Eighth Sunday after Trinity August 5, 2001
Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. So far the holy Word.
In Christ Jesus, Who selflessly gave His own life for you and me, Dear Fellow-redeemed,
“Much obliged!”—That’s kind of an old-time expression, but you still hear it every now and again. When somebody does something nice for you, like stopping to help when you’re broken down along the highway, you might say, “Much obliged.” Or you might just say, “Thanks a lot.” But “much obliged” means more than just “thank you”. Technically, when you say, “much obliged,” you’re saying, “I have an obligation to you; I owe you something; I am in your debt!”
In our text for this morning, the Apostle Paul begins, “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors…” He’s talking to the Christians—you and me. He’s telling us that—because we are Christians—we have an obligation to fulfil. And it’s an obligation that we should be fulfilling every day. What is that obligation? Exactly who are we obligated to?—Those are questions the Apostle answers for us today. This morning, let’s consider the theme…
To be “obliged”, to be in debt to someone, means different things to different people. Some people take their debts very lightly. Many of the students at the university I attended would run up huge debts—sometimes $80-100,000 worth of student loans—with no intention at all of ever paying it back. Upon graduation they’d simply declare bankruptcy, and that was that as far as they were concerned. I’ve found that most people I’m acquainted with take their debts very seriously. They all agree: if you’ve got an obligation, it needs to be fulfilled.
Paul says that we Christians are “much obliged.” Since we’ve become believers, we have a big obligation. Who or what are we Christians obliged to? Well, Paul starts out by telling us what we’re definitely not obliged to. We are not obliged to the flesh, which kills. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.
One of the reasons Jesus came to earth was to free us from the slavery of our sinful flesh. Since Jesus has saved you, the Bible says you are “a new creature.” You are no longer tied to the vicious cycle of serving only yourself, and satisfying all the sinful desires that your flesh tempts you with. The big question is, if Christ has freed a person from the power of the flesh, why in the world would that person ever want to go back and voluntarily live according to the flesh again? It seems unthinkable—and yet there are so many saved Christians that do just that!
It’s the sorrow of many a Christian pastor to see certain of his church members let their guard down—to forsake the life they were called to live and to fashion their lives after the lives of the unbelievers around them. What kind of life is that?—Paul tells us, in the fifth chapter of Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like.” Do you young people think fornication—sex outside of marriage—is really no big deal? Do the drinkers among you think it’s OK if you go too far and get really tanked up once in a while? Do you married couples think it’s acceptable behavior to fight like cats and dogs and hurl abuse at one another? Paul goes on, “I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Gal 5:19-21. Face the facts—you’re a Christian, not an unbeliever. If you forsake the life of a Christian and voluntarily give yourself over again to an ongoing, fleshly lifestyle, the final result is certain: Paul says, “You will die.”
Those who live that way, day in and day out with no repentance, show that they are not Christians. But even the most devoted believer still has the sinful flesh clinging to him. You and I do, too—we know that from the many sins we commit every day, and from the many times we have to come to our Savior for forgiveness. But the good news is that there is another force at work in us; a more powerful force. In a Christian the flesh remains, but now the dominant force in his life is…the Holy Spirit. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. Here is where our real obligation lies: Christians are much obliged, not to the flesh, which kills, but to the Holy Spirit, who makes us God’s children!
This is strictly an either/or situation! There can be only one dominant force in your life. You’re either serving sin, or serving God. Just like two people riding in a car: only one can sit behind the steering wheel with his foot on the gas. Either the flesh is in control of your life, or the Holy Spirit is. If that worries you, then take comfort from the words of our text; Paul tells you that, by the power of the Spirit, you can put to death the deeds of the body. The Holy Ghost isn’t just a comforting presence inside of you, He’s also a powerful weapon you can use to crucify the fleshly lusts that tempt you. Make use of the Spirit’s means of grace—the Gospel in Word and sacraments! Make good and certain that you and your family are here in church on Sunday to hear the Word preached. Set aside that half an hour each day to read your Bible in private. Take advantage of the sacrament of Holy Communion as often as you possibly can. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you through life. After all, you’re a child of God; your obligation is to Him, not to your flesh!
Yes, you are obliged to the Holy Spirit. But isn’t that a burdensome obligation? Aren’t you just giving up one kind of slavery for another kind of slavery? Paul says, No. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
Adoption—that’s an important concept for us. Some time ago I had a chance to visit with a CLC pastor and his wife who had just adopted three brothers, grade-school-aged boys. These kids had really been around the block. They’d been taken away from abusive parents, and then bounced around from foster home, to institution, to foster home and back again. Finally, this pastor and his wife had adopted them. Now, they weren’t free from authority by any means; in fact, their new parents were pretty strict disciplinarians. But I saw the boys at a pastoral conference once, and they seemed so happy—these people loved them, and they knew it. Now they had a real home! Now they had real parents! They couldn’t stop asking, “Dad, should I do this? Mom, what would you like me to do now?”
That’s a pretty good description of our relationship to God. When the Holy Spirit worked faith in our hearts, we became God’s children by adoption. But for God, the adoption process wasn’t a simple matter of filling out a few forms. He had to pay a high price to get us, and that price was His own Son. “When the fulness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Gal 4:4-5. With every crack of the Roman whip on Jesus back, with every drop of precious, redeeming blood that fell from His wretched body on the cross, Jesus was paying the adoption price. He was paying what it cost to buy you back from sin, and make you a child of God!
By giving us faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit has made us God’s children. We are under obligation to Him—but what a joyful obligation it is! Just like those boys I mentioned a minute ago, we now have the obligation of an adopted child to the new parents who love him. We can now address the Almighty God as “Abba, Father.” We have the right and privilege to come to him boldly with every need we have. And when we so approach Him in prayer, we have His promise that He will hear and answer us in love, every time. Paul says that the very fact that we do pray thus to our Father is evidence that “…we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Salvation in Christ: that’s not something that we have to wait for, it’s something we’ve got right now. We don’t have everything right now, of course; there are some wonderful gifts that God is waiting until Judgement Day to give us. But for the Christian, the present is bound up with the future. The firstfruits of the Spirit that we enjoy in our lives right now are the down-payment on something much greater—the everlasting joy in heaven that, as children of God, we are one day going to inherit. In the words of one writer, “our lives are now the festive opening before the feast.”
Yes, there is still suffering, especially for Christians. But it’s suffering that leads inevitably to glory. Paul says that we are …joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. In His life, Jesus said “NO” to sin and Satan, and it led Him to suffering. We followers of Christ speak the same “NO” to the world and it’s fleshly ways—and that sometimes leads to suffering and persecution for us. But just as surely as Jesus’ way led Him to the right hand of God, so surely shall our paths of suffering lead there, too!
In the year 1835, a stranger walked into a huge cathedral in Germany. He listened, for a while, to the church organist practicing, and then asked if he might try playing the mighty organ. The old organist scoffed, “I don’t know you! This is one of the most priceless instruments in Europe, and we don’t let just anybody come in here and play it!” After a while, though, the stranger persuaded him to let him play, and the cathedral was filled with beautiful music the likes of which the organist had never heard. “Who are you?” he asked, finally. The reply stunned him: it was the great composer, Felix Mendelssohn. The organist was dumbfounded. “To think that an old fool like me nearly forbade Mendelssohn to play upon my organ!” If you and I can only realize what wonderful harmonies the Holy Spirit can draw out of our lives, we won’t be content until He has complete possession of us, and is working in us and through us to do His will. We Christians are much obliged—not to the flesh, but to the Holy Spirit. God grant us the grace to fulfil that blessed obligation every day of our lives! AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.