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Gal 5:16-26: Walk by the Spirit Print E-mail
Sunday, 11 June 2006

Most of us here are believers.  We believe in Jesus Christ.  We believe that He gave His life for our sins.  We believe we’re justified by faith apart from works of the law.  The apostle Paul’s been passionate about that in his letter to the Galatians. Now he comes to the part of his letter where he focuses on living out what we believe.  What does it mean to be an authentic follower of Christ, and not just say that we are?  Based on our text, Paul might say it means to “walk by the Spirit.”

This passage begins and ends with that particular command, and everything else Paul says in these verses revolves around it.  You see it there in verse 16 – “walk by the Spirit;” and again in verse 25 – “let us walk by the Spirit.”  The repetition is significant.  In fact, Paul refers to the Holy Spirit almost as many times in these few verses (7x), as he does to the doctrine of justification by faith in the entire letter (9x).  Whatever else that might mean, it indicates that the Spirit plays a central and vital role in our lives as believers.

This morning I want to ask two questions about the command that frames this passage:  What is its main purpose?  And how do we obey it?  Let’s take the first question:

What’s the purpose of this command?

Why is Paul so emphatic about this?  Last week, near the end of his sermon, Brother William pointed out from v.13 that Christ has freed us from slavery to the law, but we can’t afford to misunderstand or abuse that freedom.  In fact, we were freed for a very specific purpose, as we saw in that same verse—to serve one another through love.

Because of his emphasis on justification by faith, Paul was sometimes accused of excusing believers from the responsibility to obey God.  So as he comes to this point in his letter, I think one of the things he wants to do is remove any lingering doubts about the nature of our freedom in Christ.  He says, in verse 16:  “But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”  The goal of Paul’s instruction there is clearly obedience from the heart.  Freedom in Christ wasn’t just freedom from slavery to the law; it was also freedom from the enslaving desires of the flesh.

I want to try to define some of the terms in this passage as I go along.  “The flesh” can actually have different meanings in Scripture, but in this text it refers not to our physical body, but to our fallen human nature, the part of us that’s more concerned about its own selfish will and desires than the will of God.  Paul understood that the law offered no help at all in controlling the desires of the flesh—it could expose them, but it was powerless to control them.  Now, when he comes to v.16, he makes it clear that walking by the Spirit does accomplish precisely what the law could not.  Do this—“walk by the Spirit; and you will not” do this—“gratify the desires of the flesh.”  In fact, the only way to govern the desires of the flesh is to walk by the Spirit. In verse 18 he says, “If you’re led by the Spirit, you’re not under the law.”  If the Spirit governs your desires, there’s no reason or need to return to the bondage of the law.

So let me state the answer to our first question like this: We’re commanded to walk by the Spirit because it’s the only way to govern the desires that govern our lives.  Our lives are shaped by our desires.  Verses 16 and 17 are all about opposing desires, flesh and Spirit.  Ultimately, one or the other will rule our hearts.  So I want to say it again:  We’re commanded to walk by the Spirit because it’s the only way to govern the desires that govern our lives.  Our second question is this:

How do we obey this command?

We can make some observations from our text that will help us at least begin to answer that question.  I’m sure there’s a lot more that could and probably should be said, but let’s take a look at four things.

1) We’re called to follow the lead of the Spirit. 

There are three different words in this passage used to describe our relationship to the Holy Spirit.  In v.18, you see the word “led”; in verses 16 and 25 there are actually two different Greek words that are translated “walk”.  But the thing I want to point out right now is that the word “led” and the word “walk” demonstrate that both the Spirit is active—He does the leading; and at the same time, we’re active—we do the walking. 

The initiative clearly belongs to the Spirit—he’s the one who leads; but the emphasis by repetition is on the fact that we walk.  We have a responsibility to follow the lead of the Spirit.  This is the same careful interplay between what God does and what we do—between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility—that really permeates all of Scripture.

When you see the word “walk” in the NT, it’s just a reference to our conduct.  Walk by the Spirit means, “conduct your lives by the Spirit.”  One of the interesting things about this passage, as I mentioned, is that Paul uses a different word for “walk” in v. 25 than he does in v.16.  I want to take just a quick look at both words to help us get a better picture of what it means to “walk by the Spirit.”

The first word, in v.16 is the normal word for walk—it’s just the process of putting one foot in front of the other as we go through our day.  When we conduct our lives by the Spirit, he govern our desires, not only when we’re doing something “spiritual”, like praying or sharing the gospel, but even when we’re going through the ordinary activities of our day, whether it’s eating breakfast, playing with the kids, going to school, working at our job, or whatever else we do.  In everything, step-by-step, we’re to walk by the Spirit.  We sang it earlier, “Step by step you’ll lead me, and I will follow you all of my days.”  That’s how we want to conduct our lives.

