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Galatians 5:16-18

September 26, 1999

Text Comment

v.16     Lit. “walk by the Spirit” (a favorite way for Paul of speaking about the Christian life. And “sinful nature” is Paul’s term “the flesh.” However you construe the meaning of “flesh” in Paul, and it is used in different ways, its primary usage is for the sinful principle of fallen humanity. “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God…” he says. But, the flesh continues to exert an influence even in the reborn man or woman (as he says in Romans 7:18,25, where “flesh” (or “sinful nature”) is the equivalent of “the sin living in” a Christian.

It is worth noting, by the way, how closely the thought here parallels Paul’s argument in Romans. 5:13-15 covers the same ground as Romans 6:1ff., and now 5:16-18 and the following verses the same thought as Romans 7:14-25 and

Romans 8:1ff. (Note, e.g. “led by the Spirit” also in Romans 8:14; and the anti-thesis of flesh and Spirit in 8:5-9, 12-13.)

v.17     Paul elaborates this point in far greater detail and with much more poignancy in Romans 7:14-25. But this verse is surely a powerful argument for taking Romans 7:14-25 as Paul’s account of his Christian experience. He says the same thing of Christians here – how they do not do what they want to do because of the continuing influence of their flesh –, just in fewer words.

v.18     I won’t repeat the argument here, as we have made now several times in the exposition so far, but the contrast here is not a dispensational one, as if “under the law” refers to life in the age of Moses and “by the Spirit” refers to life in the epoch introduced by Christ and his apostles. The contrast is between two principles of life and salvation, principles that have always competed for the loyalty of men’s hearts: legalism or self-salvation, on the hand, and grace and justification by faith, on the other.  The question is whether one is relying on God or his obedience to the law, whether one is subject to the law as a principle of life (which means, Paul has just said, you must keep all the commandments, not just some) or subject to grace and the inner working of God through his Spirit (cf. 3:2: “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?”). The contrast amounts to the same contrast already drawn in 5:1: freedom in Christ or the yoke of slavery; or 5:4: justified by law or by grace. “Under law” in this contrast has the same general meaning as “flesh.” It is the principle of life, however religious, however sophisticated, lived according to the stoicheia, the ABCs of natural religion: legalism and confidence in the self. And now he is beginning to develop the implications of these two different principles for the way one lives in the world. In regard to the conflict between good and evil in the Christian heart, one can live according to the Spirit/grace/faith principle, or the works/self principle. You will see, again, in 4:5 that “under law” does not mean living in the OT, it means to be in one’s sins, guilty before God, needing redemption by Christ.

Now, there are two issues here for our consideration.

The first is the reality of moral conflict in the Christian life and experience.

We know all about this, don’t we? We know what is right, we even want to do it at the deepest level of our being. But we find ourselves pulled away by what we recognize as unquestionably sinful desires and tendencies that remain firmly planted with us. And the result is precisely what Paul calls it here in v. 17: “conflict.”

The more practiced, the more thoughtful, the more honest, the more biblically astute, the more earnest and serious a Christian a man or woman is, the more conscious he or she is of the sin that remains, of the battle going on inside, of the constant failure and of the need to strive, to make a great effort to live a Christ-honoring life. There are Christians who don’t seem to be much effected by this conflict and this struggle between good and evil within him or her, but there is no credit in that.

As John Owen wrote, “He who contends against indwelling sin will find it to be present and powerful, as he who swims against the stream feels the strength of the current to which he is insensible who is floating down with it.” Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”

It is certainly true of the great men of Holy Scripture. Believers that they were, lovers of God that they were, sure as they were of God’s salvation, they nevertheless labored heavily in this life in chief part because they were, so often, disappointed with themselves. The Spirit of God made them to hate sin and love righteousness, but their flesh, the remnants of their sinful nature often got the upper hand and they did what later, and even sometimes at the very moment, disgusted and shamed them as they knew it dishonored the Lord. Paul spoke of himself as a miserable wretch, longing for the day of his deliverance from the sin that was within him. So the psalmists and David chief among them.

And so, without exception, the heroes of the Christian faith through the ages. Take George Whitefield, perhaps the greatest preacher of the gospel in the history of the English language. What did he say of himself?

