The Flesh and the Spirit
Galatians 5: 16-25
The main emphasis of the second half of the Epistle to the Galatians is that in Christ Jesus we have freedom. We were in bondage under the curse or condemnation of the law, but Christ has set us free from it. We were slaves of sin, but now we are God’s children.
Yet each time Paul writes of liberty or freedom he adds a warning that it can very easily be lost. Some relapse from liberty into bondage (5:1); others turn their liberty into license (5:13). This was Paul’s theme in the last paragraph which we discussed last week.
In today’s passage Paul says the enjoyment of Christian liberty depends on the Holy Spirit. True, it is Christ who sets us free. But without the continuing, directing, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit our liberty is bound to degenerate into license.
So today’s text may be divided into four points under the title of “The Flesh and the Spirit”. The first point 1) the fact of Christian conflict, 2) the works of the flesh, 3) the fruit of the Spirit and 4) the way of Christian victory.
1. The Fact of Christian Conflict (vv.16-18)
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
In this passage, Paul begins by encouraging the Galatians Christians to live by the Spirit. This is the sort of encouragement we really need especially when we realize we have an enemy to deal with: our flesh or our sinful nature. When the Bible uses ‘the flesh’. This doesn’t mean our material bodies are evil, it means our nature has been corrupted by sin.
The flesh or sinful nature represents the rebellion in our hearts against God. We are born with it. But when we are born again, born of the Spirit, the Spirit renews us and regenerates us, and gives us a new nature. And then the Spirit remains in us. To live in the Spirit is to live in the reality of God’s new work in our lives.
Paul is writing to Christians. He says the Spirit and the flesh are in conflict. It’s like a tug of war, pulling in opposite directions. This sinful nature wants gratification, but at the same time our new nature wants to please God.
Some people say Christians shouldn’t have any inner conflict because our old sinful nature is dead and we now have peace with God. But we live in a sinful world and we experience temptation. We are not immune from this conflict. In fact the experience of this conflict can be much stronger for Christians since we have a new nature.
Christian people, in Luther’s graphic expression, are ‘not stocks and stones’, that is, people who ‘are never moved with anything, never feel any lust or desires of the flesh’. Certainly, as we learn to walk in the Spirit, the flesh becomes increasingly subdued. But the flesh and the Spirit remain, and the conflict between them is intense and constant. Indeed, one may go further and say that this is a specifically Christian conflict. We do not deny that there is such a thing as moral conflict in non-Christian people, but we assert that it is more intense in Christians because they possess two natures—flesh and Spirit.
Our sinful nature was there, ruling alone and unopposed, before we were Christians. The Spirit, however, entered supernaturally when we first became Christians and has begun a renewal that is now our “new nature”. So in Ephesians 4:22-24, Paul refers to this flesh versus Spirit conflict as the competition between “the old self” and “the new self” or “the old man” and “the new man”
Paul says the result of this conflict is that “you do not do what you want.” Our spiritual and renewed nature wants to do good, but the sinful nature pulls the other way – for example we want to say sorry to someone, but our pride gets in the way and we ignore it. Our flesh or sinful nature resists everything that is spiritual, even as a Christian. So there is a conflict in every believer.
2. The Works of the Flesh (vv.19-21)
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.
Now Paul catalogues the works of the flesh or sinful nature, and it doesn’t make very pleasant reading. This list of sins isn’t very nice, but necessary to convince us of our corrupt and depraved human nature. We live in a fallen world so it should not surprise us that we see these things all around and in ourselves as well.
There are four categories:
A. Sexual sins: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality:
It’s easy just to say this means sexual intercourse between unmarried people, but it involves a lot more than that, even the thoughts of our hearts. And especially for young people who are not married I would really encourage you to go God’s way and wait, even though this will feel like swimming against the tide in today’s culture.
B. Religious sins: idolatry, sorcery
Idolatry is the worship of false gods, and sorcery is tampering with the secret powers of evil.
C. Relational sins: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy
These are sins against other people which result in the breakdown of personal relationships
D. Drinking sins: drunkenness and orgies
And things like these.
Another way to break down this list into categories is to notice that some of the sins are characteristic of religious people (selfishness, envy, jealousy, divisions), while others are more characteristic of non-religious people (sexual immorality, impurity, drunkenness).
This list shows us that God does not make the kind of distinctions that we commonly do, seeing sex and drunkenness as more sinful than jealousy and envy. We are much better at noticing the works of someone else’s sinful nature than we are at battling our own!
Paul then gives a strong warning: 21- I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Salvation is by faith alone– we know that. But if that faith doesn’t change the way we live, the question is: Is it really saving faith?
Paul is referring to habitual practice, rather than infrequent, and repented-of, lapses. For someone to continually indulge the sinful nature without battling against it is to show that the Son has not redeemed them, and that the Spirit has not renewed them. Paul is not looking to undermine Christian assurance here; but he is aiming to banish complacency.
Since God’s kingdom is a kingdom of godliness, righteousness and self-control, those who indulge in the works of the flesh will be excluded from it. For such works give evidence that they are not in Christ. And if they are not in Christ, then they are not Abraham’s offspring, nor heirs according to promise (3:29).
This brings us onto the fruit of the Spirit.
3. The Fruit of the Spirit (vv.22-23)
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.
Paul always chooses his images carefully. And it is very revealing that he talks about “works” of the flesh (v 19), but then switches to speak of “the fruit of the Spirit” (v 22). The single word “fruit” takes us to the world of agriculture, and tells us certain things about how the Spirit works.
