Only by walking by the Spirit can we win the battle against the works of our flesh.
Galatians 5:16-21: But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 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. (ESV)
Have you ever heard this saying before? The best battle is the battle that was never fought. Last Friday was the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I am sure the Ukrainian president wants nothing more than a battle that he and his nation did not need to fight. However, the reality is that wars and battles are inevitable because of sin. Why sin? Because of the lust of the flesh. It is the flesh that wants more control and power. It knows no limit, no matter the carnage it inflicts on people.
The reality is that ever since the fall of man, every person is fighting some sort of battle. From Eve to Cain, who killed his own brother, to the Galatians to us, the flesh is the root of all evil. Most people do not understand this, but all our battles are rooted in a spiritual battle between the flesh and the Spirit.
In this passage, Galatians 5:16-26, Paul warned the Galatians about the battle between the flesh and the Spirit. If they do not walk by the Spirit, they will lose the battle.
The Bible teaches that only by walking in the Spirit can we win all our battles of the flesh. What battles are you fighting? Is it the lust of the eye, desires of the heart, sins of the tongue, or some other lingering effect of your old sinful nature? Perhaps it is the battle to keep up with your faith because of physical illness, the death of a loved one, or a broken relationship?
Our Christian life is the battlefield where our unredeemed flesh and the Spirit stand in opposition to each other (Gal. 5:17). This spiritual battle is internal, but it has external impacts on us and everyone around us. Our text in Galatians 5:16-26 testifies that only by walking by the Spirit can we win this battle because:
a). When we walk by the Spirit, we do not perform the works of the flesh (vv.16-21).
b). we bear the fruit of the Spirit, which is the evidence that we are walking by the Spirit (vv. 22-23).
c). we crucify the flesh with all its desires (vv. 25-26).
Right now, let’s look at the first point: When we walk by the Spirit, we do not perform the works of the flesh.
The false teachers were convinced that a life without the Mosaic law would lead believers to indulgences of the flesh, which is an unholy, unrighteous life. Therefore, the false teachers presented the observance of the Mosaic law as the way to fight the spiritual battles of the flesh. They wondered how Paul was proposing to fight the spiritual battle of the flesh to pursue holiness, for God is holy, and His eyes cannot see sin.
Paul’s response is to walk in the Spirit. Look at vv.16-18, “ But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
His whole argument in chapter 5 has been for freedom in Christ and against submission to the Mosaic law. So, Paul’s defense here is centered around the indwelling of the Spirit, the Work of the Spirit in us, and our interaction with the Spirit. This raises three questions: a) What is the Spirit? b) What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? c) How does it stop us from performing the works of the flesh?
First, what is the Spirit? The Spirit is pneuma in the Bible, and it almost always refers to the Spirit of God. Here, it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which is not natural to humans in their fallen state. Our flesh resists it. As a result, we have spiritual battles within ourselves and amongst each other in our congregations. This is why we see Paul’s focus on loving each other in Galatians 5:13-15 because there was division and dissension among the Galatians. In Galatians 5:15 Paul, said, WATCH OUT! That you are not destroying each other.
The Galatians’ battle was essentially two-fold: how they were saved and how they were to live a Christian life. I think that is true today too. Paul’s response to both problems is the work of the Spirit.
In Galatians 3, Paul credits salvation by grace to the work of the Holy Spirit in which the Spirit generates faith in us through hearing the gospel. Just as babies cannot take credit for their birth, we cannot take credit for our spiritual birth at any point in the process of salvation.
It is the gracious sovereign act of God—the Holy Spirit, who is solely responsible for the supernatural work of regeneration to cause new birth and to grant the ability to recognize sin and exercise faith to walk in the Spirit and not the flesh—the inclination to sin.
Walk by the Spirit
What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? Notice that verse 16 says walk by the Spirit. It does not say run, jump, fly, or catapult. It says walk. The idea of walking here indicates the present historical reality in which believers live and must be ruled by the Spirit to win the battle. This Greek word for “walk,” peripateo, implies progress and direction. It means to live and conduct one’s life regularly toward a direction, the direction toward a goal to become more like Christ through sanctification, which is a progressive growth toward holiness in the Christian life.
1 Corinthians 1:2 says we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and verse 30 of the same chapter says that Christ is our sanctification. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says sanctification is God’s will for us. It is the separation of believers unto God, set apart to be His own people.
Like our salvation, sanctification comes also not by our will or actions but solely by the work of the Holy Spirit. This sanctification begins the moment we are declared justified by grace through faith in Jesus and set free from the guilt and condemnation of sin.
