How to Change Pt. 1 (Gal. 5:16-25)

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 keep in step with the Spirit.

– Galatians 5:16-25


We have spent the last six months looking at Romans 8, which is a remarkable declaration of God’s love for His children and what has done, and will do for us because of that love. There are commands in it for Christians, but the primary gist of Romans 8 is nothing more than display of the goodness and glory of God. The question we now have to ask is this: if I believe the message of Romans 8, if I believe the Gospel, the truth of Christianity, then what happens to my life?

And to answer that question we are looking at a famous passage from the book of Galatians, chapter five – what is known as “The Fruit of the Spirit”. When we come to put our faith in Jesus Christ, not only are our sins forgiven, we are justified and have a future hope of eternal glory – but we are actively changed by God. This is what Paul is referring to when he talks about “Living by the Spirit”. Christ accepts us just as we are, but because He loves us, He doesn’t leave us the way we are. If a doctor only accepts patients into her hospital, but didn’t treat any of their sicknesses, then she wouldn’t be a very good doctor, would she?

Jesus Christ invites us to more than forgiveness – He invites us to a whole new pattern of life, a whole different system than before. And here, in Galatians 5, Paul is helping show us how we can transition from this old way of living, to the new way. Paul calls the old way “the Flesh” and the new way “the Spirit”. The question we should be asking ourselves as we read this is “How do I change?”

How to Change

That question isn’t a question that is asked only by Christians: everyone in the world is asking that question. The best-selling books in the world are “self-help” books. Deep down, everyone wants to improve themselves, don’t they? They want a better body, better peace of mind, better bank account, better relationships, better self-esteem, etc. But the Christian message teaches us that all of those pursuits don’t go down deep enough; they feel that something isn’t right, but don’t get at the root of the problem that is ailing the human soul. You think you are unhappy because you can’t make friends and influence people, but the Bible tells us the problem is deeper than that.

So, how does a Christian change? What happens to us when we believe in Christ? Well, let’s look at three options that we have before us as to how we change ourselves: 1) We can love ourselves, 2) We can improve ourselves, or 3) We can die to ourselves.

Love Ourselves

Probably the most popular teaching in our culture today is this: Love yourself. Accept who you are, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; follow your heart! The reason you aren’t happy with your life isn’t because there is anything wrong with you, but you just haven’t learned to accept who you are! Go to any bookstore around and just pick up one of the self-help books, and there is a good chance that inside you will find some sort of message like that. The great evil is low self-esteem, and the greatest good is high self-esteem. The mantra of “self-love” says that the problem doesn’t lie within you, but the problem lies in the standard itself, so the standard must be changed. But what does the Bible say?

“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) Paul is explaining that the problem we feel with guilt and shame doesn’t have to do with the standard – but with us. Paul is explaining to us that if we are Christians, there is an internal struggle inside of us between our old nature and our new nature that has been given to us, in Christ; between the flesh and the Spirit. “Flesh” is a term that Paul uses to summarize the essence of our heart before we meet Christ; it is our heart’s sinful desire to want to be God, to want to rule over our life. When we come to faith, the Holy Spirit is given to us and takes our old heart, which was governed by ourselves, and plants within it a new nature, a nature that loves God and wants to relinquish control and submit to Him as Lord of our lives – and these two natures are diametrically opposed to one another; they hate each other. Paul explains that both actively are trying to stop the other from existing.

These two natures, the flesh and the Spirit, are striving for our hearts. Notice that Paul labels their work as “desires”, and then says that they both are working to “keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Your life as a Christian is a battle of desires – Paul explains in Romans 7:21-23 that whenever he desires to do good, there is evil close at hand. We will talk more about this next week, but what we see here right away is this: the Christian sees that the internal disappointments  in his life come from the lingering flesh nature that remains in his heart, and because of the Spirit, he eagerly desires to be rid of the flesh. Modern pop-psychology today tells us that if we have frustrations in our life, it stems from a failure to accept or love ourselves because of unrealistic standards, so the remedy is to focus on loving ourselves more; but the Bible tells us something very different.

Have you caught on to what I am talking about yet? Maybe this will help: I see this “self-love” often in Christian circles, where people believe that God’s greatest desire is for us to feel a high sense of self-esteem. And this is the kernel of truth in this message – all error has a kernel of truth, a seed of correctness that has just been twisted from what it really is – the kernel of truth in self-esteem-ism is that God most definitely does not want us walking around consumed with self-hatred. We talked about this last week – Jesus Christ came to die to free you from self-hatred! He displayed His great love for you by coming and dying on a cross for you! To walk around in self-hatred is to dishonor the cross, and we do not want that. And that’s why I want to be so careful with what I am going to say next.

Think about this: Every now and then you will see on Facebook someone post something like this, “Always remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and twice as beautiful as you’d ever imagine.”

Maybe you really are more beautiful than you think and smarter than you think; maybe, maybe not – but telling yourself that isn’t going to help solve the ache of your soul. You know why? Because it is doing nothing but refocusing your heart back on you! Believing, deep down, that you are very beautiful and smart won’t solve any problems; feeling better than others because of your beauty or talent, or feeling less than others because you are not as pretty or talented stems from the same problem – focusing on yourself more than you should.

That is exactly what the fleshly nature is all about! Your heart was not made to be focused on yourself – it was made for God, and to be focused on Him. This means we were never meant to be infatuated with ourselves, not at all, because when we see ourselves we realize just how tiny and sinful we truly are in light of the infinite holiness of God. But this also doesn’t mean we hate ourselves, not at all, because when we see God we see a God who loves us to the depths, despite our sinfulness.