The other word Paul uses for “walk,” there in v.25, means to “keep in step with” or “walk in line with,” indicating there is a pattern to follow or a standard to conform to.  I used to like marching band when I was in high school.  Our band director had high expectations of us.  We had to learn a whole new routine for every home football game, and they were usually pretty complicated.  It took a lot of discipline and effort for us to get to the point where we could actually perform the routine.  But we weren’t just left on our own to try to figure out how to do it.  We had a good director, and he always gave us a clear pattern to follow. 

To some extent, that’s the idea behind the word for “walk” in verse 25.  The Spirit of Christ is our standard.  We’re commanded to be like Christ, and called to discipline ourselves to that end.  Conformity to Christ is our calling and our sure destiny as children of God.  But there’s at least one important difference between my illustration and actually walking by the Spirit.  Unlike any human band director, the Spirit lives in us and enables us to do what we could never do on our own.
Now I want to make a rather bold statement here.  Walking by the Spirit is something that every Christian not only should do and can do, but also will do.  What’s my Biblical basis for making a statement like that?

The first is here in our text.  If you step back a little bit and look at the larger idea in this passage, it’s not that sometimes we walk by the Spirit, and sometimes we walk by the flesh.  The real contrast here is between two different groups of people—those who have crucified the flesh and belong to Christ (look at v. 24), and those who are doing the works of the flesh and will therefore not inherit the kingdom of God (look at v. 21).  There’s no ambiguity there.  You’re walking by the flesh and forfeiting the kingdom of God, or you have crucified the flesh and belong to Christ.  Those are the only two alternatives in this passage.

Paul makes that even more explicit in Rom. 8.7-9:  “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”  The contrast there is unmistakably between those who are in the flesh, hostile to God, and unable to please Him, and those who are in the Spirit because they belong to Christ and have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in them.  Again, there are no other alternatives.

That’s the first reason I say that every Christian will walk by the Spirit.  In a sense, walking by the Spirit identifies and defines a Christian.  But there’s another reason.

Many of the OT prophets foretold a time when God would deal with His people in a different manner than he had in the past.  He would make a new covenant with them, not like the old covenant.  When that time came, the law would be written on their hearts, not on tablets of stone.   As a result, they would gladly and willingly obey Him from their hearts.  God would graciously forgive their sins, melt away their stubbornness, and soften their hardened hearts.  Jesus came to establish that New Covenant with his own blood, ascended back into Heaven, and sent His own Spirit into our hearts to effect that inward transformation the prophets had foreseen.  The law could not do that, and still can’t; but the Spirit of God not only can, He does.  So it’s not surprising that we find Paul teaching in Galatians both that we’re justified by faith, and that we’ve received the Spirit by hearing the gospel with faith.  Those two truths have to be kept together, as they are here in this letter.

Think about that.  When we’re justified, our status with God changes.  But it’s not the only thing that changes.  At the same time we’re justified, the Spirit of God comes into our hearts and changes them.  I never noticed this before, but the basic idea of walking by the Spirit jumped out at me from the passage in Ezekiel that I read in our call to worship.  (If you book marked that, you might want to turn back to it—Ezek. 36.26-27.)  Let me read it again: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”  Watch this. “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  Do you see the word “Spirit” and the word “walk” in that verse?  Walking by the Spirit is right there.  It means that God’s Spirit in us causes us to walk in His statutes.

That’s the second reason I say that every one of us who belong to Christ will walk by the Spirit. We’ll do it because the Spirit Himself will give us the will and the desire and the strength to do it.

Did you hear the Lord saying over and over, through Ezekiel, “I will?   “I will…I will.”  Those words are charged with the transforming power of God’s grace.  First, we see that we ourselves are radically, permanently transformed: “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit.”  What a gift!  Our hearts, which had so long resisted God, are softened—and now instead of resisting Him, our hearts long for His presence.  Second, we see that he satisfies that longing.  The omnipotent Spirit of God himself, the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead comes and makes our hearts his dwelling place: “I will put my Spirit within you.”  Third, the power of God’s Spirit working in our new heart guarantees our obedience: “…and [I will] cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  What grace!

So walking by the Spirit is simply living in a way that pleases God, by the power of His Spirit dwelling in our hearts and changing our desires.  If you’re a Christian this morning you will walk by the Spirit, because the Spirit is powerfully at work in your heart.  Cling to the promises in that verse, and don’t be discouraged by your failures.  They’re temporary.  Be encouraged by God’s amazing grace and the gift of His Spirit.

