THE WORKS OF THE FLESH

rock underwater

How do we know we are living by the Spirit, and not the flesh? Well, there is a contrast. The flesh does certain things. The Spirit results in different things. This isn’t about law. It is about knowing the difference between flesh and Spirit.

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Galatians #19 . Chapter 5:19-21

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21, HCSB)

There are many tensions in the Christian life. One of those tensions has to do with forgiveness and grace on the one hand, and sin and the flesh on the other. This is one of the passages that shows us the tension. Paul has spent almost five chapters explaining that we cannot earn God’s approval. We can only trust Jesus, and that through Jesus we have it. Our sins cannot keep us separated from God any longer, because through Jesus, sin has been dealt with, once and for all. And yet, that is not an excuse to sin. Paul explains that if we continue on practicing works of the flesh, we won’t be a part of God’s kingdom at all. How do we reconcile these things?

Paul gives us these descriptions as a guide. He has told us to not indulge the flesh, but rather, live by the Spirit. How do we know we are living by the Spirit? Well, there is a contrast. The flesh does certain things. The Spirit results in different things. If you find you are practicing the things of the flesh, it is time for a course correction.

Paul names several different things as works of the flesh. After that list, he says, “and anything similar.” So this is not a complete or exhaustive list. He isn’t making a catalogue of every sin of the flesh, he’s just painting an overall picture. I’m not going to go into each of these in detail, because the main point is the overall picture. These are just a few examples of what “the flesh” can look like. However, I do want to mention just a couple of the works of the flesh he uses as examples, because some of them are not recognized as wrong anymore. My point is not to just generally condemn people. We are all sinners; we are all saved by Jesus. But living according to the flesh, as we’re about to find out, is spiritually dangerous, and often destructive to our personal lives. So we ought to be clear about some of what society calls “normal” but the bible calls “the flesh.” PLEASE do not take this as condemnation. Take it as motivation to let Jesus lead your life, instead of living to please yourself or other human beings. Even if what follows is hard to listen to, stay with me. I think you’ll find some grace if you read on through the hard stuff and hear what else the Lord has to say to you today.

One of the works of the flesh is “sexual immorality.” This is a very broad term, and it means, “any sexual activity that takes place outside of marriage.” So it includes sex before marriage, adultery, homosexual sex, pornography and, well, anything that isn’t between a married couple.

I think the culture at large has stopped believing that sexual immorality is wrong. But truth is truth, regardless of how many people believe it. According to the bible – this very passage, in fact – it is wrong. People have changed their behavior, and they’ve changed their views to match their behavior. But the truth hasn’t changed.

I have some advice for young people who find themselves in a pattern of having sex without getting married: Just get married already. If you don’t love the other person enough to marry her, then you are just using her for sex, and isn’t that just a little despicable? But if you do love her enough to marry her, what’s the problem? Go on and tie the knot already. This is basically what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. You can send me a thank-you card on your twentieth anniversary.

Another one we don’t think about much, is idolatry. When I was a little kid in Hong Kong, I saw actual idols all over the place. There was a giant statue of some Buddhist god right next to the beach we went to every week, and we saw smaller ones scattered in all sorts of locations. But in the Western world that kind of idol is pretty uncommon. However the basic principle behind idolatry is alive and well, all over the world. An idol is a false god. It is something that we treat as God, even though it is not.

In the Western world, we don’t treat statues as gods. But many people treat money as a god. People seek comfort in money. They put it first in their lives. They dedicate their lives to its service. That’s idolatry. We can make other people into idols as well – seeking comfort in them, dedicating our lives to them, rather the Lord of all Creation. In this way, mothers can even treat their children as idols, or husbands, their wives. We might turn anything into an idol: success; food; being healthy and fit. Here in Music City, USA, I’ve met a lot of people who treat music as an idol. If you seek your main comfort in it, if it has a higher priority in your life than the one true God – even if it is religious activity, but not God himself – it is an idol.

