"God never urges himself to be good," said Edward Carnell in Christian Commitment. Because he is good. That is, his nature always inclines irresistibly toward righteousness. God is never torn by evil motives. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. So he does not need to be reminded about the duty of his deity. No one needs to say, "Now today, God, mind your manners, do what's right, avoid evil, remember the ten commandments." When a person is good from root to branch, he does not need to be told to be good. His goodness grows like fruit on a tree.
This means that Galatians 5, along with the whole New Testament, stands as a perpetual reminder of our moral depravity. God never urges himself to be good, but he never ceases to urge us to be good. And so he testifies continually to us that we are not good—the root is not wholly pure. Do we spontaneously and naturally and consistently humble ourselves and serve others in meekness and kindness? Do right attitudes and actions come out of us as naturally as light and heat come out of the sun? We know they don't. God knows they don't. And so we must be reminded of what is right—what it is that can keep you from inheriting the kingdom. We need a list of bad things and a list of good things, like we get here in Galatians 5:19–23.
The Danger of Abusing Moral Teaching
But there is a great danger in giving morally depraved people like us a list of right things and wrong things. It is the danger of the law that we have seen all through Galatians. The danger is that instead of seeking transformation from God in our hearts to rid ourselves of our depravity, we may take the list of virtues and find a way to use them to express our depravity. For example, if our problem is that at root we are very proud and self-sufficient people, and a moral authority like Paul tells us that kindness and faithfulness are virtues, we may very well train ourselves to do kind things and to keep our promises so that we can be proud of ourselves and feel morally self-sufficient before God and man. Then the list of virtues would not have helped us overcome our depravity at all. In fact, it would have deepened our sin, because now we prostitute the very Word of God and use it to satisfy our depraved desires.
Paul is very much aware that his moral teaching, just like Old Testament law, can be abused in this way. So he takes special steps to help us not misuse his list of vices and virtues. Paul's aim is not to change the veneer of our lives with some new learned habits of behavior. His aim is a new creation (6:15) from the root up, so that new habits are the natural outgrowth of new hearts. I see four special steps Paul takes in Galatians 5:19–26 to protect us from treating his teaching legalistically and coating the sour ball of our pride with a milk chocolate morality. I'll mention all four, but we will only have time to look closely at a couple.
Thinking Biblically About Virtue
First, he calls his list of vices "works of the flesh" (5:19–21) and he calls his list of virtues "fruit of the Spirit" (5:22–23). That is very important and we will come back to it. Second, in verse 24 he says that the basis of our doing right and not wrong is that the root of wrong has died. The flesh has been crucified if we are Christ's. So the flesh can't reach up and twist love into legalism. It's dead. Third, in verse 25, when Paul finally commands us to do something, he tells us to do it in someone else's power, not our own: "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit." This rules out the possibility that we should ever take a virtue and by our own strength make it a ground for boasting. No, the only way any act has moral value is if we do it in reliance on the Spirit's power, not ours. Finally, in verse 26 Paul's command is not addressed primarily to an outward act but to an inward attitude: "Let us have no self-conceit." Let us not be driven by the love of praise and glory. So in these four ways Paul helps us see that our real problem is not the whitecap of behavior visible above the water; the real problem is the massive dark iceberg of depravity beneath the surface.
So I hope you can see that there is a world of difference between biblical ethical teaching and popular American morality. The Bible soberly acknowledges the awful root of depravity—self conceit, vain glory within the human heart. And the Bible solves the problem with a supernatural encounter with God, called new birth at its beginning and sanctification afterward. If we come alive by an act of the Spirit, so now let us go on walking in reliance on the Spirit (5:25). Popular American morality, on the other hand, is astonishingly naïve about the depth of our corruption and even turns much of our pride into a virtue. God is an option or even a traditional value to be preserved, but not at all a desperately needed Savior from the disease of sin.
I want us at Bethlehem to think biblically about virtue and not to be conformed to the way this world works at its virtue. So let's go back and look at least at the first of these four special steps Paul takes to keep us from turning his ethical teaching into another 20th century American self-improvement program.
Works of Flesh and Fruit of the Spirit
He calls the vices in 5:19–21, "works of the flesh," and the virtues in 5:22, 23, "fruit of the Spirit." Why? Keep in mind that "flesh" does not mean "body," as though our bodies were the root cause of our sins. There are some sins listed here that don't come from our bodies (e.g., strife, enmity, jealousy, anger, envy, etc.). Flesh is the old ego that is self-reliant and does not delight to yield to any authority or depend on any mercy. It craves the sensation of self-generated power and loves the praise of men. We have seen earlier that in its conservative form it produces legalism—keeping rules by its own power for its own glory. But here Paul opens the lens so we see that the flesh also (in its more liberal form) produces grossly immoral attitudes and acts: "sexual immorality, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery," and hateful, harmful tendencies: "enmity, strife, jealousy, anger," etc. The flesh is the proud and unsubmissive root of depravity in every human heart which exalts itself subtly through proud, self-reliant morality, or flaunts itself blatantly through self-assertive, authority-despising immorality.
