When He died for our sins, Jesus not only removed sin’s penalty, He also broke sin’s power (I Jn. 3:7-9; Rom. 6:1-14a). Those united with Christ can be free from the controlling power of sin. As Paul wrote in Romans 6:14, “For sin shall not be your master.”
After Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to the Father, He sent the Spirit (cf. Jn. 7:37-39; 14:15-17; 16:5-15; Acts 1:4-9) for all who place faith in Him as Savior and confess Him as Lord. At the moment of faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit. All believers without exception are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:9; I Cor. 6:19-20; II Cor. 1:21-22; Gal. 3:2-5; Ja. 4:5).
If you are a believer, God dwells in you by His Spirit! And the indwelling Spirit of God is the agent and power for enabling us to live a life that pleases God.
But when God’s Spirit indwells us, we experience an immediate conflict with the realm dominated by our sinful nature. “For the sinful nature (flesh) desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature (flesh). They are in conflict with each other “…” (Galatians 5:17). This explains the internal conflict felt by all Christians.
Romans 8 – the distinction between flesh and Spirit
Romans 8:4a speaks of people for whom “the righteous requirement of the law has been fully met.” These are people who have trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior. These are believers; Christians; followers of Christ; the converted. According to Romans 8:4b, a distinguishing mark of these people is that they do not live (or walk): “according to the flesh” (kata sarka) but, “according to the spirit” (kata rheuma).
Continuing the contrast, Romans 8:5 informs us that the distinction is found in the way one thinks or reasons. To “have their minds set” means “they regard things with an outlook and attitude characteristic of the flesh or characteristic of the Spirit.” This is the difference between a believer and an unbeliever – between one who belongs to God’s kingdom and one who does not. One of the primary differences has to do with the way they think or reason.
In looking for evidence of true Christian conversion, ask this question: “Is the way he reasons or view things characteristic of the flesh or of the Spirit?”
Romans 8 is not using the language of exhortation (as if to exhort believers to have their minds set on what the Spirit desires). Romans 8 uses the language of description to establish the fact that a believer is one who: walks/thinks/is (kata rheuma) “according to the Spirit.” And, he is not one who walks/thinks/is (kata sarka) “according to the flesh.” (Rom. 8:6-9)
“To walk” “according to the Spirit” is to order your conduct under the direction of the Spirit. “To think” “according to the Spirit” is to regard things with an attitude or outlook characteristic of the Spirit. “To be” “according to the Spirit” is a reference to your position in relation to the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:9 “…the Spirit of God lives in you”).
- Life “kata rheuma” is distinguished by: life, peace, and submission to God.
- Life “kata sarka” is characterized by: death, hostility and rebellion toward God and His law (Romans 8:9).
This is the language of description.
From description to exhortation:
But the N.T. does move from description to the language of exhortation: Look at Romans 13:13-14; I Peter 2:11 with I Peter 1:14-15; and Ephesians 5:18 which provide commands in the other direction!
- Ephesians 5:18- continually “let the dominating influence of the Spirit permeate you life…”
- Galatians 5:16 uses the language of exhortation: “walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.”
Douglas Moo put it this way: “The life giving power of God’s Spirit is effective only in those who continue to let the Spirit change their lives.”
According to the Spirit: (kata rheumka)
Putting all of this together, there will always be a battle between flesh and Spirit for the believer (sometimes it will be intense). And it’s possible for true believers to give into the flesh. But, according to Romans 8, we should expect a true believer to walk “kata rheumka” according to the Spirit.” Although it may not always be this way, things should be moving in the direction of the Spirit and away from the flesh. There should be a submissive response to God and His word, not a hostile and rebellious response. There should be resistance to fleshly oriented thinking behavior. These are evidences of regeneration we should expect.
According to the flesh: (kata sarka)
We cannot fully appreciate what it means to “walk according to the Spirit” without an adequate understanding of the contrast of “walking according to the flesh.” And, we said that “flesh” in these scriptures refers not to a person’s nature (as the NIV’s “sinful nature”) but to a sphere a realm of existence. Flesh is human existence which excludes the true God. I did not say it excludes religion or a god. It excludes the true God. To state it differently, Douglas Moo defines it as “human life or the material world considered as independent of, and even in opposition to, the spiritual realm” (Moo, p.47, Romans).