But even if this transformation is certain—and it is—it’s not automatic. It doesn’t happen effortlessly, or somehow independently of what we do.  Precisely because God is at work in us, we’re commanded to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  It’s never that we do nothing.  As we’ve already seen, we walk.  We follow.  We keep in step.  And we fight.  That’s the second thing we see in this passage.

2. We’re called to fight for holiness.

In v. 17, Paul paints a vivid picture of the conflict that takes place in the life of every believer: “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.”  That verse describes a fierce, relentless antagonism between our fallen human nature—the flesh—and the indwelling Spirit of God.  They are irreconcilable.  That’s why Paul says at the end of v. 17—take a look at it—that it’s a struggle to do the things that you want to do as child of God.

I’m going to say some hard things in a minute, but before I do, I want to say something to those of you who might be feeling really defeated this morning and have tender consciences.  Having a tremendously difficult struggle with the sin in your life isn’t a sign that you’re not a Christian.  Every child of God struggles at times.  We fall flat on our face.  There are times when I fail miserably.  So I’m not remotely suggesting that any of us will ever achieve some kind of sinless perfection.  But I am saying that we should never just casually accept or excuse the sin in our life.  We have to fight it, tooth and nail.  And if we fall on our face 1000 times, we get up 1000 times, confess our sins, and get right back in the fight.

The battle for holiness in our lives always has both a negative and a positive aspect.  In Paul’s letter to Titus—grace trains us to renounce ungodliness, and live godly lives.  In Colossians—we’ve put off the old self and put on the new.  In this passage we see there are passions and desires we’ve crucified—those are the works of the flesh; and there are godly character traits that grow in their place—that’s the fruit of the spirit.

Sometimes we think of holiness in purely negative terms.  Don’t do this and don’t do that.  But the primary focus of Biblical holiness is on becoming like Christ.  It’s on bearing the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”  Paul seems to direct that last remark toward those wanted to be back under the supervision of the law.  What need could they possibly have for the law if they’re bearing the fruit of the Spirit?  “Against such things there is no law.”  More than anything else, bearing the fruit of the Spirit in our daily lives is the clearest evidence that the Spirit actually lives in our hearts. 

We don’t have time to analyze every word on the two lists in our text (the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit), even though it would be good to do that, but I want to make a couple of quick comments about the lists themselves.

First, both lists are representative, rather than exhaustive.  Not all the works of the flesh are listed, and not every fruit of the Spirit is listed.  We know that from Paul’s use of the phrase “such things” in verses 21 and 23.  Also, when you compare these lists with ones that are similar in other parts of Scripture, some of the individual characteristics on the lists are different.  So it’s safe to say there are other works of the flesh, and more fruit of the Spirit, than what’s listed here.

Second, we need to see the primacy of love in Scripture.  Back in v.14, we saw that the whole law is fulfilled in that one word.  Love is the first fruit of the Spirit listed in verses 22-23.  And right in the middle of his instructions to the Corinthians regarding the gifts of the Spirit, Paul breaks into one of the most exalted descriptions of love you’ll find anywhere in literature, crowned by that famous line, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

And third, take a quick look at the works of the flesh listed in verses 19-21.  I want you to see that the word “flesh” doesn’t imply that these are only sins committed with the body.  Those are on the list—sexual immorality, drunkenness, and others; but by far, most of the works of the flesh listed here are the more subtle sins of the heart and mind, because those are the ones the Galatians were struggling with.  And they’re often the ones we struggle with.  You have things like jealousy, fits of anger, dissensions, and envy on the list.  We need to realize that many less obvious sins are also works of the flesh, and we have to constantly guard against even the subtlest of sins.

Paul says in v. 25 that, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”  That could be a reference to our union with Christ.  Back in Galatians 2:20, Paul gave us a powerful description of his life in union with Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Every one of us who’ve been united to Christ by faith can make the same declaration.  But Paul’s language here in v.25 is a little different.  In 2:20, he described something that happened to us (“I have been crucified”).  Here, he describes something we do ([we] “have crucified”).  So he probably means something else.

Jesus said that if anyone wanted to be his disciple, they would have to take up their cross and follow Him.  The only purpose of a cross is crucifixion.  When we came to Christ we made a decisive break with our sin.  We repented of it; we turned our back on it.  In a real sense we crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  The fight for holiness is basically a fight to maintain that fixed opposition to the sin in our life until the day we die.  We saw that in Romans 8:13 in our call to worship.  I want to read it again: “for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  One of the godly Puritans, John Owen, succinctly put that verse this way: "Be killing sin or it will be killing you."

