in veritate lux vitae

Law and the Fruits of the Spirit

From Galatians 5:16 to the conclusion of the letter, St. Paul messes up the perfect Lutheran “Law/Gospel” sermon. It starts out well. First, he hammers the circumcision crowd with the law, charging them with blasphemy, mangling the Scriptures to make Jesus a second Moses who demands the worship of works, not faith. He berates the whole church for falling under the deceptive spell of the law and its false apostles.

Next, Paul, with a surgeon’s precision, separates and analyzes the two great doctrines of faith and the law. It’s not a recent invention. Abraham was justified by faith, not the law. His true children are born of faith in the promise. Obedience to circumcision saves no one in God’s sight. The false apostles would boast in the Galatians obedience to the law, in their number of their severed foreskins in other words.

Far be it in Paul to boast in their obedience to a law that proved to heavy for the Jews to bear. The only cause for boasting is the cross, Christ’s sacrifice that reconciles the world to God. In the cross and by faith in its fruit is there freedom from the law and its impossible demands. St. Paul concludes his teaching on the righteousness of faith with a flourish, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”

There it is. The great flourish and finale on justification by faith alone. Except, much to the chagrin of the Lutherans, St. Paul continues for another 31 verses speaking about this like… good works and what it means to live a righteous life.

Has St. Paul conceded the argument? Have works finally won the contest against faith alone? Doesn’t our Synod’s illustrious founder, C.F.W. Walther in magnum opus “The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel” say in Thesis VII, “The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached before the Law”? He did indeed. But we’re not talking about a righteousness coerced out of people from the thought that if they don’t do it, God will never be pleased with them. That’s the Law as Moses preaches it. Rather St. Paul is talking about the living righteousness that flows from faith. It’s not coerced out of our bodies like you might drag a goat out of a pen. Rather, from the freedom of faith, as the gift of the Holy Spirit, you do the “Fruits of the Spirit.”

Walther says this in his Thirty Seventh evening lecture on the proper Distinction, “After a long season of sluggishness and lukewarmness, during which you begin to hate yourself because you saw no way to change your condition, you happen to hear a real Gospel sermon, and you leave the church a changed man and rejoice in the fact that you may believe and are a child of God. You suddenly become aware of the fact that it is not difficult to walk in the way of God’s commandments; you seem to walk in it of your own accord. How foolish, then, is a preacher who thinks that conditions in his congregation will improve if he thunders at his people with the Law and paints hell and damnation for them.”[1]

St. Paul doesn’t talk about sacrifices of obedience that justifies. He speaks about the Holy Spirit’s work in you. You, in your sanctification, are to “walk by the Spirit.” You have come to understand the works of the flesh contrary to the commandments; “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” You’ve also come to understand faith as the Spirit’s gift. Knowing the difference between the lawlessness of sin and the joy of faith, you take a better path than the one first promised by Moses. Free from the law, out from under its accusation, you bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against these, there is no Law. It’s the fruit of faith and a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Don’t be surprised that the law remains. Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the law… For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17, 18).

The difference between the law that kills and the freedom of the Spirit’s fruits is faith. Only the Christian can safely handle the law. Only the Christian can bear the fruits of the Spirit. The most virtuous pagan can’t. He doesn’t know the justification of the sinner by faith. He hasn’t abandoned the self-righteousness of the law. But you have faith, the Holy Spirit, and Christ dwelling in your heart.

Dear saints, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”


[1] C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, translated by W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1929) 384.

Immanuel Lutheran