Living by the Spirit

By Stephen Terry


Sabbath School Lesson Commentary for December 10 – 16, 2011


“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Galatians 5:18, NIV

Having been returned to the right path by Evangelist after finding no release from his burdens through legalism, Christian finally comes to the foot of the cross where his burdens roll from his back and he experiences freedom.  This is the true start of Christian’s pilgrimage in “Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan. Prior to this, he was told and wanted to believe that there was something better than the burden of guilt he had been struggling with. He went seeking it without knowing what he was actually seeking. Evangelist told him it was there and directed him on the way, but it was the weight of his burdens that pushed him onward.

In the same way, the law heaps on us a weight of condemnation that enslaves us to carry that burden of guilt. Without relief from somewhere we will carry that burden until we die. We believe we will then face judgment for the misdeeds that brought about our burden of guilt, but in reality we have already judged and condemned ourselves if we do not seek a way out of our untenable position.

A war rages in our being. (See Romans 7:15-20) The Bible identifies the combatants as our two natures, one carnal or fleshly and the other spiritual. Paul tells us that the fleshly nature is associated with “…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…” Galatians 5:19-21, NIV  The law which is external to our inward desires, condemns these activities and hence our burden of guilt. Prior to our knowledge of any such law, we may see these activities as an enjoyable “to do” list. But inherent in these things is a love of self before love of others. As others find themselves unloved through our activities, they resist. In that resistance may lie appeals to secular statutes to enforce more socially neutral behavior.

Through these encounters with secular law, we begin to get a glimmer of the role of law in instructing us regarding incorrect behavior. (See Galatians 3:24) As our awareness of the law grows, our sense of condemnation for our fleshly desires grows. We begin to understand the effect they have had on our relationships, and we feel guilt and shame for what we have done for self-interest. This burden fastens itself securely upon us and we begin to feel its weight. Every time we return to those activities that appeal to our flesh, we feel the burden grow.

At this point we are faced with two options. Like a slave, we may resign ourselves to our chains and simply accept our situation as all we can expect in life. We can find momentary pleasures in continuing to pursue selfishness, but those pleasures are fleeting. Like an addict, we find that what was enough to distract us from our guilt in the past is no longer enough today. We get caught in a spiral of ever increasing despair as the burden of guilt increases and momentary pleasure becomes harder to find. The Bible tells us that this downward spiral ends in death. (See Romans 6:23) Unfortunately for some who follow this path, the burdens become so immense that there is so much of death already in their lives that when death actually comes, they see it as a merciful deliverance sent from God.

God never intended things to be like that. The law was intended to be a warning on life’s pathway. Like a “Bridge is Out” sign, it was intended to warn us to take a different path. But for some, the moment of truth when they encounter the sign is a challenge. The glittering neon signs on the other side of the river are so enticing they will try to cross the water even when the bridge is out, no matter the price. Even then, God does not abandon these to their fate. Swimming the current beside them, He urges them to turn back, and He will bring them to safety. Frightened by the churning water, some listen and trust Him to bring them to safety. But there is also one calling from the far shore telling them that they must come on as it is too late to turn back. He tells them that they are closer to the far shore so most of the dangers are behind them.

Those who listen to this siren song will find that the further they go, the more difficult the way back looks to them, and the harder it becomes to choose to return. While God never abandons His children, their continued path of self-reliance makes it hard to rely on someone else, even God. Once they cross the river they may stay away from the water and convince themselves that they are respecting the “Bridge is Out” sign, but in that case, the sign has become a barrier to their ever returning from their selfish path It only becomes a continual reminder of their erroneous choice with no power to lead them to a better way.

In spite of the bitter experience of some, others may heed the warning and look for that better pathway, and this is what the law was meant to do, to direct us to another path. Once on that path, the sign that brought them there becomes irrelevant. Like Judy Garland as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” once she was on the Yellow Brick Road, it became unimportant that she had begun in Munchkin land. The road became all about the destination. Were there setbacks? Yes. Did she have doubts on the way? Yes. But she never returned to Munchkin land. It wasn’t necessary to reach her destination.

In the same way, the law functions as a “schoolmaster” to bring us to the right path. When we enter on that path, we do so through repentance. In the Greek, the word repentance (metanoia) literally means to take a new path. Once on the new path, Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress” and Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” did not need to keep returning to the beginning to remember what had brought them there. In the same way, we do not need to keep going back to read the “Bridge is Out” sign. Every time we do, we open ourselves up to the wrong choice of crossing the river. Once we have passed that temptation, why would we want to go back? (See Romans 7:10-11)

The law as a schoolmaster brings us to Christ where repentance sets us on a different path. At that point, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we become endowed with a “heavenly GPS” to keep us on the right path. The Spirit speaks to us in unmistakable utterances to guide our way. Since it is finite and God is infinite, the law can never be more than an incomplete expression of God. When infinity comes to dwell in us through the Holy Spirit, the programming of our GPS becomes so much more complete than the simple “road map” of the law. It contains everything we need for the trip.

Because the focus of the law is condemnation, it is expressed through negative statements of what not to do. It is like a road map that shows only the roads that should not be taken. On such a map, even choosing the best route would still lead us astray. That is why the law can never save us. But once the Holy Spirit has come into our hearts, our GPS has all the co-ordinates for the best pathways to reach heaven. The law becomes meaningless because we are traveling positive pathways under the Spirit’s guidance. It cannot condemn such behavior, and condemnation is its only purpose. (See Romans 8:1)

Like Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” we may not understand what comes after the repentance and receipt of the Holy Spirit (See Acts 2:38), but that is no excuse to cling to the schoolmaster, afraid to wholly abandon ourselves to the Son. Instead we should trust the teaching of the schoolmaster that we are condemned and facing only death. Then we should accept the free gift of life (See Romans 6:23) God offers through Jesus. We can never fulfill the law as long as we remain under the schoolmaster. Paradoxically, if we leave the schoolmaster behind and follow the new pathway of repentance led by the Spirit dwelling within, we end up both legally justified through Christ and spiritually complete through His indwelling presence. This is life. On this pathway are “…love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23, NIV  The law is powerless to guide the Spirit-filled Christian, instead the fruit blossoming in the heart becomes the well spring of every activity.  “…this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3, NIV


This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry







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