Forsaking God and managing behavior

“I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” (Galatians 4:1–11 ESV)

The Jews were like children – heirs to the promises – but too young to have inherited them immediately.  There was a period of waiting.  This Jews had to wait for the true promise of the kingdom.  However, they were enslaved to the elementary teachings of the world.  They were enslaved because rules and laws are powerless to liberate.  If you are only trying to manage behavior then you will never be truly free, and it is for freedom that Christ has set you free (Galatians 5:1)!  

In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus in the flesh, born of a woman, under the law.  God’s timing is always perfect, even in the midst of difficulties and hardships when it doesn’t seem like He is present.  We must learn to believe and rest in the fact that God providentially rules and reigns over all things, and nothing is outside of His authority.  At the right time, God sent Jesus to redeem fallen man and to adopt them into His family.  We are adopted sons.  God redeems AND God adopts.  Our sonship is sealed with the Spirit of Big Brother Jesus – we have been given the Holy Spirit.

We are no longer enslaved to the elementary principles of this world because of our relationship with God – not so much that we know God, but that we are known by God!  Powerful!  We are known by the God of the universe, we have been declared clean and free by the sovereign ruler of the cosmos!  Amazing!  After this amazing grace laden adoption, why in the world would we return to the “elementary principles” of this world?   Why would we want to exchange our sonship for slavery?  We tend to return because it is natural for us, but it irritates the apostle because there is no power there – quite the opposite, there is nothing but bondage and oppression there.  These elementary principles are “weak and worthless.”  They say, “observe this,” “do that,” “act like this.”  When we return to our performance as the means by which we grow, we exchange our sonship for slavery.  The real power for transformation is believing at a deep level that the God of the universe, due to nothing good in you, called you to Himself and He not only saved you, but adopted you as a son.   You are not just forgiven, you are adopted as a son.  The judge took off the robe after declaring you “not guilty,” and then went outside and threw the football with you.

These elementary principles (see also Colossians 2:8, 20) are the elements, principles or requirements of a religious system that dictate what must be done in order to be acceptable to God; they are rooted in our performance.  There is something in us that longs to return to these rules and systems because they put the power to change under our control.  When we return to our performance, we are forsaking the streams of living water offered in our relationship with God and digging our own broken cisterns that hold nothing but muddy sediment (Jeremiah 2:13).

We want a list, a system or some tip to change the uncomfortable consequences of sin in our lives.  The problem is that lists, systems and tips are powerless to produce true and lasting transformation in us.  You know what you should do, but find yourself powerless to do it and yet you insanely keep returning to the same things thinking that they will change you (Proverbs 26:11).  Insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (Albert Einstein).

The real problem is that there is not an utter distaste for sin, but rather the consequences that sin is wreaking on our lives.  We don’t see sin as an offense against God and utterly repulsive, instead we see sin as uncomfortable and we don’t like the dysfunction and consequences that it is causing in our lives.  When we, like David did in Psalm 51, develop an utter repulsion of sin itself then, and only then, are we in a position to be freed from its grasp.  The consequences of sin are gracious because they point us to the sin itself, but just wanting to be free of sins consequences without wanting to be free from the root of sin is a fools errand.  

Freedom is NEVER FOUND IN A LIST, SYSTEM OR SET OF TODO’S to be performed.  Freedom is only found in a Person.  And more than just a Person, but our association with and relationship to that Person.  Freedom is found in marveling in the unbelievable fact that the eternally holy Creator would forgive you and adopt you – that He would make you His child and write you into His eternal will with all of the rights of a natural born son.  Stare at that truth until it resonates deep in your soul.

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There is not a 3rd Option

“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.”  (Galatians 5:16–18 ESV)

How do we overcome the sinful desires of our flesh?  There is  only one answer:  walk in the Spirit.   Sinful desires of the flesh are not only the external, easily measurable  sins, but are also everything in our natural man that is sinful – our behaviors, motivations, feelings and thoughts.  In verses 13 & 14, Paul encouraged the Galatians not to view their freedom in Christ as an opportunity for the flesh, but rather as an opportunity to love.  He now juxtaposes walking by the Spirit with gratifying the flesh.  Walking by the Spirit is firmly rooted in our adoption as sons and the freedom that is associated with being His children.  The word that Paul uses for “gratify” here is interesting – He could have used the word for satisfy.  Gratify is different than satisfy, it literally means “to carry out a command” or “to do as commanded.”  It communicates the inevitability that we will follow our sinful desires because we are not walking in the Spirit.  If we are not walking in step with the Spirit, we will gratify our sinful desires.  There is no third option.  This sounds like Romans 6:12-14 where Paul tells us not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies and Romans 8:6:  “for to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

We are commanded to walk by the Spirit.  Walking by the Spirit means that we are directed by the Spirit’s leading (and certainly the revealed word of God is part of that) and that we depend fully upon His power to walk in obedience.  This does not mean that we goto the bible to find things to do and then try to obey them on our own with an occasional prayer for help.  This looks like seeking to be filled by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) – which means that we are actively influenced and directed by the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.  We not only seek His influence and direction, we are completely dependent upon Him to walk in obedience to His direction.  We tend to think of filling in terms of filling a glass to the brim with something.  A better, and more accurate, picture of being filled by the Spirit is when the sails of a ship are filled by the wind which carries it along the water.  The Spirit becomes the controlling influence in your life, like alcohol is when you are drunk.  He fills you and carries you along.

Far too often, we survey our lives and see that they are free from the sins that we deem to be really bad or destructive so we think that we are ok and we begin to coast spiritually.  There is no middle ground, we are either actively killing sin or sin is actively killing us (John Owen).  For the Christian, life is a spiritual war – the Spirit and the flesh are diametrically opposed.  You have to choose one or the other – there is no middle ground or “balance” to be found.    To be personally & actively led by the Spirit is to not be under the onerousness of obeying the Law; we now obey from our acceptance, not for our acceptance.  The Spirit doesn’t lead by sending us out, He goes with us – He accompanies us along the way.  Being led by the Spirit is personal and relational.  The Creator of the universe accompanies you.  Let that sink in.

Lord, teach us to surrender and walk by your Holy Spirit so that we will not gratify the desires of our flesh; help us to understand what this looks like, create in us a desire for it and empower us to surrender to you.