There is a reason why many of us are drawn to a good "spirit vs flesh" sermon or may have even looked up "spirit vs flesh" Bible verses. We can relate to this very real struggle. We feel the pull from the Holy Spirit in our heart and the pull from our very own flesh. How can we overcome the desires of the flesh and follow the Spirit? Let's take a look at Galatians 5.
Do you know that a war is waging inside you? Have you experienced the pull in both directions - to follow God or worldly desires? Are you asking yourself, “How do I overcome? How do I have victory over sin?”
You may be wondering, " Why do I still feel this way? As believers, haven’t we been given the Holy Spirit as a guide? Haven’t we been made new and been freed from the burden of sin?" Yes, we have. But as we live here on earth in our fleshly bodies, we will continue to be tempted and fall into sin daily, sometimes hourly.
So what’s the answer? Is it to try harder? Can we, in our own strength, be disciplined enough to quit sinning for good? We find our answer in Galatians 5:16, which says, “So I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” That’s our key to overcoming sin. But what does that mean? How do we walk by the Spirit?
A Look at Galatians 5
Let's answer some of these questions by taking a verse-by-verse look at Galatians 5.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1
Christ set us free - so that we would be free. Well, that seems like an obvious statement, doesn’t it? And yet sometimes, Paul says, we act as though we were not free. Free from what?
In this letter, Paul has been talking to the Galatians about faith and the Law. Let me give you a little background. The Jews of the Old Testament grew up with a long list of laws to keep, which were ultimately designed to show us that we cannot live according to God’s standards in our own strength. We need a Savior, whom we now have in Jesus Christ. Forgive my theological language but here it is: Christ has fulfilled the law. We now no longer live under obligation to the Old Testament Law. Of course, Jesus, during His time on earth, and His apostles, in letters like this one, have given us guidelines for a life that honors God. More about that later.
The newly believing Jews at this time had difficulty switching their mindset. For as long as they could remember, if you wanted to follow God, you had to live by certain rules. You had to be circumcised for example. Jewish male babies were circumcised shortly after birth, but adults who wanted to “switch religions” had to be circumcised in adulthood before being considered a part of God’s people.
Suddenly, Paul (and many others) are walking around, preaching that salvation is in Christ alone, through faith - not by keeping the Law, not by circumcision. Of course, many Jewish believers may have agreed with him to a degree. Salvation is in Christ, but they were firm on demanding that new Gentile (non-Jewish) believers would first be circumcised and asked to adhere to Old Testament Law as was customary. They wanted a “both-and” commitment.
Paul spoke against this theology. Here is his argument:
“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” Galatians 5:2-12
Paul is telling the Galatians that they - that we - are no longer under the obligation to fulfill the Old Testament Law. In fact, he is emphasizing this truth so strongly, he says, if we place any amount of hope in receiving salvation by being circumcised - or in our case more likely, in “being a good person” - we have missed the point and Christ is no good to us. If we don’t understand that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone, not by anything we do, than we have completely misunderstood the gospel.
Here are his main arguments: If you keep one Old Testament law - in this case circumcision - in order to meet God’s standards, then by that logic, you would have to keep them all. But you already know you can’t. That’s why you need Christ! Paul was persecuted for his new-found faith. He once was a Jewish teacher and persecutor of Christians himself, until he found Jesus. Now he is persecuted by his former companions. Why? It’s because he is preaching that you no longer have to follow the Old Testament Law. You are free in Christ.
Paul is questioning why the Galatians would fall prey to false teaching and try to submit themselves to something to which they had no obligation. He calls them to discern truth from lie. This is a good reminder for us as well.
So we are free from Old Testament law. But does that mean we can live however we want?
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Galatians 5:13-15
Of course, Paul says, no, you cannot do whatever you want, yielding to your fleshly desires and doing as you please. Instead, our lives should be marked by love and service to one another. Even Jesus said that loving God and loving others are the greatest of all commandments (Matthew 22:24-40). Why is Paul just emphasizing the love-for-others portion here? It’s likely because that’s how we outwardly show our love for God: by loving others.
