“Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5)
There’s no doubt that we have problems. Big problems.
You read a passage like Galatians 5 and two things occur: you want to be good and you (have to) admit to being bad.
Niceness doesn’t come naturally. God knows it doesn’t. But we need to see where we are -to draw a line- and to know what it is that can keep us from inheriting the kingdom. And here it is.
And then the flip-side is described:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
The trouble is that when people like us are given a list like this, instead of seeking a God-transformation, we take the list of virtues and figure it out wrongly. For example, if our problem is that at root we are proud and self-sufficient, and we accept that kindness and faithfulness are virtues, we train ourselves to do kind things and to keep our promises so that we can be proud of ourselves and feel morally self-sufficient before God and man.
In which case the list of virtues doesn’t help at all! We are now just mishandling the word of grace and using it to be become worse hypocrites than ever.
Paul knows that his moral teaching can be abused in this way. So what does he do to make sure that we don’t misuse his list of vices and virtues? His aim is not to change the veneer of our lives with some new learned habits of behaviour. His aim is a new creation (6:15) from the root up, so that new habits are the natural outgrowth of new hearts.
So that niceness comes naturally?
There are four steps that Paul takes in Gal 5:19-26 to stop us turning the goodie-list into a legalism.
First, he calls his list of vices “works of the flesh” (5:19–21) and he calls his list of virtues “fruit of the Spirit” (5:22–23). More on this in a minute.
Second, in verse 24 he says that the basis of our doing right and not wrong is that the root of wrong has died. The flesh has been crucified if we are Christ’s. So the flesh can’t sneak in and translate love into legalism. It’s dead.
Third, in verse 25, when Paul finally commands us to do something, he tells us to do it in someone else’s power, not our own: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” This rules out the possibility that we should ever take a virtue and by our own strength make it a ground for boasting. No, the only way any act has moral value is if we do it in reliance on the Spirit’s power, not ours.
Finally, in verse 26 Paul’s command is not addressed primarily to an outward act but to an inward attitude: “Let us have no self-conceit.” Let us not be driven by the love of praise and glory.
The point is – the problem is – not the outer bits of behaviour (the whitecap waves) but the massive dark iceberg of stuff beneath the surface.
Do you see what a world of difference there is between how the Bible teaches and how the world teaches?
The Bible soberly acknowledges the iceberg of pride (“depravity“) within the human heart. And the Bible solves this with a supernatural encounter with God, (“new birth”) at its beginning and sanctification afterward.
So Paul is saying, “If we come alive by an act of the Spirit, so now let us go on walking in reliance on the Spirit” (5:25). Popular Western morality, on the other hand, is astonishingly naïve about the depth of our corruption and even turns much of our pride into a virtue.
John Piper said that nowadays, “God is an option or even a traditional value to be preserved, but not at all a desperately needed Saviour from the disease of sin.”
Don’t let the world’s way of thinking dominate you. I want us to think biblically about virtue and not to be conformed to the way this world works at its virtue. So consider how Paul prevents us from turning his ethical teaching into a moral self-help course.
He calls the vices in 5:19–21, “works of the flesh,” and the virtues in 5:22, 23, “fruit of the Spirit.” Why so? Keep in mind that “flesh” does not mean “body,” as though our bodies were the root cause of our sins. There are some sins listed here that don’t come from our bodies (e.g., strife, enmity, jealousy, anger, envy, etc.). Flesh is the old ego that is self-reliant and does not delight to yield to any authority or depend on any mercy. It craves the sensation of self-generated power and loves the praise of men.
Paul opens the lens so we see that the flesh also (in its more liberal form) produces grossly immoral attitudes and acts: “sexual immorality, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery,” and hateful, harmful tendencies: “enmity, strife, jealousy, anger,” etc. The flesh is the proud and unsubmissive root of depravity in every human heart which exalts itself subtly through proud, self-reliant morality, or flaunts itself blatantly through self-assertive, authority-despising immorality.
Now why does Paul call the products of our flesh “works” and the products of God’s Spirit through us “fruit”? Until recently I would have said: because works implies effort and fruit implies effortlessness, and God’s will is that we experience love, joy, and peace effortlessly. But then I noticed that many of the “works of the flesh” are just as effortless for a natural person as the fruit of the Spirit is for the spiritual person. For example, anger requires no effort: cross a natural man and red anger flows as naturally as blood from a wound. Or envy: no one has to work to be envious. It just creeps like poison into our thinking processes.
So I doubt that Paul called these vices “works” because they require effort to produce. A bad tree bears bad fruit effortlessly.
The flesh knows nothing of grace. It doesn’t think of its satisfactions as free gifts from a merciful God. It thinks of them as debts which it deserves to be paid. This is why all its products should be called “works.”
Even though jealousy and anger and envy come out of the flesh just as spontaneously and effortlessly as fruit out of a tree, the tree only thinks in terms of merit and pay and reaction for no pay. And so everything it produces is flavoured by the mentality of merit and is called “works.”
But the mentality behind the fruit of the Spirit is the mentality of faith depending upon grace. People who bear the fruit of the Spirit know they are worthy only of condemnation. They know that the only pay they can earn is the wrath of God. Therefore, they have turned away from self-reliance and look only to mercy in Christ who “loved us and gave himself for us“ (2:20). They do not expect anyone to be their debtor because of their worth. Any satisfaction will be a free gift of grace. They bank on the mercy of God and entrust themselves to his Spirit for help. And out of that mentality of faith depending on grace grows not “works” but “fruit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness . . The issue is not the outward activities of life but the kind of heart that produces our outer life. Paul assumes that some powerful battle has been fought and won in the deep territory of our soul. That’s the meaning of verse 24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
Christ has taken possession. Our old self has been dealt a mortal wound and stripped of its power to have dominion. The Christian life, the fruit of the Spirit, is a continuous reckoning of the flesh as dead and a continuous relying on the present Spirit of Christ to produce love, joy, and peace within.
So who am I? Where do I live? Am I trapped forever within a cycle of trying my best, failing and repenting? Why am I so full of unpleasant thoughts and negative reactions?
I am a child of God. I have been born again into His family. I’m no longer a slave to old addictions and bad habits, and I’m even free from the chains of trying harder. The cross exposes both the depth of my sin and the price of my salvation. But it also declares that “It is finished.” And this finished work of Christ is enacted in my life by the Spirit of Christ. He lives here.
And where He lives, niceness comes naturally.