What Can We Learn About Walking in the Spirit from Galatians 5?
Due to the influence of law-heavy teaching, the Galatians struggled to understand how to mature as Christians. Did they become righteous by following a set of moral precepts as their forefathers believed, or was there more to it than that?
Throughout the book of Galatians, Paul teaches the Galatians about the relationship between the law and Christian living, and in the 5th chapter of his epistle to the Galatians, Paul begins to explain how the spiritual life works in relationship to Christ and the Holy Spirit.
In his online course on Galatians, Thomas R. Schreiner walks us through Galatians 5. The following post is adapted from Schreiner’s course.
Walking by the Spirit
“And I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the desire of the flesh”—Galatians 5:16
If believers want to conquer the flesh, they must continually yield to the Holy Spirit.
Slavery consists in capitulating to the desires of the flesh, while freedom comes from yielding to the Holy Spirit. Freedom is ultimately not attainable by human potentiality; it is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. So too, serving others in love cannot be accomplished by those who are still in Adam, for those who remain under the dominion of the flesh. Such loving service becomes a reality only through the power of the Holy Spirit. The word “walk” (περιπατεῖτε) denotes the need to submit to the Spirit day by day. There is a tension in the verse between divine enablement and human choice. On the one hand, believers must choose to live by the Spirit, while on the other hand, the Spirit empowers believers to live a life pleasing to God.
The emphatic subjunctive clause (“you will never fulfill,” [οὐ μὴ τελέσητε]) should not be construed as an imperative here but as a promise. If believers live in the Spirit, then they will not put into practice the desires of the flesh. The desires of the flesh will be thwarted and conquered as long as the Galatians yield to the Holy Spirit. Believers are not immune to the desires of the old Adam. They still beckon them and are immensely attractive, but believers triumph over those desires as they walk in the Spirit.
The Christian’s internal battle
“For the flesh desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires against the flesh”—Galatians 5:17a–b
Now Paul begins to explain why it’s so crucial to walk in the Spirit: a great battle wages in the hearts of believers. Believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and hence the promised gift of the age to come is now theirs. And yet the present evil age has not passed away (1:4). The flesh remains a reality as well, and its desires are not absent. Furthermore, the desires of the flesh are implacably opposed to the things of the Spirit. Nonetheless, the continuing desires of the flesh are not the whole story. Believers are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit within them impels them to righteousness, so that believers have powerful desires for goodness as well.
Understanding the flesh/Spirit struggle
“For these are opposed to one another, so that you cannot do what you desire”—Galatians 5:17c–d
What is inferred in the first part of the verse is expressed clearly here. The Spirit and the flesh stand in opposition to each other, so neither the desires of the flesh nor the desires of the Spirit are actualized. Even though Christians enjoy the life of the age to come through the Holy Spirit, a battle with the flesh remains. The flesh and the Spirit vie against one another constantly so that temptations continue to harass believers.
The last clause in this verse is particularly nettlesome. It could be read a number of different ways.
- The Spirit and flesh are opposed to one another, and the result is that believers cannot do what the Spirit impels them to do. This view should be rejected. It mistakenly reads 5:17 as if it were similar to Romans 7:14–20:“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”—Romans 7:14–20
The two texts must be distinguished, for the latter says nothing about the Holy Spirit!
Further, this view does not explain how 5:17 functions as a ground for 5:16. The argument as a whole (5:16–18) does not propound such a pessimistic view of the Christian life, as if Christian existence is marked by constant frustration regarding doing the will of God.
- The second view is quite creative, for it sees a parenthesis in the verse. “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit (and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh, for they are in conflict with each other) in order that you might not do what you want.” The central problem with this view is that it is scarcely apparent that a parenthesis exists. The proposal fails because it is too clever and sophisticated.
- Another interpretation says that the Spirit and flesh are opposed to one another, and the result is that the flesh is unable to fulfill its desires. This interpretation is much more probable than the first two, and if adopted, Paul would be emphasizing the victory over the flesh accomplished by the Holy Spirit.This interpretation, however, is not the most natural way to read the text, and it diminishes unduly the flesh’s role in the verse. If Paul had intended such a view, it seems that he would have said “so that you cannot do what the flesh desires.”
- The battle between the flesh and Spirit produces a stalemate, so neither the flesh nor the Spirit fulfills its desires. This view suffers from the same problem as some of the others above, for it does not explain the optimism of 5:16 and 5:18, and 5:17 ends up taking both of these verses hostage.
- Believers cannot remain neutral in the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. The “so that” (ἵνα) here is construed as result rather than purpose. This is how most commentators construe this clause.
- Perhaps the best explanation understands “so that” (ἵνα) here to denote purpose.Paul gives the reason why the flesh and Spirit resist one another, i.e., so that the desires of the flesh will not become a reality and so that the desires of the Spirit will not be realized. With the coming of the Spirit, a new eschatological reality has dawned. A conflict between the flesh and the Spirit has ensued, explaining why it is so vital for believers to walk in and to be led by the Spirit.
Therefore, walking in the Spirit is not the same thing as coasting along in a fair breeze, for the flesh wars against the Spirit and the Spirit wars against the flesh. Still, Paul is fundamentally optimistic here, claiming that as one walks by the Spirit and is led by the Spirit, there is substantial, significant, and observable victory over the flesh.