Church, walking by the Spirit is not a one-shot type of deal like our salvation rather, it is a constant, consistent, and continuous willful choice in the direction of maturity and growth. It is a collaborative and dependent responsibility where on the one hand, we must choose to obey everything He has commanded, study His Word, and live by the Spirit. On the other hand, the Spirit empowers us to do everything to live a life pleasing to God, and we grow.
Just as it does not matter how fast or slow a child grows in comparison to others, all children are expected to grow, and every believer is expected to grow by walking in the Spirit. It might be one step at a time, but it is a progressive and persistent walk.
In verse 16, Paul gives a command with a built-in “if and then” condition. If you walk by the Spirit, then you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh. The opposite is also true. If you do not walk by the Spirit, you will gratify the desires of the flesh. In verse 17, the Spirit and the flesh are two realities of our natural existence waging a spiritual battle between the flesh and the Spirit. Living by one leads to death, and living by the other leads to life.
Works of the Flesh
How does walking by the spirit work to stop us from the works of the flesh? The flesh in verse 19 is sarx, the sinful nature that includes the whole being of a person: our emotions, thinking, intellect, and body. Therefore, Paul in verse 17 says, “for the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh.” The word “desires” is from epithumia, which is translated in the KJV as lust. Usually, when we think about lust, we think about sexual lust, but the Bible uses this word for lust for both good and bad. You can lust for good as much as you lust for bad. It is to have a strong, irregular, and violent desire to do something. Rather than working on each sin, let’s package them together into categories.
The first three sins in verse 19, immorality, impurity, and sensuality, are sexual sins. Sex is not bad, but lust for it is. Lust is the oversized desire for sex that turns a good thing like sex that God created to be enjoyed within marriage into evil. This is how you become a slave to sin.
The second two sins, idolatry and sorcery, in verse 20 are religious sins. You may think that is not relevant to you, but idolatry is anything that takes the place of worship, focus, desire, and adoration of God. Sex, anger, gossip, hate, drunkenness, and any of the sins mentioned here can turn into idolatry. All the rest of the sins in verse 20 and 21 can be categorized as social sins because they affect society: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies.”
Paul is saying, I have warned you against these and the like before, and I am warning you again that if you continue walking in the flesh, you will not inherit the Kingdom of God. He is not saying believers will lose their salvation; he is saying the deeds of the flesh are evident in people’s lives to show who they really belong to.
Here is the takeaway: all of us have normal desires therefore, those desires do not consume us. Essentially, lust is an oversized desire when it is for the Spirit, which is good, but when it is for the flesh, then it is an end. The problem comes when our desires grow so much that they dominate our being.
They control us rather than we control them through the Spirit. Paul’s list is not exclusive, because he says in verse 21, “things like these.” Anything and everything that controls your being to move you away from the works of the Spirit is the works of the flesh.
Now we often think sexual sins are the worst, but let me tell you, all sins are the worst because they take you away from your walk in the Spirit. Every sin begins in our thoughts, the more we think about what we want or do, the more we are consumed by it.
Unfortunately, in its natural habitat, this sinful world, the flesh that is our sinful nature, defaults to what is sinful and stands strong in opposition to the Spirit, but praise God, He understands the conflict and our inclination to sin in our fallen nature. Therefore, He extends grace and gives His Holy Spirit to restrain us from sinning regularly, consistently, and freely. His regular presence in our life deepens our love for God and lessens our attraction to sin. The more we obey, the less we sin, though we will never become sinless in this life. That is reserved for the day we will see Jesus face-to-face in our glorified bodies.
I have a bicycle sitting in our garage. I have not ridden it for some time, therefore, the last time I tried to ride it, it was broken. Finally, when I got it fixed and rode it, my body wouldn’t work. Like my bicycle, my body was out of practice too. But the more I rode the bicycle, the better both my bike and my body worked.
Similarly, the more we allow the spirit to flow in our lives, the more it functions in us, and the less the works of the flesh are evident in our lives.
The reality is that every one of you is fighting a battle and whether you believe it or not, all your battles are rooted in a spiritual battle between the flesh and the Spirit. Only through walking by the Spirit can we win this battle because when we walk by the Spirit, we do not perform the works of the flesh.
Ask yourself why do you want what you want, and how badly do you want what you want? Look over the list of sexual, religious, and social sins and examine your life. Which sin troubles you the most? Which sin is destroying your life one step at a time? Which sin is destroying your relationships with others? Which sin has more power over you? What is your plan to fight your battle because your unredeemed flesh and the Spirit will always oppose one another? The question is, who would you rather give yourself over to? The flesh or the spirit?
I implore you, by the mercy of God, live by the Spirit, give yourselves wholly and completely over to the Spirit so that He can restrain you from performing the works of the flesh.