A second reason that we need to keep the gospel at the forefront of our minds and hearts is our need to have a posture of dependence on Christ.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
When we were saved, when we were born of the Spirit, we acknowledged our helplessness and hopelessness. Does that change after we are saved? Do we stop being helpless and hopeless after we become a Christian? If your answer is yes, then you are a religious person. If your answer is no, then you understand the nature of the gospel. Our focus on Christ must never change. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing. Apart from Christ, our preaching won’t have any saving power. Apart from Christ, we won’t last long being together as the body of Christ. Apart from Christ, our evangelistic zeal will cool off. Apart from Christ, we can’t do anything. If you understand this, you understand the gospel. And if you were saved by the gospel of Christ, you understand that you need Christ continually for your sanctification. For your growth, for your maturity, apart from Christ, you won’t move an inch.
But if you remain in Christ and he remains in you, the promise is that you will bear much fruit. Our conversion was not a surface level change. True conversion is a change from the root to the branch. The root of sin and self was crucified (Gal 2:20) and from that internal change, external change followed. Inside out change.
What if we truncate the gospel, saying the gospel is only relevant when we talk about somebody’s conversion? Or what if we truncate the scope of the gospel by moving on from the gospel after you are converted and then we start talking about changes at the branch level? We can go one of 2 ways. Either, we start regulating things like what movies you can watch, what car you can drive, whether it’s wise to own a TV, whether you should attend parties or drink alcohol or not. That’s legalism. The other direction we can go is to say, feel free to do whatever you want, like they did in Corinth. That’s permissiveness.
Both are false gospels. You can’t regulate at the branch level. You have to first deal with the root and then the branches will follow. A good tree will produce good fruit. A bad tree will produce bad fruit. The issue is whether the root is good or bad.
16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. 19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 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. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
God doesn’t have to remind himself to be good because his root is thoroughly good. Goodness flows from His person naturally and instinctively. 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 our root is not wholly good or 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.
However, 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 being driven to adopt a system of laws 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 a 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. And in the end, we are worse off than when we started because we are deeper in our sins.
He calls the vices in 5:19–21, acts of the sinful nature or “works of the flesh,” and the virtues in 5:22, 23, “fruit of the Spirit.” Why? The flesh refers to 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 that the flesh in its conservative form produces legalism – keeping rules by its own power for its own glory. But here Paul also helps us to see another manifestation of the flesh. The more liberal, permissive form, which produces immoral attitudes and acts: “sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry and witchcraft,” as well as hateful tendencies: “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage.”
Now why does Paul call the products of our flesh “acts” or “works” and the products of God’s Spirit through us “fruit”? The spontaneous reactions of strife, jealousy, anger, envy stem from a heart where the flesh is still alive. And a flesh that is still alive seeks what it thinks it deserves. Envy, for example, is the product of a heart that thinks it merits more than it is getting. Jealousy 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 a 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 because it feels entitled to certain things and slighted when things it thinks it deserves are not given.
The flesh knows nothing of grace. It thinks in terms of debts which deserves payment. You put in work at the office and you expect payment. This is why Paul refers to the flesh as the acts of the sinful nature or the works of the flesh. Because everything it produces is flavored by the mentality of merit, and entitlement and what it deserves.
People who bear the fruit of the Spirit know they are worthy only of condemnation. They know that the only payment they can earn is the wrath of God. Therefore, they have turned away from self-reliance and look only to mercy in Christ.
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. Or leaves. 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.” We belong to Christ. Christ has taken possession of our soul. Our sinful nature, our old self, our flesh has been dealt a mortal wound and stripped of its power to have dominion.