I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to Galatians chapter 5. If you’re using the Bible in the rack in front of you, it’s page 974. We’re continuing in our study of the three primary Christian virtues – faith, hope and love – looking at how they work together, how they are fueled, what their goal and target is, why they are critical for us. This evening I’d like us to think about the freedom that is ours in those Christian virtues. And in that freedom, how do we not abuse that freedom, how do we not lose that freedom, and at the core, how do we live a life of love that we in the Holy Spirit are freed to live? Particularly, how do we love people who are difficult to love? How do we love people that are impossible, humanly speaking, to love? How do you love your husband on those days when you look at him and think, “I can’t bear another day with this man?” Or your wife when similar words go through your mind? How do you love the marginalized – people that if they walked in this room you’d say, “I don’t know that they’re where they belong?” Several of us were at a training event this past week and one of the speakers came in wearing a t-shirt that said, “Yes, I am one of those people!” And he was referring to the fact that there are “those people” that you really don’t expect to see in your church. How do we become a place where “those people” actually find their way in and find themselves welcome? Faith, hope and love. How does that work together toward that end?
Galatians 5, verses 1 through 6:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
Let’s take a moment and pray together.
Father, we ask for the help of Your Holy Spirit who Jesus promised to send to us so that we wouldn’t only understand Your truth but that we’d embrace it, that we’d love the truth, that we would be transformed by it. Would You do that in my heart? Would You do that in the hearts of those who are gathered here together, so that going forth from this place Your Spirit would be visibly at work transforming us from one degree of glory to the next that faith, hope and love would be increasingly visible in each one of our lives and more deeply treasured and celebrated by each one of us. We ask in Jesus’ name, amen.
I should show this to our singers behind us. What do you think? Nice t-shirt? On the back it has the church logo, “First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi. Since 1837.” On the front, “Love Your City” with the star, which is the symbol of the city of Jackson. What do you think? A lot of people from this church, I think about fifty people from our church, participated in the Bright Lights Belhaven Nights event not too long ago wearing these shirts, and a lot people asked, “Where can I get one of those shirts? I love your shirt!” But here’s the question. Does wearing the shirt actually make it true? By the way, we’ve ordered a bunch more so if you want one, call the church office. They’ll get you one! Inexpensive advertising! What does it mean to love your city? And do you? What would it look like – I mean, the passage here talks about, chapter 5 verse 14, it says, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Verse 14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And so there’s a direct connection between loving your city and loving your neighbor as yourself. But do we? It’s a whole lot easier wearing this shirt. Don’t you think?
And I suspect this is part of what Paul is pointing to in this passage. Chapter 6 verse 2, just the very next chapter, he says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” I mean these are imperatives; they’re commands. But while they’re imperatives, I find them impossible. Don’t you? I don’t know if I’ve ever really loved someone else like I love myself. I’m way too selfish for that. Aren’t you? So as I look at this passage and as I listen to what Paul is saying to us, commanding really, I find myself asking three questions. This is the outline I’d like to unpack. Number one, “What’s wrong?” Number two, “What’s true?” Number three, “What power?” Really simple tonight. What’s wrong? What’s true? And what power?
First question, “What’s wrong?” What danger or what deception, what problem is Paul highlighting in this passage? If you look at it carefully you’ll discover that the real focus of Paul’s letter is freedom. The paragraph, the section we’re in – chapter 5 verse 1 through 15 – is bookended with the words “freedom” on both ends. Verse 1, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Then in verse 13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” And what you discover very quickly is Paul is focusing on two dangers. One, the danger of losing your Gospel freedom and the other, the danger of abusing your Gospel freedom. Losing it is in verse 1. Abusing it is in verse 13. And very quickly you’ll see that these are the guardrails between which the entire Christian life is lived out. And rarely do we operate on a single track. Most of us meander between those two guardrails. Sometimes we are in danger of abusing our Gospel freedom. Other times we are in danger of losing our Gospel freedom. And Paul is addressing both of those dangers.
Now for the original audience, the key issue was circumcision. That practice, which was debated and to which that practice is what Paul was writing this letter to, that practice was designed at that time to answer the questions, “How can I really be sure of my standing before God? What must I do to ensure that God will accept me? What will I do or what practice can I embrace to make me feel worthy of His accepting me? How do I really know? How do I get Him to really love me?” Now we may not make that practice the basis of our pursuing that reassurance or our assurance of our own worthiness, but we have a lot of other practices. Don’t we? We have a wide range of things to which we are looking to ensure, “Yeah, I’m worthy of God’s love. I’ve done these things and of course God loves me. Look at what I’ve done. Look at where I’ve been. Look at where I am.” There’s this deep issue of worthiness that lies at the core of each one of us, and we believe that because God treats us as accepted in Christ there has to be something within us that makes us feel worthy of that. And there isn’t anything and so we try and backfill it. This is what Paul, I believe, is writing to. As a matter of fact in Galatians chapter 3 verse 3 he asks this question, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Putting it in another way, “Do you think by your own effort you can complete what God’s Spirit began in you?”
