Live by the Spirit (5:16-25)

Bible Passage: Galatians 5:16-25

One of the most common misunderstandings of the gospel of free grace is that it gives licence for ungodly behaviour. Without the constraints of religious rules, what is there to ensure a person lives in a godly way? Paul has given a lot of time in his letter to the Galatians making the case that there is no need for a Christian to follow the law, and that attempting to do so would actually undermine the gospel. In Christ there is freedom. He now addresses the question of how all of this impacts on the way a Christian lives their life. Put simply, to be free from the law does not have to mean living according to the flesh. It is possible to be free from both and to live by the Spirit instead!

The Desires of the Flesh (17-21): The main section of this passage is comprised of two lists, one of the desires of the flesh and the other of the fruit of the Spirit. Paul explains that these are opposed to each other, and he envisages the life of a Christian as an internal war between fleshly desires and the new life produced by the Spirit. Following the law isn’t the only (or even the best) way to fight these desires of the flesh. The list that contains examples of the desires of the flesh is fascinating. mixing in things that only a minority of people might struggle with to other things that most people find a struggle. We shouldn’t only see the influence of flesh in the more extreme examples but should recognise it whenever we see any of these traits in ourselves. The warning in verse 21 is stark that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom, and almost certainly has in mind those for who this way of life is a pattern (showing they live by the flesh and not the Spirit) rather somebody who occasionally stumbles in one of these ways.

The Fruit of the Spirit (22-24): In contrast to the desires of the flesh, we have a second list of traits that are called the fruit of the Spirit. The word fruit here is an instructive one. These characteristics are not presented as something that we strive to attain, but rather as the product we will see in our lives as we walk with the Spirit. It is also noteworthy that the word is ‘fruit’ rather than ‘fruits’. As we walk by the Spirit, all of these characteristics will be present together in our lives. It would be good to take time to run through each of the characteristics mentioned here in the list, and this may serve as a diagnostic for people to assess how much they are seeing the work of the Spirit in their lives.

The relationship between Spirit and flesh in the life of a believer should not be seen as one between two equal powers. Yes, there is conflict between these two, but part of what it means to become a Christian is that the flesh is crucified. It no longer has the power to dominate how we live. The gospel means that we get to be free from both the law and the flesh, and it is by the Holy Spirit that we find the new way to live, manifesting his fruit in our lives.

Live by the Spirit (16,25): The passage starts and ends with the same instruction, that we are to ‘live by the Spirit’ (or ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ as some translations have it). The idea is that what we know to be true theologically needs to find its outworking in the way we live our lives. The answer to how we live as Christians is not that we are to reconstruct the law or to make a new set of legalistic rules for ourselves. Nor is it to throw off all restraint and indulge every desire of the flesh. Both of these paths have been trodden by Christians at different times, but the Scripture is calling us to something different. We are to listen to the Holy Spirit and be guided by his promptings in our lives, and it is as we live this way that we experience the true freedom that the gospel brings.

Potential Applications:

  • The list of the desires of the flesh is a challenging list. There may be things here that you need to challenge people to repent of.
  • Ask people to consider what tactics they use to fight against the desires of the flesh. Is it primarily being led by the Spirit or does it look more like the works of the law. Invite them to put their trust in the Spirit.
  • This would be a great opportunity for some ministry time where you pray for people to be filled with the Holy Spirit.