Therefore, life that is “according to the flesh” (kata sarka) is not just a sexually immoral life (it might not involve that at all), instead it is a life that is directed by self and for self. It’s a life where I demand to be in control – as I set my own agenda. It is a life that is based on selfish ambition. The person who lives “kata sarka” focuses on attaining human standard for social and religious acceptance. He manipulates both people and circumstances for self-advancement and places his confidence in human achievement – without giving the glory to God. In the context of relationships, fleshly living involves: scheming, conniving, deceiving, controlling and manipulating. And these things give way to jealousy, quarrels, hatred, fits of rage, and envy (I Cor. 3, Jam. 3, Gal. 5:19). In life “kata sarka” I must be in control! I must come out on top!
Whenever you are involved in a conflict, it is important to consider how you may be contributing to the problem, either directly or indirectly. In some cases, you may have caused the controversy. In other cases, you may have aggravated a dispute by failing to respond to another person in a godly way. Therefore, before focusing on what others have done wrong, it’s wise to carefully examine the way you have been thinking, speaking, and acting (Matt. 7:3-5). In particular, you should try to identify the desires and motives (idols) that are leading you to behave in a sinful manner. With God’s help, you can discover where your ways do not line up with His purposes. That realization is the first step toward repentance, which opens the way for confession, personal change, and the restoration of genuine peace (Galatians 5:15-16, 25 – have to do with relationships!).
Life “according to the Spirit” or “walking kata rheuma” stands in complete contrast with these negative descriptions.
- It’s lived for God and His glory.
- It’s lived under God’s sovereign purpose, control and authority.
- It pursues God’s wisdom and will – recognizing the inadequacies of human wisdom.
- It’s God-centered, not man-centered.
- It waits on the Lord instead of manipulating and controlling.
- It’s based on truth, sincerity, honesty, integrity, and humility.
- It speaks the truth in love.
- It’s lived in trustful dependence on God’s grace and strength.
- It is focused on eternity not the temporal realm (II Cor. 4:17-18).
Life “according to the flesh” is foolish because it is temporal; it is fleeting and unreliable. It’s transitory, weak and frail.
In Scripture, it is related to death. In at least two passages, Paul outlines the close relationship between flesh and death: ‘if you live according to the flesh you will die’ (Rom. 8:13; ‘he who sows to the flesh will from the flesh reap corruption (phthoran)’ (Galatians 6:8). Here death is the inevitable fruit that grows out of a fleshly way of living.
At this point, if not at others, an existentialist interpretation of the NT becomes relevant and convincing. If man simply is what he makes of himself (man as sarx), he lives in a world of vanishing possibilities. Each decision that he makes about his own life limits the future possibilities which are still left open to him; he is molded and restricted by the fruits of his own decisions. By contrast, the Spirit in the NT enables a man to go beyond what his own past has made him, giving him new desires, new capacities and new horizons (Galatians 6:7-8).
A command and a promise:
Galatians 5:16 says, “so I say”, (or ςέ “but I say”). This is a common formula, used by Paul, to alert his readers to an emphatic point: Here is my advice.” Or, “Here is the remedy for the situation described in v. 15.” (Phillips). To protect the community from destruction, each member must “live or walk by the Spirit.” Verse 16 is a command with a promise.
- Command: “live or walk by the Spirit.”
- Promise: “you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (or flesh).”
The RSV translates this as two commands: the second being, “do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” But, although we do have similar commands (e.g. Rom. 6:12-13; 13:14; I Peter 2:11), Galatians 5:16 is a promise or a word of assurance indicating the means for gaining victory over sin. “Paul was making a strong assertion that once the Galatians allowed the Spirit to guide them, then they would ‘never satisfy the flesh’”(Moffatt).
The battle of two wills:
Galatians 5:17 expands on the conflict that confronts every believer. We could look at this as a conflict between two wills: My will and God’s will. Or between: “the ought to” and “the want to.” It’s great when they join together– when: “I will to do what God wills for me to do.” Or, “I want to do what I ought to do.” This is great!
Where do find strength?