If you try and change yourself by simply changing the standards, all change will only be imaginary, and even that will not last long.

Improve Yourself

And maybe you hear that and completely resonate with it, and say, “Yea! I see my flaws, and I’m not going to pretend like they’re not there. But I am going to work hard, clean myself up and prove myself!” Martin Luther said that the human heart is like a drunk man on a horse, it can easily fall off of both sides – this is the opposite side. Many of you may not be in this place yet; the battle cry of the young generation is “Love yourself” right now, but because we are all sinners, it is only a matter of time before we realize that it doesn’t really work. And the first thing we will run to is this: self-improvement. This is the heart that is aware of personal flaws, but instead of denying the standards, it believes that it can work hard enough to improve itself; work the kinks out; pull itself up by its own bootstraps.

Paul anticipates that problem and immediately says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal. 5:18), and again after he lists the fruit of the Spirit he says, “… against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:23). What is Paul talking about? Well, the “Law” is Paul’s shorthand for all of the requirements that God demanded of His people back in the Old Testament under Moses. Through Moses, God proclaimed to all the people lists and lists of commands and then told them that if they obey the law perfectly, they will be blessed by God, but if they do not obey perfectly, then they will be cursed by God (Deut. 28).

Now, in the book of Galatians, Paul has been making the argument over and over again that Christians are now no longer under the Law – meaning, our acceptance by God no longer is based upon our obedience to the Law. Rather, Paul claims that our acceptance by God is based 100%, entirely upon what Jesus did for us. In Galatians 3 Paul explains, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them.” (3:10) So, Paul quotes basic Old Testament Law: if you don’t obey, you are cursed – and that should make you nervous, because neither you nor I nor anyone else in all of history has ever done that. But Paul knows that, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law” (3:11), so how then is the curse of the law removed from us?

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” (3:13) Jesus Christ, the only human being who ever fully obeyed the law, took our place as the cursed ones, so that we could have His place as the blessed ones. Don’t you see? Jesus life and death is what saved you, is what redeemed you – nothing you have done. So, when Paul is saying that “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” he is saying the old economy of trying to earn your spot in heaven by good works, trying to prove yourself, is over. You don’t have to prove yourself; everything was already proven, 2,000 year ago on the cross.

Simply put: Paul is saying that we do not obey in order to earn acceptance from God; rather, we obey because we already have been accepted by God. And that is such good news! You know why? Our original plans for improvement are much different than God’s plans – we would have never been able to meet His standards. God isn’t looking at merely improving us; we thought He was planning on fixing a few bad habits here and there; tightening some loose screws – no, no my friend, He is planning on making you brand new. C.S. Lewis says that when we come to Christ we often think of Him improving us the way a horse trainer could take a wild stallion and turn him into a champion racing horse; but that is not so. Rather, Jesus takes wild stallions and teaches them to fly. Jesus isn’t looking for an improvement on ourselves – He is looking to create new selves.

Die to Yourself

So how do we get that? How do we become that radical new kind of person? How do we really change? Well, the text is pretty simple: you must die. “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (5:24). When Paul claims that we are to “live by the Spirit” there is an implication lying behind that – that we are to die to our flesh, or more accurately, that we are to put it to death (Col. 3:5). What does that mean? Paul uses the word “crucify” here to describe what we are to do with our sin; we are not just called to kill it, but crucify it. Paul uses this for three reasons:

  1. Obviously, to make us think of Christ. Sin was the reason that Jesus was crucified, and in Romans 6 Paul explains that because Jesus died from sin and rose again to newness of life, we too should consider ourselves dead to sin and alive in Him. Part of the process of repenting of sin is remembering the cost that Jesus paid to free us from the sin our flesh is craving, and the power of His resurrection to break sin’s power over us.
  2. Crucifixion was a method of execution reserved for only the worst criminals. If Paul is saying that we should crucify our flesh, he is claiming that it is a truly horrible thing. Sometimes, we can be tempted to believe that we can tame our flesh and make it respectable and safe – Paul warns us; show it no mercy, it is gravely serious.
  3. Lastly, crucifixion was not an immediate death, but a lingering death. When someone was crucified they didn’t die right away, but would slowly die. Paul is telling us that we do not have overnight transformation stories – putting our flesh to death is a process, we must be patient and faithful as we wait for the Lord to return and finally be rid of it.

If our flesh is our desire to be Lord over our own life, then putting that to death is submitting to Christ as Lord of my life. This Sunday Pastor John explained that faith is, “embracing what he wants, when he wants, how he wants.” Putting our flesh to death is the transition of my life off of me as the center and onto Christ. If we try and change ourselves by altering the standards and just loving ourselves more, or by working really hard to prove that we are good enough by improving ourselves, then we are not putting our flesh to death, just dressing it up in different costumes. Both “self-love” and “self-improvement” are not letting God have authority over their lives, they both are trying to stay in control. Friend, I invite you today, release control, submit to Him. What does that look like? It looks like this: everytime I see a conflict between what God has called me to in His Word, and what I desire in my heart, by faith I chose to die to my own desires, and submit to God.

It is only when we do this that we find real life – which is why Paul calls it “Living” by the Spirit. Jesus simply taught, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:24) So if we are to truly really change, we must relinquish control, both in excusing our sin and trying to pay off our sin. Next week we will examine the nature of spiritual transformation.

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