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Galatians 5:22-26

October 10, 1999

Text Comment

Now, remember where we are. Paul had acknowledged (16-18) that the Christian life is a life of inner conflict, a battle between the flesh, the residue of fallen human nature left in a man or woman after the new birth and the Holy Spirit who now inhabits those who are inheriting salvation. In those same verses Paul has set side by side, as he does elsewhere, the divine and human element in sanctification or Christian living. We are to live by the Spirit because we are led by the Spirit (16,18). He puts it similarly in Romans 8:13: “if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God.”

He then specified some of the most relevant deeds of the flesh that need to be repudiated in these Christians’ lives, the desires of the flesh that they are not to gratify (16). Now, he lists the desires of the Holy Spirit for a Christian’s life, the characteristics of the life that is lived and led by the Holy Spirit.

v.22     Pride of place goes to love, which Paul has already said is the expression of true faith in v. 6. Some have thought that love comes first because it is something of a title or organizing principle for the rest of the virtues that follow. As one old Bible expositor put it, the fruit of the Spirit is love, which is worked out in the other virtues. “Joy is love singing; peace is love resting; patience is love enduring; kindness is love’s self-forgetfulness; goodness is love’s character; faithfulness is love’s habit; gentleness is love’s true touch; self-control is love holding the reins.” It is surely true that where there is true love for God and man, joy and peace cannot be far behind! And, unlike the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the fruit are found together in a Christian heart and life. It is not that one has one fruit and another has another. Where love is present, the other virtues will be as well, for, as Paul says in Colossians 3:14: “And over all these virtues (he’s mentioned such things as kindness, gentleness, patience) put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

These virtues, of course, are all beautifully and perfectly portrayed in the life of Jesus Christ himself, which has led commentators to describe the fruit of the Spirit as “the profile of Jesus in the life of his disciples.” [Packer]

v.23     Against “such things” – once again, the list is representative, not exhaustive. And, once again, the list is composed of terms with overlapping reference. Kindness and gentleness are two ways of speaking about largely the same thing, goodness applies to every kind of virtue, and so on.

“Against such things there is no law” seems a strange statement. Of course there is no law against love and goodness! There are different ways of taking Paul’s remark. Some have held that he means that the law has nothing to do with such behavior. “A vine does not produce grapes by an Act of Parliament; they are fruit of  the vine’s own life…” so the fruit of the Spirit is not produced by laws, but results from what God has done for us and in us by Christ. [Bruce, 255] Perhaps more simply, we should take Paul’s remark as an understatement for rhetorical effect. “The mild assertion that there is no law against such things has the effect of an emphatic assertion that these things fully meet the requirements of the law” (the thought in v. 14 above). [Burton, 318]

v.25     The NEB translates v. 25: “If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct our course.” The verb used suggests “march in line with” which partners up with “walk by the Spirit” (the NIV’s “live by the Spirit”) in v. 16, at the head of this section. Another beautiful Pauline statement of the interplay between God’s work and man’s in the outworking of salvation, between the indicative (what God has done and is doing and will do) and the imperative (what we must do).


v.24     Note the natural shift from the Spirit to Christ and then, in v. 25, back to the Spirit once more. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, his role is to apply the blessings of Christ to those whom Christ has redeemed. Christ works in his people through the Spirit. Paul puts that harmony of work and purpose between Christ and the Spirit beautifully in Ephesians 3:16-17: “I pray that out of [God’s] glorious riches, he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”


v.26     Paul concludes with a practical application of the general point. Put the contention between you to death. He has already said in v.15 that this had become a serious problem in the Galatian churches.

Now, once again, we could spend many weeks on these few verses, elaborating the meaning of the various virtues Paul lists here. But the point is a general one. We are to live in a manner that pleases God, that becomes the sons of God, and we can because the Spirit has set us free from the power of sin.

But there are two very interesting points here worth our attention this evening. Both, in different ways, concern the way in which the Christian life is to be lived.

