The Narrow Path Between the Law and the Flesh

The Church struggles in finding balance on many Biblical principles. One of the most important struggles relates to what I have called in brief the balance between the Law and the Flesh, but is perhaps better described as keeping the balance between the extreme of legalism on the one hand and selfish independence and licentiousness on the other. Most believers can recognize legalism in others, but have trouble recognizing it in themselves. I suppose the same can be said for selfish independence, because it is easy to think of those who we consider to be believers in name only — those who claim to be Christians and yet exhibit little evidence of such. People using Biblical text could argue for both extremes — that we are to live righteously, or alternatively that we are not under the Law and so are free to do what we want. As with many issues, the truth lies in between the extremes — but where?

We who follow Jesus are not under the Law, according to the Apostle Paul (see Galatians 4:25 and 5:18). Yet many believers seem confused about this point. My guess is that probably 80 percent of believers still believe that they have to follow the Ten Commandments. What about you, do you believe a Christian has to follow the Ten Commandments? Judge Roy Moore is a strongly professing believer who made the headlines in the past year or two because he was so committed to the importance of the Ten Commandments that he lost his judgeship over this point. I heard recently someone say that if God didn’t want Christians to follow the teachings of the Old Testament (especially the Ten Commandments), He wouldn’t have included them in the Bible.

Yet the Apostle Paul tells the church in Galatia not only that they are not under the Law, but that whoever is trying “to be justified by the law” has been “alienated from Christ” and “fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4, NIV). He tells them if they try to follow the law, they are “under a curse” (Galatians 3:10, NIV). He also tells them that they receive the Holy Spirit and see God do miracles because of faith, not because of their ability to obey the law (Galatians 3:5). Paul challenges the Galatians to make a stand on this point: true followers of Jesus live by the Spirit, not by the Law (Galatians 5:1).

If we don’t have to follow the Ten Commandments, does that mean that Christians are free to steal from others or get drunk whenever they want or live sexually impure lives? If Christians are free, doesn’t that mean they can do whatever they want? The answer is no. In Romans 1:5, Paul tells us that Christians are called to “the obedience that comes from faith” (NIV). If there is no Law, what is there to obey? The answer is that we are to obey the Spirit. In Galatians 5:18, Pauls says, “IF you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (NIV, emphasis mine). The Law was put in place to lead us to faith (Galatians 3:24). Now that the Law has been fulfilled by Jesus, it has served its purpose.

Christ died to set us free from Satan. He died that the power of the flesh over us would be broken, and that we would find new freedom to live life as God intended it in relationship to Him and with Him. The truth about the way human beings are designed is that we cannot live without being in service to some power. The Apostle Paul makes it plain that you can be a servant or slave to the flesh (sin), or to God. There are no other choices. When the reign of the Law came to an end because of the new covenant established by Jesus (the covenant of justification by faith in Him), we were freed from having to obey the written code and external standards. But the nature of the freedom is this: we are to come into a vital and dependent relationship to God, drawing life continuously from Him. If we do not do this, we are bound to live a life of practical captivity to Satan, because we will continue to be subject to the whims of the flesh. Most Christians do not seem to understand this.

Relationship is the only safe way to abandon the Law. Most of us recognize that it cannot be “faith and” (Ephesians 2:8-10). You are not saved by faith and the good things you do. Faith alone is sufficient. If it is not, Jesus died for nothing (Galatians 2:21). The nature of the Law is for us to be attracted to things the Law forbids (Romans 7:7-11). It is also true that once we start trying to follow a code, we start grading our success, which cuts us off from our relationship with God. If we focus on performance, it becomes all about us. If we focus on relationship, then it can truly be all about Him.

In a different context, Jesus told us that we cannot serve two masters. In that context, he was talking about choosing between God and Money (Mammon). But it applies, as well, to the Law and the Spirit. For example, the Law says that we need to be in church every Sabbath. The Spirit will sometimes say to us, “Go visit your parents”, or “a sick friend”, or “take your kids to a baseball game on a Sabbath”. (The Pharisees told Jesus there are six days of the week to heal people, but not the Sabbath. Jesus said that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath, and that the Sabbath was made for people, not vice verse.) The Spirit is not a mindless taskmaster, but the Law is. The Law may be a useful guideline when we are not sensing any leading or direction from the Spirit — but for a Christian, if it becomes anything more than a guideline to us, it will be a curse for us (Galatians 3:10 ), and even death (2 Corinthians 3:6).

But if we let ourselves do whatever we want without being led by the Spirit, we are walking in the flesh and possibly exhibiting licentiousness — embracing our unbridled passions. Just so there is no confusion, Paul in many of his letters spells out some of the works of the flesh. This helps younger believers, in particular, gauge themselves as to when they have erred and mistaken works of the flesh for works of the Spirit. In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul writes:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: 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. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

There is a narrow path for the faithful to walk. This path lies between obeying a written code and obeying the flesh. The way of life is obeying the Spirit of God, who lives inside each follower of Jesus. May we all walk the narrow path!

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