Paul starts off this passage with a contrast using a “but”. In the immediate context, Paul was speaking about how the freedom of the gospel should not be used as an opportunity for the flesh but to serve one another. He cites Leviticus 19:18 and encourages one to love his neighbour as himself. So all of this talk in Galatians of law v.s. grace, works v.s. faith has brought us here. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves. We are to be as concerned about another's well-being as about our own. How is that possible? It seems like the very thing that I don’t want to do. How can we wake up each day thinking about someone else other than us? In fact, we are more than ready to bite and devour one another as Paul says in Gal 5:15.
So how then? Today's passage will hopefully provide some encouragement and practical insight into how this can be possible!
(A) Life in the Spirit is War: Spirit versus Flesh (Gal 5:16-17)
Let us trace Paul's argument in the preceding verses in Gal 5:13-16. He calls them to not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh (Gal 5:13) but instead, to love their neighbours as themselves (Gal 5:14). Not loving their neighbours but instead consuming one another was instead contrasted against walking by the Spirit (Gal 5:15-16). Paul tells them not to gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16) but instead, "walk by the Spirit". What does this mean? Firstly, to walk has the idea of continuity, and of journeying. It is active and not standing still. It covers all aspects of the conduct of life. There is a sense of consistency too. Hence, we like to say “walk with God” which just means our relationship with God. Walking then is living. That’s why so often Christians ask each other “how’s your walk”. Essentially, we are interested in each other’s life with God and our relationship with Him!
To walk by the Spirit also means that the one who is called to freedom in the gospel is not called to love by themselves, but with the help of the Spirit. We are not called to keep walking by our own will or resolve, but really with the help of the Spirit. After all, the Spirit is called “another Helper” in John 14. So to walk by the Spirit then means that one is living life out “by the Spirit”, all of your life is done according to the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and guidance. You plan, you desire, you make decisions and ambitions,
you allocate resources, you work, you play, you do everything with God the Spirit. We never do anything apart from the Spirit!
The result of this is that you will not “gratify the desires of the flesh”. This is exactly what Paul waned against in Gal 5:13. The flesh here is the sinful self which says sins against God, the one who turns to the law for salvation, the one who rejects God’s mercy, the one who compares himself to his neighbour to measure his worth, etc. Isn't it great that the result of conducting all of your life with the guidance of the Spirit leads to you not gratifying the desires of your flesh?
The flesh and the Spirit are in opposition, conflict and war. The Spirit and the flesh are mutually, diametrically opposed, foes. Why? Because of their contrasting desires. They have different goals, and pursue different things. In fact, it says that this conflict “keeps you from doing the things you want to do”, it keeps you from gratifying the desires of the flesh which is in my and your nature! If you are a Christian today, is this war/conflict familiar to you? Do you feel like you are fighting everyday?
This fighting and war is written of in other parts of the Bible. Spiritual warfare is real, and present (Eph 6:10-12, 1 Pet 5:8). If you don’t even know that you are engaged, you are losing a war you didn’t know you were fighting. This kills you spiritually. What are you fighting? Maybe you fight a comfortable life, enough to get by, with enough time and money to do the things you want to. But Scripture tells us that there is a war, and the fight against sin is important, lest you be killed by it. Do you fight together in community, or do you do it alone? Do you have others to encourage you in your fight, do you feel surprised that in the church itself, you face brokenness and are offended?
(B) Life in the Spirit is Fruitful: Grace versus Merit (Gal 5:18-23)
Paul introduces another set of contrast in the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:19). Notice first that the works of the flesh are not purely works in that they are all action. In fact, many of them are not outward actions (envy, jealousy, fits of anger), but are emotions that comes from the heart of a person. So the works of the flesh is not one of physical bodily action but sinful human desires as we have spoken about earlier.
“Works” carry with it the idea of man working towards something, and acting in order to achieve. But with fruit, you can’t really control and force it to happen. Work is toil and a struggle, but fruit arises from life and is enjoy. But if we look at the list carefully, we will see that the actions under the works of the flesh come rather easily in fact, I don’t have to work to feel angry, or to be jealous or envious of another. This is not an exhaustive list, but Paul is just giving some examples. But why “works” then? John Piper puts it this
way: “They are an emotional attempt to settle accounts because we didn’t get what we thought we had earned or deserved”. This is the heart of the flesh, that we think we have earned it, we deserve it. We know this so easily! Go on Facebook and we see the holiday pics of a friend, and we think about how we have worked hard enough. It is a merit-based life.
Do you feel like this today? Have you ever felt like you deserved something? We have this mindset at work, where we think that if we work hard enough (maybe even harder than our colleagues) we deserve a better pay, a better bonus. As students, maybe we think that we deserve a good job since we went through all that studying in University. This could be extended those who are serving in ministry too. Shouldn’t you deserve more recognition for all the stuff you have done for the church? Shouldn’t someone thank you for all your sacrifice, for all the time and effort you spent on your ministry? It can actually also be extended to our relationship with God! We think that God should bless us because of how much we read our Bible, pray or tithe to the church. We think that God should love us much more than the other guy whose church attendance is poor, who never prays, who never reads his Bible.
