MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 12, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 5:16-18
This morning, we move into one of the most practical sections of the New Testament. We saw last time from Galatians 5:13-15 that the freedom we have in Christ should not be used as an opportunity for the flesh-that is, as an excuse or reason to sin. Our flesh will seek to use our freedom to serve selfish desires. We saw that our freedom in Christ is instead intended by God to be expressed through love for others as God has revealed in his moral law. We saw that our freedom from being under the law does not render the law useless to us. In fact, the law is a tremendous blessing, not because our salvation is dependent upon us keeping it, but because the law helps us to know the will of God.
Because the three verses we will be looking at this week are written in response to verse 15, let's review that now. The Galatians had apparently been experiencing some interpersonal conflict. Paul says in verse 15, "But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another." That is what the flesh looks like in a corporate setting-biting, devouring and consuming others. Paul contrasts that kind of fleshly living with living out your freedom, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Beginning in verse 16 he writes, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For 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. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law."
The main idea of these verses is simply-God's will is that we experience freedom from the sinful desires of the flesh and the tyranny of living under the law through walking by the Holy Spirit. Here in this unpleasant context of the Galatians ripping each other to shreds, Paul commands a very basic, but profound alternative and these verses communicate with confidence that if the Spirit of God is allowed to bring his influence, this fleshly fighting will cease. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee is probably right when he says that Paul's command to "walk by the Spirit" is "Paul's basic ethical imperative. " What he means by that is simply that nothing else Paul commands regarding our behavior is possible unless we obey this command first. Unless we are walking by the Holy Spirit, we cannot love Biblically, we cannot do anything in a manner that pleases God and fulfills the law. The Christian life is fundamentally a supernatural one. That is-it is intended to be a life marked by divine power and character-both of which we are utterly incapable of expressing.
To "walk" by the Spirit is simply to live under the moment by moment empowering influence of the Holy Spirit. The verb here is in the present tense which means that God is not calling us to occasional moments of spiritual triumph here, but a constancy of life-a life that is consistently marked by Spirit-empowered love and everything that flows from that. That is the command. There are many elements involved in living a faithful, empowered Christian life, but all of them demand the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. Paul says the way to not gratify the sinful, selfish desires of the flesh is to walk by the Holy Spirit. That is a basic and broad statement for how to live like Christ. But what is involved in this? We will look at this question in some detail later, but for now I want us to see that the New Testament teaches that walking by the Spirit is not some sort of mystical experience wherein we walk in a state of perpetual ecstasy.
The New Testament teaches that walking by the Spirit involves many things, all of which require work on our part that the Spirit will energize us to do. Walking by the Spirit requires shoe leather. We are not passive in this endeavor. Think about that. The battle to live like Christ is fought first in arena of our mind and so Second Corinthians five tells us we must "…take every thought captive to obey Christ…" How do we accomplish this? In the verse preceding this one, Paul says that "…the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds." "Divine power" implies the involvement of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can enable us to control our thoughts.
Walking by the Spirit involves actively working to kill our sinful, fleshly desires. Colossians 3:5 says, "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry." How do we pull that off? Romans 8:13 says, "…if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." Success in all spiritual warfare-whether the fight is over a bad habit or the direction of a nation is dependent upon God answering our prayer, but prayer is hard work we do through the Spirit. At the end of the spiritual warfare section in Ephesians chapter six, Paul concludes the section on the weapons of our warfare with this phrase in verse 18, "praying at all times in the Spirit with all prayer and supplication…" This praying at all times is to be done in the power of the Spirit and if you have done much of this, you know it is work.
I labor this a bit because it seems the church is tempted to believe that anything done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit must of necessity take on a highly mystical element wherein the believer must be in some sort of a passive trance-like state in order for the Holy Spirit to be involved. If that is your idea of walking in the Spirit or being led by the Spirit, you are not in step with the New Testament. What Paul tells us here is very practical and his first supporting truth is in verse 17 where he writes, "17For 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…" What he is doing in this verse is explaining that as we walk by the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. He explains that by asserting here-The Spirit and the flesh are in absolute opposition to one another. The reason why it's true that if we walk by the Spirit we will not gratify the desires of the flesh is because the Spirit and the flesh are on polar opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum and they are at war with one another. The Holy Spirit and our flesh are mutually exclusive.