In Heb. 12.14 there’s another command with a warning attached: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  Strive for holiness, because without it, no one will see the Lord.  I don’t know about you, but that pierces my heart.  It indicts my careless attitude toward sin. 

And then we have the terrible warning in our passage this morning, right after Paul’s description of the works of the flesh in v. 21: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Based on warnings like these, most Christians throughout the history of the church have regarded a lack of genuine passion and effort in the fight against personal sin as a fearful indication of an unregenerate heart. 

The bottom line is that, negatively, we have to fight against the sin in our life, even the subtlest of sins, with intense determination.  Positively, we have to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit by devoting our very lives to the Word of God, to fellowship with the people of God, and to prayer.  Walking by the Spirit will govern the desires that govern what we devote our lives to.  That leads to my next point:

3. We need to embrace every Word of this Book, including the hard ones.

Look once more at v. 21b.  “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” When Paul says, “I warn you, as I warned you before,” he’s giving them a second warning.  He’s telling the Galatians, and us, to pay closer attention to what’s been said.  In effect, God is saying, “Don’t ignore my warnings.”  When Micah starts to chase a soccer ball out into the street, and I warn him to stop, it’s literally to save his life.  We need to realize that warnings like these are an expression of God’s infinite mercy and compassion.

If I asked you to take out a piece of paper and write down, from memory, three Bible promises, most of you could do that.  Could we also write down three warnings?  Probably not; yet the NT is full of strong, sober warnings that are aimed directly at those of us who call ourselves Christians.  We can’t just pick and choose the parts of Scripture we like, the ones that make us feel good, and ignore the rest.  Jesus said we live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God—that includes the hard words.  2 Tim. 3.16 says that, “all Scripture is breathed out by God.”  We need to embrace every warning and every demand of God’s Word and let them break us, let them pierce our hearts; don’t be afraid of that.  The Word of God has to wound us deeply, before we can be healed.  Walking by the Spirit will govern our desire for the whole counsel of God.

My final observation is this:

4. We can only walk by the Spirit in the context of community.

The command to walk by the Spirit has a direct bearing on how you and I relate to each other in this church.  Next week, Brother William will look even more deeply into the impact this command has on our relationships.  For now, I just want to point out that we walk by the Spirit in community, not as a group of isolated individuals.

As I was meditating on this passage this week, I noticed something.  At the beginning and end of this section, verses 15 and 26 contain instructions about proper relationships in Christian community.  Both of those verses are adjacent to the commands in verses 16 and 25 to walk by the Spirit.  The rebuke in verse 15 leads directly to the command to walk by the Spirit.  The injunction to walk by the Spirit in verse 25 is followed immediately by an admonition in verse 26 to avoid certain harmful attitudes in our relationships with each another.

There seems to be a direct connection in Paul’s thinking between walking by the Spirit and relating properly to each other.  He can’t mention the one, without mentioning the other.  Let’s put those verses together so you can see it: (15-16) “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.  But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (25-26) ”If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”

Do we need to stop biting and provoking one another?  Do we need more humility and unity in our relationships with each other?  If we all keep in step with the Spirit, we’ll find that we’re also in step with each other.  Walking by the Spirit governs the desires that govern how we relate to each other.


In summary, I think this text provides us with a sober reminder to take God seriously.  I don’t know how you can look at a warning like the one in verse 21 and come to any other conclusion.  This is not a game.  It’s not a religious pastime.  It’s a life-and-death struggle for hearts and souls.  It’s a call to be serious about following the Spirit’s lead; serious about fighting the sin in our lives; serious about cultivating the fruit of the Spirit; serious about embracing the hard truths of Scripture; and serious about humility and unity in our relationships with each other.  Ironically, the greatest joy we could ever know lies in a serious relationship with God.

This is a message for believers.  But I can’t conclude it this morning without saying to anyone here who may not be a believer:  Repent of your sin and place your faith in Christ!  He died to reconcile sinners like all of us to God.  There’s nothing in the world that you need more right now than to turn away from your sin and turn to Christ.  As you saw in our passage this morning, anyone who won’t forsake sin forfeits a place in the kingdom of God.

Those of us who are already Christians may also need to repent of some things—our casual attitude toward sin; our inattention to the Word of God; the pride and strife that can easily creep in and damage our relationships with each other.

The Bible says that God is rich in mercy to all who call on Him.  If you’re not a Christian and you want to repent of your sin and trust Christ, call on Him this morning.  If you are a Christian, but you’ve gotten careless and casual about your walk with the Lord, call on Him this morning.  He’s rich in mercy.

~ Barry Wallace ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 20 June 2006 )

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