Most of us probably read Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken, for English class. "Two roads diverged in a yellow road…” it opens, starting a meditation about the choices we make in life, the roads we travel.
In fact, there really are only two pathways through life, two pathways through eternity. They’re not the roads that Frost talked about in his poem. But, just like the narrator in the Frost poem, we must choose between two roads each day of our lives nonetheless.
The apostle Paul talks about them in today’s second lesson, Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
Take a look at the lesson, starting at Galatians 5:1, please. Paul writes: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Another translation, The Message, may make these words a little easier to understand: “Christ has set us free to live a free life."
Those who have come to faith in the crucified and risen Jesus have been set free from the condemnation for our sins we all deserve from the moment we’re born and from the demands for moral perfection that exist in God’s Law.
Because Jesus lived a morally perfect life and accepted our earned punishment for sin, those who believe in Christ are set free to live life as God intended human beings to live when He made Adam and Eve. Live in that freedom, Paul says.
Paul goes on: “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
The specific situation among the Galatian Christians was that they had come under the influence of people we now call Judaizers, people who told the new Gentile believers in Galatia that more than just trust in Jesus Christ, they had to engage in good works and obey Jewish ritual and civil laws in order to be saved from sin and death. They were saying, in essence, that Jesus’ cross wasn’t enough to save them.
Paul begged the Galatian Christians not to fall for this nonsense!
If the law could save human beings from sin and death, Jesus wouldn’t have needed to die on the cross. Paul is saying, “After Jesus has set you free from sin and death, don’t turn right around and make yourselves slaves to rules that cannot give you life.”
Doing that would be like an inmate getting out of prison, then showing up the next morning at the prison gates asking for readmission because he couldn’t stand his freedom.
Trust in Jesus, not rules. And don't trust in your own actions, reason, or feelings, Paul was urging.
We may think, “I get all of that, Pastor. That’s Lutheranism 101. We know we’re only saved by grace through faith in Christ alone.”
That’s true, of course. Grace, charitable forgiveness, is the remarkable character trait of God’s by which He decides not to hold our sins against us as we repent and trust in Jesus. And, as we often sing, God’s grace really is "amazing." God’s grace does set us free!
And God's grace in Christ is powerful! A long time ago, a man I knew came to me several years after he had left his wife, divorced her, and married the woman with whom he’d had an affair while he was married to wife number one. He was, after a time, conscience- stricken. He wondered: Could God’s grace in Christ still reach Him? Could he be forgiven? Could grace set him free from condemnation for the sins he confessed?
I listened to this man. Part of me was revolted by what he had done. I knew his first wife. I knew what pain his actions had caused her, their family, their friends, their church.
But I realized that if the grace of God given in Christ couldn’t set this repentant soul free, then Jesus’ death on the cross was for nothing.
Jesus is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world, John the Baptist said. Nowhere does the New Testament say that Jesus can take away the sins of only some sinners. Nor does it say anywhere in Scripture that Jesus' death on the cross can only bring forgiveness to some sins. All who repent and believe in Jesus are set free by God's grace.
“Yes,” I told the man. “God’s grace can reach you.” Slowly, then joyfully, this man began to walk in the freedom of forgiven sin and new life.
But, let's conduct a little thought experiment about this man.
What would have happened had he viewed God’s forgiveness as license, as a get out of jail free card?
Where would he have stood with God then?
Is the freedom Christ gives to us the freedom to do anything we want to do?
Had that man decided that it was OK for him to have another affair, or commit any other sin that came into his mind because God is gracious, he would have shown that he didn’t live in freedom at all.
He would prove to be as trapped and helpless and far from God as the religious legalists who told the Galatian Christians that they needed to obey God’s law in order for God to love them or forgive them.
Jesus came not just to free us from things, like sin and death, but also to free us for things.
Jesus came to set us free for a new and different way of living.
And what exactly did Jesus set us free for when He died in our places on the cross? That’s what Paul tells us next: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
“So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
When Paul talks about “the flesh,” he’s talking about the way we think about things as sinful human beings.
Walking in the flesh living is born of the desire we inherit from Adam and Eve to “be like God,” to be in control.
The Judaizers told the Galatian Christians that they needn’t depend on Jesus for their salvation. They could take control. If they were good people, they told the Galatians, God would have to take them into His kingdom, as though a human being is capable of bringing God to heel and bending God to accede to our will.
Sinful human thinking also may tell us to do whatever we want to do, to follow our inborn inclinations to sin, that once God's grace comes to us, it doesn't matter what evils we perpetrate.
But to legalists and unrepentant sinners alike, Jesus’ message is the same: “Repent.” “Follow Me.” “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Grace and freedom come through surrender to Jesus alone.
Grace isn’t a get out of jail free card. Grace is a set free for real living card!
Jesus died and rose to set us free, not to let us do whatever we want, but to live for the purposes for which we were made:
- to love God,
- to love neighbor,
- to tell the world about the greatness and goodness of God,
- to employ our talents, gifts, passions, and experiences alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ to be all we can be,
- to help others be all they can be through Christ.
Paul draws the stark contrast that exists between life in the flesh--earthbound, death-bound thinking and living--on the one hand, and life lived with dependence on the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus to all who believe in Him, on the other hand.
Look at what he says next, starting in verse 19: “The acts of the flesh 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.” The way of the flesh is the road away from God.
But the path of the Spirit is different. When the Spirit comes to live in us and we let Him set us free--as we confess our sins and receive Christ’s forgiveness, as we come to the waters of Holy Baptism, as we receive Jesus’ body and blood in Holy Communion--God’s ways take root in us.
When we keep in step with God’s Holy Spirit, day by day, each of us can be “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season” (Psalm 1:3).
Paul talks about the fruit--the behavior patterns--that can be seen in those who draw life from God’s Spirit and not from the world: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. [And then, Paul says, I think, with a smile,] Against such things there is no law.”
Notice that all the works of the flesh are things we do, the things that we do when we take control and follow our own thoughts, impulses, judgments, and inclinations; but the fruits of the Spirit are the things that God does through those who believe in Him.
We don’t have to be good to get God’s love; we get to do good because the God Who is good lives in those who are sold out, body and soul, to Jesus Christ.
Paul tells us then: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
Jesus Christ frees us from sin and death so that we can live.
As we let Him daily crucify the portions of our lives that seek to replace God’s will with our faulty judgment, He raises us up as new people, filled with the blessings of heaven even as we walk through this fallen world.
At the end of his poem, Frost writes: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
As I mentioned earlier, the two roads Frost talked about weren’t the two roads Paul speaks of in our lesson. But it is true that when, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we choose to walk in the Spirit instead of the way of the world--the way of the flesh--it makes all the difference.
Pray to God today and every day that God will help all of us to walk in the Spirit. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]