Galatians 5:16-18 – The Big Fight
We come now to a very familiar and deeply personal section of Scripture. I’ve titled this section The Big Fight as this is the internal struggle every follower of Christ is going through, whether they recognize this or not. This is the ongoing conflict, the ongoing civil war within the heart and practically within every believer’s life. This conflict is the battle between the flesh and the Holy Spirit. Paul returns to the topic “flesh” – what he brought up in verse 13.
This is one of the best known sections of Galatians and of all of Paul’s writings, where he creates the stark contrast between the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit (vv. 16-21).
- Every Christian lives in two spheres at once.
- We know to be a Christian means you are in union with Jesus Christ and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
- This “at the same time” existence is lived out in a body that is firmly rooted in our fallen world – with its struggles.
- Every believer being indwelt by the real presence of the Holy Spirit must live assured that the primary Person ensuring you sanctification or holiness is Him.
- He is your Sanctifier.
- He is the only One who empowers you to please God.
- God never intended for Christians to rely on their own resources but only his!
- When you were saved, you were saved by God’s resources and in the same way as you are being sanctified, this too is by God’s resources.
- So the expectation for your growth in holiness is high.
- You may think your Christian life should be marked by one spiritual triumph after another, free from sin, freely living by the Spirit, filled with selflessness and love (cf. v. 14).
- Experience says, “I know better.” Christians suffer bitter spiritual defeats.
Martin Luther faced the same dilemma. Despite all his attempts to live a godly life, there were times when he was tempted to sin. And not just tempted – times when he committed fleshly sins that made him worry he was not really a Christian. Perhaps you have had similar doubts.
St. Augustine used to pray, “Lord, deliver me from that evil man, myself.”
- We know we have this battle between two opposing forces, two contrary powers, the Spirit and the enemy within. They will never agree – they are “against” each other.
- The flesh is against the Spirit and so you feel you are being pulled by two contrary forces, dragged downward by the flesh while being drawn upward by the Spirit.
- This flesh, our redeemed humanness is powerful.
Spurgeon described this dynamic: “All the fire that the devil can bring from hell could do us little harm if we did not have so much fuel in our nature.” – “It is the powder in the magazine of the old man that is our perpetual danger.”
- Still, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit means there is hope for holiness.
- The Holy Spirit Authors all our desires for holiness.
- We not only know what’s going on – because we have the Holy Spirit, believers can fight back – can combat the seductive ways of your former self.
- The Holy Spirit has regenerated every Christian and He thus empowers every Christian, so Adam’s instincts are dethroned but are not yet eliminated.
- So Christians must make it a life-long determination to fight and seek to destroy these instincts.
- As difficult as this battle is, there is good news- Christians are never fighting a losing battle.
- Believers are promised victory when they are finally glorified (cf. Rom. 8:30).
- The battle lines are clear and obvious – not mysterious!
- What you must kill is “evident” (cf. vv. 19-21). And, what a Holy Spirit yielded life looks like is equally “evident” (vv. 21-22).
- Christians are also promised to grow as they battle!
So how shall you fight? You cannot fight this battle with the devil’s weapons.
- Though Christians try, It is not possible for the power of your flesh to help the power of the Spirit.
- You cannot fight your flesh with the fleshly obedience to the Law – neither can you fight your flesh by ignoring it through some kind of License.
- Both practices are condemned by Paul’s letter.
Spurgeon: “If you think you can get help from God by getting angry, you make a great mistake.”
- Christians often claim more of the Holy Spirit through forms of passive submission – a theology of quietism claiming the slogan: “Let go, and let God.”
- Whether this is a smokescreen to not fight as “a good soldier of Christ engaged in active service” or an “athlete who ‘runs in such a way that they might win’” (2 Tim. 2:3-4; 1 Cor. 9:24).
We need the Christian balance to fight this as a fight of faith! This is exactly what Paul spells out in this important section (Gal. 5:16-26).
These verses are full of the Holy Spirit, who is mentioned seven times as our Sanctifier. He alone can subdue our flesh – what JB Phillips called our “lower nature.” Yet we are called to engage this
Big Fight. Your Christian life should be defined by this, as one lived under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s learn how.
1. Act on the Spirit’s promise (v. 16)
Verse 16 is simply a command that comes with a promise. The command is to “walk by the Spirit” (v. 16).
- This comes immediately on the heels of the warning not to “bite and devour one another” (v. 15).
- Like verse 16, this warning comes with a promise. There is cause and effect!
- If you do this, then there will be that – “consumption.”
- Paul answers v. 15 saying to instead “walk by the Spirit” (v. 16).
- If you do this, then you will not be doing that.
- For Paul, “Walking” pictures the life that you live.
“Walk” [peripatew] is a present tense imperative meaning that this is a non-negotiable lifestyle for believers.
- Believers are meant to live their lives being conscious of the Spirit’s guidance.
