“Free to Be Fruitful” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25)
Freedom is a wonderful thing. This week on Thursday, the Fourth of July, our nation will celebrate the 237th anniversary of declaring our freedom from Great Britain. But as we saw in our nation just this past week, freedom can also be abused, as when that freedom is used as a license for immorality. So the question becomes: What are we using our freedom for?
That’s the question St. Paul takes up in our Epistle for today from Galatians 5. What are we using our freedom for? Only, Paul here is talking about something far more important than political freedom. He’s talking about spiritual freedom, the spiritual freedom we have in Christ. What are we using that freedom for? And what Paul tells the Galatians–and us–is that, yes, we are free in Christ, with a true spiritual freedom. But that freedom is not meant to be used as a license for immorality or any other such sin. Rather, we have been set free for a purpose. For by the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are “Free to Be Fruitful.”
This is week five in our six-week series on Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. And in the earlier part of this epistle, St. Paul has definitely established and championed the freedom that we have in Christ. No longer are we slaves under the law, bound and chained to keeping the law’s demands perfectly, in order to be saved. No longer do we stand condemned and doomed by the law’s accusations. No, Christ has set us free from that slavery and that guilt.
So the freedom that we have in Christ is essential, and foundational. Don’t let anyone put you under the yoke of slavery ever again. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” You see, there were these Judaizers going around, doing just that. They were trying to get the Galatians to think that, in addition to faith in Christ, now you had to also keep the law’s demands in order to be saved. The so-called circumcision party was going around trying to convince the churches that Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, had to keep the whole law of Moses, or else they weren’t really up to snuff. Circumcision, the dietary laws, the Sabbath laws–all those laws that were in effect for Old Testament Israel still were in effect and necessary for Christians to keep. That’s what Paul’s opponents were saying, and they were having some success in deceiving the Galatians into falling for that trap. But Paul says, No! If you go back to thinking that you are saved by works of the law, then you have missed the whole point about Christ’s coming. And you will only be condemning yourself if you want to be judged by how well you keep the law, because–guess what–you and I will always fail that test.
Do you get that? Do you understand that you are a sinner, that you have broken God’s laws, his Ten Commandments, in all sorts of ways–in the things you have done wrong, in the things you have failed to do right? The law isn’t going to save you. You don’t love people well enough. You don’t love God well enough. What the law can do is to show you that you have not kept it. And you do need to know that. Otherwise, you would have no interest in hearing about a Savior. You would think you could make it on your own. And if that were the case, you would be lost, forever. But God loved you enough to let you look into the mirror of his law and to see yourself there as a sinner in need of a Savior, as someone who needs help from outside yourself. This is good, right, and necessary, so that now your ears are open when the gospel comes and tells you that God has indeed sent a Savior to deliver you from your sins.
This is Jesus Christ, this Savior is. God’s own Son, his eternal Son, sent forth from God, “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law,” as we heard last week. He, Christ–he is the one who sets you free by virtue of his holy life, fulfilling the law in your stead. He sets you free by his sacrificial death, his holy blood, shed on your behalf. He sets you free by the power of his resurrection, so that now, baptized into Christ, you stand free, as God’s own child and an heir of heaven. Friends, you are free, free and redeemed and counted righteous, forgiven and an heir of eternal life, all because of your perfect Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Don’t ever let anyone take that freedom away from you. Don’t look to yourself or your performance to judge how you stand with God. You will never measure up. And if you think you do, you are only deceiving yourself. Stand fast, stand firm, in the freedom Christ has won for you.
Yes, if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. But at the same time, St. Paul goes on to say in our text–at the same time, don’t use your freedom for the wrong purpose. In other words, having avoided the ditch on the one side of the road–that is, the ditch of falling into the slavery of the law–now Paul is saying: Don’t fall in the ditch on the other side. Don’t use your freedom as some excuse or license for sin.
There’s always this balancing act, isn’t there? If the devil can’t get you with legalism, he’ll try the opposite tactic of licentiousness. The trick is to stay walking down the middle of the road and not to fall into either ditch. And this is where the Spirit will lead you. The Holy Spirit will lead you on the right path, the path of righteousness, so that you will walk in step with the Spirit, in the freedom that you have in Christ–avoiding the ditch of legalism–all the while resisting the pull of the sinful flesh–avoiding the ditch of license. The Spirit–given to you in your baptism, working to strengthen your faith through Word and Sacrament–the Spirit will lead you in the right direction.
And the Spirit will produce in you the power to live this way and to bear fruit that pleases God. And what pleases God is when you as a Christian bear the fruits of faith in your life–for example, when you serve your neighbor in love. And when you’re doing that, that means you are saying “no” to the pull of the flesh–for these two things, the leading of the Spirit and the pull of the flesh, go in opposite directions. The flesh, your sinful flesh, which still clings to you–your sinful nature is essentially selfish. It is only interested in other people insofar as what they can do for you. The leading of the Spirit is essentially to love, to love God and to love your neighbor. This is what the Spirit will work in you–work in your life, work in your heart–work in you to produce good works, the fruits of faith.
And what beautiful fruits they are! Or should I say “fruit,” a collective singular? Because it’s not like the Spirit will produce in you just one or two of these things. But instead it’s the whole thing, a veritable fruit orchard, all coming up together: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” God the Holy Spirit is working all these noble, beautiful, excellent fruit in your life, in your character. It’s what he does.
Can you see this fruit developing, maturing, ripening in your life? Or is that difficult to see sometimes? Then confess your sins, receive God’s forgiveness, and ask for God’s help. He will give it to you. He’ll pick you up when you fall down in your walk. God is committed to you. He baptized you, didn’t he? Christ died for you, didn’t he? The Holy Spirit will see you all the way through on your walk, won’t he? Yes, to all of these. Yes, God keeps his promises. The one who abides in me, Jesus says, will bear abundant fruit. You may not see the fruit in your life being as beautiful or as abundant as you know it should be–you’re conscious of your sin–but be assured, God will work in you and produce in you this beautiful fruit.
This is fruit not just for display, like a bowl of wax fruit that would look good in a still life. No, this is fruit that is out there and active, producing beautiful results in the lives of people. Your bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, etc.–this is good for you, yes, to give you the maturity and the stability in the faith you need for yourself. But even more so, the fruit of the Spirit will show up in how you live for others. You don’t “need” your good works–Christ has already won your salvation apart from your works. You don’t need your good works, but your neighbor does. And God is using you to be his channel of blessing to those around you. This is how God extends his love to people, and that quite often, quite usually, is through other people. People like you. You have been blessed to be a blessing.
When we live according to the flesh, only seeking to satisfy our own desires, we are not much good to others. We get into fights and conflicts, because we are always seeking after self, me, what I can get out of life. But when the Spirit leads us in the walk of love, then we are fruitful and beneficial to others. And that’s exactly where God wants us to be. Loving and serving. With a joyful heart. Not out of compulsion, but from a free and willing spirit. Which the Holy Spirit gives us.
So, my friends, you are free to be fruitful. Now if I go out to the orchard and tell the trees, “Trees, this week I want you to bear some peaches and cherries and apples and all sorts of delicious, beautiful fruit,” guess what the trees are going to say? They’re going to say, “Good! Great! That’s exactly what I was wanting to do anyway. That’s what I’m designed to do. It’s in my nature as a fruit tree to bear fruit.” Well, dear Christians, it’s in your nature–your new nature in Christ–to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which will produce beautiful results in you and, through you, for others. The message today is this: You have been set free, in Christ, and you are free to be fruitful.