You may have read Nick Hornby's latest book. It's called How To Be Good, and the main character is a woman called Katie – she's a doctor, which makes her feel good; she's married; but she's having an affair. And that makes her feel bad. She says to herself:
"I'm a good person. In most ways. But I'm beginning to think that being a good person in most ways doesn't count for anything very much if you're a bad person in one way… It's no good me telling you I'm a doctor because… I'm sleeping with someone who's not my husband… and at the moment, being a doctor can't make up for that, however many rectal boils I look at."
And thinking aloud about the affair, she goes on: "You see, what I really want… is the opportunity to rebuild myself from scratch… I want to rip the page out and start again on a fresh sheet, just like I used to when I was a kid and had messed a drawing up.
And later she says this: "When I look at my sins… I can see the appeal of born-again Christianity. I suspect that it's not the Christianity that is so alluring; it's the rebirth. Because who wouldn't wish to start all over again?
The question is: How? How can we change? Maybe you know one of the people who's been out the front here, to be baptised or profess their faith publicly. You've seen how they've changed, and you're wondering how; and maybe how it could happen to you. Or maybe that change has happened to us, but we feel disillusioned that it doesn't seem to have changed us very far. How can we change?
Would you turn to Galatians 2.20. Galatians is a letter from the apostle Paul to a group of people in Galatia whose lives had been changed by putting their faith in Jesus. But since then, a new group was pushing a different message in their church. The message was: 'Law changes people.' Take a look at this first picture:
The top arrow – the right-to-left arrow – pictures the life of someone living their own way, not God's way. Which is how we all start out in life. And unless you've turned to Jesus and put your faith in him, that is a picture, as God sees it, of your life right now. And this new group in the Galatain church said, 'Law changes people. What that person in the right-to-left arrow needs is God's law, ie, God's will for us as written in the Old Testament (OT). Eg, 'You shall not commit adultery', 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' The law will tell them what they ought to do, and that'll change them.' And the motivation of that false message is very strong: if you don't change, God won't accept you. So you try to change… so as to be accepted by God. But it doesn't work. Because law doesn't change people. It can't. And Paul wrote Galatians to remind these Christians that only Jesus changes people.
Look at this second picture:
Again, the top arrow – the right-to-left arrow – pictures how we all start out in life – living in a way that deserves God's condemnation. But if you're trusting in Jesus tonight then at some time God brought across your path the gospel – the message of how he sent his Son to die on the cross in your place, for your sins, to take off you the punishment you deserve. And as you looked at the cross you saw two things. You saw God's attitude to your sins - that he hates them so much that they had to punished. But you also saw God's attitude to you – that he loved you so much that he made a way for your sins to be punished without you being the one who was punished. And when Paul saw that it was the turning point of his life. Have a look at Galatians 2.20, where he describes that turning point:
20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Ie, 'I was on the right-to-left arrow when I realised Jesus was crucified for me. And when I realised that, I not only wanted to be forgiven my sins; I wanted to be rid of my sins. So I have been crucified with Christ. The old me has been left at the cross. And I no longer live, but Christ lives in me - Jesus has come into my life by the presence of the Holy Spirit.'
And it's the Holy Spirit who gives you that '6th sense' of faith that tells you that Jesus is real, that he's alive, that he's there, that he's with you, that he can see you and hear you and help you and above all that he loves you and is on your side. If Jesus once meant nothing to you, but you'd now say he's your Saviour and Lord, that's the work of the Holy Spirit. And it's only that relationship with Jesus that changes people. And if you're not sure whether you have that relationship, or how to get into it, please do take a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? and read it. And please do come to hear more; please do ask what would be helpful to join with here at church.
Law doesn't change people. Only Jesus can and does. To put it another way: rules don't change people; but relationships do. Eg, I lived for years under school rules about what I could and couldn't wear. But rules didn't change me. I didn't want to wear what they wanted me to wear; so I didn't (always!). Contrast that with the fact that in my wardrobe I have a jumper that I'll never wear again and that is too awful for words, and that is really too awful even to give to Oxfam. How did I ever come to wear it? Because an old girlfriend wanted me to. I remember buying it with her, against my better judgement. But love does that. It makes you want what the other person wants. Relationships change you.
And for the rest of our time we're going to look at how our relationship with Jesus changes us. So would you skip over to Galatians 5.13:
13 You, my brothers, were called to be free.
Which means free from that impossible treadmill of PICTURE (1) above. Free from trying to change so that God accepts you. Because the gospel says it's the exact opposite, PICTURE (2) above. The gospel says: first God accepts us at our worst, forgives us back into relationship with him just as we are, and then he begins the life-long process of changing us. But at no point does his acceptance of us depend on how we live. We're loved as we are.
But [½-way through v13] do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.
