Christians fight an ongoing, personal war.  This war between the flesh and the Spirit rages until death, and it is a war which gives no quarter.  One cannot live both according to the flesh and according to the Spirit.  Allegiance must be given to one or the other.  Christ’s redemption is not a license to live according to the flesh, as if the flesh had no moral weight anymore.  Christ has set us free to walk according to the Spirit, because the flesh no longer rules over us.

Paul begins this oddly short pericope with an admonition:  we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.  We owe a debt, without question, but our debt is to God who has given Himself for us.  To say that our debt of sin has been paid and that we owe a debt to God are not mutually exclusive ideas.  Our unpayable debt of sin has been replaced by the equally unpayable debt we owe to Christ for showing us a wholly undeserved mercy.  It is something like a debt of gratitude.  If we are willing to show kindnesses and do favors for those who have paid our worldly debts, how much more ought we strive to do what is pleasing to God because of what Christ has done for us!

Yet if we are like indentured servants to God, but serve the will of a different master, what does that say about our allegiances?  To live according to the flesh, to receive a spirit of slavery, is to be a son of the flesh, a son of death.  The flesh is a merciless master, yet to serve it seems pleasurable.  It is never satisfied, yet it always seeks more.  “The leech has two daughters:  Give and Give.  Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough’:  Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, ‘Enough’” (Proverbs 30:15-16).  If Sheol, that is, the grave is never satisfied, then how can the tree which bears the fruit of death ever be satisfied either?

However, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).  Through the working and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christians have become the sons of God.  They strive against the impulses of the flesh in order to put them to death, not merely to tolerate or even indulge them.  The flesh and its ways have no place within the Christian life.  To live as if it did is to attempt the impossible, because it means attempting to be the son of two different fathers.

The variety of metaphors which Paul uses to describe this relationship with God should highlight the depth of this mystery.  You have changed masters.  You have been adopted as sons of the Father.  You are debtors of God because of His mercy.  You have become the dwelling place of God Himself.  To be delivered from sin far exceeds our ability to describe it in human terms, because it is a total and complete change.  You have become a new creation.  Do not live as if you were not!

Finally, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit provides a greater comfort for us, since the Spirit aids us in our weakness.  This indwelling proves that we belong to God, as Paul clearly says in Romans 8:16.  But the proofs of this indwelling are not to be found in emotionalism.  We know that the Spirit dwells within us because of the fruits of the Spirit.  “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17).  While such introspection should never be done with the aim of self-glorification and pride, it is not wrong to see the working of the Spirit also in the war we wage against sin.  Real patience, for example, is not proud and boastful, but it is also not hidden beyond recognition.  The Spirit works, and His work shows itself also in our daily lives.

John writes to Christians struggling with the assaults of separatists. While it is not clear exactly what caused them to leave, John tells his hearers that “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). Perhaps they denied the divinity of Christ (1 John 2:22) or claimed to be sinless in some way (1 John 1:8). Whatever the cause, their spiritual fruits ripened into hatred for their Christian brothers. Despite their high-sounding theology, the tree was dead and hollow inside. Right doctrine produces a living fruit, because it is of God.

But there can be no peace between the world and those who belong to Christ. “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Cain, as John says, proves this point: Cain murdered Abel because Abel was righteous (1 John 3:12).

Yet how can one tell the difference? How is it possible to distinguish between those who belong to the world (even if they claim to belong to God) and those who belong to Christ? John clearly and emphatically says here that the distinguishing mark is love. “Whoever does not love abides in death.” Love, however, in the present context, has become a weasel word. The world defines love according to a generic and all-embracing tolerance. Yet this sort of love by the world’s standards is self-serving. Even in its claim to embrace diversity, it either puffs up in self-righteousness or desires to protect itself by giving all an equally valid claim. Because it belongs to the world, it can tolerate all that is like the world, but it cannot abide that which belongs to God.

Christian love, however, is self-denying. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Christ died for us while we were still His enemies in order to make us into a new creation. While even the world knows a kind of selflessness, so that there have been noble sacrifices, Christ laid down His life for His bitterest enemies who wanted nothing to do with Him. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same” (Matthew 5:46)? Christian love, therefore, is not about embracing those Christian brothers we personally like, but all who have come to know Christ.

Therefore, as John says, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him” (1 John 3:17)? On the one hand, it should be said here that the Bible does not advocate for wealth redistribution in the modern sense. It is not evil to be rich or poor. Even the Church after Pentecost was not aiming for an economic middle. “They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45). In other world, the money raised from selling property was used for the relief of the poor, not to put everyone in the middle. Christian charity is not about social leveling, but using what has been given to us in trust as a means of helping our neighbor. What we have belongs to God (Psalm 50:10-11). “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

On the other hand, what John warns against is seeing such a need and having the opportunity to take care of a brother, yet doing nothing. Worse still is the one who claims to love God while neglecting those closest to him! “Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat” (Amos 8:4-6)? Such a one, despite all his claims, actually belongs to the world, because he does not show love to his brothers.

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). A living confession is not found only in words, but also in action. A living faith cannot help but produce the fruits of the Spirit. While it may seem odd to point to these fruits in the midst of division, this is what John does. They are the evidences of faith and a sure sign of who belongs to God. Yet John also points us to God “who is greater than our heart” which condemns us and to the indwelling Holy Spirit. The fruits of faith do not produce faith. The fruits of faith prove that God is at work among His people.

Paul encourages the congregation at Philippi to push onward “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).  Through such an exhortation, he points them toward Christ and shows them a manner of life “worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27).  The call toward holiness is never abstract, as if it was empty or formulaic.  Rather, holiness expresses itself in particulars and demonstrates its genuineness through its actions.

This is why Paul also calls for them to imitate his example (Philippians 3:17).  Like a father with his children, Paul shows them the way of Christ through his actions as well, something which his opponents did not do.  “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).  “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).  The one who seeks his own glory does not preach a living holiness, but merely empty, earthly words.  You shall know them by their fruits.

The epistle reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent comes in the midst of Paul’s final exhortations.  The command to “rejoice in the Lord” is not empty, as if Paul was telling someone to “be happy.”  Joy in the Lord stems from the knowledge that His redemption is at hand.  “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33).

The word translated “reasonableness” in Philippians 4:5 is the same word as 1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 3:2, James 3:17, and 1 Peter 2:18, translated “gentle.”  It seems to be rooted in a kind of moderation, not given to extremes on either end.  While the word could also mean “gentleness” in Philippians, the underlying notion is plainly a fruit of the Spirit and not a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-24).

Anxiety stems from uncertainty, quite at odds with knowing that the Lord is at hand.  A Christian being anxious about the future suggests that the Lord is not in control of all things!  This is why Christ also tells us to not be anxious.  “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33).  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).  However, it is worth noting that this is not the same as “don’t worry, be happy,” or however the expression may be worded.  Too often that worldly exhortation includes the implicit or explicit lasses faire:  let it go and don’t sweat the small stuff.  A Christian is not exhorted to ignore life’s little troubles for the sake of mental health.  Rather, the future belongs to God, and therefore the end is certain.  Don’t worry, be happy falls flat in the face of real trouble; rejoicing in the Lord means real contentment in whatever situation.  “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).