A Series Study on the Works of the Flesh and Fruit of the Spirit, Part 1

The Christian is to walk and live by the Spirit and not according to the flesh (Galatians 5:16-18 and Romans 8:5-14). But for everyone who has decided to follow Jesus there is the discovery of how difficult discipleship is.

One of the things that makes it difficult in our modern day is the lack of clarity about what is a work of the flesh (sin) is and what is not. In our day the world has disoriented the majority by calling good evil and evil good—“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). So, it is useful now and again for Christians to go to the lists of sins and righteousness in the Bible to be reminded of what really is good and bad. Moreover, it is crucial to define what these things actually are, because the world has often redefined their meanings to obscure what God has commanded. So, the for the next few weeks I’d like to take a look at the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit as they are found in Galatians 5:19-23 in this space in our bulletin for your reflection and encouragement.

Paul begins with the works of the flesh and his first three have to do with primarily with sexual sin: sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality.

Sexual immorality — The word in the Greek text is “porneia”. The word came from the word for prostitute, and is where we get the word “pornography”. But the word is broader in its New Testament (NT) use. It is often translated “fornication”, a word that incorporates everything from pre-marital sex (promiscuous, one-night-stands, or someone I’m really in love with), to adultery, to homosexuality, to prostitution, to pedophilia, to bestiality, to necrophilia, and any other sexual act outside the heterosexual marriage relationship. I do not list these things for the sake of being gross or for titillation. Believe it or not, the world has found ways to justify most of these sins to itself. The disciple of the Lord needs to know where the lines are.

Impurity — The word here is “akatharsia” and it essentially refers to whatever might defile a person. In the Old Testament it could refer to everything from eating unclean meat to touching a dead body. But since Jesus (Mark 7:14-23) and His new covenant made the Mosaic idea of ritual impurity obsolete, the meaning of impurity shifted its weight toward the deeds we do which defile us. In 1 Cor. 6:18-20 Paul points out that sexual sin defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit, our bodies. And indeed, it is most often associated in the NT with sexual sin (e.g., Rev. 17:4). But in other contexts it is also used as an opposite of “holy” (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:7), describing a mind or heart that is filled with unclean thoughts, desires, and passions. Ever met one of those sorts of people, with whom nothing is so wholesome that can’t be made into some dirty joke? Christians must take care to keep their hearts pure.

Sensuality — The Greek word here is “aselgeia”; English Bible translations have used “lasciviousness”, “licentiousness”, “indecency”, and “sensuality” to try to get across its meaning. But J.B. Lightfoot has given a more meaningful definition: “‘aselgeia’ indicates a love of sin so reckless and so audacious that a man has ceased to care what God or man things of his actions.” It is, in other words, a heart that is lost to shame; and it would seem to be the main goal of many modern sinners (Romans 1:32). “Come out of the closet!”, “Normalize!”, and “Don’t judge me!” seem to be the (im)moral themes of the day. But Christians understand the rightful and useful places of conscience, self-respect, and even shame in the battle of the flesh against the Spirit.

Paul said about these things, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident…” (Gal. 5:19). A recent president was criticized for failing to call radical Islamic terrorists what they are, “radical Islamic terrorists”; because to fail to truly identify the enemy is make yourself vulnerable to his attacks. Let’s call sin, sin. These things are works of the flesh; let us walk by the Spirit.

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Key 5 to Spiritual Growth…THEY BEGAN SELLING THEIR PROPERTY AND POSSESSIONS, AND WERE SHARING THEM… 

Getting involved in the work of the Lord!

This is the last of a series of posts focused on personal spiritual growth, not just for new Christians, but for Christians of every “age”. We’ve used Acts 2:42-47 as a template for growth and have, therefore, given thought to devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teachings, devotion to prayer, devotion to fellowship, and devotion to worship assemblies. The last thing we’ll look at in this series is phrased this way:

“And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” Acts 2:44, 45, NAS95.