The freedom of being loved as we are brings with it a temptation. Someone once put it to me like this. He asked me if I was sure God accepted me. I said, 'Because of the cross, Yes.' So he said, 'But then what motivates you to change, if not the fear of punishment? Won't it mean you just go out and do what you want?' And if I'm ever asked that question again I'm going to say, 'Yes. That's exactly what it means.' And then I'll explain: 'But what I want has changed.
Because being forgiven, being loved as you are, having someone die for you changes what you want. It means that in your heart of hearts you no longer want to sin. And that's where Paul goes next. In vv16-18 he says:
First, DO YOUR NEW DESIRES (vv16-18)…
How can we change and keep changing? Paul says: do your new desires. Verse 16:
16So 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.
So Paul says that believers find two kinds of desires inside themselves.
On the one hand, there are the 'desires of the sinful nature' – desires towards sin. And they were there before we came to faith and they're still hanging around inside us – like unwelcome squatters that we can't evict this side of heaven. And they lounge around on the sofa of our hearts saying, 'Serve me. Feed me. Gratify me. Do me.'
ut on the other hand, believers also find a new set of desires inside themselves – the 'desires of the Spirit.' And they were not there before we came to faith. Before I came to faith, I didn't want to please Jesus – I didn't give him a thought. And I didn't mind sin except when it got me into trouble or spoiled my relationships. And then after turning to Jesus I had both those desires - to please him and not sin.
And that's the 'desires of the Spirit' – the new desires you have when Jesus comes into your life by his Spirit. Eg, at the time I came to faith I was playing a lot of sport. I was a good sportsman but a dreadful sport. I was very bad-tempered and foul-mouthed on the pitch. And that had never bothered me. But I remember within a week of coming to faith I woke up to how I was behaving and I wanted to change. And I started to. It was that '6th sense' that the Holy Spirit gives you of Jesus being in your life and putting his finger on things.
And Paul says, v16: 'Live by the Spirit' – ie, go along with what he's putting his finger on. Or v18 – allow yourself to be 'led by the Spirit.' Now he's not talking about a 'voice in your head'. He's talking about the way the Holy Spirit makes us aware that the Jesus we're getting to know in the Bible is really in our lives and putting his finger on things and can give us the will-power to change. It's the Spirit who leads us to think things like, 'Don't say that. Don't think that. Don't watch that. Get out of here.' And Paul says: run with him! Do your new desires. It's the Spirit who prompts us to think of someone's needs, to talk to someone, etc. And Paul says: run with him! Do your new desires.
And (v18) he says again that it's not law that changes people. He says: 'If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.' They're different worlds – the world of a relationship, which changes you and the world of rules, that can't. We need the law, we need that part of the Bible, to tell us what's right and wrong, what pleases God and what doesn't. But it won't make us want to do it. It can't change us. Only deepening our relationship with Jesus can do that. Do your new desires, says Paul, and
Secondly, YOU'LL LOOK MORE LIKE YOUR NEW LORD (vv19-23)
Here's what we won't look like. Verse 19:
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.
And reading that list, many of the Galatians would have said, 'You know, before I came to Christ, that was me, and that was me, and that was me.' And the same will be true of us. But Paul goes on:
I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
And we need that warning because there are always people in the churches saying, 'You can be a Christian and still do X, Y and Z' - get drunk, sleep with your girl/boyfriend, etc.
But Paul says: not true. If I'm living completely unchanged, like I was, and like the people around me, then, end of v21, I 'will not inherit the kingdom of God.' Because if I'm living completely unchanged, it shows that I haven't come to Jesus and been forgiven back into that relationship that changes people. Ie, I'm still on that right-to-left arrow in the pictures above – heading away from God, and so ultimately away from heaven, his 'kingdom'.
But please notice v21 says, 'those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.' It does not say 'those who lapse like this'. Paul is talking about a settled, unchanged lifestyle in vv19-21. He's not talking about lapses in a lifestyle of trying to please God. He's not saying that born again people can't and don't fall into these things any more. He is saying they don't live in them as a settled, unchanged lifestyle any more.
Have a look at this picture again:
The right-to-left arrow is me before I came to faith in Jesus. And the crosses stand for individual sins. Then the left-to-right arrow is me since I came to faith in Jesus. And I wish I could say I hadn't sinned since - that there were no crosses in that period of my life. But you know as well as I that it wouldn't be true. So what is the difference between the 'before' and 'after' for someone who's become a Christian?
It's not that before I sinned and after I've been sin-free. The main difference is the direction of my life. Before, I was consciously going my own way and sin didn't bother me. But after, I've been consciously trying to please God and sin does bother me and I want not to sin and I aim not to sin and when I do I kick myself and wish I hadn't. And over the long haul, I can look back at areas of my life and see that God has enabled me to sin less – ie, to change and be more how he wants me to be. But I'm not sin-free - and nor will I be this side of heaven.