Let me give you a picture of what this might look like. Years ago I saw a film that I won’t name because I’m not commending the film, I won’t even talk about the plot, but there was a subplot in the film that I’ve always thought about. It just stuck with me. I actually looked up the script of the film to make sure I got the words right. But the subplot was this tension between this husband and wife and the wife was harsh, she was cold, she was demanding, and the husband just wanted to be loved. He wanted a relationship with her where he felt valued. And toward the end of the movie he makes this statement to her. He says, “I always felt lucky, actually a little amazed, that such a vibrant, beautiful woman like you would want to be with a man like me. And I guess I thought as long as I did everything right, if I was the best husband I could be, if I was the best father you could imagine, even if I was the best lawyer, if I could do all that, one day, one day you’d really love me.”
I don’t know what it is for you, but I suspect that there are places, experiences, practices in your life that when they’re thriving you feel worthy of being loved, and when they’re not thriving you begin to wonder, “How could God possibly love someone like me?” This is what Paul is writing to. It’s what had happened with the believers to whom he was writing in Galatia. They had become married, united to Christ, by grace through faith, but they’d begun thinking, “I can’t believe God really loves me. I know I don’t deserve to be loved that way. Surely there’s something that I can do that will make me feel worthy. Surely there’s something that I can do to which I can point and say, ‘Because of this, I’m assured that He loves me. I’m assured that I belong.’” And what Paul is saying very plainly is that none of the things that you do, things that you do in order to make yourself worthy of His love and acceptance, none of those things count. Verse 6, “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith expressing itself through love.”
I had a missionary friend who worked in Ireland who was speaking once and he made this comment. He said, “You can identify what that thing is for you that you are looking for so that you’ll feel worthy with this phrase.” He said it this way – “My spiritual life would really take off if I would only_____________.” “My spiritual life would really take off if only I began getting up at five o’clock, spending an hour with God and His Word every morning. Man, then my spiritual life would take off.” My friend said that’s what you’re pointing to, to say, “That will make me feel worthy of His love and that will assure me that I really truly belong.” Or if it’s, “If I just get busier in the work of the church, if I fill up my schedule, then I’ll feel like I’m worthy of being loved.” Or, “If I…” You fill in the blank. It could be any number of things for each one of us.
Now don’t get me wrong, each of those things that you might put in that blank is a good thing. It might be a means of grace. It might be a discipline of grace. But when that becomes something that you do in order to become worthy, to feel worthy of His love and acceptance, then it’s become something idolatrous and it’s actually making you lose the freedom that Christ has redeemed you to experience. The truth is, your Father’s not holding out on you. There’s nothing that He is keeping back from you. There’s no access denied, no love withheld. You have it all. I was moved to tears when the choir sang this morning, “No condemnation now I dread. Jesus and all in Him is mine.” And it struck me as they were singing – there’s nothing missing. There’s nothing He’s holding back. In union with Christ, all that is His, is already mine. He can’t entrust to me any more than He already has. Nothing is withheld. The problem is, we don’t live as if we believe that were true. Instead we’re always looking for something that, “If I do this, then I’ll feel better about what He’s entrusted to me. Then I’ll feel a little more worthy, a little more deserving.”
Here’s a slightly different picture of it. Imagine you’ve got to go to the doctor and you’ve got a real issue and you’re trying to figure out, “Who should I go see?” And you consult with several of the physicians who are seated here among us and they all point to the same doctor. They say, “Go see this doctor. If you have a problem, this is the one to see.” So you make an appointment, you go to his office, and you open the door to the waiting room and to your surprise there’s no one there. And you go to the other end of the waiting room and it’s open and through the crack in the door you can see that the doctor is just sitting there on one of the exam tables and he’s flipping through a magazine. You think – you know what you’re thinking, right? “If he was any good, this room would be filled. If he was any good, he’d be busy! He’s not busy. He can’t be any good.” Right?
And that’s the thinking that subtly creeps in to us, particularly those of us who are involved in the church. We think, “The more busy I am, the more validation I have that I’m a person of worth, that God really does accept me. I mean, look at all I’m doing.” Paul says if that’s your mentality, you’re in danger of losing your Gospel freedom. If that’s what’s wrong, then what’s true? What’s the Gospel corrective? What rescue is being offered? Well here’s what Paul says in chapter 5 verse 6. The only thing that counts is faith working through love; faith expressing itself through love. Notice he doesn’t say the only thing that counts is faith. He doesn’t say the only thing that counts is love. He says the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. What he’s saying is that the faith that is the instrument of our justification inevitably expresses itself through love. And here he’s highlighting both of the guardrails between which we live our Christian life. By faith we don’t lose our Gospel freedom, and by love we don’t abuse our Gospel freedom.