Fruit then, seems different. “Fruit” is different though. In fact, we just have to see whose fruit it is. It is not our fruit, but the Spirit’s. It is the Spirit that bears the fruit, not the Christian who “does things perfectly”. The Christian has nothing to do with this fruit, and it is entirely of God! The people who bear this fruit are the ones that know they stand condemned without the Christ. These will be the ones bearing the fruit of the Spirit.
Now that we have explained works and fruit, it is easy to see how this relates to the theme of law and grace that we've been unpacking in Galatians. In fact Gal 3:18 draws the link for us. Being led by the Spirit, and producing fruit means that you are not under the law and that you are under grace, you have not fallen away from grace. (c.f. Gal 5:4). Bearing fruit is a work of grace! On the other hand, being under the law, you are led to a merit-based salvation, you will be producing “works”, the kind of heart that thinks that everyone is a debtor to it; that everyone owes you something.
Thus, this passage in Gal 5 is not basically a list of good things to do, and bad things to avoid. It helps us to see how living under the law contrasts with living under grace. So we see the theme in Galatians of faith v.s. works, law v.s. grace continuing in this chapter and being developed (or, bearing fruit) in the form of our sanctification. Galatians teach us that we don’t bear fruit by trying harder or by doing more. We bear fruit by walking by the Spirit and being led by the Spirit. Now, what does this mean?Christians bear fruit, and it’s not our fruit! It is the fruit of the Spirit.
(C) Life in the Spirit is Victorious: Keeping in step with the Spirit by Faith in Christ (Gal 5:24-26)
Paul goes on to assure the Galatians by telling them that those who belong to Christ by faith “have crucified” the flesh. This act of crucifixion is in the past. He is not saying "are crucifying". They are people that have killed the flesh, and they have killed their sin. This is what Paul is speaking about in Gal 2:20, when he speaks about being crucified with Christ (c.f. Romans 6).
Secondly, the order of these events are important to note, it is not that “those who have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires belong to Christ Jesus”. This is clearly not a justification by works, and hence these lists of works and fruit above were never meant to lay a further burden on the reader that they have do more things to be saved. Again, the idea of killing sin, and of spiritual war is alluded here. If you are a Christian today, you must have killed sin at some point. Is this true for you?
In Gal 5:25, Paul uses an "if" clause. He tells the Galatians that if they are alive by the Spirit, then they are to keep in step with the Spirit. There is the idea that one is marching along with the Spirit, step by step, keeping at the same rhythm. This is” a similar picture that we got from walking, and this literally means to “walk in line behind a leader”. The Spirit makes us alive and we are to keep walking in this same Spirit one step at a time. This is not actually something impossible for the Christian! The Christian that has been made alive is being told to do something that is natural to them actually — take a deep gospel breath, take it deep into your soul and just walk!
The end of chapter 5 nicely brings together many ideas that has been raised in the previous chapters. Paul has hammered in the idea again and again that they are alive in the Spirit only by faith in Christ. This is the one and only gospel message.
- In Gal 2:20-21, he tells them that he lives his life in the flesh (i.e. physical body and not sinful desires) "by faith in the Son of God".
- In Gal 3:5, he reminds the people that God supplies the Spirit not because they have kept the law, but because of their hearing with faith.
- In Gal 5:5, even in our waiting "for the hope of righteousness" at Jesus' coming, we do so through the Spirit and by faith.
- In Gal 5:6, we are told that if faith produces love, and love is a fruit of the Spirit, then it is by faith that one walks by the Spirit.
So overwhelmingly, what does it mean to walk by the Spirit? It means this, it means to have faith in Jesus Christ, the only one who can save, and who obeyed the law perfectly, whose righteousness is ours by faith. This is not just a "one-time" decision but has daily implications. Every day, we look not to ourselves, our goodness, our achievements, our wisdom, our failures, our successes to grant us satisfaction, but overwhelmingly, we do it by faith in Christ, knowing that his promises are true, and that we can depend on Christ for salvation. We meditate on the promises that are in Christ.
The Christian is one who walks by the Spirit bathes and soaks himself in the one truth that his salvation in Christ is true, and so are the promises in Christ. He reminds himself that only Christ obeyed the law perfectly.
This is a life of war, and requires us to fight sin. This is also a fruitful life, not because of anything we do and is also a victorious life in the Spirit. Gal 5 tells us that our
sanctification is also by faith. This is a comfort! Paul doesn’t tell us to do the right things now that we are Christians. Not only is our justification and our decision to receive Jesus Christ as our saviour is by faith, but our transformation into Christ-likeness, our keeping in step with the Spirit is by faith in Christ. Only then can we be fruitful, and thus fulfil the law (Gal 5:23).
What will it look like for you? Praying and reading the Bible? Probably, and also doing so not just for the sake of doing so, but also by faith, depending and trusting that He will provide! It also means telling Him that we will want to walk in Him, not ahead of Him or away from Him. We wish to commit and say that all our our life, our plans and decisions, ambitions is His, and trust in His promises in Christ, trusting that it is greater than all this world promises.