Galatians (8) — How to Grow in Grace

There’s a writer by the name of Leonard Ravenhill who tells the story about a group of tourists who were visiting a quaint little village in England. And in an effort to learn more about the history of that village, one tourist approached an elderly man who was sitting outside and asked him, “Were any great men born in this village?”

To which the old man replied, “Nope, only babies.”

I think that story has a powerful spiritual message. None of us began as spiritual giants. We were born of the water and the Spirit into the family of God, and it’s our responsibility to grow to be what God intends for us to be.

Peter said in I Peter 2:2, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” And Peter closed out his second epistle with the command to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18).

And so, this morning, I want to know if you’re determined to grow to get to where you need to be spiritually? Because there are some Christians who reach a certain level of maturity and they just stay there, Christians who fail to grow up to be spiritually mature. There’s no growth, there’s no progress, nothing but spiritual immaturity.

We enter the kingdom of God, we make a commitment to Christ, we put him on in baptism, but if there’s no growth, we end up a long way from what we were meant to be in Christ.

Last week, we looked at a passage in Galatians where Paul talked about the message of grace that God has set us free. But God did not set us free to do whatever we please. He set us free from sin and free from the laws that shackled us so that we could be what God meant for us to be. And so, in our final lesson in this series from the book of Galatians, Paul is going to show us what God intends for us to be as we grow in grace.

We begin reading in Galatians 5:16,

“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.

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:16-25)

Paul makes several points in this passage about spiritual growth, and the first is this:

I Spiritual Growth is Possible Only Through the Holy Spirit

You see, we all have two problems. Problem #1 is this: we’ve sinned. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). But problem #2 is that even after we become Christians, we are still sinners.

Now, God dealt with the first problem when we put our faith in Jesus Christ and we gave our lives over to him, that’s called justification. Before you became a Christian, because of the sin that you committed in your life, you deserved to die because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and our iniquities separated us from a holy God.

But when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he died to take your place. He took your sins upon him and he suffered death so that you could have the opportunity to have fellowship with God. That’s called justification.

But, as I mentioned last week, those of us who are Christians still have a problem because we still have a sinful nature, we still have a struggle that goes on in our bodies and our minds between what is right and what is wrong – “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” and while we wish this was not the case, sometimes the flesh wins out.

And so it is important for us to experience not only justification, but sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which we grow into what God intends for us to be, and we learn to die to our sinful nature and not let it control us!

But the means by which we achieve sanctification is not by putting the chains of legalism back on. We sometimes make the mistake of preaching a gospel of grace to sinners (we tell them, there’s nothing you can do to save yourself, Jesus Paid It All!), but then we preach a gospel of legalism to Christians (we tell them, you’ve got to work it out and make sure that you don’t mess up on any doctrinal point or any moral point so that you can make it to heaven).

But, as we’ve seen in this study, the problem with rules is that they cannot change our internal desire. Law can expose sin, law can condemn that which is wrong. But law cannot produce righteousness.

And we need to understand that the Christian life is not just difficult – it is IMPOSSIBLE by our own strength. Christ is the only one who has ever fully lived “the Christian life” and so we must invite Christ to live in us! And he has promised to do that through the Holy Spirit. That was the promise made to Abraham long ago – Galatians 3:14, “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

The ultimate blessing made to Abraham was that you, you Gentiles, might receive the Holy Spirit, because by faith you are the children of Abraham.

And so, we dare not try to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit. As Paul said in Galatians 3:3 (NCV), “You began your life in Christ by the Spirit. Now are you trying to make it complete by your own power? That is foolish.”

Paul couldn’t understand why anyone would try to live the Christian life with only the resources of their pre-Christian past. How are you going to do any better as a Christian if all you have is the strength you had before you became a Christian?

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

Paul says that growing in grace means growing into the image of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s what Christian liberty is all about. We have the freedom to take on the image of Christ. So how do I recognize whether that’s happening or not?

II. Spiritual Growth Can Be Identified by its Fruit

Jesus said in Matthew 7:16, “You will recognize them by their fruits.” Now I would not describe myself as an expert botanist. I do have the ability to identify several different kinds of trees by their leaves – I can usually pick out a maple tree or a sassafras tree by looking at their leaves. But, beyond that, I tend to wander around a forest saying, “I wonder what kind of tree this is.”

But, I’ll tell you what I can do very easily – if an apple tree is bearing fruit, I can very quickly identify it as an apple tree. And I can identify a peach tree, a banana tree, and an orange tree all in the same way. You know what kind of tree this is by the fruit that is on it.

And Paul says that fruit provides the evidence of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. How do you know whether or not God’s Holy Spirit is living in someone? You look at the fruit. Because, in our battle against Satan, Satan has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. There are things that Satan can do to try to fool people. Scripture says that Satan has the ability to perform signs and wonders. Scripture says that Satan can even transform himself into an angel of light. Satan can imitate many things. But there’s one thing he can’t fake and that’s the character of Christ. And so that’s what you look for.

