Teaching series from Galatians

Walking by the Spirit

Galatians 5:16-24

Teaching t12630


Brief review of setting (MAP) and structure (1-5:12 is argument defense of Paul’s authority and message about God’s (justifying) grace; 5:13-end is application of God’s grace – the distinctive features and dynamics of the Christian lifestyle).

In the application section, the distinctive feature is a loving lifestyle (5:13,14,22), and the distinctive dynamic of this lifestyle is the Holy Spirit: “walk by the Spirit” (5:16), “keep in step with the Spirit” (5:25); “sow to the Spirit” (6:8). Christians tend to either emphasize the Holy Spirit and get weird (“charismania”) or over-react against weirdness and neglect the Holy Spirit (“Christian deism”). We need a sane, biblical, positive emphasis on the Holy Spirit! That’s what we want to develop over the next three weeks as we study each of these three phrases.

This morning we will explore what Paul teaches about walking by the Spirit (read 5:16-24). Paul teaches us three truths about walking by the Spirit in this passage, but first we need to consider a fourth truth taught earlier in Galatians...

Walking by the Spirit requires first receiving the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is not a spiritual essence or energy that all humans already have and just need to actualize. The Holy Spirit is a Person who comes to live in our souls when we place our faith in Jesus as our Savior (read 3:2; Eph.1:13,14). There is a point in time before which you do not have the Holy Spirit living within you, and after which you do. That point of time is your decision to admit to God that you need His forgiveness and to ask Him to forgive you through Jesus’ death. The moment you make this decision, God’s Spirit enters your innermost being to make you alive to God (5:25a) and to enable you to live as God designed. Have you made this decision?

Once you have received the Holy Spirit, then you can begin to learn how to walk by the Spirit. But we need to start by learning what walking by the Spirit does not mean. Paul corrects two common misconceptions...

Walking by the Spirit does not mean the elimination of sinful desires

Paul corrects the first common misconception in 5:17 (re-read). Walking by the Spirit does not mean the elimination of sinful desires. Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but also still have a sinful nature. The Holy Spirit continues (present tense) to impart desires for God and His will (see also Phil.2:13; EXAMPLES) and warnings against following our sinful natures (EXAMPLES). But our sinful natures also continue (present tense) to impart desires to be selfish (EXAMPLES) and aversion to God and His will (EXAMPLES).

This verse helps us to manage our expectations about walking by the Spirit:

Don’t be freaked out when you have strong fleshly desires well up within you. This doesn’t mean that you are unsaved or (necessarily) that you are unspiritual (SPIRITUAL AVERSION EXAMPLES). It just means that you still have a fallen nature. Actually, increasing awareness of this conflict is a sign of spiritual health, while lack of awareness of it is a sign of spiritual sickness.

Don’t expect to “break the spiritual sound barrier” in this life, after which everything is harmonious within your soul. Sometimes Christians claim to have achieved this through prayer and fasting or other spiritual disciplines – but this will not happen until Jesus returns and we receive new bodies without sinful natures (Rom.7:24; 8:23). Rather, expect to experience increasing freedom from following our sinful natures’ desires (5:19-21,24), and increasing freedom to follow the Spirit’s desires (5:22,23).

Walking by the Spirit is not merely exercising will-power to obey God’s law

Many religions teach that moral will-power is the key to a spiritual life (CONFUCIANISM; BUDDHISM; PHARISAIC JUDAISM). Many churches teach this same thing (JUDAIZERS; REFORMED 3RD USE OF THE LAW). We call this the “DIRECT APPROACH” – focus on God’s commands, grit your teeth and try with all your might to do what God says.

Paul rejects this approach as “spiritual” in 5:18 (re-read). Walking by the Spirit is not synonymous with exercising will-power to obey God’s law. Paul calls this living “under the Law,” and he pits walking by the Spirit against this.

The direct approach always ends in defeat because our sinful natures are too powerful and ingenious (Rom.7:14-23). You will wind up either faking and hiding, redefining Christian character into external and humanly-keepable behaviors (e.g., DON’T CUSS; GO TO CHURCH; SUPERFICIAL NICENESS), or being honest about your inability to form Christian character and giving up in despair. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can transform our characters to live more and more like Jesus. That’s why Paul calls this transformation the “fruit of the Spirit” (gradually ripening resemblance to Jesus’ character).

This is why Paul does not say in 5:16: “Don’t carry out the desire of the flesh (moral will-power)...” That would be moral will-power as the key. Nor does he say: “Walk by the Spirit and do not carry out the desires of the flesh.” That would still be moral will-power alongside walking by the Spirit. He says: “Walk by the Spirit and (then) you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” This is what we call the “INDIRECT APPROACH” – walking by the Spirit unleashes the power of the Spirit, who gradually changes us to be more like Jesus (5:22,23).

OK, now we’re ready to learn positively what it means to walk by the Spirit...

