O PreacherWhen our little family of five  finally reached the summit of woodsy Mills Reservation in Montclair, N.J., we gazed 15-20 miles out and saw a wonder:   the majestic skyline of New York City rising up from the waters of New York Harbor.

Today we reach the summit of Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions  and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5:16-26).

Paul has argued that justification (right-standing) with God comes by faith in Christ Jesus, not by our effort at keeping either God’s Law or our own religious rules and regulations.  He has argued, therefore, that to be justified Gentiles (non-Jews) needn’t and mustn’t be circumcised in addition to trusting Christ.  This absence of law-keeping (circumcision being the sign of the Law Covenant), however, raises the question of license.  Does Paul mean we are free from restraints to our sinful nature?  Does he mean we’re liberated from law to do whatever we want?  No.  “For you were called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the sinful nature, but through love serve one another.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:13,14).

How, though, can we use our freedom from Law (and laws) to fulfill the Law; that is, to serve one another in love?  At this summit, Paul tells us:  by the Spirit.

He’s already referred several times to the crucial role of the Spirit . . .

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham
might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus,
so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit
(Galatians 3:14).

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”
(Galatians 4:6)

But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit
the righteousness for which we hope.
(Galatians 5:5)

Many commentators make justification by faith the letter’s summit, not the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life.  I respectively disagree based on  the specific occasion which prompted Paul’s letter . . .

I would like to learn just one thing from you:
Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law,
or by believing what you heard?

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit,
are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you
because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
(Galatians 3:2,3,5)

The issue at hand isn’t the start of the justified life (by faith or works?) but its goal (by the Spirit or our works?)  I imagine the Judaizers might have argued, “Good.  You started with faith in Christ.  But if you’re going to make it to the end and be right with God on the Last Day, you need circumcision and devotion to Law-keeping.”  No, Paul lashes back.  “Justification comes by faith alone in Christ Jesus alone.  And with justification comes adoption by the Spirit . . . ”

But when the time had fully come,
God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law,
to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”
So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son,
God has made you also an heir.
(Galatians 4:4-7).

Justification by faith in Christ is, as Martin Luther wrote, an alien righteousness.  That is, by faith we receive the righteousness of Christ and are therefore “legally” put in right-standing with God.  Similarly, the work of the Spirit is alien.  God sends the Spirit of his Son from outside us into our hearts.  Thus starts a transformative relationship in us by the Spirit.  Not “legal”, but “experiential”.  This is why Galatians 5:16-26 stands as the summit of Paul’s letter.

When our little family gazed from Mills Reservation at New York City, we might have “oohed” and “aah-ed” and excitedly pointed out certain iconic buildings.  But when we turned to trek back down the trail, we weren’t changed.  Not true of the Spirit- summit.

And all of us, with unveiled faces,
seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror,
are being transformed into the same image
from one degree of glory to another;
for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
(2 Corinthians 3:18)

I invite you to sing the video-prayer above and enter the Spirit’s powerful presence with me . . .


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