Walking by the Spirit (A Study in Galatians)


Galatians 5:16-25

Doctors tell us how important it is to get thirty minutes of exercise daily. Different types of exercise stimulate different parts of our body. Exercise machines that we can purchase to exercise various parts of our body abound. Gyms and other establishments are busy with people working their bodies. Yet doctors tell us the best exercise is walking. A good brisk walk on an exercise machine or outside is good for the heart.

Because of technology, more jobs require less physical exercise, making it necessary to get exercise through other means other than at work. As walking is a key to good health, so walking by the Spirit is the key to spiritual maturity and a good witness for Christ.

Each believer is involved in the sanctification process, which means we are growing in our spiritual maturity and should until the day we are glorified. In these verses, Paul begins to talk about walking in the Spirit.


Paul says when we walk by the Spirit we will not carry out the desires of the flesh. The flesh is the old patterns of behavior we learned before coming to Christ. If we walk by the Spirit, as commanded, we will not carry out our sinful desires because the Spirit of God, as our inward guide, will keep us on the paths of righteousness.

The book of Galatians is a contrast of living by the law and grace. The Jews of the Old Testament lived by the law of God, or at least tried to, and found they could never live up to God’s commands. Paul introduced the Galatians to the grace of Jesus Christ. He fulfilled the law of God, and by a relationship with him we can live up to God’s standards through his strength. We do not need the ceremonies and traditions of the Old Testament system because we have experienced the grace of Jesus. All we need to live a holy and acceptable life before God is the Holy Spirit. God gives him the moment we believe.

Many believers in Galatia tried to live up to God’s standards in their own strength. The Judaizers gave them an outward list of rules and regulations whereby they might earn their salvation. How foolish they were to try what was impossible. They did not need such an outward list but only to obey their inward guide, the Holy Spirit. Paul tells them and us that we simply need to walk by the Spirit.

Walk, as Paul uses it, speaks of a continuous and regular activity. Walking by the Spirit is to be habitual for the Christian. Neither is walking by the Spirit an option but a command. This walking implies progress. While the Spirit is the source of our success in Christian living, it is up to us to walk. God will not drag us along in the spiritual growth process. It is up to us to walk, thereby allowing him to lead us. Christian living is more than passive submission. It involves action. Our will must be active in the sanctifying process of the Holy Spirit. We do not sit on the sidelines and watch the Spirit do battle for us. We must involve ourselves in the process.

When we walk by the Spirit we will not carry out the desires of the flesh. The two are mutually exclusive. The life walked in the Spirit is a Christlike life. We saturate our thoughts and actions with truth, love, and glory to God. We desire to be like our Lord in every way as we let Christ richly dwell in us. When we do not walk by the Spirit, the opposite will be true.

Imagine the person who stands on the sidelines yelling at a football game. They contribute nothing significant to the ball game, other than maybe pumping up the players. The coach is calling the plays, and the players are obeying his rules. It does not matter what those on the sidelines say. They have no significant bearing on the outcome of the particular game. The Christian cannot do this. We must walk by the Spirit which implies that we put forth effort as God works in us through his Spirit. We have a part in our spiritual maturity.


This conflict comes from the flesh, for the flesh fights against the Spirit. The flesh leads us to do things we really do not want or intend to do. Thus there is a constant battle going on in us at all times whether or not we are aware of it.

Walking by the Spirit is not a completely passive endeavor. As we attempt to walk by the Spirit, we find ourselves combating the temptation to return to our old ways. This is the desire of the flesh. Our inner selfish desires continually tempt and seduce us to do those things against the commands of God.

The flesh is what Paul sometimes refers to as our “old man.” Theologians disagree on whether our old nature is eradicated at salvation. Some maintain we keep it but are given a new nature that allows us victory over the old nature. Others say the old nature is eradicated but we still do battle with the flesh.

So the word “flesh” becomes either a synonym for old nature or replaces what we normally refer to as the old nature. Now we might ask what the difference is after salvation. The difference is that we can now fulfill God’s commands where we could not before. Additionally, we now have the desire to do good where we did not before. Redemption does not take away temptation.

This is the battle Paul spoke of in Romans when he wrote, “For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish . . . I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good” (7:21).