“I am sick of all I do, and stand astonished that the Redeemer still continues to make use of and bless me. Surely I am more foolish than any man; no one receives so much and does so little.” [Old Paths, 131n]

It is not too much to say, therefore, taking the Bible and Christian experience as a whole, that your Christian life will be as your conflict. If there is little of this inner conflict, it must be because you are simply surrendering ground without a fight. This spiritual conflict, and, alas, the wretchedness that goes with it, is one of the true signs of real spiritual life and of the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is not about to remain in a heart and not convict that heart of sin or spur that heart to righteousness no matter the effort required.

The godly have often asked – I suppose every serious Christian, at one time or another, has asked – why the Lord does not simply take their sinfulness away. He is going to do it one day, on that day when we shall be made like the Lord Jesus in holiness, when we shall be made like him because we see him as he is. Well, why not now? Wouldn’t Christians be much more effective arguments of the gospel if they lived more holy lives, if their lives were the proof of the power of the gospel to everyone who observed them? Wouldn’t they be more joyful and happy if they were not so burdened by their failures? And doesn’t God want his children to be happy? We ask, naturally enough, such questions as these.

But there are reasons why we must wait for our deliverance – as Paul has already mentioned we must wait, in v. 5. There is much that must be done in us and this conflict is essential to that. We must have proved to us beyond a doubt the plague of our own hearts. We love, we compliment ourselves so readily, so enthusiastically; we forget our failures so quickly and remember our accomplishments so well that we will never really appreciate or even understand God’s grace and love to us, our ill-desert or God’s great love, or what it must have been for Christ to give himself for us and bear our sin in our place, unless and until we become thorough believers in our own sinfulness and how  comprehensively ugly and inexcusable that sin was and is and continues to be. And in a culture like ours, such a self-excusing and self-congratulatory culture, it is all the more necessary for the conviction of sin to be kept alive in our hearts. Nothing does that but this conflict, this constant demonstration of how easily we can be led to do that which dishonors and displeases the one who gave his life for us and how hard we have to work to resist sinful desires within us.

What is more, sooner or later, every Christian admits that, were it not for his own sins and his own desperate struggle to live a godly life, he would not feel his need of Christ or the Holy Spirit nearly so much. Here is where we meet the truth about our own weakness, our own inability, our own lack of resolve. We can hold down a job and make a living tolerably well; we can even maintain the basic relationships of life acceptably, at least some of them, most of the time. But, to live a truly other-centered, God-centered life is another thing altogether! We now know that such is what we ought to be and do. We don’t deny it. But try as we might we find the love of ourselves and the love of sin undoing us time and time again.

Is there anyone of us in this room, professing Christians that we are, who would not be absolutely mortified for everyone else in this room to know the truth about our lives – how loving, how kind, how honest, how pure, how generous, how humble, how faithful, how devout, we really are: how faithfully we pray, share our faith, love others in practical ways, love wife and children with an open heart and generous spirit and willingness to make any sacrifice. Oh, brethren, when the standard is the example of Jesus Christ and the law of God; when the bar is set by God’s own holy character; when we live under orders to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, we have to face the fact that our lives do not measure up; do not measure up at all. And Christians that we are, must we not be ashamed of that fact?

Samuel Rutherford was a holier man than anyone in this room, I imagine – certainly a far holier man than I am or I know you to be, but he said of himself: “I have seen my abominable vileness; if I were well known, there would none in this kingdom ask how I do. Many take my ten to be a hundred, but I am a deeper hypocrite, and shallower professor, than every one believeth. God knoweth I feign not…. And, up[on] my part, despair might be almost excused, if everyone in this land saw my inner side.” [Letters CLXVII, pp. 313-314]

But that shame, that sense of terrible need, is what teaches us to depend upon a present Holy Spirit, to love and praise our Redeemer for the forgiveness of so many and so great sins. It also teaches us to war, and makes us care to learn how to live a life of the conquest of sin rather than one of capitulation to it.

The second matter for our consideration is these phrases “live by the Spirit” or “led by the Spirit” and their precise meaning.

They have been subject to many interpretations, but I want to suggest that they mean, simply, what we typically mean by the word “sanctification.” Taking the Bible’s teaching as a whole, we know that when a man or woman, boy or girl, becomes a Christian a process of transformation is begun. The Holy Spirit works within to change the heart and so the behavior, to educate, to illuminate, to convince, to convict of sin, to create a hunger for the Lord’s nearness and for his righteousness in one’s life.

Our Catechism puts it this way: “Sanctification is a work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man, after the image of Christ, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.”