On the face of it, you might think that we’re about to talk about benevolent acts as an avenue for growth, and you’d be partially right. What these benevolent acts amount to in a broader sense is involvement in the Lord’s work; involvement really helps us to grow.

It needs to be both individual and together work

It needs to be part of the Lord’s mission for us. Although there are plenty of “mission statements” among churches these days, there’s one mission statement to which we really need pay attention, Jesus’. Where is it found? In the New Testament; let me list them for you.

  • Give glory to God (e.g., Eph. 3:21)…this is sort of an “umbrella commission”
  • Share the Gospel (e.g., Matt. 28:18-20)
  • Assemble for worship (e.g., Heb. 10:24-26)
  • Teach (e.g., Eph. 4:11,12)
  • Fellowship (e.g., Acts 2:42-47)
  • Benevolence (e.g., Gal. 6:10)

So here are a number of broad areas in the church’s God-given commissions that you could could get involved in. You don’t need to be a leader in any of them, but getting involved is crucial.

Why? Spiritual involvement is like exercise with the physical body; the more we exercise our faith (obedience to the Lord’s commands), the stronger our faith gets. The more we participate with other Christians in the Lord’s word, the stronger our fellowship and love grows. The more we make efforts at teaching God’s word, the more we learn and internalize God’s word. The more we encourage each other in worship or private conversation, the more we find to be encouraged about ourselves. The more we work with others on different projects, the more we learn how to do it, the more our talents grow, and the more capable we are to lead others. The more we give in benevolent help, the more we realize the blessedness of giving and the more our faith in our faithful God’s provision to us grows. The more we are involved, the more we grow

Sadly, most of the religious world has sold the world on the idea that the limit of religious involvement can probably end with weekly or even occasional attendance at one of their worship services. When new New Testament Christians buy that “bill of goods”, they find their growth terribly stunted. Older Christians may find their spiritual strength and stature decreasing and growing weaker. Little or no involvement leaves us weak and struggling.

Get involved and grow.

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KEY 4 TO SPIRITUAL GROWTH-DEVOTED TO…BREAKING BREAD…PRAISING GOD 

Over the last few posts we’ve been looking at spiritual growth strategies not only for new Christians but for all Christians. To do this, we’ve taken the examples of the very first Christians and the things they did as found in Acts 2:42-47. We’ve already given thought to their devotion to the apostles’ teachings, their devotion to prayer, and their devotion to the fellowship; but we’re not finished yet. These early Christians also devoted themselves to the “breaking of bread” and “praising God”. This phrase “breaking of bread” was a common first century Christian way of referring to what we call communion or the Lord’s Supper. As we put “breaking of bread” together with “praising God” it becomes clear that the first Christians of Acts 2 gave attention to regularly worshipping God together.

Growing Christians today, whether new or “seasoned”, likewise need to develop and practice a habit of regular worship attendance. Why? Well, let’s give some thought to what assembled worship is for. When we do, I think it will become clearer how much of an advantage coming to church is to our spiritual life.

Our assemblies include singing and God’s word tells us that our hymns are not only to praise the Lord, but also ”teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16). Singing in worship, when we pay attention, teaches us things we need to know, reminds us of things we need to remember, and encourages us to continue on through trying times. The song you sing, regardless of how good or bad you think you are at it, encourages us all.

Our assemblies include preaching. Paul reminded Timothy of the importance of the preaching to the church, when he wrote, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:2, 3). The purpose of preaching is to instruct the church in the truth and encourage us all to be faithful to the Lord.

Our assemblies include communion. This is a central part of our assemblies on the Lord’s Day and it is a key to spiritual growth, because it is not only a time of reflection and meditation on what the Lord has done to redeem us (1 Cor. 11:17ff), but is also a time of to remember that we are in fellowship and are not in this thing alone (1 Cor. 10:16,17). Your participation in communion reminds me that I am your brother and that you are mine, because of our common Savior.