- This is the Lord’s design for you by the fact that the Holy Spirit himself has come to be in your life.
- Walking implies step by step decisions made and the progress from where one is going to where one ought to be.
Christians often ask each, “How’s your walk?” This is an appropriate question and a question Paul would have asked since he used this picture so often.
Whether in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul used the term “walk” over and over again.
- Walk in wisdom
- Walk in a manner worthy of your calling
- Walk in newness of life
- Walk in love, by faith, not as the Gentiles, carefully, as children of light!
All of which is the same for Paul saying, “walk by the Spirit.”
- This is what you are able to do as New Testament Christians, what was promised from the prophet Ezekiel.
ESV Ezekiel 36:26 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Understand Paul is promising to resolve how you are to fight this war within with this single command.
- Yielding to the Holy Spirit, promises you will not be gratifying the flesh.
- Another way to put this is that “walking by the Spirit” means you are not “gratifying your flesh.”
- The Spirit of God will never lead you to indulge in your flesh so that when you are simply “walking” with Him you are being led away from your sins.
This is not so simple. Paul teaches the threat of our flesh is constant.
- Believers are now able to conquer fleshly desires by the Holy Spirit and it is never unclear whether someone is yielding to the flesh or the Spirit.
- The believer’s life patterns demonstrate whether the flesh or the Spirit is reigning – at any particular moment.
- Verses 19-21 and verses 22-23 show how clear this is. There is no ambiguity there.
Spurgeon called: The deeds of the flesh a black catalogue…there are four classes of sins mentioned:
- Sins of lust, idolatry and witchcraft, sins of temper, and sins of appetite.
- We’ll explain them next time but suffice it to say, you know when you are participating in these.
- These categories are the extreme opposite of a life marked by its freedom and joy (cf. v. 13) and a life that is filled with love for others! (cf. v. 14).
So the question of how does someone actually “walk by the Spirit?”
- Physically “walking” is a perfect picture to describe what Paul’s intention is here.
- Walking carries in it both active and passive dimensions.
- On the one hand, if you want to go somewhere you have to choose to take a step in a certain direction and on the other hand there is a real sense of being on autopilot when we walk.
- Once you are walking you typically do not have to think about your footing and you are probably focused on other things.
- You are by design able to focus on people, your circumstances or whatever.
- So, simply put, when you “walk by the Spirit” you are making a deliberate decision to think about the God of Scripture, your relationship and love for Christ, and your absolute need of the Holy Spirit to guide, protect, and empower you to please Him.
- Then, at the same time there must be submission to the Holy Spirit, for Him to work.
- Christians are constantly tempted to think they can muster necessary moral resources or resolve to live for God and others when in fact redoubled efforts will drain and sink you.
- Freedom from the flesh is not attainable by human potentiality.
When you are “walking by the Spirit” the strongest negative language possible is used that you will “certainly not” (ou mn) fulfill (telestnte) the “flesh” (v. 16).
- This is an amazing promise of victory.
- “If you walk in the Spirit, there is not even a chance you will fulfill the flesh!”
- The Holy Spirit thwarts and conquers your weaknesses from human nature.
2. Engage the battle raging inside (v. 17)
The reason for this crucial walk by the Spirit is explained in that there is a great battle being waged in the heart!
Verse 17 may not appear to be very hope-inspiring to some but actually for many, this verse serves to clarify what is really going on inside each one of us.
- This is a very leveling verse.
- This private and internal struggle is no respecter of Christians.
- Everyone is suffering this kind of spiritual schizophrenia where you at times begin to question who you really are.
I think at the same time; it is important to recognize that the unregenerate person knows nothing of this battle because he does not have the Holy Spirit.
- People, made in God’s image may feel guilty in their conscience for wrongs or hurts and consequences from sins they have committed.
- Sinful acts, though disappointing and disgusting, are consistent with a person’s basic nature as an enemy of God (Rom. 5:10).
Unless the Holy Spirit is convicting someone of sin, he is not really experiencing a war inside. However, Christians are!
Verse 17 is one that helped Martin Luther so much in his spiritual struggle.
- Luther used to preach to himself, “Martin, you will never be completely without sin, because you still have the flesh. Therefore, you will always be aware of its conflict, according to the statement of Paul: ‘The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.’ Do no despair, therefore, but fight back, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Paul stresses the contrast between the “desires” of flesh and Spirit by eliminating the definite articles.
- This literally means your sinful nature keeps you from doing the good that you desire.
- The flesh and the Spirit in your life are at odds in deep irreconcilable conflict.
- This is no stalemate and not something to take lightly as if you can coast along in the breeze ignoring this struggle.
- Your flesh is the enemy within who wars against the Holy Spirit’s work in your life.
The “desire of the flesh” has been termed an “over-desire” epithumia an “inordinate desire” that is an all-controlling drive to turn what the Lord originally meant for good into “gods.”
