Sunday, January 8, 2023

The Fatal Flaw with Cultural Conservatism

This week I'm doing a deep dive into the two lists Paul gives us in Gal. 5 -- namely, the "works of the flesh," and the "fruit of the Spirit." I must have spent 2 hours working on this passage before leaving for church this morning. 

This week I intend to spend time examining each one of these Greek words in greater detail. It's hard to find a greater contrast between right living and godless living than here, isn't it? We might summarize this contrast as follows:

It is a contrast between the pursuit of pseudo-pleasure on the one hand, and authentic joy and peace on the other.

It is a contrast between malice and envy on the one hand, and kindness and tenderness on the other.

It is a contrast between self-indulgence on the one hand, and self-mastery on the other.

Now, it occurs to me there are a good many similarities between what Paul is saying here and the teaching of a some today who are making remarkable claims about morality, reality, and the meaning of life. These conservative authors and commentators have literally millions of followers on social media. Their "rules for living," if you will, boil down to: take care of yourself, set your own house in order, tell the truth, pursue ultimate meaning, get a job, get married, have children, seek after delayed gratification, and become a responsible member of society. Personally, I resonate with much of what they are saying. But there is a flaw -- a fatal flaw, I would argue -- in their reasoning. And I think this morning I was finally able to put my finger on it. For Paul is very clear in our passage that it is only through the Holy Spirit of God that we can gain ascendency over our fallen human nature. In other words, for Paul the secret of holiness and goodness and self-mastery and so forth is found only in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. No holiness is possible apart from the indwelling presence of the Spirit, who is given to us at the moment of conversion. Thus without repentance, without that internal turning away from sin and turning toward Christ, holiness is an utterly impossibility. Self-mastery is possible only through an unconditional surrender to Christ at conversion and then an unconditional surrender to the Holy Spirit afterwards. 

This act of surrender is, in essence, what Paul has been teaching in Gal. 5. He does this with several metaphors. We are to "walk by the Spirit," "live by the Spirit," "be led by the Spirit," and "keep in step with the Spirit." But they all mean the same thing. We must surrender ourselves to the sovereignty of the indwelling Spirit of God. Elsewhere Paul can write, "Be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18). This could also be rendered "Go on being filled with the Spirit." Paul's point is that we must continually surrender to the Spirit so that the Spirit might continually fill us. In psychological terms, we are to open our personality to the Holy Spirit of God, regularly and continuously, so that he will continue to fill us with himself. Let us remember that the mark of a Christian is the presence of the Spirit of Christ in our lives (Rom. 8:9). Without him, we cannot please God. Without his presence, we cannot take up our cross daily and repudiate evil without compromise. No amount of pleading with people to take responsibility for their lives can replace this fundamental teaching of Christianity. It didn't work when Robert Schuller preached the power of positive thinking, and it won't work today through the teaching of good men who have never experienced the only true source of transformation. This transformation, however, is within reach of every follower of Jesus Christ. It is altogether out of the question that we should even dream of such a transformation apart from conversion to Christ. 

Allow me to conclude with one example from Gal. 5. Paul completes his list of the fruit of the Spirit with "self-control" or "self-mastery." I've noticed in listening to cultural conservatives that the topic of self-mastery very often comes up. And of course, that is a good and right thing. Our society is one that is largely characterized by a lack of self-control and, by contrast, an almost frenzied lust after short-term pleasure through self-indulgence. But make no mistake about it. Here in Galatians, Paul is not speaking about a change in our lives that can be wrought through personal self-effort. This is clear from the agricultural metaphor he employs. Paul is referring to a "harvest" which the Holy Spirit produces within the soil of our human character through purely supernatural means. By nature and disposition, we are self-indulgent creatures. But lay hold of this: what is impossible with man is possible with God. It is a fatal thing to try and do this on our own. 

Christlikeness is the eternal purpose of God for you and for me (Rom. 8:29). It is my personal goal for 2023, as it's been my goal for more than 6 decades, to become more like Christ. I pray that I may be so filled with the Holy Spirit that his fruit appears and ripens in my character: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.