There’s no room for pessimism
We must not think, however, that Paul’s view of the Christian life is fundamentally pessimistic. The gift of the new age, the Holy Spirit, now belongs to believers. Believers who live by the Spirit will not carry out the flesh’s desires. Those who yield to the Spirit will not live under the dominion of law and sin. A new quality of life (5:22–23) is the result of the Spirit’s work. The old age no longer reigns over believers. The old Adam has been crucified with its passions and desires, so that the flesh no longer enslaves believers.
In other words, believers enjoy a substantial, significant, and observable victory in their new life in Christ. Since believers live in the interval between the already and not yet, perfection is not their portion. Yet believers now have the firstfruits of the Spirit and are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), and hence Paul is fundamentally optimistic about the new life that is possible for saints.
Freedom from the tyranny of sin
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law”—Galatians 5:18
The “but” (δέ) here should be construed as adversative. Even though there is a great conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, those who are led by the Spirit triumph over sin because they are no longer under the law. Verse 18 provides the resolution to the problem of 5:17, restating what we find in 5:16. Richard Hays nicely summarizes the primary thrust of Galatians 5:16–18: “The central point of vv. 16–18, then, is that the Spirit provides strong leadership and direction in a world that is described as an eschatological war zone.”
The Spirit’s empowering presence grants believers the ability to conquer the desires of the flesh. The word “if” should be read as conditional and should not be translated as “since.” The condition beckons the readers to fulfill the hypothesis. The word “led” (ἄγω) is used elsewhere of being guided by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:14; cf. Luke 4:1), of being led by idols (1 Cor 12:2), of women being moved by their sinful desires (2 Tim 3:6), or of people being brought to repentance (Rom 2:4). The point here is not so much specific guidance for daily decisions as it is being directed by the Spirit to live a life that pleases God. Paul may well draw here on Isaiah 63:11–15, which refers to God’s end-time leading of his people by his Spirit.
Those who are impelled by the Spirit are not “under the law.” It might seem that freedom from the law means that those who are directed by the Spirit transcend moral norms; they are free to do whatever they wish whether it accords with moral norms or not. The verses that immediately follow indicate that Paul is not teaching antinomianism. Whether one is guided by the flesh or the Spirit can be discerned objectively (cf. 5:19–23).
Paul makes a salvation-historical argument here, for those who are led by the Spirit do not belong to the old era of redemptive history when the law reigned. To be “under law” is to be “under a curse” (3:10), “under sin” (3:22), “under the custodian” (3:25), “under guardians and managers” (4:2), “enslaved under the elements of the world” (4:3), and in need of redemption (4:4–5). If one is “under law,” then one is not “under grace” (Rom 6:14–15).
Paul’s argument here is illuminating and fits with what he says in Romans 6 as well. Those who are directed by the Spirit are no longer under the law, and therefore they no longer live in the old era of redemptive history under the reign of sin. Freedom from law does not, according to Paul, mean freedom to sin; it means freedom from sin.
Conversely, those who are under the law live under the dominion of the sin. Hence, for the Galatians to subjugate themselves to the message of the Judaizers would be a disaster, for it would open the floodgates for the power of sin to be unleashed in the Galatian community. The answer to the dominion of sin is the cross of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. If the Galatians follow the Spirit, they will not live under the tyranny of sin and the law.
Waging a battle against the flesh
The new age of the Spirit has arrived, and believers are no longer in their Adamic bonds. They have crucified the flesh with its desires, and they now belong to Christ Jesus. Still, believers live in the interval between the already and the not yet. Desires for sin are not absent, and sometimes such desires are incredibly strong (5:17). They are so intense that warfare between the flesh and Spirit takes place in believers.
Such conflict in the lives of believers is reflected elsewhere:
- “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”—Romans 8:13
- “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”—Colossians 3:5
- “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”—1 Peter 2:11
Therefore, the Christian life is not an ethereal existence in which the conflicts of this world are left behind. Believers do not “float” into a new sphere that cuts them off from the pressures and desires of the present evil age. Desires for evil still afflict us and bedevil us. It is far too simplistic, then, to say that believers must “let go and let God,” or to promise that the fight against sin will vanish in this life if a certain formula for spiritual victory is applied. The war against the world, the flesh, and the devil continues until the day of death.
The word about conflict is immensely practical. If the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit is strong in our life, we should not become discouraged and think that we aren’t Christians if we are engaged in a struggle against sin. The opposition between the flesh and the Spirit is the normal Christian life, which is not marked by perfection but by war. Luther reminds us about the nature of the conflict, emphasizing that it should never be confused with perfection:
Anyone who would know this art well [living by the Spirit] would deserve to be called a theologian. The fanatics of our day, who are always boasting about the Spirit, as well as their disciples, seem to themselves to know it superbly. But I and others like me hardly know the basic elements of this art, and yet we are studious pupils in the school where this art is being taught. It is indeed being taught, but so long as the flesh and sin remain, it cannot be learned thoroughly.—Martin Luther, Galatians 1535:Chapters 1–4, 342
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