Pastor James Preus
March 14, 2021
“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” St. Paul writes this to the Christians in Galatia, who had been persuaded by false teachers that they had to fulfill the works of the Law in order to be true Christians. By works of the Law they meant circumcision, the observances of sabbaths and festivals, and the distinction of meats. Of course, St. Paul pointed out to them that if they were obligated to keep part of the Law, they must keep the whole Law (Galatians 5:3). St. Paul also taught them that no one will be justified before God by works of the Law, because through the Law comes knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:10). The Law reveals our sin, because all it can do is tell us what to do. But the Law cannot give us the power to do it. So, those who seek to be righteous before God by works of the Law instead find that they are worse and worse sinners!
To explain this lesson further, Paul uses an allegory from the book of Genesis. The Jews called the book of Genesis along with the other four books of Moses, the Law, which is why Paul asks, “Do you not listen to the law?” So, from the Law, Paul draws this allegory, that is, this story, which draws a picture to teach the difference between being under the Law and being under the Gospel. He compares it to the two sons of Abraham, one born of a slave woman and the other born of a free woman.
Now, you might remember that in the book of Genesis, God promised Abraham that he would give him a son, that he would make a great nation out of this son and give to him the land of Canaan, and that through this son all nations of the earth would be blessed. The problem was, Abraham was very old. And his wife Sarah was very old as well, and she had always been barren. So, Sarah, desiring the promise to be fulfilled, but not believing that it was possible to be fulfilled through her aged and barren womb, gave her servant Hagar to Abraham as a wife to bear him a son. Hagar indeed bore Abraham a son, but this son was born according to the flesh, not the promise.
God indeed fulfilled his promise. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, bore Isaac, the child of promise. According to flesh and blood, this was impossible. Sarah was too old. Sarah was barren. But according to God’s promise it was possible. Now in Abraham’s household there were two sons: one born according to the flesh and one born according to the promise. And the one born according to the flesh persecuted the one born according to the promise. So, Sarah ordered Abraham to cast the slave woman out with her son. And God told Abraham to obey her. The slave shall not inherit with the free born. Through Isaac shall Abraham’s offspring be named.
Now, how does this relate to us? Because all Christians are born both of a slave woman and of a free woman, that is, we are born both according to the flesh and according to the Spirit. Everyone born of the flesh, which is the entire human race, is born under sin and under the Law. That means we are all born into slavery. Yet, through Christ Jesus, we have access to a second birth not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, that is, according to the promise. Through the promise attached to Baptism and to the proclamation of the Gospel, we are born again. Faith alone receives this promise. So, through faith in the promise we are children of promise, Abraham’s heirs and children of the free woman.
According to our first birth of the flesh, we can never become righteous. This means we can never attain to eternal life. To be born of the flesh is to be born under sin and under the Law. It is impossible to reach eternal life through works of the Law, because the Law depends on our flesh doing it. But our flesh is sinful and weak. So, we fail. So, instead of the Law giving us eternal life, the Law condemns us to hell and kills us. This is why Jesus says that unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5). Our first birth according to the flesh binds us in sin and keeps us from inheriting eternal life.
Our second birth by the Spirit is a birth according to the promise, which is received through faith. This birth frees us from the Law, because Christ Jesus took the curse of the Law away from us himself. He did this by first, being born in our human flesh. Scripture declares, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5) Jesus became our flesh, so that he could do for us what we weakened by our own flesh could not do: fulfill the Law. St. Paul writes to the Romans, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” (8:2-3)
The Law cannot give us eternal life, because our sinful flesh is incapable of accomplishing what the Law requires. That is why it says that the Law was weakened by the flesh. So, God’s Son took on our human flesh for us. Yet, despite the fact that he fulfilled the requirements of the Law for us, he suffered the punishment our sinful flesh deserved! St. Paul explained this very thing to the Galatians, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ … Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—as it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:10, 13) And so, we receive Christ’s obedience and righteousness through faith, because Christ has both fulfilled the Law for us and has been punished for our transgressions against the Law in our place. Since Christ has done all that is required for our eternal salvation, no works are required of us. Rather, we become God’s children and heirs through faith alone.
Yet, St. Paul says, “Just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’” Yet, how does the child born according to the flesh persecute the child born according to the Spirit? The child born according to the flesh is your old sinful nature, also known as your old Adam. Although you are born again of the Spirit through faith in the promise, that old sinful Adam born of the flesh still hangs around and persecutes your new self. How does he persecute you?
First, by leading you into sin. Scripture is clear, “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… 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 warned you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:16, 18-21)
Despite what we may be accused of, we do not believe that the Spirit has set us free to indulge in the sins of the flesh. Rather, whatever you present yourself to in obedience, you become a slave to that thing. If you obey the passions of the flesh, then you become its slave and cease to be a child of freedom! To be born of the Spirit means that we also walk by the Spirit, not under the compulsion of the Law, but willingly doing as our Father in heaven pleases. But our sinful flesh persecutes our new self by drawing us into these same sins of which we are ashamed, of which we would like to be free of once and for all!
The second way the old Adam born of flesh persecutes the new self, born of the Spirit is by trying to enslave you under the Law. He does this by getting you to try to establish your own righteousness by works of the Law. Yet, this just pushes you deeper into slavery. Your flesh cannot accomplish the works of the Law. So, instead of escaping your sins, you are pulled away from the righteousness of God given to you by promise and into either despair or false confidence in your works of the flesh. St. Paul addresses this to the Galatians in chapter two, “Let me ask you only this,” he writes, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Yet, this is exactly what your sinful flesh tries to convince you of and what many people believe. They think that after the Spirit sets them free through faith, they must complete what the Spirit began through their own works. So, they trust in their works as if the Spirit is of no value to them anymore!
And so, in these two ways: by the sinful passions of the flesh and by attempting to earn God’s favor through works of the Law, the old self persecutes your new self; the child born of slavery persecutes the child born of promise. And of course, both of these ways of persecution are rooted in unbelief, because the natural person simply cannot believe in the Gospel. That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of Spirit is spirit.
So, what is the solution? How can you be liberated from the persecution of the flesh? Scripture answers us, “Cast out the slave woman and her son.” How do you cast out the slave woman and her son? By repenting of your sins and believing in the promise of Christ. You must cast out the slave woman and her son every day, because your flesh will try to enslave you to your sinful passions every day. You must cast out the slave woman and her son every day, because your flesh will try to enslave you to the Law every day, as if you can earn your salvation by your own works. Only by repenting of your sins and believing that God considers you righteous for Christ’s sake can you be free from the curse of the Law and your sins.
Your flesh is loud and obnoxious. It wants its needs to be heard above anything else. Just look at Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. Before the crowd stands the living Bread from Heaven, who gives eternal salvation to all who believe his words, but these men want to make him a bread-king to feed their bellies. It’s like this curious creature, the cowbird. It’s notorious for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests, so that these unsuspecting birds feed the large, loud, and demanding cowbird chick while their own chicks starve. The mother bird is smart when it realizes that that is not her egg and pushes the cowbird’s egg out of her nest, so that her own chicks do not starve. That’s what we need to do. We are not children of the slave. We’re children of the free woman. We need to cast the slave out, so that he does not starve out the free child. This can only be done by repenting of our sins and in faith clinging to Christ, who makes us free born children of God. Amen.