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SERMON: Death Therapy (Galatians 5:16-22)

Galatians 5 is pretty heavy, isn't it?

Galatians 5:16-26 (ESV) But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who doe such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

I don't know about you, but for me, there are certain passages in the Bible that really make me uncomfortable because it's as if God is standing right in front of me, looking me straight in the eyes, and He's literally just listing all the sins that are present in my life despite my best efforts to eradicate them once-and-for-all!

Of course, "my best efforts" are nothing more than "filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6) to Him, but that doesn't mean I should ever stop waging war against the Old Adam within me. It just means I have to remind myself that it's not my war to win.

When the Lord looks at me He sees His Son. His righteousness was imputed to me for no reason other than that He loves me and I was a wretched sinner in need of His saving grace. Christ saves. I can't save myself. Christ redeems. I can't redeem myself.

Furthermore, I know perfectly well that I can't ever truly get rid of them in this life, but I can pray, I can resist in the sufficient faith that's given to me, and I can say "No!" to giving them room to breath in my life.

Any sin that has room to breath in your life is just looking to strangle you to death anyway (Romans 6:23), and yet, we go out of our way to make excuses for it, to invite it into our lives thinking we can somehow reform sin and make it into something we would be happy to live with long-term.

Ironically, the sins we try to save become the very things that enslave us.

The pride that invariably comes with any attempt by us to redeem sin leaves us thinking that we are in complete control at all times when, in fact, we are like dogs on a leash being led through this life by Old Adam, or "like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly" (Proverbs 26:11).

We're not gods ourselves, but we act like it when try to create a reality where sin can thrive in the dark and thrive in the light and we just don't care one way or another.

Why should we? Once we start down that road, our faith is replaced with a philosophy that screams, "If it feels good, then do it! If we're right, then everyone else is wrong!"

As a result, we compartmentalize sinful behaviors and we erect temples of worship for our Pet Sins to be put on a pedestal in our hearts and minds, thinking "it's no big deal" because the temple is hidden and secluded from the eyes and ears of those closest to us who could call us to repent of them (or so we think!).

Ah, but we forget that this spiritual Temple of Doom is not hidden from God! "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar" (Psalm 139:2) and "even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether" (Psalm 139:4) is what we're told.

Still, we insist that we can live just fine without ever trying to battle sin. We rationalize sin and think that as long as we keep it hidden in our thoughts and don't actually act on them, then it's just fine.

Once again, once we start to travel down that road, that's nothing more than the sound of our faith gasping for air! "The LORD knows the thoughts of man, That they are a mere breath" (Psalm 94:11).

Thankfully, "the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:24-25).

In the end, we need to recall that our Pet Sins require us to constantly serve them when, in contrast, the Lord and Savior comes to serve us the grace, mercy, and forgiveness we need to destroy their power over us.

As a mere layman, I'm not sure if any of the analogies I tried to make above actually worked well or not, but I hope you at least get the gist of what I'm trying to say. In short, traces of my old Evangelical self were reemerging in the past week, which is why I needed to remind myself of the true truth about Sanctification and the so-called "Victorious Christian Life" everyone's always so enamored with.

Here's an excellent sermon on Sanctification titled "Death Therapy" and delivered by Rev. Robert E. Waters way back in September 2009 that I think ties in quite nicely with all of this today...

