying that Christians must not only have a faith in Jesus Christ; in order to be saved, they must also keep the Law of Moses. And they had a very legitimate concern. Because a Jew could not understand how you could take a pagan Gentile who came out of a culture of idolatry and immorality and expect him to do what’s right without a bunch of rules and regulations.
They understood what we need to understand today – that as long as a Christian lives, he will battle his sinful nature. We all have what Paul calls a “sinful nature”. The word that he uses here in Galatians to describe that sinful nature is “flesh”.
We were all created in the image of God, but there is a part of us as humans that has a natural tendency to be selfish and sinful, and there is a constant battle that goes on within each of us. In verse 17, “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.”
And, unfortunately, this battle continues even after we are converted to Christ. I know that when you came to Christ, you crucified the old man, you buried that old nature in the waters of baptism. But even though you subdued that old nature, you have not eliminated it, and there is a constant battle that takes place in your body and your mind.
So the important question for us as Christians is this: How are we going to subdue the flesh? And what a lot of people want to do is to try to subdue the flesh through law. Their thinking is, if you give people freedom in Christ, and you don’t give them a lot of rules, the flesh will take over and dominate. So you need law to subdue the flesh.
But the problem with the law approach is that no amount of external rules can change an internal desire. And all you have to do is look to American history during the early 1900’s to see that that’s the case. During the time of Prohibition, it was made illegal in this country to manufacture, sell or import any alcoholic beverages. And one of the things that we learned is that you can make a law, you can say that it’s wrong, and you may change what people do, but you can’t change what people want to do.
We often try to use willpower to subdue the flesh. We’re like the farmer working to get his mule out of the field. This mule was not cooperating at all. Someone came along and said to the farmer, “Hey, where’s your will power?” The farmer responded, “My will power is fine, but you ought to see this animal’s won’t power!”
If you think you can subdue the flesh simply by way of willpower, you have severely underestimated the “won’t power” of your flesh. Let me tell you what I’ve learned about willpower. I have learned that my willpower is extremely effective in those areas where I don’t have any struggle. For example, I don’t smoke cigarettes and I never have. You could take 100 cartons of cigarettes and spread them all around me and I would not be the least bit tempted to smoke even one of them. My willpower in that area is very effective.
But you set a dozen fresh warm Krispy Kreme doughnuts on a table in front of me and they start calling my name. And my willpower is not nearly as effective in dealing with that temptation.
You see, in those areas where there is a struggle and my flesh is really strong, willpower isn’t very effective and if that’s the way that you’re trying to defeat the flesh, then you are no better off than you were before you became a Christian. Because you had willpower when you weren’t a Christian!
Paul says in Galatians 3:3, “You began your life in Christ by the Spirit. Now are you trying to make it complete by your own power? That is foolish.” (NCV)
Paul says there is a better way, and the better way is the way of the Spirit.
Paul says in Galatians 5:16, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
In order to overcome our fleshly desires, Paul says we need the help of the Holy Spirit. Because the work of the Holy Spirit is character formation in Christians. God’s Spirit has been given to us to help make us Christ-like. Now, a lot of people don’t seem to understand that the spirit of God was not sent to make you do bizarre things. He was sent to make you do Christ-like things.
And Christian freedom means letting the Holy Spirit work in my life to shape me into the image of Jesus Christ without giving me a bunch of rules, regulations and traditions to help the Spirit to do his job.
And I believe that’s why churches that deny the role of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life tend to become legalistic. They have to be. Because if you don’t have the Holy Spirit to control a Christian’s freedom, the only other choice you have is to come up with a bunch of rules to keep everyone in line. If the Spirit is only in the Word and not in your heart and in your life, you have nothing to control the flesh except the flesh. And that is a struggle that we cannot win.
And so it is important for us to learn to responsibly handle our freedom under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And that’s what Paul describes in our text this morning. Paul is going to tell us three things about Spirit-led freedom.
1. Spirit-Led Freedom does not indulge the flesh
Verse 13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…”
The greatest fear of the legalist is that liberty will be used as an opportunity for the flesh. They believe that if you don’t make a bunch of rules, people will just go out and sin as they please, then say to God, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” and then go on doing whatever they want again. Paul recognizes the danger of this attitude, so he warns against it here.
Paul says you have been called to be free, but you are not to use that freedom to indulge your sinful nature, it is not to be used as an opportunity for the flesh. The Greek word translated as “opportunity” is actually a military term; it means a base of operations.
The flesh is always looking for an opportunity to establish a foothold in your life. And here’s the ironic thing – law actually encourages the flesh to do that. Romans 7:5 says, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions [were] aroused by the law.”
And we all know that from experience. What happens when you see a sign on a door that says “Wet paint. Do not touch”? You may have passed that door a thousand times before and never had the slightest desire to touch it. But as soon as you see that sign saying, “don’t touch”, there is an almost irresistible urge to reach out and touch it.
Several years ago, there was a hotel built in Galveston, Texas called the Flagship Hotel. This hotel was built right next to the Gulf of Mexico and it had these beautiful plate glass windows in the dining room overlooking the water. And the balconies on each room hung out over the water.
Right after this hotel opened, there was a fisherman who stayed there. He went out on his balcony with his rod and reel and tried to cast out into the water. But he was a bit clumsy, and the sinker on his line swung down and shattered the $600 plate glass window below him.