Now why does Paul call the products of our flesh "works" and the products of God's Spirit through us "fruit"? Until recently I would have said: because works implies effort and fruit implies effortlessness, and God's will is that we experience love, joy, and peace effortlessly. But then I noticed that many of the "works of the flesh" are just as effortless for a natural person as the fruit of the Spirit is for the spiritual person. For example, anger requires no effort: cross a natural man and red anger flows as naturally as blood from a wound. Or envy: no one has to work to be envious. It just blisters up like old paint under Zip Strip. So I doubt that Paul called these vices "works" because they require effort to produce. A bad tree bears bad fruit effortlessly.
Nor would it be accurate to say that these vices are called works because they are done to earn wages, like moral people often hope to earn rewards. Strife, jealousy, and anger are not generally calculated to earn anyone's approval. But let's be careful here. Yes, the spontaneous reactions of strife, jealousy, anger, envy are not in themselves performed to earn anything; but are they not an emotional attempt to settle accounts because we didn't get what we thought we had earned or deserved? Envy, for example, does not aim to merit anything, but it is the product of a heart that thinks it merits more than it is getting. Jealousy is not calculated to earn any pay, but it is the product of a heart that expected to be paid what went to another. In other words, the kind of heart that produces these vices is a heart that thinks of itself as creditor and everyone else as its debtors. The flesh is convinced of its own merit and expects God and man and nature to pay dues by giving the satisfaction it desires. When these payments of satisfaction are not made, the flesh reacts the way it does not to earn anything, but because it feels that it already had earned what it didn't get.
The flesh knows nothing of grace. It doesn't think of its satisfactions as free gifts from a merciful God. It thinks of them as debts which it deserves to be paid. This is why all its products should be called "works." Even though jealousy and anger and envy come out of the flesh just as spontaneously and effortlessly as fruit out of a tree, the tree only thinks in terms of merit and pay and reaction for no pay. And so everything it produces is flavored by the mentality of merit and is called "works."
But the mentality behind the fruit of the Spirit is the mentality of faith depending upon grace. People who bear the fruit of the Spirit know they are worthy only of condemnation. They know that the only pay they can earn is the wrath of God. Therefore, they have turned away from self-reliance and look only to mercy in Christ who "loved us and gave himself for us" (2:20). They do not expect anyone to be their debtor because of their worth. Any satisfaction will be a free gift of grace. They bank on the mercy of God and entrust themselves to his Spirit for help. And out of that mentality of faith depending on grace grows not "works" but "fruit": love, joy, peace, patience, kindness . . .
So even in the names that Paul has given to his lists of vices and virtues, he helps us see that the issue is not the outward activities of life but the kind of heart that produces our outer life. Paul assumes that some powerful battle has been fought and won in the deep territory of our soul. That's the meaning of verse 24, "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."
Slaying the Dragon of Flesh
Picture your flesh—that old ego with the mentality of merit and craving for power and reputation and self-reliance—picture it as a dragon living in some cave of your soul. Then you hear the gospel, and in it Jesus Christ comes to you and says, "I will make you mine and take possession of the cave and slay the dragon. Will you yield to my possession? It will mean a whole new way of thinking and feeling and acting." You say: "But that dragon is me. I will die." He says, "And you will rise to newness of life, for I will take its plan; I will make my mind and my will and my heart your own." You say, "What must I do?" He answers, "Trust me and do as I say. As long as you trust me, we cannot lose." Overcome by the beauty and power of Christ you bow and swear eternal loyalty and trust.
And as you rise, he puts a great sword in your hand and says, "Follow me." He leads you to the mouth of the cave and says, "Go in, slay the dragon." But you look at him bewildered, "I cannot. Not without you." He smiles. "Well said. You learn quickly. Never forget: my commands for you to do something are never commands to do it alone." Then you enter the cave together. A horrible battle follows and you feel Christ's hand on yours. At last the dragon lies limp. You ask, "Is it dead?" His answer is this: "I have come to give you new life. This you received when you yielded to my possession and swore faith and loyalty to me. And now with my sword and my hand you have felled the dragon of the flesh. It is a mortal wound. It will die. That is certain. But it has not yet bled to death, and it may yet revive with violent convulsions and do much harm. So you must treat it as dead and seal the cave as a tomb. The Lord of darkness may cause earthquakes in your soul to shake the stones loose, but you build them up again. And have this confidence: with my sword and my hand on yours this dragon's doom is sure, he is finished, and your new life is secure."
I think that is the meaning of verse 24, "Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." Christ has taken possession of our soul. Our old self has been dealt a mortal wound and stripped of its power to have dominion. The Christian life, the fruit of the Spirit, is a constant reckoning of the flesh as dead (piling stones on its tomb) and a constant relying on the present Spirit of Christ to produce love, joy, and peace within. The difference between the Christian life and popular American morality is that Christians will not take one step unless the hand of Christ holds the hand that wields the sword of righteousness.