Let me tell you several things about growing fruit.

A. Growing Fruit Takes Time

You don’t plant seeds one day and expect to get apples the next day. Bearing fruit takes time. Let me tell you why this is important. If you take a pagan and expect him to start living the appearance of a Christian life in 24 hours, then the best way to do that is to use legalism. Make a bunch of rules and then force people to conform to those rules. If all you care about is changing people’s behavior, legalism is much faster.

Learning to live by the Spirit is slower, it’s messier, people take three steps forward, two steps back. It’s a process to learn to live by the Holy Spirit. Legalism is much faster. I think that’s one of the reasons why legalism is so tempting and so prevalent in so many churches. But the problem with legalism is that it doesn’t last long, because it doesn’t change the inside. It can’t change the heart like the Spirit can, and eventually you will rebel against it.

So, if you’re going to be fruitful, you need to understand that it’s a process whereby the Holy Spirit works on you and it doesn’t happen overnight.

B. Growing Fruit is Not Something WE Do

You can’t make fruit. You can produce a lot of thing through works, but you can’t make fruit. Go to any factory and you will find machines that do all sorts of work, but you will never find a machine that manufactures fruit. You may find a machine that imitates fruit, but real fruit must be the natural result of proper growth. Fruit must grow out of life and in the case of the Christian, it is the life of the Spirit.

Now we need to be careful that we don’t take the extreme view that we are totally incapable of virtue without God, that someone who is not a Christian cannot have any redeeming qualities. I don’t believe Paul is saying that. Paul isn’t saying that without the Holy Spirit, you couldn’t do anything decent, you couldn’t do anything moral. In fact, we have biblical examples of Cornelius and many others were good decent people before they received the Holy Spirit.

So why do you need the Holy Spirit then? Because when the Holy Spirit produces virtues, those virtues are purer in motive. You see, there are a lot of different reasons why people do what is good and what is right. Some people do what is good to avoid being punished, others do what is good because they believe that it will result in other people doing good to them. But a Spirit-filled Christian does what is good because it reflects the image of God. Most people in this world will do what’s good until it gets difficult, a Christian will do what is good even if it kills him.

And I don’t know if we fully appreciate the role that the Spirit has in our lives as we try to make changes. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people tell me, “Alan, I’d like to be baptized, I really would. And I fully intend to do it someday. But, first, I’ve got to get my life all straightened out, and start living the way that God wants me to live.”

But Paul says, “No, no, no, you don’t have to do it on your own. When you become a Christian, God will put his Holy Spirit in you to help to shape you into the image of Christ. We could give you a bunch of rules and laws to change your behavior… but that wouldn’t change your heart! But if we can teach you to live by the Spirit and if the Holy Spirit directs your life, it will be a life that gets rid of the flesh and replaces it with fruit like love, joy, peace, and so on.

And so, in verses 19-23, Paul describes what a life looks like when it’s led by the Spirit and he describes what our lives look like if we’re controlled by the flesh. Allow me to point out a few significant things from this passage

The Flesh

1. Evil is obvious

In verse 19, Paul says, “Now the works of the flesh are evident…” The reason we sin after we become a Christian is not because we’re ignorant. We’re not going to be able to stand before God on the Day of Judgment and say, “Oh, I didn’t know that was wrong.” Paul says, you know these things are wrong. It’s evident. Adultery? That’s obviously sinful. Fornication. Idolatry. Sorcery. Murder. He gets to the end of the list and says, “and other things like these”. Paul says, I could have added a lot more things to this list, but you know what sin looks like. The reason we sin is not because we’re ignorant. The works of the flesh are evident.

2. Evil includes attitudes as well as actions

Notice that this list includes things like hatred, jealousy, selfish ambition. Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that it’s not just what we do that’s a problem, it’s what’s in the heart.

3. The message of grace is NOT soft on sin

In verse 21 (NET), Paul says, “…those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Now let me say this, because some of you may be a bit worried. Because every one of us has done some of these things. Paul isn’t saying that if you do one of these things, you can’t go to heaven. The verb tense he uses here is talking about habitual actions. If this is the way you live, if this is the practice of your life, then you can’t be a part of God’s kingdom because it is evident that you are not following God’s Spirit.

Nobody preached grace better than Paul, but preaching and teaching grace must still warn people about sin! Paul says, “I’m telling you now and I’ve told you before, don’t do these things.” When we preach grace, we must warn people about sin.

