by Rev. Jesse Burns

St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free (5:1).” Because of the forgiveness of sins, received from Christ Jesus, the Christian is declared righteous before God. One does not need to look to works of the law in order to have a clear conscience before God. Through faith in Christ Jesus the Christian’s conscience is free. “[H]owever, believers in this life are not perfectly, wholly, completive vel consummative [completely or entirely] renewed – even though their sin is completely covered by the perfect obedience of Christ so that this sin is not reckoned to them as damning, and even though the killing of the old creature and the renewal of their minds in the Spirit has begun – nonetheless, the old creature still continues to hang on in their nature and all of its inward and outward powers.”[1] In other words, those who have faith in Christ are justified before God yet continue to have the old sinful nature.

Luther’s Small Catechism teaches us that our baptism into Christ, which “works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this,”[2] also indicates that the Christian life involves an ongoing struggle between the “old creature” and the “new man.” “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[3] This is the day-to-day life of the redeemed.

Read Galatians 5:16-26

1. In verses 16-17, St. Paul describes the conflict, within the believer, between the flesh and the Spirit, which are opposed to each other. Luther writes, “When someone becomes aware of this battle of the flesh, he should not lose heart on this account; but by the Spirit he should fight back and say: ‘I am a sinner, and I am aware of my sin; for I have not yet put off my flesh, to which sin will cling as long as it lives. But I will obey the Spirit rather than the flesh. That is, by faith and hope I will take hold of Christ. I will fortify myself with His Word, and thus fortified I will refuse to gratify the desires of the flesh.’”[4] Rather than despair when he feels the urgings of the sinful nature, where is the Christian’s confidence while facing temptation? What motivates the Christian’s refusal to gratify the flesh, the Law or Christ’s work of justifying sinners?

  1. Luther explains, “[It] is very beneficial if we sometimes become aware of the evil of our nature and our flesh, because in this way we are aroused and stirred up to have faith and to call upon Christ…Those who become aware of the desires of their flesh should not immediately despair of their salvation on that account. It is all right for them to be aware of it, provided that they do not assent to it;…In fact, the godlier one is, the more aware he is of this conflict.”[5] Why might it be that as one grows in the faith, he becomes more aware of the Old Adam’s struggle against the Spirit? How can this awareness ultimately prove beneficial to the Christian? To whom does this awareness drive the man of faith?

3. In verses 19-20, St. Paul speaks of the “works of the flesh,” providing a list of examples, and sternly warns that those who persist in such works will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Luther comments, “It is one thing to be aroused by the flesh and not to tolerate its desires any further but to walk and to withstand by the Spirit; it is quite another thing to give in to the flesh and to do its works with a smug air, to persist in them, and yet at the same time to put on a pretense of piety and to make a boast of the Spirit.” What is the difference between struggling with temptation and persistently doing the works of the flesh? Rather than persist in sin what is the Christian response when one falls into temptation?

  1. “Hence it was necessary to the highest degree for such a dreadful and fearful sentence to be pronounced by the apostle against such men, with their smug disdain and stubborn hypocrisy. ‘Those who do such things,’ he says, ‘shall not inherit the kingdom of God.’ Perhaps this severe sentence would frighten some of them thoroughly, so that they would begin to battle against the works of the flesh by the Spirit and stop performing them.”[6] How does such a harsh law statement, from Paul, ultimately serve the Gospel message of forgiveness?
  2. In verses 22-24, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit and declares that those “who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Luther writes, “Paul does not say ‘works of the Spirit,’ as he had said ‘works of the flesh’; but he adorns these Christian virtues with a worthier title and calls them ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ For they bring very great benefits and fruit, because those who are equipped with them give glory to God and by these virtues invite others to the teaching and faith of Christ.”[7] Who produces this “fruit” in the believer? From where do these virtues flow and how can understanding this free the Christian to “walk by the Spirit”?

As long as we live in the flesh we Christians will have the battle raging within us between the new man—the man of faith—and the Old Adam. However, as we struggle in this battle we need not despair of our salvation, for our salvation depends solely on Christ’s righteousness alone. As Luther says, “our righteousness is more abundant than our sin, because the holiness and the righteousness of Christ, our Propitiator, vastly surpasses the sin of the entire world. Consequently, the forgiveness of sins, which we have through Him, is so great, so abundant, and so infinite that it easily swallows up every sin, provided that we persevere in faith and hope toward Him.”[8]

The Rev. Jesse A. Burns is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ventura, Iowa.

[1]               The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, Eds.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000., pg. 588.

[2]               Luther, Martin. Luther’s Small Catechism. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991., page 25.

[3]               Ibid., page 25.

[4]           Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 27: Luther’s works, vol. 27: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6; 1519, Chapters 1-6 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House., pages 72-73.

[5]           Ibid., page 74.

[6]               Ibid., page 92.

[7]               Ibid., page 93.

[8]               Ibid., page 68.