Another thing Paul mentions is drunkenness. This is another thing that our culture accepts, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone much. But the bible calls it a work of the flesh, a sin. Now, some folks might ask, “How drunk do you have to be before you’re ‘Bible-drunk?’” (Did I just invent a new phrase?) If you are really asking that question, I think you are probably already in danger from the flesh. You want to know how far you can “legally” go in indulging your flesh. I’ll talk about that in a minute.

Paul describes the works of the flesh and then writes, those who prassontes such things will not inherit eternal life. The Greek could be transliterated as “prassontes.” The root form of the word is “prasso.” Prasso means “to practice; to do something repetitively.” Here are a few places where the word is used in a similar way:

“This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices (prasso) wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.” (John 3:19-21, HCSB)

Although they know full well God’s just sentence — that those who practice (prasso) such things deserve to die — they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice (prasso) them. (Rom 1:32, HCSB)

Prasso is used frequently in the New Testament. In Galatians 5:21, the form of the word is both present tense, and active. What is important about all that, is that Paul is not referring to occasional failures. He means a deliberately chosen, ongoing pattern of life – repeated practicing – of these works of the flesh. In Romans 2:25, Paul uses the word for people who “observe” the law. In that context it is clear. Those who observe the law do not simply do one part of the law once in a while. It is the pattern of their lives. So, here, with regard to works of the flesh, Paul is talking about a present, active, ongoing pattern of life. He says, those who live this way, who make it their practice to behave in this way – those people will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So, we need to be clear. We don’t mean that an alcoholic who falls off the wagon will be automatically excluded from God’s kingdom. On the other hand, someone who continues a pattern of drunkenness, is walking by the flesh, and walking further and further away from God. Let me say too, I’ve known many functional alcoholics who lie to themselves about whether or not they are really drunk. They might say, “I’m not drunk, I’m just a little buzzed is all.” If you have a pattern of being “a little buzzed” fairly often, you are in danger.

We aren’t talking about sometimes giving in to temptation. I’m not saying that to do that is right. But I am saying that the great spiritual danger comes when giving in to temptation becomes a way of life. If you want to know how many times a week it is OK to give into temptation, my response is, “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” If you want to know how much you can get away with, you are moving in the direction of flesh, not Spirit.

My struggle in preaching about this, is that I know there are some folks out there who live in an agony of guilty feelings. They worry that every little thing they do wrong is going to destroy them spiritually. To them, I want to say, “God is much bigger than that. The work of Jesus is much more powerful. Of course you should confess and repent, but don’t waste time with guilt and shame. Jesus came to remove those things. They are not part of you anymore.”

On the other hand, a new survey just this week shows that 62% of Americans think they are going to heaven when they die, and only 1.5% think they will go to hell. Other polls show that among people who believe in heaven (which is about 89% of the population), 85% think they are going there. The bottom line is, a lot of people who really have nothing at all to do with God, think they are going to be part of his kingdom after they die. And even some church-goers and people who call themselves Christians, are living completely according to the flesh.

I had a friend who was a Christian. He struggled with alcohol, and with sexual immorality (the two often go together). He was married, but at one point, he invited his mistress to live with him and his wife. As things got worse and worse, I spoke with him. I said something like this:

Imagine you are in a boat in the middle of an ocean, in water that is one thousand feet deep. You pick up a big, heavy rock, take a deep breath, and jump off the boat. You want to go down deep, and the rock will take you there fast. If you let go of the rock soon enough, you will be able to swim back to the surface. But the longer you hold onto the rock, the deeper it takes you and the more dangerous it becomes. Long before you get to the bottom, you will pass a point of no return, where you won’t have enough breath to make it back up to the surface before you drown, even if you let go of the rock.

This is you, my friend. Let go of the rock, before it is too late.

