Walk by the Spirit
Scripture: Galatians 5:13-26
This morning, we will finish Galatians chapter 5. For context, I need to read again verses 13-16.
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
We have freedom in the Gospel – not freedom to do whatever we want, but freedom to love and serve one another. Freedom to fulfill the law of God in Christ.
Now, Paul will explain how that works. How exactly do we use our freedom in the Gospel for good instead of bad?
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Walk by the Spirit is the key to understanding all of this, but we will come back to that at the end because Paul will say more about it in verse 25.
For now, I want us to focus on the word desires. We don’t tend to think of desires as a problem. We tend to think of our actions as the problem. But the Bible always encourages us to dig deeper.
The Greek word is epi-thumei. It’s a desire that is over-inflated, a desire that becomes more important to us than it should be. That’s when our desires become a problem and that’s what leads to our failure.
17 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.
In many places, the Bible teaches that believers are struggling with two natures on the inside. An old nature versus a new nature. Sin versus Spirit. Flesh vs. Fruit.
I like the way Tim Keller defined “flesh”. He said the “flesh” is idolatrous, over-desires arising from a heart that is afraid to trust God and wants to be its own Savior and Lord.
But the end of this verse is very important. What is our true nature as a Christian? What is our primary nature? What does the Christian truly want? We want what the Spirit wants! We want to obey God! And so, we need to dig deeper to see this tension at work.
18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
In other words, our motivation to obey God is not an external law but an internal reality.
We are being led by the Spirit away from sin. And what is sin?
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,
20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,
21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Examine the list closely and what you will notice is that some of these sins favor religious people and some favor pagans. He sandwiches them all together, to eliminate the self-righteousness that is common among religious people. All of these sins are a problem.
I do think it is intentional that Paul begins the list with sexual sins. In fact, all of Paul’s lists of sins in the Bible begin with sexual sin. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul argues that sexual sin is the most destructive to us as individuals.
Something else I’d like you to notice about the list, something true of sin in general. All sin is relational. All of these sins somehow involve or affect other people in our lives. Sin is never a victimless crime. We are relational creatures, and our sin has consequences beyond the self.
Finally, notice the clear warning. People who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Continuing in these sins without repentance, without godly sorrow and a desire to change, is evidence that we are not in Christ, and we are not being led by the Spirit.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
What does he mean by that? Against such things there is no law?
This fruit, produced by the work of the Spirit, is internal. It is never merely external.
The law can deal with behavior. Only the Spirit can deal with the heart. For instance, if someone steals your car, then the police can arrest them for committing a crime. But they can’t do anything to change the delinquency of the person’s heart that led them to commit the crime.
God’s law says, “Do not steal”, but the law itself is powerless to change the heart. God’s Spirit needs to get inside and change the problem at the root. Internal not external.
Second – fruit is only produced by a fruit tree. What we produce depends on the kind of tree we are and how healthy we are. This makes a distinction between works of faith and works of self-righteousness.
If I take a bucket of apples and staple them to a pine tree, does it become an apple tree? Of course not! The apples will rot and fall off. Dressing up a lifeless soul with external works changes nothing and it doesn’t please God. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the word fruit is singular, not plural. All of this fruit is connected and produced by the Spirit together. We don’t focus on our joy or our self-control as if those virtues are separate.
These are all connected and notice that, like the list of sins, these are all relational. We demonstrate this fruit in relationships with other people.
And so, now, we come to the true heart of the matter.
24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
We have crucified the flesh. It has already happened. And so, what are we doing now? We are watching it die. That should be our posture towards our own sin.
This is a powerful image. Imagine with me our Lord hanging on the cross, a crowd gathered to mock and ridicule him as he died – hated. An object of wrath. And what was He doing? He was in the act of defeating sin and death for people who don’t deserve it.
Paul borrows that image and says that in Christ our sin now hangs on the cross. We are still in the place of the crowd, but now – led by the Spirit – we watch our sin die with hatred and contempt.
But do we? Is this our posture toward sin? Very often, instead of crucifying the flesh, we give it a slap on the wrist… or worse. We coddle it. We indulge it.
Instead, we must hate it. Sin wants to destroy us. It wants to wreck us. It wants to drag us down. “Just say no to sin” is not enough. He’s telling us to dig it up out of hearts, along with the passions and desires deep down, and give it a painful death.
25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
We are back to this idea of walking with the Spirit. The key question is this: where is the Spirit going? Back in verse 17, Paul said that the Spirit has desires too. He desires the opposite of sin. What is it the Spirit desires? What does He yearn for? What is He passionate about?
The Spirit is passionate about glorifying Jesus. That’s where the Spirit is taking us. Again and again, He takes us to Jesus. He shows us Jesus and Jesus again becomes our greatest desire.
We tend to think that sin is so difficult to overcome because its desires are so strong. In fact, the opposite is true. I love this quote by C.S. Lewis:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
That is the truth of it. Dig deeper. Nothing in your heart is more powerful than the love of Christ Jesus. Your sin is already doomed. It is already crucified. Rejoice in what God has done. Follow the lead of the Spirit – away from sin and towards Jesus. Finally:
26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
All of this assumes we are involved in Christian community. The Spirit uses the church to help us get where we are going. We are better together. One person walking alone is far more likely to get off course.
And yet, being in community – even with Christians – is a challenge, because each of us has this battle going on inside between the flesh and the Spirit.
What is conceit? It is an overly inflated view of oneself. It’s a heart that says, “I matter more than you do”. When a whole group of people struggle with that, it causes problems!
Why might we provoke or envy one another? Because we think of this life as a competition. Because we think we have some hope of being better or more valuable than other people.
We need Holy Spirit to humble us, once again. And the Lord’s table is one of the ways God reminds us who we are. None of us is worthy to approach the table of the Lord. But His grace is sufficient for us. We are freely invited to eat together, receiving Christ in faith.