The Spirit is central to the new way of relating to God that Jesus established through the New Covenant in his blood. The Spirit points us to heaven and Jesus-he, like Jesus is not of this world. Our flesh is that unredeemed part of us that belongs to this world that is passing away. The Spirit expresses the values of God and the kingdom of heaven. The flesh expresses the values of this fallen, sinful world that are under the death sentence. The Spirit and the flesh are the ultimate examples of oil and water-they don't mix at all. They represent two very different spiritual realms that are violently opposed to each other.
Paul's point is to say that if you are walking by the Spirit, you will not (because you cannot) possibly gratify the selfish desires of the flesh. It's a bit like saying, "Live a mile underground and you will not gratify your desire for sunlight" because there is no sunlight a mile under the earth. To live above ground and to live under ground is to live in two different realms. In the immediate context of verse 15, Paul is saying--in the flesh, you are biting, devouring and consuming one another because you are operating in the realm of the flesh with its fallen, fleshly desires. "But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh." He's saying in essence-change the spiritual realms in which you are operating from your flesh to the Spirit. When you make that change, you won't be at each other's throats.
Another truth I find from these same verses could be stated: The battle between the flesh and the Spirit is a cause for hope, not despair. Frankly, in the church there are two extremes as it relates to this truth about the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. On the one hand, there are those people who do not have a Biblical understanding of the power of sin and the flesh and they end up treating it very lightly. They just believe and they are pretty happy. Their lives are often unexamined and they are content to swim in a spiritual ocean that's about an inch deep. These are the people may be more drawn to reading "Christian" self-help books, than books on theology. That's where they fight the battle-on the surface and they really aren't all that concerned about anything deeper than that. As long as they are free from scandalous sin and live responsibly with others, they are fine. Jesus died for them-they are forgiven--they are doing good because of what Jesus did for them.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who have perhaps a more theologically educated understanding of the power of sin and the flesh. They're very impressed with the power of sin. The trouble with many of these folks is that they seem to be always fighting, but never seeing any spiritual breakthroughs in their life. Their understanding and experience of the power of the flesh and sin is far greater than their understanding and experience of the spiritual triumph they have in Christ through the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit. They may be able to very clearly articulate what Christ has done for them in the cross, but many of these people are simply not living it out. Truthfully, in their heart of hearts, they really don't expect to live there. The spiritual ocean in which they swim is deeper, but instead of spending significant seasons of their life enjoying the swim, their highest goal is to not drown. Most of us tend toward one of those extremes.
Notice how Paul here conveys the best of both of those extremes. He knows the power of sin and death better than anyone. Many of his letters are written to churches that he planted, but that are now living in significant spiritual defeat. No one in the Bible writes more explicitly on the power of sin than Paul. As he grew closer to God he became increasingly impressed with his own sin before a holy God. Spurgeon was right when he said that if we think lightly of sin, we will think lightly of the Savior. None of Paul's letters could even remotely be described as "self-help." But on the other hand, notice in these verses how confident Paul is in the power of the Spirit to overcome the sinful flesh. He's not being naïve or superficial-he's simply stating the spiritual reality. "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh." He states that very plainly-as you open the door to the Spirit's power in your life, you close the door to the power of the flesh. Now, as we said, walking by the Spirit entails hard work and no one does it all the time, but as we walk by the Spirit, we experience triumph over sin and the flesh.