So often we experience an ongoing conflict or tension between these two forces, and sometimes it gets incredibly intense and unrelenting (cf. Rom. 7:19, 21-25). Where do we look for the strength and power to overcome? Galatians 5:16—“Walk by the Spirit…” present tense—“go on walking…” This is not something you must do from time to time. It’s a way of life! It’s long obedience in the same direction.
There is no way to get to a place where we no longer experience the tension. There is no secret spiritual technique or second blessing that will put us above the battleground. And to take it one step further, the moment you think you’re invulnerable to the allurement of sinful desires—you are most vulnerable. If you think you have reached some higher plane of spirituality—above the conflict between flesh and spirit—you are self-deluded and in great danger of sinning.
One has written,–“No Christians are so spiritually strong or mature that they need not heed his warning, but neither are any so weak or vacillating that they cannot be free from the tyranny of the flesh through the power of the Spirit…In the battle between the forces of flesh and Spirit there is no stalemate, but the Spirit takes the lead, overwhelms, and thus defeats evil.”
A frustrated man confronts his pastor
A man came to his Pastor and complained how impossible it was to live a Christian life. The Pastor agreed and the man was taken back! He expected to be rebuked and set straight. Instead, the Pastor congratulated him for learning the most important lesson for living a victorious Christian life. What is it? That you cannot do it! You must live in total dependence on God.
But this is not the “let go and let God” approach. This is a constant practice of humbling oneself before God and learning to lean on Him and look to Him. (Deut. 8:1-3- God will teach you this). It involves commitment to all the spiritual disciplines out of a recognition of need and dependence (see: Spiritual Disciplines for developing a heart for God )
Walk by the Spirit
The organization Alcoholics Anonymous is well known for its 12 step program. It’s a program developed to help free people from the controlling power of alcohol. In the 12 steps, you’ll discover two prominent themes and these themes surface in the first two steps.
- Step #1 – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Step #2 – We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Most recovering alcoholics admit that these two steps are crucial to their ongoing freedom from the controlling power of alcohol. They will also acknowledge that an alcoholic’s unwillingness to admit that he is powerless is a clear warning sign of his potential return to alcohol.
What they have recognized in AA about gaining freedom from alcohol’s power is something Scripture already taught about gaining freedom from the controlling power of sin and living a life that is pleasing to God. What is it?
- We cannot do it on our own strength.
- We need the power of God to live in a way that pleases God.
* God gives His power to us through His Spirit whom He caused to live in us when we believed (see: Eph. 1:18-20; 3:16).
Not passive recipients:
When we speak of the power of God by His Spirit, we should not see ourselves as passive recipients of this power but as active appropriators of God’s power. When the apostle says, “live/walk by the Spirit,” it means, “let your conduct be directed by the Spirit.” It’s a command that requires our obedience. And it comes with an emphatic promise based on a double negative in the Greek language. (aorist subjunctive) “you will by no means fulfill the desires of the flesh (or sinful nature).”
Four verbs relating to the Spirit of God in this chapter demonstrate the central role He plays in our lives:
- v.16 – walk by the Spirit
- v.18 – led by the Spirit
- v.25a – live by the Spirit
- v. 25b – keep in step with the Spirit
Together these verbs picture: “The voluntary subjugation of one’s will to the Spirit who leads.” But as v. 17 indicates, this is not done without a battle/conflict: “Does man choose evil, the Spirit opposes him; does he choose good, the flesh hinders him.”
Please be encouraged by the presence of such a battle. It’s another evidence that God dwells in you by the Spirit. (Ja. 4:4-5; Rom. 7:14-25). Yet the conflict is real. As one has written: “In the battle between the forces of flesh and Spirit there is no stalemate.” One wins and one loses, in relation to our responses! We must take an active role with regard to the powerful ministry of the Spirit! It begins with an admission that says, “I am powerless in myself” and “I need God’s power to overcome and obey.” If I really mean this, I will humbly pursue all that God has made available to me (see: II Tim. 3:16-17; Rom. 8:5; 13:14; I Peter 2:11)
Let me give you one final thought to carry with you: These passages focus on a contrast of desire. 1. What the Spirit desires. 2. What the flesh desires. Perhaps we struggle so much with wrong desires because we need to become captured by stronger desires. I think of the great command: “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” This is a positive desire. This is an offensive not just a defensive posture (Psalm 42:1-2).