The flesh is the propensity to sin that still clings to the Christian even though we now have the power to resist it. The flesh is what causes the conflict in our life. A spiritual warfare takes place each day. It is a conflict that will not vanish until we are at home in heaven with God.

Only believers can fight this conflict because only believers have the Spirit of God dwelling in them. We do not always win this daily fight, but we know we will win ultimately. Each of us knows there are moments when we succumb to desires, carried out in actions or words, that displease God. This does not mean we have lost our salvation. We have only lost a battle. We have the confidence that we will win the war. Victory is always possible for us.

One key to victory is learning to starve our flesh. The surest way to fall to temptation is to place ourselves in situations where we know we will be tempted. We need to stay away from those places or people that tempt us to sin. We must actively involve ourselves in resisting evil. It is not all of God and none of us or all of us and none of God. It is a balance of our yieldedness and God working in us through his Spirit. We do not walk with him as an equal but follow him as our sovereign guide. We really do not need to ask for the Spirit’s guidance, for he is guiding us. We need only to ask for us to be open to his guidance.


The contrast is between the deeds of the flesh, which we will not demonstrate on a regular basis, and the fruit of the Spirit, which we should display on a normal basis. The deeds of the flesh come from losing the battle with the flesh. Jesus made it clear that our basic problem is what is on the inside, not the outside. What comes out only shows what is on the inside. If we are committing deeds of the flesh, it is a sign we are not walking by the Spirit. The deeds of the flesh are normal and continual behaviors of those who do not know Christ as Savior but cannot be normal or continual behaviors for the professing child of God. Such behavior is abnormal and interruptive only for the Christian.

Paul’s list of deeds of the flesh encompasses three general areas: sex, religion, and human relationships. Immorality refers to all illicit sexual activity. It would include adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bestiality, and prostitution. Impurity is moral uncleanness. Sexuality is associated with sexual excess. It is unrestrained sexual indulgence.

Idolatry is worshipping anything other than God. Sorcery came to be used of mood and mind-altering drugs.

Enmity refers to hateful attitudes. Strife is bitter conflicts. Jealousy is hateful resentment resulting from wanting what others have. Outbursts of anger are sudden expressions of hostility toward others. Disputes, dissensions, factions, and envyings are particular incidents of the above general sins. Drunkenness and carousing probably refer to orgies that often characterized pagan worship ceremonies.

Paul says those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. The key word is practice. It does not mean the Christian will never fall to one or more of these sins. They will not, however, practice them on a regular basis. To do so reflects they are not really Christians at all.

Such practices contrast with the fruit of the Spirit. The Christian will make the fruits of the Spirit evident in his or her life. There will be a regular demonstration of them. Even a bad person will sometimes do good things, but only the child of God has the ability to do good on a continuous basis while at the same time having these fruits erupt from correct motives. This fruit of the Spirit and its manifestation in our life are outward indicators of salvation.

There will be love, which is the supreme virtue of Christian living. It is not an option but a command. There will be joy—a feeling of happiness based on spiritual realities. It is the overflow of receiving Christ as Savior. Peace is the tranquillity that comes from knowing we are saved. Circumstances do not affect this peace. Patience is the calm willingness to accept irritating or painful situations. Kindness is the tender concern for others. Goodness is active kindness and sweetness. Faithfulness is loyalty and trustworthiness. Gentleness is patient submissiveness in every offending situation and relieves us of the need to get even. Self-control allows us to restrain our passions and appetites which are offensive to God.

The above-mentioned fruits of the Spirit will be evident in the Christian’s life. They will shine in such a way as to contrast with the deeds of the flesh exercised by those who are unsaved.


Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh. We may and will temporarily fall in the battle with the flesh, but we have conquered. We have won the war because of our faith in Christ. We have killed or executed the flesh. The flesh no longer reigns over or holds the Christian in inescapable bondage. The flesh has been dealt the death blow. Satan will continue to work through it, but the war is won. Like the chicken with its head cut off. It may flop around, but the end is inevitable.

Walking by the Spirit is not an option but a command. We will endure the conflicts of living against our fleshly desires that continually do battle with us, but the contrast between our lives and the unsaved will be evident. Our victory is imminent and assured.


Martin Wiles
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