Death Therapy 
Galatians 5:16-22 Trinity 14 September 13, 2009

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. 
Normal Lutheran practice is to preach on the Gospel unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise. Well, I don’t know how compelling a reason it is, but this morning’s Gospel is also the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day, and that’s a bit to short of an interval, it seems to me, to be preaching twice on the same text. 
Besides, this is an Epistle lesson well worth looking at. It says quite a bit about a subject Lutherans don’t spend enough time discussing -- sanctification -- and in the process, makes it clear why maybe not spending too much time talking about sanctification isn’t such a bad thing. 
Reformed Christianity is very big on Christian growth. Just how big can be seen quite easily by making a field trip to Wellspring or any other Christian book store. It’s amazing the percentage of books you’ll find on the shelves there which are nothing more or less than “how to” books on sanctification. Nor should that be surprising. Calvin saw the Third Use of the Law -- as a guide for the Christian life -- as the main one. The Law in the Third Use tends to be the main subject matter of “Evangelical” sermons. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, then, when people get the idea, first, that sanctification is primarily our job (perhaps with a little help from the Holy Spirit), and that, once we’ve “gotten saved,” the Christian life is primarily a matter of getting on with it! 
Wherever one finds the Gospel, one will find the Spirit at work. And wherever the Spirit is at work, sanctification happens. But the process has an enemy. It is an enemy that is difficult to avoid precisely because it is within us. No, it’s worse than that: in a sense, it is us. 
“We have met the enemy,” Pogo, the possum in the old-time Walt Kelly comic strip once said, “and they are us.” Our enemy -- and the biggest obstacle to sanctification -- is our flesh, our fallen natures. 
Now, it isn’t hard to know when the flesh is at work. Its works are obvious. Paul lists them for us: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like. All of these are bad, of course. But we miss the point if we simply understand Paul to be giving us a list of things to avoid. All these things, and all things like them, come from the same place: the heart. 
The word first appears in the Bible in Genesis 6:5. This is what that verse says: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” 
For the Hebrews, the heart was not the source of emotions or feelings. That was the kidneys -- or, in the Elizabethan word we keep encountering in the King James Version of the Bible and in the TLH version of the Psalter, the “reins.” No, the heart was the seat, not of the emotions, but of faith or unbelief, and of thought and decision. It is core (interestingly, another word from another foreign language which means, literally, “heart”) of who and what we are as individuals. It determines our character. It sums up who and what we are. The Law is written on it -- though the writing is dimmed by sin. Satan makes it his target. God seeks to change it for the better. 
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander,” Jesus says in Matthew 15. “These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Evil thoughts. Murder. Adultery. Sexual immorality. Theft. False witness. Slander. Does that list sound familiar? Out of the heart, Jesus tells us, come the very things Paul tells us come from our flesh. 
Every intent of the thoughts of (man’s) heart is only evil continually. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” Paul writes in Romans 7. “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” We may aspire to all sorts of noble things. But we just don’t have the tools to carry them out. And that is why -- with all due respect to our Reformed and “Evangelical” bretheren -- the Law can never work sanctification. Every effort to force it to do so meets with the same result Paul complains of in Romans 7: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” 
In our natural state, what Paul calls “the flesh” and what the Hebrew Bible calls “the heart” cannot be distinguished. We cannot step outside of ourselves, and make ourselves right. I’ve mentioned before, I think, the odd but profound wisdom of Christian psychiatrist Dr. Gerald May, who pointed out the inherent insanity of telling misbehaving children to “control yourselves!” Their “selves” just aren’t up to the task of controlling their “selves-” because their “selves” are precisely what are out of control! 
Our selves are the problem! “What am I,” St. Augustine rightly asked, “but an aid to my own destruction?” No, the Law -- even in its Third Use -- was never intended as a manual for the reforming of the self, and the sanctification of the flesh. The disease of sin runs too deep. The cancer of selfishness has too great a hold. Our flesh cannot be reformed. It has to die. 
Years ago Richard Dreyfus and Bill Murray starred in a movie the woman I was dating at the time insisted that we see. We did -- despite my protests. It was called “What About Bob?” Murray was a charming but extremely messed up patient who irritates his psychiatrist, played by Dreyfus, to the point where he tries to kill him -- telling him that “death therapy” is his only hope. 