In the first place, present godliness in a Christian’s life and the power to kill sin and cultivate righteousness in heart, speech, and behavior, spring from definitive acts of sanctification that God has already performed. What Christians are called to do is simply to be what they are, what Christ has made them, to practice what they are in principle.


You see Paul establish this relation between principle and practice, between decisive act in the past and godly living in the present in v. 24. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature, its passions and desires.” This is then made the basis of the final exhortation to obedience in vv. 25-26.

He has already said, in v. 17 that the flesh continues to desire what is sinful. So, by saying that the Christian has crucified those sinful desires, Paul is not saying that they don’t still exist in the Christian heart or that they don’t have to be battled and put to death.

Paul has already said of himself, you remember, in 2:20, that he was “crucified with Christ.” And in Romans 6 he elaborates that thought. Because we who are Christians were “in Christ” when he suffered and died for our sins, “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin…” We died to sin, in Christ’s death and our union with that death by faith in Christ, how can we still then live in sin any longer?”

What is meant in the entire context of these remarks is that the death-blow has been dealt to sin in our hearts and lives. Now, we must be what we are, liberated from the power of sin by our union with the death of Christ for our sin on the cross. If the decisive battle has been fought and won, let’s get on with the mopping up so we can be done with the war and go home!

James Denny puts Paul’s thought here in a beautiful way:  “Ideally, we must understand, this crucifixion of the flesh is involved in Christ’s crucifixion; really, it is effected by it. Whoever sees into the secret of Calvary … is conscious that the doom of sin is in it; to take it as real, and to stand in any real relation to it [i.e. to Calvary], is death to the flesh with its passions and desires.”

This is everywhere the Bible’s way of speaking to Christians. You have been delivered from sin, now act like it! Can an adult become a child again? Of course not. Can an adult act childishly? Of course he can. And when he does we are right to tell him to grow up and act his age. And when Christians are letting sin have the upper hand in their behavior, we are right to tell them, stop that! You have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires – now act like it! Is that not what the Bible says and is that not really all the Bible says?

This is a very important practical point regarding Christian living. It is the fundamental thesis of the classic work on sanctification or the Christian life in the Reformed tradition, Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, published in 1692. Marshall argues in that book that our union with Christ is the basis for our living every day. That what Christ has done, already done, for us and in us, that the death blow that has been administered by Christ to our sin when we were united to him – first when he died and then when we believed in him and were made new creatures by him – is to be, every day, the power, the hope, the assurance, the wisdom by which we put our sins to death and put on a holy life. Or, in other words, sanctification is as much by faith – by confidence in what Christ has done for us and in us – as justification is. There is our work in both, of course, our believing, our obeying, but that work is done by faith in the work Christ has already done. Our work derives its strength and success from our constantly reminding ourselves of what Christ has already done, the way in which he has broken the back of sin in our lives, the way he has delivered us and set us free, the way in which he has placed within us, by his grace and Spirit, everything we need for life and godliness.

You will sometimes hear people say, or seem to say, that justification is by faith and sanctification is by works. No! A thousand times No! Both are by faith, both depend upon the work of Christ, both look to Christ’s work, both gain their strength in our hearts by the constant recollection of what Christ has already done, the victory he has already won. Mopping up can be bitter fighting at times, but those who are mopping up do so in a completely different spirit than those who aren’t sure the battle will be won!

What is the first thing in doing battle with your sins, then? Is it summoning up your strength once more; is it trying to talk yourself into resistance once more? No! It is remembering the cross and your union with Christ and the death of sin in the death of Christ for you. It is remembering how he has made you a new creation in Christ and that the old things have passed away because of what he has done in you. It is remembering that all he is asking you to do when he asks you to be holy and good and to live a life of love is to be what he has already made you to be, to practice what you already are in principle. It is remembering that the Holy Spirit is in you and with you as the gift of your Redeemer to you.