This dynamic in the church to be expected because the New Testament teaching on this topic carries with it an inherent tension-not confusion, tension. Theologians have a name to describe this reality regarding the kingdom of God. They call it "the already, not yet." That even sounds schizophrenic doesn't it? All it means is that right now in this time between Christ's first coming and his second coming, there is tension. On the one hand, Jesus through his death on the cross inaugurated the kingdom of God and with that comes many blessings. We have forgiveness of sin, the gift of Christ's righteousness, the indwelling Holy Spirit who provides the power to live a holy life by faith in a way that fulfills the law of God. In that sense, the kingdom of God has come ALREADY by virtue of Christ's work on the cross. But at the same time, the kingdom of God has NOT YET fully been consummated. That will happen when Jesus comes again and finally brings his condemnation on the forces of evil. During this time of salvation history, the power of sin exists and it can bring believers into significant misery and rebellion. The flesh is real and it must be viciously opposed. Our physical bodies have not been redeemed and are subject to death and disease. The devil, though defeated, is still able to cause much trouble for the church under God's sovereign control. There is real suffering and pain and travail in and out of the church. The church is a colony of heaven, but it is surrounded on all sides by fallenness and sin.
In our text this morning, we see both the "already" and the "not yet," don't we? On the "not yet" side, there is the opposition between the flesh and the Spirit that was manifest in these Galatian believers devouring one another. But on the "already" side, the Holy Spirit, unlike the law, can enable us to live in the freedom Christ purchased for us. We are surrounded by the "not yet" of sin and the flesh and the devil and we must persistently battle against that. But we have also been enabled to live in the "already" that Jesus died to give us. There is tension there, but there need not be confusion. Paul says, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh." The battle between the flesh and the Spirit should not bring us to despair, but give us hope. We see some significant ground for hope for spiritual triumph in this text. First, it implies that it is possible to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul commands this and it is therefore possible. This is not a pipe dream-believers can do this-not perfectly, but with increasing levels of consistency.
Second, this battle between the flesh and the Spirit is not an evenly matched fight. On one side is our flesh-it is the conduit through which Satan and the power of sin in this world bring their malevolent influence into our lives. But it is also fallen and it is under the death sentence. It has been defeated by Jesus on the cross along with the rest of this dark world in which we live. On the other side is the Holy Spirit. Though he will not generally force his will upon us, he is the third Person of the Godhead. He is God and he is for us in this battle not as a cheerleader, but as a leader-we are to be led by the Spirit according to verse 18. Paul says in Romans 8:31, "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" We mustn't ever forget that God the Holy Spirit who indwells the believer is for the believer in this fight. That alone should inspire Biblical confidence.
More than that, if we are truly born again, we have been given a new heart that wants to obey God. In verse 17 Paul tells us that the goal of the flesh is to "keep you from doing the things you want to do." When a person is genuinely converted through the New Covenant in Christ, God changes the desires of their heart. We read this earlier in Jeremiah 32:39-40. God promises to his New Covenant people, "I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me." We know that it is the Spirit who brings that New Covenant promise to fulfillment. Do we hear that freedom prophesied for those in Christ? A chapter earlier God promises in verse 33, that I will "put my law within them and write it on their hearts…"If we are in Christ, our new hearts want to obey God. That means that the Holy Spirit has an ally within the heart of every believer. Verse 17 tells us that the flesh works to "keep you from doing the things you want to do." That means by extension that the Holy Spirit works to help us do the things our redeemed hearts want to do anyway. I think Paul intends that this be a very hope-giving text to people who are trying to kill each other-they don't have to do that in Christ. In the Spirit, they have been set free from the power of sin and the law.
The question behind all this is of course, "How does this walking by the Spirit work?" Or, to use the wording of verse 18 that communicates much the same thing-"How is a person led by the Spirit?" Again, there are some significant misconceptions about this. Some people think that being led by the Spirit is only about some mystical capacity to discern the inner "voice" of the Spirit. It is certainly true that the Spirit does still communicate with us. He gives us words and impressions and guidance and learning how to follow those promptings is not unimportant. But that is not fundamentally what Paul is talking about here. Think about the context. He's not saying, "You folks are ripping each other apart-what you need to do is--listen for the still, small voice who will tell you not to do that." We mustn't wrench these commands out of the context into which Paul puts them. So what is involved in being led by the Holy Spirit? Here are two necessary prerequisites.