It is a process, we learn everywhere in the Bible, that extends over the whole of a believer’s life, proceeds in fits and stages, is punctuated by crises of one kind or another, and is not uniform – some believers seem to get much further than others; some make most of their progress early and lose some of that later, and so on.

But, we also understand that sanctification, while it is ultimately God’s work within us, requires our work as well. As Paul says in Philippians 2: “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling for it is God who is in you to will and work for his good pleasure.”

Well, Paul says something very similar here. He says in the imperative, “walk by the Spirit,” in v. 16; but he puts a very similar thought in the passive in v. 18, “you are led by the Spirit.”

Some have supposed that Paul is talking about some special form of leading, some direction supplied by the Spirit to the believer’s heart, some mystical communication of the divine will. Some Christians would have this leading, others not. They talk of being “led by the Spirit” to do this or that. Or they have thought that Paul means that the Christian life is to be lived in a spirit of passivity, awaiting the promptings of the Holy Spirit, letting him, as it were, live through us. But, clearly, that is not Paul’s meaning here. He is speaking of living a holy life, of resisting sin – as he will go on to say –, of the power that comes through faith in Christ and the gift of the Spirit to rise above the flesh. In the only other place where this phrase “led by the Spirit” appears in Paul – Romans 8:14 – it is clear, unmistakably clear, that “being led by the Spirit” is another way to saying “being a Christian.” “…you who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” he says there. And there too the subject is a holy, obedient life. As he says there,

“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” [8:12-14]

We might ask why Paul describes the Christian life in this way: “being led by the Spirit,” when surely it is the same thing as living by the grace of God, or living by faith in the Son of God. In fact, you could easily substitute grace or faith or Christ in the phrase “walk by the Holy Spirit” and the Bible often does use those other ways of speaking. They mean the same thing. The Spirit is God himself, the Third Person, present and working his will in your life. He is a guide surely, but he is much more than that. He brings the new life, he preserves us in it, he becomes the controlling influence in our lives. But he accomplishes his work in us by bringing us to work, to put our sins to death and to practice the commandments of God.

Paul already, in 3:2, spoke of the Holy Spirit, as the crowning gift of the gospel, which they received by faith in Christ. It is He who brings all that is good, all that Christ has purchased for us with his death and righteousness, into our active possession. And there he poses the contrast that appears here again in v. 18: “After beginning with the Holy Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”

That is the point. The man of faith and grace embraces the fact that the Spirit of God now lives with him, that there is a power and a benevolence to whom he can turn, upon whom he can trust. He must serve the Lord, but the Lord is present to give him or her power to do so, even when he finds still within himself such strong inclinations to sin. Counting on that power, that Holy Spirit given ability to be holy and to do that which is holy, that and that alone is the way to live the Christian life, the truly authentic human life.

So, now, you have both. You have the conflict, but you have the means in the Holy Spirit to prevail in that conflict!

There is no excuse for acquiescing to our flesh. No excuse for giving up in the conflict with our sinful desires and habits. We have the Holy Spirit within us. Our Redeemer has given him to us. It is a slander against the Third Person of the Triune God to suppose that we cannot get the better of our sins with his help!

To walk in the Spirit is to live not by self-effort, but by faith in the presence and power of the Spirit available to us as we trust in him. It is this faith that can move the mountains in your life and that can overcome the world.

Here is Alexander Whyte’s summary of one of the church father’s on the power of faith.

“Give me a passionate man, a hot-headed man, and one that is headstrong and unmanageable; and with faith as a grain of mustard seed, I will, by degrees, make that man as quiet as a lamb. Then give me a covetous man, an avaricious man, a miserly man: and with a little faith lodging like leaven in his heart, I will yet make him a perfect spendthrift for the church of Christ and for the poor. Then give men one who is mortally afraid of pain; and one who all his days is in bondage through fear of death; and let the spirit of faith once enter and take its seat in his heart and in his imagination, and he shall, in a short time, despise all your crosses and flames…. Then show me a man with an unclean heart and I will undertake, by his faith in Christ, to make him whiter than snow, till he will not know himself to be the same man.” [Bunyan Characters, iv, 109-110]

That is what Paul is saying. And this: that there is no hope of such a pure and holy and good life, not as God measures a human life, by one’s own effort. It must be the Holy Spirit alone; He alone can do this, and he does it by bringing us to trust him to do it and to work at obedience ourselves, always with an eye to Him and to what he can enable us to do which we could never do ourselves.