Our assemblies include prayer, and although my personal prayer is effective, the prayer of the whole church is said to be especially effective (Acts 4:31). In prayer together, we share in bringing our concerns, our requests, our thanksgivings, and our praise together to God.

Our assemblies are also about giving. Giving together with the rest of the church, once again, helps build camaraderie, fellowship, and communion through common participation in the work of the church.

Lastly, our assemblies are about fellowship and common encouragement. The Hebrew writer tells us, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25).

Strengthening, encouragement, support, knowledge, help reminders, etc. are all part of how we are helped through the assembly. Clearly, there is a scriptural cause and effect relationship between strong attendance and strong Christianity; it is not a coincidence. It is not so much that stronger Christians go to all the worship services and Bible studies of the church, as much as it is that Christians that go to all the worship services and Bible studies of the church become stronger.

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DEVOTED TO…FELLOWSHIP… BROKE BREAD IN THEIR HOUSES 

How much time do you spend in secular or worldly influences in your everyday life? Battling the traffic to and from work or school; interacting with friends, associates, and colleagues during the day; surfing the web for a while; talking with neighbors and friends for a while; doing home chores; watching TV (how many hours?); checking in for a while with Facebook (or whatever your favorite flavor of social networking might be); etc….times at least 5 days a week, right? Then there’s the occasional secular hobbies and sports we might be involved in during the work week. And there’s the Saturday activities, most of which are non-religious. Hopefully, you get the point that the vast majority of our week is spent “marinating” in secular or worldly settings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; otherwise, as Paul said, “for then you would have to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:10) and no one would hear the Gospel.

It is, however, to get you to be thinking about how many of the approximately 112 waking hours of the week are spent with secular, worldly influences—in comparison to the time spent among positive spiritual influences. Also to think about what those secular or worldly situations/people/programs are usually trying to influencing you do. Godly stuff or not-so-godly stuff?

On the other hand, what will the spiritual situations and people in your life try to influence you to do? Get the point? I’m hoping that this contrast will make it clear how important Christian associations are in the life of the Christian.

The New Testament clearly teaches us, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33, NIV). And if this is true (and of course it is), then it is also true that good company will encourage good character and discourage bad. This is why Paul wrote, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:9-13, NIV). Notice how many “together” encouragements he mentions?

This is why the very first Christian spent time with each other. They made friends with each other, they ate at one another’s homes, and gave their new faith a “fighting chance” by cultivating Christian associations. God made us social creatures: we want friends, we want to fit in, and we find ourselves influenced by others. This is part of the reason that the Lord gave us the church and commanded that we assemble (Heb. 10:25). Christians of any spiritual age (Christian “newborns” to the most mature) need to be careful about the influences with which they surround themselves.

Christians of every maturity level need to be friendly towards every brother or sister, new or old. Make the effort to make friends. Invite others to your home (aka, hospitality, a seemingly lost practice these days). Accept the invitation of others. Come to even the social events of the church. Organize a social event, a youth group gathering, a golden agers gathering, a young family gathering, a singles’ gathering. Make your best friends, your closest friends Christians. You might be surprised at the spiritual growth you gain in knowledge, in courage, in conviction, in moral character, in prayer, and in wisdom.

Research shows that Christians with several friends within the church are not as likely to fall away! Conversely, those with few or no friends within the church, tend to fall away back into the world. Let me encourage you to pursue friendships and relationships within the fellowship of the church.

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Devoting Ourselves to Prayer

The last couple of postings have been giving thought to spiritual growth; not just the spiritual growth of a new Christian, but the growth that is important to the spiritual health of Christians of every spiritual “age”. And to do that, we’ve been meditating on what the earliest Christian did in Acts 2:42-47. In this article we’ll look at their devotion to prayer as a way to grow.

The early church was devoted to prayer (v. 42). Devotion here, like in our discussion of devotion to the apostles’ teachings, requires a love for, a loyalty to, and perseverance in. It is not a hit and miss sort of thing; rather, it is something done at every opportunity, something given a priority over lesser things, born out of an intense interest and love. So, be devoted in prayer; learn to love it, cultivate an intense interest in it, and practice it at every opportunity.