Or, in the 17th century language of Walter Marshall’s “directions” (his chapter titles): “Seek for holiness, only in its due order, after union, justification, and the gift of the Holy Ghost; and by faith.” [Direction VIII] “We must first receive the comforts of the gospel, that we may perform the duties of the law.” [IX] “That we may, by gospel comforts, perform the duties of the law, we must get assurance in that very faith whereby we receive Christ.” [X] “Diligently use faith for performance of the duties of the law, by walking no longer according to your old-state principles, or means of  practice; but only according to that new state you receive by faith, and its principles, and means of practice.” [XII]

John Owen says something similar in his classic work, On the Mortification of Sin. Do you want to kill your sins? This is how: “act faith on Christ.” “Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin.” [78-79] At one point in his exposition of that thought, he says, “Yea, let me add, that never any soul did or shall perish by the power of any lust, sin, or corruption, who could raise his soul by faith to an expectation of relief from Jesus Christ.” [82]

Then, in the second place, present godliness in your life and mine requires more the cultivation of virtue than the destruction of vice. I do not say that we do not have to mortify or kill our sins and suppress our sinful desires. We do. And Paul has said that we must in vv. 19-21. But, the main point, the final point, is always in the Bible, the putting on of the new man in Christ. As Paul puts it here, the sinful passions have been destroyed, the main thing now is to keep in step with the Spirit in putting on the virtues of love and goodness.

This is a very important part of the wisdom of godly living, I think. Christians, especially young Christians, but all of us too much of the time, see the Christian life first and foremost in terms of what we are not to do. The Ten Commandments, after all, are framed in this negative way: “Thou shalt not…”

So we think about godliness chiefly in terms of resisting, of turning away, of saying “No!” And there is no doubt that this must be done. Paul begins with this, to be sure.

But, one will never go far if that is the main effort, I am more and more convinced. The flesh will win too many times and discouragement will set in and you will lose heart and give up. A great many Christians in the middle of their years have given up on their worst sins out of this discouragement.

But the Bible never takes that approach to the killing of sin — that it lies primarily in resistance. On the contrary, the desire to sin in whatever way is always best and most thoroughly destroyed by being crowded out of the heart by the contrary desires. The real solution to sexual temptation and sin, for most people, is an erotic marriage. The sexual desire for other women is most thoroughly ruined by the fulfillment of desire with one’s own wife. The real solution to miserliness and stinginess is to fall in love with the practice of generosity. Let a man who is stingy and who loves money, give it away and find the joy and pleasure of using his money for love’s sake and let him see how he can brighten the lives of others with his money, and see how grateful and how loyal people become toward those who help them in need, and he will stop thinking about hoarding his money altogether. And the real solution to an envious, jealous, spiteful spirit is the cultivation of brotherhood with and the service of those who provoke those feelings in you. And even in such matters as the desire for drink, it is seldom that resistance is finally effective until the fundamental longings that drink was thought to fulfill are fulfilled by something much better.

It is not hard to see, is it brethren, how a person who is living as Paul describes true Christian living in vv. 22-23 is going to be much less entranced by the sinful desires he has described in vv. 19-21.

We would all do well to think more and more in terms of what we are going to do today, how we are going to love and rejoice and serve and be at peace and show gentleness and goodness. Put our eggs more in that basket than thinking instead of what we are not going to do, and what we are going to resist.

You will even find that when you take that approach to your daily life and to the practice of godliness, certain sins that might otherwise terribly trouble you, are passed by without notice. If David had just done what he should have been doing – leading his troops into battle – he would never have seen Bathsheba or been caught up in that whole sorry, miserable, episode; and, he would never even have known what terrible things would have occurred had he stayed in Jerusalem.

And that was the thought Paul started with: “Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Or, “Keep in step with the Spirit … seeking in your own life the positive virtue and goodness and Christlikeness that the Spirit seeks in you, and the desires of the flesh will wither on the vine, die from a lack of attention, because all of your interest is being invested in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And the blessings of all of that holy life will then constantly draw you back to more of the same.