Walking by the Spirit is ongoing choice to depend on the Spirit’s power

We can learn a few important things about how to walk by the Spirit just by closely examining this phrase:

“Walk” is in the imperative mood – it is a choice that we make; God won’t make it for you.

“Walk” is also in the present tense – it is an ongoing choice (just as the metaphor of physical walking suggest this ongoing choice) – not once a year, etc.

“Walk by the Spirit” emphasizes the Holy Spirit as the Source of power (rather than us).

So “walk by the Spirit” means “Keep choosing to depend on the Spirit’s power.”

This sounds almost paradoxical. On the one hand, dependence means the Spirit supplies all the power for change, and that we supply none of it. On the other hand, this is not passivity, because the command to walk by the Spirit means that we must keep actively choosing to avail ourselves of the Spirit’s power. How do we depend practically on the Spirit’s power? Paul had evidently already instructed the Galatian Christians on how to do this, so he simply reminds them here. However, when he instructs the Roman Christians (whom he had never visited), he discloses two key practical aspects of walking by the Spirit.

Read Rom.6:13 – keep presenting yourself to God. The image here is us as choice-making instruments. Think of a surgical instrument – a scalpel for example. It has no power of its own; the power lies in the person who wields the scalpel. An evil person can wield the scalpel to do terrible damage. A surgeon can wield the scalpel to save lives and bring healing. So we are instruments. We have no power in ourselves to do God’s will; God, through His Spirit, must do His will through us. But, unlike inanimate scalpels, we can choose to whom we present ourselves. Our natural default is to present ourselves to sin, and sin will use us to do its deeds (Gal.5:19-21a) and corrupt us and others through us. Or we can consciously to present ourselves to God, and His Spirit will live His life through us and gradually bear His beautiful fruit through us (Gal.5:22,23).

The key here is living existentially – seeing each day as a series of situations, and personally presenting yourself to God in each of these situations, affirming that you are willing to serve Him, acknowledging that you are inadequate to do so, and asking Him to give you the help of His Spirit to this end. This is what Jesus means when He speaks of Himself as the Vine and us as choosing branches (read Jn.15:4,5 and point out these three elements). This is what Mary did when Gabriel told her that God wanted her to be the mother of the Messiah (read Lk.1:38 and point out these three elements). At the beginning of each day, and then in each situation of my day, I am to choose to say to God: “I am your bond-servant; be it done through me according to Your will.”

Don’t be all-or-nothing about this. So you do this at the beginning of the day, then forget to do this in the situations. So you forget for several days even to do this at the beginning of the day. Don’t beat yourself or despair. Thank God for His forgiveness and loving reminder, and just begin to present yourself again! He will immediately begin to lift you up again! Gradually, this can become more and more your normal posture – though it will always be a choice.

Read Rom.8:4-6 – keep setting your mind on the things of the Spirit. “Walk according to the Spirit” is the same idea as “walk by the Spirit.” Paul says that walking according to the Spirit involves “setting our minds on the things of the Spirit.” In other words, walking by the Spirit involves cultivating a proper mental focus. Elsewhere, he calls these things “the things above” (Col.3:2) – and refers to what God has given us through Christ (see below).

Our natural default is to focus on ourselves – how awesome or terrible we are, what we want but don’t have, what we have but don’t want, our circumstances, how people treat us and what they think about us, etc. This mind-set unleashes our fallen natures to bring “death” (moral defeat and discouragement) into our lives.

Conversely, we can choose focus on God’s gracious provisions (e.g., God’s love and approval; the many ministries of the Holy Spirit; God’s sovereign care; our unique role in God’s plan; our eternal destiny) by deliberately learning them, memorizing them, recalling them, pondering them, and thanking God for them. This mind-set unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus’ character (“life”) and disposition (“peace”) increasingly into our lives.

Here are a couple of practical tips about setting your mind on the things of the Spirit:

Work more at this more than at eliminating undesirable behaviors (which easily degenerates into an unhealthy sin-focus and moral will-power). This positive focus, and the positive change and enjoyment it brings will gradually “crowd out” a fleshly mind-set.

While it takes time to replace the “self-focus” mental grooves with this focus, God works disproportionately during the time we do focus on these things. You don’t have to get to 51% of your focus on these things before you experience change. Moving from 5% to 10% can bring noticeable changes in your disposition and behavior! Start where you are and add!

Do this with others as much as possible rather than make this primarily a private project. You will never make much progress in this if you are isolated from other Christians. Build a healthy schedule of teachings and fellowship (home church, cell group, one-on-one times, etc.). Add to this spontaneous thanksgiving and spiritual interaction with other Christians.


SUMMARIZE: 2 key aspects of walking by the Spirit

NEXT WEEK: “Keep in Step with the Spirit”

Q & A: Encourage questions

“Do not present yourselves to sin” is in the present tense, probably implying a default posture.

“Present yourselves to God” is in the aorist tense, probably implying deliberate, conscious choice.