And also like growth through Scriptures, there are a number of approaches and levels in prayer that we can practice to grow spiritually as we should.

Praying, especially for new Christians, is sometimes hard. Where do you start? Where do you go, once you’ve begun? Who should I address the prayer to? How do I end it? What’s appropriate and what’s not? As a starting place for prayer, so we can grow, the Lord’s own model prayer (sometimes known as the “Lord’s Prayer”) is a good place to begin. But not as a mere set of words to parrot almost mindlessly; rather as a model. Read it (Matt. 6:9-13), look at its parts, learn from the Master about prayer, and start filling in with what you want to praise, what you want to ask for, what you want to thank the Father for, etc. The Lord’s prayer covers all the basics, and it’s an inspired place to start.

The Lord’s prayer does cover all the basics, but there can also be a time for short, focused prayer, too. Not every prayer has to contain a list of requests for blessing; not every prayer needs to have a certain “quota” of praise. Sometimes our prayers can and should be just thanksgiving; just praise; or just intercession for someone in need. An occasional focus on praise, thanks, intercession in prayer allows you to go deeper and grow deeper.

Pray more than just at meal time. While thanking God for our blessing of food three times a day is great, we should talk to the Lord more than that. Relationships take communication. Think of Scripture reading as God’s end of the conversation, and your prayers as your end of the conversation. Take every opportunity you have to talk with your Heavenly Father.

And connected to the suggestion above, pray as you go. It is certainly true that finding a quiet place for prayer is often preferable, so that we can speak with God in a more undistracted way, there’s also a place for practicing prayer on the go. There are some great examples of men praying to God “on the fly” in the midst of asking an important question, or at a critical moment (e.g., Neh. 2:4; or Jesus on the cross). “Prayer as you go” is often less formal and more to the point, but also will also give us help in time of need and an important sense of God’s real presence all the time, every day. And this can be so important as you come up against temptations, challenges, and troubles throughout your every day life.

Pray in faith. This is about more than praying with a certain amount of fervor. Jesus defined prayer in faith as asking God for something and then forging ahead in faith as if you already had been blessed with what you asked for (Mark 11:24). It sounds sort of simple, but it is probably one of the least practiced parts of prayer. Our tendency is to ask and then wait and see if God’s going to do something. The Lord asks us to step out onto the water, but we want to wait for the lake to freeze good and solid first. Pray in faith and grow.

Pour out your heart. Did you know that God doesn’t mind your (respectful) emotion? Indeed, the inspired apostle Peter gives us a God-breathed, full-blown invitation to do so, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6, 7. Let God hear your heart and grow.

Keep a journal. You may be thinking, I don’t remember anything about a prayer journal in the Bible; but have you ever considered that the Bible itself could be considered a prayer journal that has recorded the petitions and needs of God’s people over the centuries and God’s faithful answer to them. That’s the power of a prayer journal, the recording of the prayers and the answers, resulting in a stronger faith in the Lord. Whether you keep a journal or not, remember God’s faithful answers to your prayers and grow from it.

Growth is a Christian’s lifetime assignment. Pray and grow.

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Key One to Spiritual Growth, Devotion to the Apostles’ Teachings

Last week we started a series on spiritual growth. This series will not be aimed just to new Christians, but to all of us in every spiritual stage from “infant” to “young adults” on the way to the maturity that the Hebrew writer urged us toward (Heb. 5:14). This series will be taking cues for this important aim of growth from what Acts 2:42-27 says the first Christians did; and the first thing mentioned is how they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings.

We don’t, of course, have any modern day apostles, since one of the qualities of apostleship is having been an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus. However, we do have their teachings (life of Christ, how to become a Christian, teachings about the church, references to the OT, moral living, etc.) in the form of God word, the Bible.