Jesus gave us many commandments that are more detailed than this. But ultimately, as believers, we should desire to bring glory to God by loving His creation. That may not always look the way the world expects. God has other ideas of how to truly love others. But one thing is sure: If we are constantly bickering and tearing each other down, we leave nothing but destruction in our wake.
This is the context in which Paul says the following:
“So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16
We have arrived at our main verse. It is clear now that we are not saved, nor do we live the Christian life by keeping the Law in our own strength. Rather, we are saved by faith, and we are to walk by faith. We are to walk by the Spirit, who brought us to a saving knowledge of Jesus and is now going to lead us to live more like Christ. It is through walking by the Spirit that we will overcome our sinful desires.
“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:17-23
Paul is describing what I’m sure you have experienced for yourself already. Our now God-given desire to follow Him (conviction through the Holy Spirit) stands against our fleshly desires, looking for instant gratification. It’s a conflict familiar to all believers: Spirit verses flesh!
What are the desires of the flesh? Paul gives us some examples: sexual immorality of various kinds, worshipping anyone but God, fighting and rage, selfishness and drunkenness. No, we are not under Old Testament Law, but our lives have been made new by Christ, so we are not to live like this. In fact, Paul says, that if somebody’s life is marked by these, they are not on their way to heaven.
In contrast, here is are the marks of someone who walks by the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Is that what your life looks like?
You may be saying, “Hold on, Ellen. I’m confused. Are we or are we not required to keep a set of rules?” Here is the difference as verse 18 puts it, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” The Christian life is not about legalism or following rules. It is driven by our commitment to and relationship with God. We follow His will, not because we are scrambling to earn our salvation, but because we love Him and want to honor Him. That’s become the center of our new life.
As we walk by the Spirit - rely on Him, let Him convict and guide us, learn from Him - we develop new characteristics, the fruit of the Spirit.
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” Galatians 5:24-26
What are we to do, then, with this tug-of-war inside of us, flesh vs Spirit? We remind ourselves daily that our old life is done. Earlier in this letter, Paul explains, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Here, Paul is calling us to do the same. Remind yourself daily that your flesh has been crucified with Christ. You are now living for God. Walk by faith! Walk by the Spirit! How do we do that? We don’t give in to sin. Rather, we pray, trust, and follow God’s Word, not in our own strength but empowered by the Holy Spirit.
How to Walk By the Sprit
Paul has walked us through his line of reasoning: We have been set free, so we should walk in freedom.
If you struggle with the concept of walking in freedom, I highly recommend this classic Bible study guide: "Breaking Free" by Beth Moore.
This in-depth women's Bible study draws parallels between the captive Israelites of the Old Testament and New Testament believers in Jesus as the Promised Messiah. Beth looks at the Book of Isaiah through the lives of the kings who ruled during the prophet's ministry. These kings exemplify many of the obstacles to freedom with which we must deal. Using Scripture to help identify spiritual strongholds in your life, no matter how big or small, Beth explains that anything that hinders us from the benefits of knowing God is bondage.
Walk in freedom, my friend!
So what does it mean to walk by the Spirit, and how do we do it? Paul had an answer for us, and it is what we have come to know as the fruits of the Spirit. Consider this phrase, "fruits of the Spirit". These are not things that "we do". Rather, as we walk with the Spirit, these character qualities will become evident in our lives.
If you'd like to study these in depth, consider this in-depth look at the fruits of the Spirit. What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? Find answers in "A Woman's Walk with God - Growing in the Fruit of the Spirit" by Elizabeth George.
Author Elizabeth George gives practical help for how you can do that in this study of the fruit of the Spirit. Discover…love, joy, and peace that changes hearts, families, and friendships; patience, kindness, and goodness that seeks the best for everyone; and faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that brings spiritual victory in life's more challenging moments. A Woman's Walk with God is an invitation to experience the joys of moment-by-moment living in the Lord's power—and producing the fruit of the Spirit in every circumstance!
The Word of God is powerful indeed, and has taught us a great lesson today. Share below about how the Holy Spirit has led you to live in freedom and walk by the Spirit. Has He changed your perspective on what's most important to you: to honor God above all? We'd love to hear about it and praise God with you.
Thank you for joining me on this closer look at Galatians 5. Now walk by the Spirit, my friend! You'll find yourself overcoming the desires of the flesh.