Uncle George was not really my uncle, he was a family friend. He was also one of the nicest men I have ever met. The author Ajith Fernando mentions Uncle George in two of his books. He says that Uncle George showed him ‘the beauty of godliness.’ Do you want to display the beauty of godliness? Do you want to become more like Jesus? This passage shows us how!
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious (18-20)
If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law (18). We have seen that the Law of Moses was in place from Mount Sinai to Jesus. The false-teachers wanted to use it to justify themselves. However, the law actually exposes our rebellion. Our problem with sin reveals the fact that we have a sinful nature.
The ‘sinful nature’ [literally ‘flesh’] is our twisted inclination to ignore God and live for self. Paul says that the sort of things the flesh prompts us to do are obvious. Yet even though they are easy to see in other people we often choose to be blind about them in ourselves. Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6). Try to be someone who invites correction without getting in a huff if we disagree with their diagnosis.
Notice that the list ends with the words, ‘and the like’. This is only a sampling of the desires of our sinful nature. We could easily add to this list!
You might to be too respectable to be tempted by orgies, drunkenness and witchcraft, but what about impurity, jealousy and envy? You may never have had an affair, but do your eyes wander? Are you driven by pride and selfish ambition? Do you think that another purchase might fill the void in your life? Don’t we all spend too much time thinking about what people feel about us? Do you think your life would be easier if you had someone else’s gifts, possessions or marriage?
When you think about the influence of your sinful nature heed the words of the Paul, who writes, ‘let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Cor. 10:12).
Encountering Jesus brings inevitable transformation (21)
Having given a list of some of the obvious desires of the sinful nature Paul then warns us that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (21).
The verb for live is in the present tense, indicating a lifestyle rather than a lapse. If someone, who claims to be a Christian, comes to you distraught about a sin they have committed, reassure them of God’s gracious promises of forgiveness. If they come and confess that they are struggling with a particular sin, encourage them and offer to help keep them accountable. But if they aren’t looking for help, and are happy to live a life that ignores God’s commands towards love and holiness, then you need to tearfully warn them that they might not be born again.
All through this series on Galatians I have sought to underline the fact that you do not contribute anything to God’s acceptance of you. God has taken the perfect life of Jesus and given it to you in order that he may see you as if you had always perfectly obeyed him. God has taken all you past, present and future sin and nailed it to the cross of Jesus so that you need never fear being condemned. All you have done is put out your hand in repentance and faith to accept this gift. Indeed, that very action of seeing your need and placing your trust in Christ was itself a gift of God. When you have genuinely encountered Jesus then it will transform your life. You are not what you ought to be or one day will be. But you are changing and you know that sin that you cannot rest in sin.
The character of Christ is being produced from within you (22-23)
Indeed before you became a Christian your sinful nature always got its way. Of course you did things that you thought were good, because your pride motivated you towards many self-righteous works. Even when you were motivated by genuine compassion, you soon began to self-congratulate and look for praise. It wasn’t that you never resisted temptation—you did not want to live with the shame or consequences of moral failure. It wasn’t that you were as bad as you could have been—God graciously restrained you from much evil. However, every action and thought was dominated by self-centredness and self-absorption. But now the person of the Holy Spirit dwells within you, and he is opposed to your sinful nature. You have a conflict within!
The fruit of the Spirit is in stark contrast with the acts of the sinful nature. John Stott writes, ‘The mere recital of these Christian graces should be enough to make our mouths water and the heart beat faster. For this is a portrait of Jesus ... this is the kind of person that every Christian longs to be.’
The word translated ‘fruit’ is singular—stressing that these qualities are a unity ‘like a bunch of grapes instead of separate pieces of fruit, and also that they are all to be found in all Christians’ (Boice). By nature you may seem strong in some of these verses, but when these virtues are the result of the Holy Spirit they all exist together.
So you may appear like you are self-controlled—because you have always lived a disciplined life—but that discipline could be rooted in pride and lacks joy. You may appear loving—because you are an extravert who enjoys meeting new people—but you lack patience and faithfulness and so don’t stick at friendships. You may appear to be at peace—because you are unflappable—but the truth is that you are just indifferent. You may have a happy disposition—when things are going well. There is a difference between being gentle and being timid. May the Holy Spirit bring each of these virtues to our lives in an authentic way!
Christians experience a conflict within (24-25)
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature (24). He is talking about something every Christian has done. As God brought us into his family he caused us to desire to make a break from our old way of living. We were declaring ‘I no longer want to live a life that simply aims to satisfy the desires if the sinful nature, I want to live for Jesus.’ As a friend recently said to me, 'this whole thing of living for self just doesn't work.' God was enabling us to nail the sinful nature to an instrument of death. You are no longer its slave!
But the flesh still troubles us. There is conflict within! Think of the sinful nature as a criminal pinned to a cross, defeated and dying, but not yet dead. The flesh is dying, but sis still dangerous. The flesh taunts you, and tempts you to satisfy its desires. The flesh has been weakened, but still has influence. We need to depend on the Holy Spirit to overcome its malevolent influence. So let us keep on walking by the Spirit! That’s how we change!
Conclusion—How to change
I began by asking if, like Uncle George, you want to display the beauty of godliness and if you want to become more like Jesus. The key to change is to live by the Spirit (16 and 25), and keep in step with the Spirit (25). These verbs speak of progress, development and growth. ‘To opt for the status quo … is to miss the adventure of life in the Spirit’ (Jackman). But how do we walk in the Spirit?
Think of the word ‘fruit’. Fruit grows slowly but inevitably when there is life. You may not be what you ought to be, you are not what you will be, but you should be growing. Jesus associated fruit with abiding/remaining in him (John 15). He spoke of remaining in him in connection with prayer, his word and obedience. Walking in the Spirit involves willingness to being led.
The willingness to being led involves a new set of desires. The Spirit desires what is contrary to the sinful nature (17). Elsewhere, Paul speaks about God causing us to will and act according to his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). He also speaks of the renewing of your mind (Rom. 12:2). You cannot cultivate two opposing desires at the same time. Feed your mind with truth and error will flee. Pursue a passion for purity and the ugliness of lust will be exposed. Delight yourself in the Lord! Seek his face! ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of the world will go strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.’
Finally, remember what we have learned about the Holy Spirit as we have studied Galatians. He causes us to cry out ‘Abba, Father’ (4:6). Pray in the Spirit as you depend humbly on your heavenly Father. Walk in the Spirit of adoption as you remind yourself that God has accepted you as a dearly loved child, and that nothing can separate you from his love. Walk in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit when you allow God’s people challenge you, comfort you and encourage you. Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (18).