First of all, please notice that we must be devoted to these teachings, in order to really grow. Devotion implies a love for, a loyalty to, and perseverance in. It is not a hit and miss sort of thing; rather, it is something done at every opportunity, something given a priority over lesser things, born out of an intense interest and love. So, be devoted, learn to love it, cultivate an intense interest in it, and “listen” at every opportunity.

Second, we need to realize that there are a number of approaches and “levels” in knowing God’s word. Let me list a few (in no particular order).

  • Knowing the names and order of the books (so you can follow your teachers as they direct you to various places in the Bible)
  • Learning and knowing the basic plot line of the whole Bible (knowing sequences of events, covenants, etc. is important)
  • Learning the outline of each book (a step toward knowing the teachings of the book)
  • Learning the outline of the life of Christ from the Gospels
  • Learning the major stories of the Bible
  • Figuring out what the stories (OT and NT) teach and how they apply to today
  • Committing to memory important verses for comfort, teaching, and guidance
  • Figuring out Biblical terms and their Biblical definitions (e.g., redemption, atonement, holiness, the church, etc.)
  • Getting to know the map of the Biblical world (places are often very important)
  • The ability to pull wisdom and practical guidance from Biblical examples
  • Getting/seeing the connections between various passages in the Bible
  • Seeing the additional information that different passages provide to a Biblical topic
  • Seeing and understanding the metaphors and parables (OT and NT)
  • The ability to pull teachings, stories, parables, etc. to teach, refute, and deepen understanding
  • Few of these things can be done in a day, unless you’ve got a photographic memory. Most of them take years of regular, devoted study and meditation, and the earlier in life you start, the better. But each effort is well worth the growth of our spiritual lives. Such studies and understandings armor and arm us better with each “link”.

Would you like to grow? Being a diligent, devoted student of the Scriptures is a major key to spiritual growth. And it’s about more than just coming to Bible study.

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Keys to Spiritual Growth

Everyone who is serious about their Christianity wants to grow beyond their baptism. Like babies, toddlers, pre-K, grade-school, tweens, teens, and young adults in whom there is a natural longing to advance to the next stage to being a grown-up; new Christians will naturally want to grow, too. But how?

Growing up in the natural world happens with virtually no effort. We eat, we sleep, we exercise; and before long we’re bigger, stronger, and more coordinated than we used to be. We are guided, corrected, and disciplined by our parents. We go to school and we learn about language, math, science, and more.  As a kid we grow in most ways through little or no effort of our own. Ask a young adult how they grew and they might shrug and suggest, “Passage of time, maybe?”

But not so with spiritual growth in two important ways. This is crucial for Christians to remember; you will not grow by merely the passage of time. First, spiritual growth and health will take time and conscious effort. You will need to make some deliberate, long-term choices with your spiritual growth in mind. A meandering, hot and cold, non-deliberate effort leads to stunted growth at best or spiritual death, falling away.

Second, spiritual growth will not be like natural growth in which the growth is complete in 25 years or so. Spiritual growth will be a life-long pursuit. Neglect of this fact often leads to a good spiritual start but a poor spiritual finish.

Acts 2:42-47 provides an inspired path to spiritual growth, practiced by the very first Christians, the 3000 baptized after Peter’s first Gospel sermon. Their growth resulted in numerical growth of the church as well as in the personal strength that it took to stand firm against tremendous persecution. And this path is one that produces growth in more than just baby Christians, it is one that should be used by “toddler, pre-K, grade-school, tweens, teens, and young adult” level Christians alike, since it gives the nourishment, relationship, involvement, and enlightenment needed at every stage of Christian growth. The growth combination found here boils down to…

Devoting themselves to

…the apostles’ teaching

…to fellowship

…to the breaking of bread

…to prayer

Involvement

Hospitality

Worship

I’d like to talk about each of these separately over the next few posts in an effort to encourage us in this growth. We just entered the summer season, a season of growth. Do more than just coax roses and daisies out of the flower garden of your yard; instead, coax the growth of “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 5:22, 23) in your heart and spirit.

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