First, Christian growth is gradual. With the growth of the fruit of the Spirit, it might be growing in a Christian’s life, but they never realize until a trouble or difficulty shows up and they think: A couple of years ago I would never have been so patient or self- controlled in this situation. That shows that the fruit of the Spirit has been growing, gradually and unnoticed.
Second, the growth of the Spirit’s fruit is inevitable. There will be growth. If someone has the Spirit in them—if they are a Christian—the fruit will grow. Whatever a Christian’s life is like, the fruit of the Spirit will burst through. It’s inevitable. It forces us to ask, if we’ve been Christians for a few years or more: Is there fruit growing in my life? We are saved by faith, not by growing fruit; but we are not saved by fruitless faith. A person saved by faith will be a person in whom the fruit of the Spirit grows.
Third, the fruit of the Spirit has internal roots. We tend to see gifts as the sign of the Spirit’s work in someone. But the Bible never does. Judas and King Saul were used by the Spirit to prophesy, do miracles, and so on... but they did not have Spirit-renewed hearts.
To be truly led by the Spirit is to grow “the fruit of the Spirit” (v 22). The only test that the Spirit has really indwelled you as a child of God is the growth in the fruit of the Spirit.
For Example: when I was in one of the Bible colleges they said that until you speak in tongues you do not have the Holy Spirit and I was yearning for it and praying to God to give me the gift of the Holy Spirit but God never did. So I was thinking, do I have the Holy Spirit or Am I born again? Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong ... I am nothing ... I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1, 2, 3).
Fourth, Christian growth is symmetrical. Paul deliberately uses the singular word “fruit” to describe a whole list of things that grow in a Spirit-filled person. From this we learn a very important point for understanding and discerning the fruit of the Spirit. The real fruit of the Spirit always grows up together. They are one. That is, you do not get one part of the fruit of the Spirit growing without all the parts growing.
There are many, many cases of this. Some folks seem happy and bubbly (joy) and are good at meeting new people, but are very unreliable and cannot keep friends (faithfulness). This is not real joy but just being an extrovert by nature. Some people seem very peaceful but they are not kind or gentle. That is not real peace, but indifference and perhaps cynicism. So the real fruit of the Spirit always grows up together.
Now, it is worth looking closely at each aspect of the singular fruit of the Spirit (v 22- 23):
Love. It means to serve a person for their good and intrinsic value, not for what the person brings you.
Joy - a delight in God for the sheer beauty and worth of who He is.
Peace - meaning a confidence and rest in the wisdom and control of God, rather than in your own.
Patience - an ability to face trouble without blowing up or hitting out.
Kindness - which is an ability to serve others practically in a way which makes me vulnerable, which comes from having a deep inner security.
Goodness, or integrity - being the same person in every situation, rather than a phony or a hypocrite.
Faithfulness or loyalty - to be utterly reliable and true to your word.
Gentleness- humility, self-forgetfulness. The opposite is to be superior or self-absorbed.
Self-control - the ability to pursue the important over the urgent, rather than to be always impulsive or uncontrolled.
All these are the fruit of the Spirit. The spiritual fruit in our lives should be a natural consequence of the Spirit-led life. And just as it takes time for natural fruit to grow and develop, so it takes time for the spiritual graces or fruit to grow in our lives. But they are growing gradually and constantly.
4. The Way of Christian Victory (vv.24-25)
24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
What must we do in order to control the lusts of the flesh and to bear the fruit of the Spirit? The brief answer is this: In the apostle’s own words, we must remember that we belong to Christ Jesus, we must ‘crucify’ the flesh and we must ‘walk by’ the Spirit.
a. We must remember that we belong to Christ Jesus
First, we need to remember that we “belong to Christ Jesus” (v 24). All that is His, is ours. Our approval and welcome from the Father rests not on our character or actions, but on His. We are free to acknowledge where we have given up ground to the flesh in our lives; free to confess where we have not sought to keep in step with the Spirit; free to realize where we have confused our gifts or natural character with the fruit of the Spirit.
b. We must crucify the flesh
Verse 24: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. What does it mean? Paul borrows the image of crucifixion, of course, from Christ Himself who said: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mk. 8:34). To ‘take up the cross’ was our Lord’s vivid figure of speech for self-denial. Every follower of Christ is to behave like a condemned criminal and carry his cross to the place of execution. Now Paul takes the metaphor to its logical conclusion. We must not only take up our cross and walk with it, but actually see that the execution takes place. We are actually to take the flesh, our willful and wayward self, and nail it to the cross. This is Paul’s graphic description of repentance, of turning our back on the old life of selfishness and sin, rejecting it finally and utterly.
c. We must walk by the Spirit
We turn now to the attitude which we are to adopt towards the Holy Spirit. This is described in two ways. First, it is to be led by the Spirit (verse 18). Secondly, it is to walk by the Spirit (verses 16 and 25).”
At the same time there is clearly a distinction between ‘being led by the Spirit’ and ‘walking by the Spirit’, for the former expression is passive and the latter active. It is the Spirit who does the leading, but we who do the walking.
In Galatians 5:25 let us also keep in step with the Spirit. So to ‘walk by the Spirit’ is deliberately to walk along the path or according to the step which the Holy Spirit lays down. The Spirit ‘leads’ us; but we are to ‘walk by’ Him or according to His step.
It is not enough to yield passively to the Spirit’s control; we must also walk actively in the Spirit’s way. Only so will the fruit of the Spirit appear.
Paul says here, ok, since we live by the Spirit, let’s keep in step with the Spirit; continue to walk by the Spirit. If we do this we’ll see fruitfulness in our lives.