Now on one level, we know that’s true. Right? The problem is, if you’re honest with yourself, you look at your practice, you realize there’s a huge gap between what you claim to believe and what you actually practice. And that gap is almost always there. Think about the gap between what we’re commanded here in this passage and how we actually live. Chapter 5 verse 14, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Verse 13, “Through love you shall serve one another.” Chapter 6 verse 2, “You shall bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” They’re all commands. And yet in our practice, in our practice we find them not just difficult but so much of the time we find them impossible.
So that leads to the final question – “What power?” How do I live in this freedom without either abusing that freedom or without losing that freedom? If you were here last Sunday night you heard Wiley preach on 1 Corinthians 13 and he talked about weddings and hearing that passage read at so many weddings. “Love is patient. Love is kind. 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 wrongdoings but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And Wiley recommended that you replace the word “love” with your own name and see how it fits. I cringed when he said that. “Ed is patient.” No. “Ed is kind.” Not always. “Ed is empathetic. Ed is generous. Ed is nurturing. Ed believes all things. Ed is trustworthy.” No! I wish it were true. My wife wishes it were true! But there’s the subtle danger. Because I am not naturally a loving person, because I am not naturally a kind, patient, trusting person, I shrug my shoulders and say, “Well that’s just not who I am.” And I begin to abuse my Gospel freedom. As verse 13 says, I “provide opportunities for the flesh.”
Sandy Wilson, who preached at our mission conference several years ago, performed a wedding in Memphis. Some of y’all were there. And you know, at every wedding there is a homily, a short sermon that’s preached. And on that day at that wedding, Sandy chose Matthew chapter 5 to preach as he was staring at this bride and groom in front of a couple thousand people. And you know which verse he chose out of Matthew 5? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It was actually rather jarring, and yet perfectly appropriate because there are days, there really are days when the hurt you feel from your husband makes him feel like the enemy; the guilt you feel from your wife makes her feel like the enemy. The day that the words you hear from each other make you feel like the persecuted one. And on that day, Jesus says, “Love your enemy, even if it’s your spouse, or maybe especially when it’s your spouse. Pray for the one who persecutes you.” I hear that and I say, “I’ve known days where that feels absolutely impossible and yet it’s what Jesus commands us to.”
And so the question is, “Where does that power come from? How am I enabled to love my enemy, to love my city? How am I enabled to love the marginalized, the people who are really different from me? How do I love the person who doesn’t applaud when I love my city – whatever that looks like – who actually becomes angry because the way I’m choosing to love my city doesn’t look like the way they would want their city to be loved?” Where does that power come from?
Paul highlights it in verse 5. “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Think about it. Through the Spirit, by faith. The whole passage comes to this. We don’t love out of our own energies. We love by faith. We don’t hope because we think everything is going to work out well. We hope by faith. Paul directly connects love with faith and hope with faith. And he says when you get a clear vision of what your future is – this is what David Strain talked about this morning. Not looking at where you will be in two weeks, but what is your hope of righteousness, the home of righteousness that Peter talks about. We’re looking forward to new heaven and new earth – the home of righteousness. That’s your hope of righteousness – what’s already been declared through justification will be perfected and it will be all permanently unloseably yours, visibly yours. “By faith,” Paul says, “by faith through the Spirit, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.”
We’re back to the guardrails. By faith we love and we’re rescued from the danger of abusing our Gospel freedom. By faith we hope and we’re rescued from the danger of losing our Gospel freedom. Or putting it another way in Galatians 3:11, Paul says, “The righteous will live by faith.” We can add this – “The righteous will love by faith. The righteous will hope by faith.” The key to it all, verse 5, is this is through the Spirit and only through the Spirit. And that’s what he then highlights through the rest of the chapter. Verse 16, we walk by the Spirit. Verse 17, we desire by the Spirit. Verse 18, we’re led by the Spirit. Verse 22, the fruit of the Spirit. Verse 25, we live by the Spirit and keep in step by the Spirit. Chapter 6 verse 8, we’re sowing to the Spirit; we’re planting seeds with a view to the Holy Spirit at work.
So how do I do this? How do I walk by the Spirit, desire by the Spirit, keep in step with the Spirit, live by the Spirit, sow to the Spirit? How do I grow in the fruit of the Spirit? This takes us back to Galatians chapter 3. The argument is so tightly unified that it’s beautifully put together. Galatians chapter 3 verse 2, Paul asks this question – “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” Of course you know that the first answer is wrong. Works of the law – wrong answer. So it has to be hearing with faith. And then verse 5, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, do so by works of the law or” – there it is again – “by hearing with faith?”
