The main point of Galatian 5:13-15 is the imperative to serve one another through love, and its negative flip side to not give opportunity for the flesh. But how can I serve others and not give opportunity for the flesh? Because quite frankly, it is hard. The same energy and zeal that I exert for my well-being is the same effort and zeal that I must exert for the good and pleasure of others. Yes, even if it cost us temporary discomfort and suffering. This is radical and very hard to do in a world where love of the self is of utmost importance. Now Galatians 5:16-18 serves as an answer to the question how can we obey Paul’s command in verse 13.
So I say, by the Spirit walk[conduct your lives], and [as a result] you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. Because the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, [that is] these are opposition to one another, in order that you cannot do the things that you please. Nevertheless if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.
Paul begins with the conjunction “but” in verse 16, but this is more likely continuative than contrastive or adversative. We can rightly translate it as “so”. Meaning Paul continues with his exhortation to live in freedom as expressed in serving one another through love and he now elaborates how to do it without succumbing again to legalism and or falling into the opposite direction which is licentiousness. His answer was to “walk by the Spirit.” The construction in greek(“So by the Spirit walk” ) puts emphasis on the agency of the Spirit and the manner by which we ought to walk. It is in present continuous aspect. This means we need to do this daily. It connotes how we conduct our lives. This is our lifestyle, walk of life, or the manner of life that we live in.
Now other translations take the second half of the verse as another imperative(“Do not carry out the desires of the flesh”). But that is not the case here. It is functioning rather as a promise, a result of walking by and through the agency of the Spirit. Therefore we can paraphrase verse 16 this way; “So by the agency of the Spirit conduct your lives, and as a result you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.” This answers the question how not to give opportunity for the desires of the flesh. The desires of the flesh is expressed in verse 15 as an act of biting, devouring and consuming one another. In contrast, serving one another through love is the desire of the Spirit. So virtually Paul was saying that the how of serving one another through love is not by our working primarily, but by the Spirit’s immediate agency. In other words if we try to work out love on our own strength, then we are still enslaved by the flesh. That is not the faith that works through love. What makes Christians different from the rest of the world is that the Spirit is dwelling and working in us. So it is evident that not yielding to the dictates of the flesh is unattainable through our own strength and resolve. No amount of human effort can overcome the enslaving desires of the flesh, but the incentive of walking by the Spirit is precisely to overcome such desires.
Now verses 17-18 serves as the grounds of verse 16. Take note of the word “for”. Paul argues that there exist a war within us. The first half of verse 17 says that the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh. Then the “for” in the second half explains the purpose of this war. It is to keep us from doing the things we want to do. But what are the things we want to do? There are at least three possible interpretations as to what Paul meant here.
1.) These are opposition to one another, as a result you cannot do the Spirit’s wants. The last clause must be construed as a result of the war and the things desired here are the desires of the Spirit. The opposition of the two incapacitates us from doing what the Spirit impels us to do.
2.) These are opposition to one another, as a result you cannot do what the flesh wants. Similar with the first, only in reverse. As a result of the war, we cannot fulfill the desires of the flesh. This highlights our victory over the flesh while the first one is pessimistic.
3.) These are opposition to one another, in order that you cannot do the Spirit’s wants and vice versa cannot do the desires of the flesh. The last clause must be taken as purpose, and the things we want to do here are two competing wants that exist within us. That is, the Spirit opposes the flesh in order to prevent us from doing our natural inclinations, and in the same manner, the flesh opposes the Spirit to prevent us from doing our new supernaturally wrought inclinations. What’s being highlighted here is the fact that there’s a battle. Battle not of some foreign desires but real wants that really exist in us. The Spirit is within every believer, producing new godly desires, but we are still in the flesh. Even though we are no longer enslaved to it, it still has great influence over us.
The first option does not seem to explain how verse 17-18 is a motivation for walking by the Spirit. If the battle between the flesh and the Spirit will end up disabling us from obeying the Spirit then why walk by the Spirit? The second option is most probable than the first one, but it seems to diminish the role of the flesh in this context as an obstacle in carrying out the desires of the Spirit. Option three is more likely what Paul has in mind here. This explains our need to constantly walk by the Spirit in order to suppress the desires of the flesh, and at the same time this explanation does not diminish the power and influence of the flesh. Therefore Paul argues in verse 17 by way of concession that yes there’s a real struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, nevertheless verse 18 says but if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the Law, which suggests that the Spirit is the victor. So then verses 17-18 is a proper motivation for following verse 16 that says walk by the Spirit and as a result you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.
But what does walking by the Spirit means?
The first clue as to what it means is in verse 17. It is definitely not the act of the flesh or our natural capacities apart from the Spirit, since the flesh and the Spirit are at odds with each other. Walking is not an exercise of the natural man.
The second clue is in verse 18. It says that if you are led by the Spirit, then you are not under the law. I already pointed out that this walking is by the agency of the Spirit. Take note of the verb “led”. It is in the passive voice. The emphasis is on the Spirit’s act of taking the lead and not us working. We are not doing the leading. The Spirit does. So walking by the Spirit is following the leading of the Spirit not by working, but by being worked on.
