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 walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (ESV)
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Tuesday of Advent 3
15 December 2015
In adult instruction a couple of weeks ago, I talked about the gift of individual confession and absolution. I mentioned that I had never had occasion to say to a penitent about his sin: "Just stop it." If it were that simple, then the penitent would have had no reason to come to me to confess his sins. The command to stop sinning, if effective would make absolution superfluous. What a horrible outcome! To deprive ourselves of hearing the life-giving Word of God granting full remission of our sins. The sin that drives us to confession is truly what the ancient fathers called the "felix culpa," that is, the blessed fault. Has not King David pronounced the sinner blessed, if he has received the divine mercy of forgiveness of his iniquities (Ps 32:1-2
)? He is a changed person through the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. His iniquities are no longer counted against Him, because His relationship with God has changed through Christ. Oh, yes, his sin is still sin. It is still death-dealing. It is still an affront to the holy God. It just is not counted against him by God because of Christ.
Before God, sins are not counted as humans count them; bigger and smaller. Our status with God is about exactly that: status, not acts. This is why good works are not meritorious in the sight of God, as beneficial as they may be for our neighbor. Our neighbor is not the source of our status in God's sight. Our status with God is a personal relationship with Him, which is initiated and maintained by God through the person of God's Son, who has become a substitute for us poor sinners in His suffering and death on the cross. We are sinners, oh yes. We will be until we draw our dying breath. We may well be worse than any unbeliever. But God does not look upon our sins. He looks upon His Son, whose work changes our status. We are God's children and that means that our Father will always favor us. We have become Adam's Seth and Abraham's Isaac; treasured children in the sight of our Father.
A few years ago, Bo Guagua, the son of Bo Xilai, disappeared from his Cambridge, MA luxury apartment. His father, Bo Xilai, had fallen from grace as a member of the Chinese Communist Party, following accusations that his wife, Gu Kailai, murdered British national Neil Heywood last November. As long as his parents were part of the high Communist Party structure in China, their son's status was assured and he could live an opulent lifestyle among what the Chinese call the "princelings." Now all that is gone for Mr. Guagua. His status is far from certain in China. Earthly status may be destroyed when it depends on the vicissitudes of political life. Our status with God is never put at such a risk. For God's promises never depend on us, our works, or the world around us. They are dependent on God, who swears His love and grace toward us on Himself. No oath could be more certain (Heb 6:17-18). God promises our status of sonship is secured by His only begotten Son. In Him we are new persons. We are the princelings of God. There is no better status.
"'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' (Gal 5:16-17
). All the saints have had and experienced this struggle of the flesh with the Spirit. We, too, experience it. Whoever explores his own conscience, provided that he is not a hypocrite, will surely find that his own situation is just as Paul describes it here, namely, that the flesh struggles against the Spirit. Therefore every saint feels and confesses that his flesh resists the Spirit and that these two are opposed to each other, so that he cannot do what he would want, even though he sweats and labors, it is not possible to do so. If the flesh prevents us from keeping the commandments of God, from loving our neighbors as ourselves, and how much more prevent from loving God with all our heart, etc. Therefore it is impossible for us to be justified by works of the law. The good will is present, which is as it should be (of course, the Spirit Himself resisting the flesh) and it would rather do good, fulfill the law, love God and the neighbor, etc. But the flesh does not obey this will but resists it. Yet God does not impute this sin, for He is propitious to believers for the sake of Christ.
It does not follow from this, however, that you should minimize sin or think of it as something trivial because God does not impute it. It is true that He does not impute it, but to whom and on what account? Not to the hardhearted and secure but to those who repent and who apprehend by faith Christ the Propitiator, on whose account all sins are remitted to them and the remnants of sin are not imputed to them. Such people do not minimize sin; they amplify it, because they know that it cannot be washed away by any satisfactions, works, or righteousness, but onlyby the death of Christ. Yet they do not despair because of its enormity but are persuaded that it is forgiven them on account of Christ.
I say this to keep anyone from thinking that once faith has been received, sin should not be emphasized. Sin is truly sin, whether you commit it before or after you have come to know Christ. And God always hates sin; absolutely every sin; in fact, so far as the substance of the deed is concerned, every sin is mortal. It is not mortal to the believer on account of Christ the Propitiator, who expiated it by His death. To the person who does not believe in Christ, not only are all his sins mortal, but even his good works are sins, in accordance with the statement: 'Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin' (Rm 14:23
Therefore it is a pernicious error when the sophists distinguish among sins on the basis of the substance of the deed rather than on the basis of the persons. Those who believe have the same sin and sin just as great as that of the unbeliever. To the believer, however, it is forgiven and not imputed. To the unbeliever it is retained and imputed. To the former it is venial; to the latter it is mortal, and not because of a difference between the sins, as though the believer's sin were smaller and the unbeliever's larger, but because of a difference between the persons. For the believer knows that his sin has been remitted to him, because Christ handed Himself over for him. Even though he has sin and is sinning, he remains godly. On the other hand, when the unbeliever commits sin, he remains ungodly. These things are truly the wisdom and the consolation of the godly, that even if they have sins and commit sins, yet they know that on account of their faith in Christ these are not imputed to them.
Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 5.17
Lord Jesus, You have changed our status before Your Father. Grant us to live in peace and quietness under the shelter of Your cross. Keep before our eyes Your substitution for us that we might not turn aside to be overcome by our sins. Amen.
For LaVerne Wagner, that the Lord would give wisdom to doctors and other health professionals as she undergoes surgery
For the family of Jo Lodholz, which will be laying her remains to rest following a Christian funeral service, that they would be comforted by God's Word
For Cliff Scherer, that the Lord would continue to grant him strength and healing
For Ralph Gustafson, who is suffering from cancer, that the Lord Christ would be with him in the midst of his therapy
Art: VOUET, Simon Annunciation (1640s)
© Scott R. Murray, 2015