My friend did not let go of the rock. He destroyed his family, hurt many people, and died before he was 45 years old. Now, most people don’t die young just because they are living according to the flesh. My main point is that he never turned back. Once a strong Christian, he basically renounced his faith, rather than renounce his lifestyle of the flesh. And that is the point. Somewhere down the road, the choice between flesh and spirit becomes solidified. At a certain point, which is probably different for each person, at least some people become hardened and never do turn back to life with Jesus. Now, I don’t want to start a theological argument about whether or not you can lose your salvation. I am merely repeating what Paul himself wrote:

I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

The apostle John wrote something interesting that may have bearing on this. He said:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not bring death, he should ask, and God will give life to him — to those who commit sin that doesn’t bring death. There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin that does not bring death. (1John 5:16-17, HCSB)

Sometimes, a sin is the result of a moment of weakness. It’s still a sin. It’s still something we ought to avoid. We should still repent (that is, reject it as a way of life) and confess (own up to it). But it is not something on which to waste a lot of time and energy. What I mean is, we turn away from the sin, we apply the work of the Jesus on the cross to it, we cling to Jesus as our holiness and move on with life.

But sometimes a sin is part of a long-term pattern of living by the desires of the flesh. We are holding on to the rock. We are going down; it is leading us to death, to separation from the kingdom of God.

Some people may want to know, “Just how far down can I go, and still let go of the rock and get back safely?” In other words, “just how much sin, how much indulging my flesh can I get away with before it is a problem?”

I think that type question is asked by two completely different groups of people. Some people may ask that, because they are worried that they have passed the point of no return. They know they have given in to the flesh many times, and when they hear bible passages like this, they think, “Oh my gosh, have I screwed it all up? Have I lost my salvation?” They want to know the answer to that question because they are worried that their sins have disqualified them.

To that first group of people, I want to repeat Paul’s first words to the Galatians:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (Gal 1:3-4, HCSB)

Do not fear, the work of Jesus is stronger than the work of your flesh. Martin Luther says it like this:

“Those who sin because of weakness, even if they do it often, will not be denied forgiveness, provided that they rise again and do not persist in their sin.”

If you are worried about your flesh because you don’t want to be drawn away from Jesus, you are probably in a good place. You don’t have to worry. Just fix your eyes on Jesus. Remember that in him, you are already holy. Claim that as your identity, and live accordingly.

There are people, however, who simply want to know how much they can get away with. They ask the question because they want to indulge their flesh some more, if they can, and still go to heaven. These are the folks I worry about. Imagine a husband who comes to his wife and says this:

“Honey, how close can I get to having affair before it is a problem for you? Can I look at other women? Can I fantasize about them? What about flirting – can I do a little harmless flirting? What about kissing another woman? That’s not technically cheating, is it?”

I think it would be obvious that there is a problem in that marriage. If the husband wants to know what he can get away with, he is clearly not very interested in his wife, or loving toward her. These types of questions show that the relationship is in serious trouble.

It’s the same with Jesus. If someone wants to know how far they can indulge the flesh before it’s a problem, I’d have to say, “It’s obviously a problem right now.” Think about my illustration of the rock that is pulling you under water. When should you let go of the rock? Right now! However deep you are, let go of it immediately. If you are contemplating holding on to it a little longer, you already in the danger zone! If you want to know how much you can indulge the flesh (so that you can get the maximum amount of flesh-indulgence possible without losing salvation) you are already oriented toward the flesh, and not the Spirit.

But if you are walking according to the flesh – if you are in a pattern of indulging the flesh – it is time to let go of the rock. Luther puts it this way:

Persistence in sin is the worst of all. If they do not return to their sense but stubbornly go on gratifying the desires of their flesh, this is the surest possible sign of dishonesty in their spirit.

We aren’t saved by refraining from sin, or by doing good works. But the orientation of our soul does matter. Sometimes we fail. I get that. PLEASE don’t let that discourage you or hang you up. Just don’t fall into the trap of indulging the flesh as a pattern or lifestyle.

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