So, vv19-21 is what we won't look like if we do our new desires. Then vv22-23 is what we will look like if we do our new desires:
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.
There isn't time to unpack that. But notice again how Paul says law cannot change us. End of v23, 'Against such things there is no law.' Ie, this is a different world from what law can do. Negatively law cannot get sin out of me. And positively, law can't get these 'fruits' into me. I need the law to tell me how I ought to be – eg, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' But the law can't make me how I ought to be. Rules can't change people. Only this relationship with Jesus, in our lives by his Spirit, can do that. Eg, love – it's not being told to be loving that makes us loving. It's being on the receiving end of Jesus' love that softens and moves you to be a more loving person. All those fruits are fruits of a relationship.
Now can I say: we need to apply vv19-23 with great care. Some of us need the warning of v21 because we think we're Christians, we say we're Christians, when actually our lives call into question whether we really are. 'I warn you,' says Paul. But many others of us, I know, will be Christians sitting in quiet discouragement. All too aware of that conflict between the desires of the Spirit and the desires of the sinful nature. All too aware of our many lapses into sin. And can I say: we need to apply these things to ourselves with great care. If we're aware - and increasingly aware - of our sin, it's a sign of spiritual health.
I remember having a wisdom tooth out under local anaesthetic and I didn't feel a thing at the time. He pulled, stitched, and off I went. And then the anaesthetic began to wear off. And I felt dreadful. Not because I was actually getting worse – I was actually getting better - but because I was becoming more aware of the damage that needed healing in the first place. And it's like that coming to faith. You undergo this spiritual 'operation' of being forgiven and Jesus coming into your life by his Spirit. So that the anaesthetic begins to wear off your conscience - and you become sensitive to sin and to what pleases God in a way you never were before. And you feel worse. Not because you're getting worse. But because God is gradually making you aware of how much damage there was in the first place that needs sorting out.
And can I say: take great care with the question, 'Have I really changed?' Whatever you do, don't compare yourself with others. Because you didn't start where they started, or when they started. Eg, you may really struggle with alcohol, having been seriously into it before you came to faith. The person sitting next to you may never have found it a problem and never been drunk in their life. It's no wonder you're at different points on that score. Don't compare yourself with them. Only compare yourself with yourself - and even then, only over the long haul.
John Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, was the captain of a slave trading ship. He was a massive drinker and he basically slept with any of the female slaves he liked. It took years after his conversion for God to change those areas of his life. And he wrote this in his diary: 'I'm not what I want to be, I'm not what I should be, I'm not what I one day will be in heaven. But thank God, I'm not what I once was.'
The other thing to say is: you are often the last person to recognise the changes that God has brought about in your life. In our personal struggles with sin we often lose all objectivity about ourselves. And if you're really discouraged on this front, talk to a Christian friend. When I tell mine how hopeless I feel as a Christian, they have a knack of coming up with objective evidence to the contrary. And we need to do that for one another. Do your new desires, and you'll look more like your new Lord. But the bottom line is:
Thirdly, KEEP DOING WHAT YOU DID AT FIRST (vv24-25)
Whether we think we've changed a lot or a little, whether we feel our walk with Jesus is close or distant, the way on from where we are is simply to keep doing what we did at first. Verse 24:
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
Paul comes back again to how we started with Jesus. In Picture (2) above, there we were on the right-to-left arrow, when we heard about Jesus' death for us. And it showed us how much God hates our sin, but also how much God loves us. And we wanted not only to be forgiven our sin but to be rid of our sin. And the way Paul puts that in v24 is that we, 'crucified [our] sinful nature with its passions and desires'. It's as if I left the old me on the cross. As if I said, 'I want the old me to die.' But it's only crucified. It's still alive and twitching. But it's dying – and when we die and are resurrected to heaven, we'll leave the sinful nature behind forever and finally be sin-free people in a sin-free place.
So Paul says: how did we begin? By being forgiven our sin and wanting rid of our sin and v25 by being brought to life by the Holy Spirit so we could begin to walk with Jesus. That's the way in to the Christian life. And the way in is also the way on. Wherever we are right now - stuck Christian, struggling Christian, going-well-Christian - the way on is to keep doing what you did at first. Look back to the cross. Let it tell you again that you're loved and forgiven your sins – whatever is on your conscience. Let it tell you again what sin is really like, what sin ultimately does to people - so that you want to be rid of it. And then get up again and keep walking with Jesus. Or maybe you need to do that for the first time, right now. The Christian life is really just one, life-long, fresh start. And the place to start is always the cross. Because the only thing that changes us to do anything for him is to look again to what he's done for us.