You know what that is of course, right? It’s the core of the fuel of the Christian life. It’s combining hearing with faith. It’s being like a child that says, “Daddy, you promised. I hear what you said. I’m holding you to your word. I trust you to do what I can’t understand how it’s going to work out. I don’t know what this is going to take. I don’t know how this is going to work out. I don’t know how long this will take, but you promised. I hear you. I believe you. And I’m trusting you to make good on your promise.”
J. D. Greer recently put out a new book called, Jesus Continued. The subtitle of that book is, “Why the Spirit Inside You is Better than the Jesus Beside You.” And his argument is that you and I have something far more powerful, far more valuable than the disciples of Jesus did the three years they walked alongside of Him because they had the Jesus beside them. We have the Spirit within us. And Jesus says that’s so much better. In John chapter 16 verse 7, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper, the Holy Spirit, will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him, the Spirit, to you.” That’s the advantage and there’s the power.
Think about it this way. Jesus said in John 15, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing. You can’t love your city, you can’t love your neighbor, you can’t bear one another’s burdens, you can’t apart from Me.” But Paul smiles and says in Philippians 4, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” I can love my city. I can love my neighbor as myself. I can bear the burdens of those alongside of whom I am walking. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Saint Augustine put it this way. “Command, O Lord, what You will and give what You command.” His argument is this. The work of God always precedes the command of God. He is already working to equip you and prepare you before He commands you toward anything. God never commands you toward something and says, “Let’s see how this works out for you.” He commands after He’s already begun working. That’s the power that enables us to love our city, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to bear one another’s burdens. There’s the power.
Let me try to finish with one last picture. When our youngest son, Daniel, was three or four years old, he loved playing with legos. It was his favorite toy. And whenever he played with legos, legos went absolutely everywhere. He couldn’t play with just a few; he had to play with all of them. So we had this big box and the first thing he would do would be dump them all over the floor and then start building. And inevitably, it would be time to clean up and get on to the next thing and Emily or I would come and say, “Daniel, time to clean up your legos.” And almost always there’d be this panic-stricken look in his eye as he looked around and would say, “Look at all the legos! It’s too much! I can’t do this!” And so there would be a question he would ask. He would say, “Daddy, would you help me clean up my legos?” There’s two answers that I could give in that place. One, I could say, “Daniel, I told you to clean up the legos. Hurry up and clean them up or there will be consequences.” Or I can say, “Of course I’ll help you. I’ve already got the box. Let’s see how quickly we can put them up.” Now with the first response, Daniel will clean up the legos because he fears the consequences. He’s going to try to earn a safe passage through the rest of the day. With the second response, if I say, “Of course I’ll help you clean them up. I’ve already got the box. Let’s do it together,” there’s a smile on his face, there’s delight in his heart, because he knows the command comes with the promise – Dad will do it with me. We’ll clean it up together.
There’s the power. God doesn’t command you to love your city or love your neighbor without already being at work by His Spirit in your heart to enable you to do what is otherwise absolutely impossible for you to do. God’s not going to command you to love your wife or your husband as yourself without already being at work in your heart to will and to do, to give you the will and the capacity to love in a way that’s way outside yourself. Isn’t that what Paul says in Philippians 2:13? He says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Bringing it back to where we began, Paul says the only thing that counts is faith working through love. God’s calling you to love by faith. He’s calling you to hope by faith in the future He’s secured for you. He’s already at work, but He’s inviting you in not to go off and try to do your work on your own, but to join Him in what He’s already committed to doing. You want to know true freedom without losing that freedom, without abusing that freedom? Then take hold of what Jesus has already given you, take hold of the Spirit. Listen. Listen for His voice through His Word. Make room in the busyness and the chaos of your life. Most of us are hustling. Make room to settle your heart and listen for the Spirit. He’s there. He’s working. He’s going to bring His Word to bear upon where you are. Look for Him. Listen for Him. And by the Spirit alone, let Him teach you to love by faith, way beyond your capacity; to hope by faith, way beyond your wildest dreams.
Let’s pray together.
Holy Spirit, would You please make room in our understanding, in our sense of how things work, in our planning, our structuring, our hustling – make room for the fact that You’re at work. You’ve got a plan that You’re committed to perfecting, completing what You’ve already begun and that You in Your mercy have invited us in not to figure it out on our own but to join You in the work and to delight in the fact that You are working through us, in us. Free us, then, not to try and earn something from You so that we feel entitled to Your favor, and not to abuse that freedom by shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Well that’s just not me. I’m not a very loving person after all. You can’t expect me to do or be what I’m not.” But enable us to live by Your Spirit, to love by Your Spirit, to hope by Your Spirit and to rejoice, with joy unspeakable, because of the truth that we belong and You are committed to finishing the work You’ve begun. We ask all this in Jesus’ precious and holy name, amen.
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