First, we must know the Holy Spirit inspired word with increasing depth. The native language of the Holy Spirit is Scripture. When Jesus, who was led by the Spirit spoke, he quoted the Bible like a Puritan preacher. He did not rely fundamentally on his own perfect, divine intuition, though he was certainly sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Most of what he did and taught was right from the Old Testament. Even when he was at his weakest-in the desert on a 40-day fast, when he was confronted by the devil in his temptation, he answered that temptation with Scripture. As he hung on the cross, he quotes Scripture. The Holy Spirit inspired the Bible. It is his word. When he communicates to us, it will always be consistent with the Bible and it will overwhelmingly be through the Bible. Let me illustrate this from two texts. The first is a well known text on the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul says, "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ."
After Paul commands us to be filled or, live under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he gives us five participles that illustrate what it looks like to be under the Spirit's influence. He clearly links the behaviors with the activity of the Holy Spirit. Now, let's look at a very similar verse in Colossians chapter three. He says in verse 16, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Don't miss the striking parallel between the Holy Spirit and the indwelling word of Christ. Each has the same influence on us as the other. If you want to live a Holy Spirit led life, know this book well. That's not to say that everyone who knows the Bible well is necessarily Spirit-led, but it does mean that those who are consistently Spirit-led know the Bible well. It is in their head and their heart. Being a diligent student of the word is necessary, but not sufficient to walking in the Spirit.
Second, walking by the Spirit involves walking by faith, not sight. Answers to the how questions of the Christian life like-"how do I walk in the Spirit?" or, "how do I walk in victory?" are always answered, at least in part by…faith. We have to believe something. First John 5:4 says, "For everyone born of God overcomes the world and this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith." Walking by the Spirit in triumph over our fleshly desires is rooted--not primarily in hearing a voice, it's in believing a promise. What promise is essential to believe in order to walk by the Spirit? Look at verse 24. "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." Don't miss the logic of Paul's argument about not gratifying the desires of the flesh. He says in 5:16, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Eight verses later he says that "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."
The command or imperative to walk by the Spirit and not gratify our fleshly desires is grounded in the truth-the indicative--that our flesh and its passions and desires has been crucified in Christ. Part of walking by the Spirit is to believe what God has done for us in Christ. This is the same argument Paul makes in Romans chapter six. We must not continue in sin that grace may abound because we have died to sin. The reason we can walk in confidence is because when we trusted in Christ, we dealt a fatal blow to the flesh. We have a new relationship not only to God, but to our flesh. Now we can rule over it by the Spirit. Do we believe that? If we haven't internalized that truth, we will not walk by the Spirit. We must ask the Spirit of Truth to reveal that to us so that we by his grace can walk in it. A big part of walking by the Spirit is pleading with him to help us believe what he has promised in his word. "Without faith it is impossible to please God."
One reason why the Christian life seems impossible to some is because instead of trusting that what the Bible says is true about us, we believe what our feelings tell us. We are confronted with a temptation-some one cuts us off in traffic, a juicy piece of gossip comes our way, or a sultry magazine cover beckons in the supermarket line. Instantly, we feel the pull and it can be very strong if we are particularly weak in that area. It feels for all the world like this temptation is absolutely irresistible. Absurd. That's a lie, but we believe the lie because it feels so much more compelling than the truth of God's word which tells us that this particular fleshly desire has been crucified and through the Spirit we can overcome it. Part of walking by the Spirit is when we are confronted by a fleshly desire, to ask the Spirit to help you believe the truth of his word about that sin.
Paul says in verse 18, "But if we are led by the Spirit, we are no longer under the law." The reason he says that we are not under law is because if you are under law, you are under the power of sin and those who are follow the lead of the Spirit are free from the law. If we walk by the Spirit we are free to love. Do we believe this? May God give us the grace to wage this fight against our sinful flesh in the confidence that as we walk by the Spirit, we will not gratify its desires.
Page last modified on 12/1/2008
(c) 2008 - All material is property of Duncan Ross and/or Mount of Olives Baptist Church, all commercial rights are reserved. Please feel free to use any of this material in your ministry.