Two Ways of Living
“But I say, walk by the Spirit and do 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.” Galatians 5:16, 17
Paul in Galatians 5:13-15 taught that God called believers to freedom, not so that they may indulge their sinful nature, but that they may in love “serve one another” (NASB). But how, we need ask, is that possible? After all, it was a task that the Galatians believers were obviously failing at (verse 15).
The Crucial Role of the Holy Spirit
The apostle’s answer to both the Galatians and us is that only the Holy Spirit can keep us free. The Holy Spirit comes into center stage inverses 16-25, being mentioned seven times. For the Christian, uniting with the Spirit is the only path to maintaining Christian liberty. Without the work of the spirit in our lives, our liberty veers off either toward legalism or toward licentiousness. Both legalism and licentiousness, Paul thinks of as works of the flesh, even though they are quite different in some ways. After all, legalism is “religious” while licentiousness is quite irreligious. But they both are works of the flesh because they both focus inward on ourselves and our accomplishments rather than upon God and what He has done for us.
It is of the utmost importance to realize that not all sin is irreligious. Sin is just as happy to dress up in religious garb as in secular. The central problem of the Galatians is their desire to sin religiously by seeking to do for themselves through the law what only God could do for them through Christ dying on the cross. The church two thousand years later is still full of those suffering from religious signs of the flesh. Such believers need to stop running ahead of the Spirit and to let Him enter their lives so that they may be free in Christ.
One of the central problems that Christians face is that each individual is a battlefield between the Spirit and the flesh, that there is a great conflict between good and evil raging in their very being (verse 17). This is a serious problem. It means that we are not eternally safe when we accept Christ and join the church. The believer has the potential to go either way in the struggle between flesh and Spirit.
Some church members don’t like this teaching. They claim that they died to sin when they became Christians an have crucified the flesh once and for all. But, Paul points out here, that is not he way it is. We will struggle with temptations of the flesh as long as we are on this earth. Martin Luther recognized that fact when he wrote that God’s true saints are not “stocks and stones (as the monks and schoolmen dream) so that they are never moved with anything, never feel any lust or desires of the flesh: but, as Paul saith, their flesh lusted against the Spirit and therefore they have sin and can sin.[i]
Those who stand against Paul on this plain teaching are usually the better-than-others types who often have much to say about law-keeping and sinless perfectionism. What they fail to realize is that they haven’t gotten rid of the “flesh,” that it has merely become “religious flesh.”
Such “good” people often become critical of others in the church who do not live up to their “high” standard. So it was with those who sought to follow the Pharisee-influenced Judaizers in Galatia. They may have pushed the devil with all his nasty sins so to speak, out the front door of their lives, but he came right in the back-door masquerading in Christians, law-loving piety.
And what is the solution to the human dilemma? Paul is clear on that point. The only way to deal with it is to let the Holy Spirit guide our lives. That is the meaning of Paul’s words at the end of verse 18 when he writes, “You are not under the law.” Commentating on that Passage some commentators write that “The Judaizers upheld the law as the only safeguard against becoming slaves to the flesh.” Paul asserts that “the only adequate safeguard is the guidance of the spirit.”
If Paul is right in what he writes in verses 16-18, the nothing can be more important in a Christians’ life than working with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been given to Christians as the Agent to counteract their evil nature, and He does so when we surrender to Him. There must be a cooperation of the saint with the Holy Spirit in His work of sanctifying the life. The Holy Spirit is not a perpetual motion machine which operates automatically in the life of the believer. He is a divine person waiting to be depended upon for His ministry, and expecting the saint to cooperate with Him in it. Thus the choice lies with the believer as to whether he is going to yield to the Holy Spirit or obey the evil nature. And according to Paul, there is no more important choice to be made. Accepting the Spirit into our lives is just as vital as receiving the substitutionary atonement of Christ, who absorbed the curse of the broken law for us on the cross (Galatians 3:13).
[i] Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 508