Third notice how he used interchangeably the concept of “carrying out the desires of the flesh” in verse 16 with being “under the law” in verse 18. He could’ve said that if you are led by the Spirit, then you will no longer carry out the desires of the flesh. Instead he says, you are no longer under the law. But how does not being under the law a solution to the problem of war between the flesh and the Spirit? Here’s the answer: Remember that flesh here represents our natural sinful desires, and in Romans 7:8 sin’s weapon in order to produce all kinds of covetousness(desires) is the law. So if we use the law to supress our natural evil desires, it will only empower the flesh. But if we are being led by the Spirit then it would be evident that we are not under the law. However, this does not mean that the Spirit’s leading is against the law. Rather it fulfills the law by producing in us godly fruit.
Now some might say, why not obey the Spirit’s leading through the law?
The picture of following the Spirit through the law is like a convoy where one vehicle is in front leading, and other vehicles are catching up behind. The vehicles behind will eventually drain their own supply of gas and will never catch up. However, following the leading of the Spirit not through the law is like a car on a train attached to a locomotive. The car is not trying to catch up, rather it’s being pulled by the power of the locomotive alone. It does not exert any effort. Where the locomotive goes, it follows naturally.
In summary to walk by the Spirit is to deny the flesh of any opportunity to do its desires, this includes the desire of the flesh to do works of the law, and the only means by which we walk by the Spirit is by yielding joyfully to the Spirit’s leading, that is to be attached and be connected to the Spirit.
The first thing to learn from this text is that Christians experience a real struggle within. There are three kinds of response that you will hear from people about this reality. One response is, I don’t have those struggles, the Spirit in me is always winning. As much as I would want that for everyone, but that is just so naive. As long as we are in the flesh, the struggle is real and no one can escape it. The second response, however, is the opposite extreme. I have those fleshly desires and I’m not sure if the Spirit will eventually triumph, because I’m always falling into the same pit over and over again. These two responses are giving into the lies of Satan. The first lie is to tell you that there’s no war to fight, because you’re already a winner and the other lie is don’t fight it anymore because you’re a loser. In both case, the Devil doesn’t want you to go to war. Now the third response is Christ already made the decisive blow against sin, and the Spirit is winning therefore I must fight. I must wage war against the flesh not as a loser, but I will not slack off thinking that the war is over. Yes victory is sure, but as long as my General is fighting in the front lines, I will follow him. This is the kind of fight that if I stop now, it would be evident that the flesh already won. I like what John Piper said about this battle:
“Even though we long for the day when our flesh will be utterly defunct and only pure and loving desires will fill our hearts, yet there is something worse than the war within between flesh and Spirit―namely, no war within because the flesh controls the citadel and all the outposts. Praise God for the war within! Serenity in sin is death. The Spirit has landed to do battle with the flesh. So take heart if your soul feels like a battlefield at times. The sign of whether you are indwelt by the Spirit is not that you have no bad desires, but that you are at war with them!”
But the nagging question is, How do you walk by the Spirit? The words “walk by the Spirit” or “be led by the Spirit” have already become a buzz phrase within Christianity, and we hear it all the time from preachers. But somehow after hearing it, we’re left perplexed as to how to do it. I think the main point of the this epistle is precisely to answer that question and Paul’s answer through out the letter is by a life of faith. Or to use John Piper’s language, to joyfully, happily, trust God’s promises of satisfying our deepest desire, namely him.
John Piper gives a fivefold evidence from Galatians that I think is quite helpful in answering why is it by faith:
First, Galatians 5:6, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” Genuine faith always produces love, because faith pushes out guilt, fear, and greed and gives us an appetite to enjoy God’s power. But Galatians 5:22 says love is a fruit of the Spirit. So if love is what faith necessarily produces and love is a fruit of the Spirit, then the way to walk by the Spirit is to have faith―a happy resting in the promises of God is the pipeline of the Spirit.
Second, notice Galatians 5:5, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.” How do you wait for Jesus “through the Spirit”? “By faith!” When you keep your heart happy in God and resting in his promises, you are waiting through the Spirit and walking by the Spirit.
Third, look at Galatians 3:23, “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law.” The coming of faith liberates a person from being under law. But what does 5:18 say? “If you are led by the Spirit you are not under law.” How, then, shall we seek to be led by the Spirit? By faith. By meditating on the trustworthiness and preciousness of God’s promises until our hearts are free of all fretting and guilt and greed. This is how the Holy Spirit fills and leads.
Fourth, see Galatians 3:5, the clearest of all: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing of faith?” The Spirit does his mighty work in us and through us only by the hearing of faith. We are sanctified by faith alone. The way to walk by the Spirit and so not fulfill the desires of the flesh is to hear the delectable promises of God and trust them, delight in them, rest in them.
Finally, consider Galatians 2:20, “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.” Who is the Christ who lives in Paul? He is the Spirit. As 4:6 says: The Spirit of God’s Son has been sent into our hearts. And how, according to 2:20, does the life of the Son produce itself in Paul? How does Paul walk by the Spirit of the Son? “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” Day by day Paul trusts the Son. Day by day he casts his cares on God, frees his life from guilt and fear and greed, and is borne along by the Spirit.
George Müller wrote (Autobiography, p.152—4): “I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, or how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished . . . Now what is the food for for the inner-man? Not prayer but, the Word of God.”
How, then, do we walk by the Spirit? It is by joyfully trusting and resting on the promises of God in Scriptures. God works in us through the Spirit not by works of the law but by faith. So walk by the Spirit because even though there’s a conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, the Spirit will inevitably triumph!