The hotel very quickly put up signs in every room of the hotel that said: “No fishing from balconies.” Guess what happened? People who had never even thought about fishing from their balconies suddenly thought that was a great idea! So everyone decided to try it! Even people who could care less about fishing joined in. And there were more and more broken windows.
After spending large sums of money making repairs, the hotel management finally figured out how to stop the problem. They removed the “no fishing” signs. And guess what happened? People didn’t fish any more!
You see, law brings out the worst in us. It seems to dare us to do it. It exposes our sinful nature. The law forbids something and we want what is forbidden.
But Paul says that as Christians we have a new motivation, we have a new strength to subdue the flesh. In Romans 6:14, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
A Christian who is led by the Spirit is not going to go around sinning all he can because he’s free. In fact, for the first time in his life, he’s free not to sin. Freedom in Christ isn’t the liberty to go around and do whatever you please. It’s freedom to be what pleases God. And nothing pleases God more than a life of love. Which brings us to our second point.
2. Spirit-led Freedom will serve others in love
Verse 13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
Freedom in Christ does not mean that we have the freedom to do whatever we want to do and if someone else doesn’t like it, that’s their tough luck. Paul makes it very clear in I Corinthians that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do it, because it may not demonstrate a love for your brothers and sisters in Christ.
I find it interesting that Paul says I want you to be free in Christ and then he says, “I want you to serve each other. I want you to be a slave to one another”. Christ is calling you to be free — now go out and be a slave.
And while that sounds like a contradiction, it’s not, because the service is voluntary and the compulsion is love. Every now and then, Sueanne and I will get into a bit of disagreement. She will ask me the question, “Do you love me?” and I will sometimes say, “Yes, I love you. I have to.” And Sueanne will take great offense at that. She doesn’t want me to love her because I have to, she wants me to love her because I want to.
And it is a choice that I make because I have freedom, but my freedom is led by the Spirit, which compels me to love her with all my heart. And because I am led by the Spirit, I am willing to sacrifice anything in this world to meet her needs.
I think that’s what Paul means when he says that Spirit-led freedom will serve others in love.
Somebody has expressed this with two simple equations:
Liberty – Love = Freedom to sin
Liberty + Love = Service to others
We need love to restrain our freedom. But guess what happens when we do that?
3. Spirit-led freedom will lead us to keep the law
Verse 14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
God’s law is not bad. God’s moral law is the written expression of his nature. And a life of grace doesn’t discredit the law. It shows us how the law can be fulfilled. And as the Spirit leads us to be a people of love, we do a better job of keeping the law.
Listen to how Paul put it in Romans 13: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10).
The problem with flesh is that flesh can never adequately keep the law. So God wrote the law on our hearts by giving us the gift of his indwelling Holy Spirit. And now with God’s Spirit in our hearts, the love is produced to keep the law that you never could keep when you just operated in the flesh.
Paul says this is what the Holy Spirit does in Romans 5:5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
So now, because we are led by the Spirit, what used to be a demand has become a desire because our sinful nature has been subdued and the heart has been changed. When you have a love in your heart, you will be motivated to do things that you would never have done before.
A number of years ago, I heard about a newspaper reporter who had been assigned to do a story. There was a young Christian doctor who had established a health clinic in the inner-city, and there were a couple of nurses who volunteered to help this doctor in his ministry of service.
The reporter doing the story was in the clinic one night when a man was wheeled in on a stretcher. The man was a homeless alcoholic. He was dirty and his body gave off an unbearable stench. The man had suffered a very serious leg injury which had gone untreated and the infection contributed to the terrible smell. One of the nurses immediately knelt beside the stretcher. She began cleaning the man’s wounds, getting him ready for the doctor to examine.
The reporter watched the nurse for a few moments. It was all he could stand. He began to feel sick and, as he turned away to leave the room, he said to the nurse, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars!” To which she replied, “Neither would I.”
You see, when we are led by the Spirit, we are motivated by love to do the things that we never would have done otherwise.
In the few minutes that I have remaining, I want to talk about what it means to “walk in the Spirit” (verse 16) or to be “led by the Spirit” (verse 18).
Let me tell you three things that I think are involved in being led by the Spirit.
1. Surrender to the Spirit
You can’t be led by the Spirit until you surrender, until you give up your strong will and you say, “God, I am willing to be led. I’m willing to go where you want me to go and to become what you’re trying to shape me into being.”
2. Listen to the Spirit
I don’t believe the Holy Spirit operates only through the Word, but I do believe that the Spirit speaks to us through the Word of God, and it is our responsibility to listen. The more time I spend in the Word of God, the more time I listen to what the Spirit says, the more I’m in a position to be led by the Spirit.
3. Feed the Spirit
Paul says there is this battle going on in your life between the flesh and the spirit. And the question is, who’s going to win that battle?
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “There is a good dog and a bad dog fighting within each of us. The one that is going to win is the one we feed the most.”
And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. If we are going to be led by the Spirit, then we are going to have to make a conscious choice to put ourselves in the environment where God’s Spirit is present.
Paul said in Romans 8:5, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”
Be assured of this, you cannot surround yourself with fleshly influences and maintain a spiritual focus. That’s why Paul said in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In other words, feed the Spirit.
No amount of legislation can change man’s basic sinful nature. It is not law on the outside that makes a difference in our lives; it’s the love on the inside. And, in order for that love to reign, we a power within that comes from God’s Spirit who dwells within us.
The question this morning is this — Are you allowing God’s Spirit to work within you, to shape you into the image of Jesus Christ, to become someone who is motivated more and more by love to keep God’s law and to serve others?