Well, “death therapy” is the only treatment for the disease of sin. The flesh cannot be reformed. The self cannot be healed. And the heart can be changed only by the action of Someone else. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once described the essence of the flesh very well when he said that at the root of all legalism is the desire to stand before God and say, “I have done my duty.” But that is one thing we can never say. Our effort to sanctify ourselves by our own strivings is in the last analysis the work of our pride -- of our own, fallen, sinful flesh. We may aspire to what is good. But as Paul points out in Romans 7, we cannot achieve it. But we insist on achieving it. We want fellowship with God on our terms: because we deserve it; because we’ve earned it. But we haven’t. And we won’t -- because we can’t. We ourselves are the problem, and none of us can shed his or her own skin. 
And so it was that God, in His love and wisdom, arranged a solution to our dilemma that we would never have thought of. In the words of St. Paul, “He concluded all under disobedience, so that He might have mercy upon all.” God invites us to leave our pride -- and our broken and diseased selves -- at the door, and to receive a new self, a new heart -- one that lives as a beggar, by forgiveness and by grace; which does not seek to justify itself, but is content that the righteousness of God’s Son be our righteousness, too. 
God proposes to heal us through death therapy: the daily death of our flesh in the waters of our baptism, so that claiming His promise and His grace a new self may arise to live, not by it’s own merit- for it claims none -- but by His mercy. 
We no longer have to seek our own will or our own way, because our New Self is humbly willing to accept that, in His love, God will send us what is best for us by grace. 
None of this means that we don’t continue to struggle with our flesh. Our egos continue to betray us. Our appetites continue to subvert our best intentions. But now we are able for the first time to step out of ourselves as many times as these overcome us, and to claim a new identity, free from the backbreaking compulsion to make our own way through this universe and prove ourselves by a standard we can never meet. 
Martin Luther wrote that in the years when he was striving to save himself by following the Law, he knew that he had to love God. But instead, he hated him. That’s how a person who is seeking to reform his old nature and sanctify her flesh will always feel about God. The harder such a person tries, the worse he will fail. And the more she fails, the more -- however she might wish it to be otherwise -- she will see God as a tyrant who sets before her a task which she can never accomplish, and yet insists that she must. 
But the person who lives by forgiveness sees in God a loving Father Who will not let even his sin separate him from His love. She sees a gracious God Who loves her, Who gave Himself for her -- and along with the gift of Himself will give her all good things. Only in the heart of such a person is true, transforming love of God born. And to live that way -- by forgiveness, childlike trust, and total reliance on God’s unmovable friendship in Christ -- is to walk by the Spirit. 
In such a heart, the Spirit dwells. In such a heart, the Spirit works love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. 
Such a person does not live under the law. His is not a life of meeting demands or of jumping through hoops. Instead, it’s a life in the company of a Heavenly Friend Who loves her as no one else could, who will always defend her and befriend her and cause all things -- even sorrows and crosses -- to work for her benefit. 
A person who lives that way will be grieved at the prospect of hurting that Friend, and will strive to please Him and to bring Him joy -- not because he has to, but because He wants to. She will do so, not in an effort to change her heart, but because her heart has been changed -- changed, not by the unmeetable demands of the Law, but by the Good News of God’s unchangeable and all-sufficient love. 
And that, my friends, is the true and Christian and biblical Third Use of the Law: to please the One we want so much to please, not out of obligation and compulsion -- that’s the way of the flesh -- but out of gratitude and love: out of the heart. 
When a heart transplant is performed, the old heart must be removed. It must die. And so it is in the heart transplant the Holy Spirit performs, the surgical procedure we call “sanctification.” Death therapy is the only way: death to self, death to the deification of appetite and ambition, death to the desire to manipulate the world and even God Himself to our liking. As Paul says later in the chapter, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” 
But that crucifixion is done, not by the willfulness of the flesh, but by the love that dwells in a changed heart -- a heart changed, not by the Law, but by the Gospel, and a life lived, not by seeking impose our will upon God or stand before Him and claim to have done our duty, but by grace, and mercy, and- above all else -- by gratitude. 
It is through these that the Spirit works. It is through these that He transforms the heart. And at last, when we put off our fallen natures once and for all and no longer have a flesh to obstruct and interfere with our friendship with God, it is these which for all eternity will be the only reality we know -- and the only one we need. 
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Clearly, I needed to receive a sermon like that given my recent posts and struggles.