You know, I find it strange that in every other area of life, we like to be warned. We want our government to warn us if the drugs we’re taking have some have side effects. We want our job to warn us if there are risks involved in what we’re doing. We want McDonald’s to warn us if the hot coffee they hand us is actually hot! But we come to church and the preacher preaches about sin and we say, “I don’t like all that negative stuff.”

Paul makes it clear, “I love you too much not to warn you that sin is deadly!” The flesh is deadly and you can’t play around with it.

Titus 2:11-14, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Paul says the grace of God will teach you to say no to sin and grace will teach you to do what is good, to be fruitful. Let me share with you a few things about the fruit of the Spirit.


1. There is only one fruit of the Spirit

You may have noticed that the fruit of the Spirit in this passage is singular not plural. It does not say, as we sometimes mistakenly say, “the fruits of the Spirit”. No, it’s the fruit of the Spirit

And I would go so far as to say that the one fruit of the Spirit is love. Everything else in this list comes about as a result of having love. All these other virtues come from love. In fact, this passage reminds me of that beautiful love passage in I Corinthians 13:

“Love is patient (that’s one of the fruits of the Spirit) and kind (that’s another fruit); love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4-7)

Love is the essence of everything we should be as we seek to become the image of Christ. As Paul said back in Galatians 5:14, love fulfills the law. Everything that we should be is summed up in that one quality.

Life in community can be difficult, but what is really hard is living together as legalists. The reason is that legalists fight all the time about who is right and who is wrong about every minute detail.

Fred Craddock was a preacher who went on a trip to Israel. He was standing by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem when a group of young rabbis showed up to pray. They got into a discussion as to when the Sabbath begins. One group said, “Sabbath begins as soon as the sun goes down.” Others said, “No, it begins when you can see the first star in the sky.”

They began to argue… then began to shove… then somebody took a swing, then there was an all-out fight… They had to call the police to separate these rabbis who were rolling around the ground punching each other out. Craddock was just standing there watching it all. There was an older Jewish woman nearby who said, “Are you an American?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Are you a Christian?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Now you see why Jesus never had a chance in this town.”

If legalism is at the heart of your religion, you will have a hard time getting along with anyone, and that’s what was happening in Galatia. Galatians 5:15, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”

Being religious doesn’t make it easy to live together. We need love, love that comes from the Holy Spirit, because the fruit of the Spirit is, first and foremost, love.

2. Life in the Spirit does not need the restraint of law

After listing the fruit of the Spirit, Paul says something rather strange. He says, “Against such there is no law”. I’ve often wondered exactly what he meant by that. But here’s what I think he intended. The primary purpose of law is to restrain you. It is to keep you from doing something. But nothing the Holy Spirit is going to do in your life needs to be restrained. You don’t have to worry that you’re going to love too much, or be too joyful or too patient or too gentle. Life in the Spirit does not need the restraint of law.


Let me close by re-emphasizing a point that I made last week – the Spirit does the work, God’s Spirit bears fruit in our lives, God’s Spirit transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ, but we have to make the conscious decision to allow the Spirit to do that. As someone has put it, God produces the fruit, but fruit can grow only in certain climates – we choose the climate!

Remember the Chinese proverb “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.” We’ve got to make the choice to feed the Spirit, not the flesh.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of a cuckoo bird, but there’s something about cuckoos that you may not know. The European Cuckoo is what is known as a brood parasite. In other words, the mother bird never builds a nest. Instead she finds a nest that’s already built and when that bird has flown away, she flies into the nest and lays her egg.

The other mother bird returns and sees a much larger egg beside her own. Maybe her bird-brain wonders for a second, “What’s up with that?” But her motherly instinct takes over and she hatches it like one of her own. The only problem is that, when the eggs hatch, the baby cuckoo is much larger than her own baby birds. When she returns with food, guess who gets fed? Eventually the other baby birds die, or the cuckoo pushes them out of the nest.

And one of the strangest sights of nature can be seen when the smaller mother bird continues to feed the baby cuckoo who is now several times larger than the mother who has unwillingly adopted the bird.

That cuckoo bird is like our sin nature. If you keep feeding it, it will take over. But you have the choice. You have the choice to feed the flesh or to feed the spirit.

Galatians 5:24 “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” – Put those actions and attitudes on a cross and let them die.

And then make an effort to allow the Spirit to work in us. Galatians 5:25, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep step with the Spirit.” – Our relationship to the work of the Holy Spirit is not a passive one. The Spirit of God will do the leading, but each of us must choose to follow, choose to walk – literally “walking in step with the Spirit.”

The question is this: Do you really want the Spirit to direct your life? You say, “Yes.” Then you can’t be doing things that walk in step with the Spirit on Sunday, and feed the flesh the rest of the week!

Are you growing in grace? Are you becoming what Christ set you free to be? You don’t have to settle for a mediocre spiritual life. You are free to become what God intends for you to be, you are free to become more and more like Jesus Christ.


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