ESV Ephesians 5:5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
ESV Colossians 3:5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
- The perfection of paradise in the original garden turned into perversion when sin was injected into the heart.
- Idolatry is the characteristic summary of the Old Testament word for drift from God and in the same way “desires” is the New Testament word for the same drift [David Powelison].
- Warren Wiersbe compared the flesh and the Spirit to clean and unclean animals – like pigs compared with sheep and ravens compared with doves.
- One animal enjoys wallowing in filth and feeding on garbage while the others avoid this.
- The difference is in the natures of the different animals.
- Both natures still dwell inside believers!
- This is what Martin Luther meant when he said that the Christian is “partly righteous and partly sinner” (simul Justus et peccator).
The flesh is the personification of our fallen humanness we will face until we see Jesus face to face. Until we are glorified (Rom. 8:30).
This same personification is Paul’s testimony from Romans 7:14-26.
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. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Your sinful nature is really our old motivational system-with its own goals and own needs and drives and it is still somewhat intact!
- Weakness and helplessness of human nature still clings to redeemed souls and this same weakness is still the Christian’s propensity to sin in fallen humanness.
- But at the same time, a reborn person even when falling into sin, can say with Paul, “This is not the real me!” – “This is not what I really want!” – “I want God and his will!” [Keller].
This fight – this irreconcilable antagonism – will not resolve until heaven but you still should see progress, though your flesh will never fully be eliminated.
So far facing The Big Fight comes down to: Acting on the Spirit’s promise – Engaging the battle raging inside and finally you must:
3. Yield to the Spirit’s leadership (v. 18)
“But” is another strong adversative to this internal warzone he’s just described in verse 17.
- Rather than passive resignation, falling prey to some sort of sad truce to your hopeless state Paul says, turn to the Spirit for help!
Verses 16, 18 and 25 say to “walk” – “be led” – and “keep in step with the Spirit.”
So, what again does turning to the leadership of the Holy Spirit look like?
- Turing to the Holy Spirit, as some circles will espouse does not mean we are dismissive of biblical morality!
- Following the Holy Spirit is not anti-nomian or against the moral norms of Scripture.
- But neither is this reverting back to legalism or being “under the law” (v. 18).
Being guided by the Holy Spirit is what defines a genuine Christian.
ESV Romans 8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
In this sense, the believer never has to pray for the leadership of the Holy Spirit because he is already doing that.
- Instead, he needs to be willing to be obedient and follow his leading.
- The solution is to surrender our will to the Holy Spirit who has written the law on our hearts where we desire to obey him.
ESV Psalm 40:8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
By way of review, verses 16 and 17 tie together and answer verse 13 in relation to the “flesh.” In the same way verse 18 also ties together and also answers verse 14 in relation to the “law.”
- Paul first warns believers not the use their “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” and now he explains that being “led by the Spirit” is the key to both “fulfilling the law” and “not being under the law” (v. 18).
For Paul to say, “you are not under the law” is significant. Paul is making a salvation-historical argument that those led by the Spirit do not belong to the old era of redemptive history where the law reigned.
The main idea is that if you are “under law” (as if you are still from a by gone era) then that means you are now currently NOT “under grace!”
ESV Romans 6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
In his Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes Interpreter’s house, which Pilgrim entered during the course of his journey to the Celestial City. The parlor of the house was completely covered with dust, and when a man took a broom and started to sweep, he and the other in the room began to choke from the great clouds of dust that were stirred up. The more vigorously he swept, the more suffocating the dust became. Then Interpreter ordered a maid to sprinkle the room with water, with which the dust was quickly washed away. Interpreter explained to Pilgrim that the parlor represented the heart of an unsaved man, that the dust was original sin, the man with the broom was the law, and the man with the water was the gospel. His point was that all the law can do with sin is to stir it up. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can wash it away!
There is good reason to see Paul using “under the law” as shorthand for “under the curse of the law” (cf. 3:10; 23).
– The Spirit is who leads believers away from divine judgement!
– As someone said, the “sarx-heart” or fleshly heart functions under the law and rejects the free gift of Christ righteousness and salvation by continuing to seek his own “self-salvation.”
– This is the “sin beneath the sin” which is a curse with eternal consequence.
So what happens when I fail to win the struggle against the flesh? Will this mean my certain condemnation? No!
Our acceptance which is our justification does not depend on keeping the law but instead we are given grace.
The Holy Spirit has come into our lives and is all we need in terms of instruction and spiritual resources to keep going and keep growing.
The Spirit leads us! God’s own Spirit helps us in the conflict of the flesh like a lead locomotive on a train with hundreds of cars. The power of the Spirit is passed along to us in our continuing struggle with ongoing sin!
This reassurance that He is our divine resource should serve as great motivation for you. You are not alone in your struggle. The Holy Spirit reigns!