Still, I've been in an introspective mindset lately. I don't say that in a "Hey, Look At Me And How Pious I Am!" sort of way, but just to illustrate a point.

My life seems to go through these ebbs-and-flows where I'm cruising right along just fine and then suddenly...BOOM!!!...something out of the blue will cause me to come face-to-face with the sinful tendencies that are present in my own life.

Of course, once that process starts, it doesn't take long before Satan starts whispering lies in my ears hoping to infect my mind and shatter my faith.

That's why I've grown to absolutely cherish such words as these...

How easy it is to focus on ourselves, our sin, our weakness, our faintheartedness, and conclude that because of these things we could not be Christians. Often people focused on themselves will avoid church attendance because they think that there lives must exhibit a pristine holiness before they can come to church. If they focus on their own abysmal weakness and sin, then certainly there is plenty to dissuade them from standing in the presence of the Lord in the divine services of the church. 
However, we stand precisely in that position always. We stand before God as sinners, but sinners whose sin has been taken over by the Lamb of God, Christ our Savior. So what we feel is not true. If God has indeed taken our sin in Christ, why should we feel it? This is the ultimate false memory syndrome or counterfeit consciousness. How can you say that you are not worth God's love and grace, when Christ has fully cleansed you by His holy and precious blood? How could you be any more worthy? What sin of yours has Christ not taken and atoned for? What sin do you want to possess for yourself and cherish in your heart? What fault do you want to take care of on your own? There are none which Christ has not taken. None! 
Yet there are still people who teach Christians that they must merit God's favor, by their own love, economic success, happiness, disposition toward God, or exemplary life. Such works clearly become a substitute for Christ Himself. You can't have it both ways. Either Christ saves you, or your own works save you. If your works save they have become your Christ and the Christ born of Mary by the Holy Spirit is not your God. How comforting it is to know that I do not have to be my own savior. I can cast all my care, my sin, my sorrow, and my suffering on Him. He bears the curse because I cannot. Either Christ is Christ or works are Christ. Not both. 
-- Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray / Memorial Moments (September 27th, 2016)

Please go back and reread the part I highlighted in red.

Have I been guilty of this in my previous posts? If not, then I came awfully close!

And for emphasis before wrapping things up today?

Where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world, but only in Christ, who is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, and who became a curse in order to set us free from the curse. On the other hand, according to philosophy and reason, sin, death, etc., are not present anywhere except in the world, in the flesh, and in sinners....But the true theology teaches that there is no more sin in the world, because Christ, on whom, according to Isaiah 53, the Father has laid the sins of the entire world (Is 53:6), has conquered, destroyed, and killed it in His own body. Having died to sin once, He has truly been raised from the dead and will not die any more (Rm 6:9). Therefore, wherever there is faith in Christ, there sin has in fact been abolished, put to death, and buried. But where there is no faith in Christ, there sin remains. And although there are still remnants of sin in the saints because they do not believe perfectly, nevertheless these remnants are dead; for on account of faith in Christ they are not imputed. 
-- Martin Luther / Lectures On Galatians, 3.13

A mysterious paradox indeed, but one we are to accept by faith!

In a Lutheran layman's terms, while it's proper to prayerfully consider such things, we also need to be extremely careful that we do not turn faith into our work and victory, when it is Christ's and Christ's alone.

NOTE: Please understand that I'm not a called and ordained minister of God's Word and Sacraments. I'm a layman or just a regular Christian, Executive Recruiter, Husband, Father, Friend who lives in the "City of Good Neighbors" here on the East Coast. To be more specific, and relevant to the point I want to make with this disclaimer/note, please understand that I'm also a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism a little more than 2 years ago now. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is inconsistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and repeatedly point us back to over and over again) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Also, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote for this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that "Old Evangelical Adam" category since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a Christian "Book of Concord" even existed (Small/Large Catechism? What's that!?!). This knowledge of the Lutheran basics was completely foreign to me even though I was baptized, confirmed, and married in an LCMS church! So, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by those old beliefs of mine. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because they are not blasphemous/heretical, because we now have this disclaimer, and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Most importantly, please know that any time I engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always closely follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible and/or include references to the Book of Concord unless otherwise noted. Typically, I defer to what other Lutheran Pastors both past and present have already preached and taught about such passages since they are the called and ordained shepherds of our souls here on earth. Finally, I'm going to apologize ahead of time for the length of most entries (this disclaimer/note is a perfect example of what I mean! haha). I'm well aware that blogs should be short, sweet, and to the point, but I've never been one to follow the rules when it comes to writing. Besides, this website is more like a "Christian Dude's Diary" in the sense that everything I write about and share publicly isn't always what's "popular" or "#trending" at the time, but is instead all the things that I'm studying myself at the moment. For better or for worse, these posts tend to be much longer than most blog entries you'll find elsewhere only because I try to pack as much info as possible into a single piece so that I can refer to it again and again over time if I need to (and so that it can be a valuable resource for others -- if possible, a "One-Stop-Shop" of sorts). Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Feel free to comment/email me at any time. Grace and peace to you and yours!


About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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