The attempt of the Galatian believers to attain spiritual perfection by keeping the law had ended in failure. Their churches were torn apart by conflict: they were "biting and devouring each other" (v. 15). Obviously their devotion to the law had not enabled them to be devoted to each other in love. And since they did not love each other, they were breaking the law. Where could they find the motivation and power to resolve their conflicts and renew their love for each other? Many Christians are asking the same question today. They are members of Bible-teaching churches torn apart by conflict. What went wrong? How can they be so devoted and yet so divided? How can they be empowered to really love each other?
Paul's answer is the Spirit of God. So I say, live by the Spirit (v. 16). The command live by the Spirit is the central concept in Paul's ethical appeal. Since the Christian life begins with the Spirit (3:3; 4:6, 29), the only way to continue the Christian life is by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is not only the source of Christian life but also the only power to sustain Christian life. Actually, "walk by the Spirit" would be a more literal translation of Paul's command in verse 16. The command to walk in a certain way speaks of choosing a way of life—or we might say a "lifestyle," as long as we realize that what Paul has in mind is more than a matter of outward style. His command speaks of a way of living in which all aspects of life are directed and transformed by the Spirit.
The Galatian believers began their Christian life by receiving the Spirit (3:2-3), but they soon turned to the law to direct their lives. They probably felt that observance of the law was the way of life that would establish their identity and guide their behavior as the people of God. By turning to observance of law as their way of life, however, they were denying the Spirit's sufficiency to identify them as the people of God and to direct their conduct. Paul's references to the Spirit in chapters 3 and 4 assure his readers that their experience of the Spirit has clearly established their identity as the true children of Abraham and as the children of God. In this section (5:13—6:10) his references to the Spirit express his confidence that the Spirit is more than adequate to direct their moral behavior. The Spirit is the best guarantee of Christian identity and the only sure guide for Christian behavior. The Spirit is the only source of power to love in a way that fulfills the whole law.
Paul's confidence in the directive power of the Spirit is emphatically asserted in the promise that follows his command: Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (v. 16). Paul's use of a double negative in the Greek could be expressed in English by saying, "You will absolutely not gratify the desires of your sinful nature." The fulfillment of this promise depends on the implementation of the command.
Walking is excellent exercise, my doctor says! Walking by the Spirit demands active determination to follow the direction of the Spirit in the power of the Spirit. Those who follow the Spirit's direction in the Spirit's power will not carry out the evil intentions of their sinful nature. Walking by the Spirit excludes the destructive influence of the sinful nature. Walking by the Spirit can transform people who are "biting and devouring each other" into people who are serving each other in love.
In verse 17 Paul explains the basis of his confidence in the Spirit. He describes the war between the flesh and the Spirit and the result of that war. The Spirit and the sinful nature are two hostile forces opposed to each other: the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other. So walking by the Spirit (v. 16) means fighting in a war between the Spirit and the sinful nature (v. 17). The connection between verse 16 and verse 17 indicates that those who live by the Spirit are not neutral in this war. They are committed to fight on the side of the Spirit against the desires of the sinful nature.
This inner spiritual warfare is the nature of the Christian life; it is the experience of all those who live by the Spirit. The conflict Paul is describing here is not the moral conflict that everyone feels at some time, nor the conflict of a wayward Christian who is no longer committed to Christ. This is the conflict of a thoroughly committed Christian who is choosing each day to "walk by the Spirit." Each day the Christian who chooses to walk by the Spirit is engaged in a fierce battle between the Spirit and the sinful nature. It is important to stress this point, because many Christians feel ashamed to admit that they are experiencing such a conflict. They feel that mature Christians should somehow be above this kind of struggle. They imagine that the great saints were surely too spiritual to feel the desires of the flesh. But Paul flatly contradicts such images of superspirituality. His perspective is expressed by an old hymn:
And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would serve Thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.
But while Paul honestly portrays the reality of incessant moral warfare in the life of a Spirit-led Christian, he is not painting a picture of defeat. If you have sworn your allegiance to the Spirit in this war between the Spirit and your sinful nature, you "do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature" (v. 13), nor will you gratify the desires of the sinful nature (v. 16). The result of this fierce conflict is that you do not do what you want (v. 17), but what the Spirit desires you to do.
Some interpreters have taken the phrase you do not do what you want as an admission of defeat: the sinful nature defeats the Spirit-given desires of the believer, or at best the conflict ends in a stalemate between the flesh and the Spirit. But such an interpretation fails to see that Paul sets forth verse 17 as the explanation of his confident promise in verse 16 of the Spirit's victory over the sinful nature for those who live by the Spirit. If the Spirit's direction is continually defeated by the sinful nature, then there is no good reason to live by the Spirit or to have confidence in the Spirit's directive power.
The common interpretation of verse 17 as an admission of defeat in the conflict is influenced by Paul's admission of defeat in Romans 7:14-25 and the frequent experience of defeat in Christian experience. But there are significant differences between Romans 7:14-25 and this passage in Galatians 5, not least of which is that there is no mention of the Spirit in the Romans 7:14-25 passage. Furthermore, our common experience of moral failure should not determine our understanding of Paul's explanation of life in the Spirit. In this context Paul is presenting a reason for confidence in the Spirit's power to guide Christian behavior. His confidence is based on the fact that Christians who walk by the Spirit are involved in a war that determines the direction of every choice and every action. Their Christian freedom does not mean that they are left without moral direction to do whatever they want. They do not do what they want. They march under the Spirit's orders, to fulfill the directions of the Spirit.
In my elementary school we stood at the beginning of every day with our hands over our hearts to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America "and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Mrs. Crane, our principal, often reminded us that some had upheld their pledge of allegiance at the cost of their own lives so that we could experience liberty and justice. And she challenged us to dedicate our own lives to keeping our pledge of allegiance in order to preserve true liberty and justice for all. In the war for true Christian freedom, victory is possible only for those who continually renew their allegiance to the Spirit in the unremitting war against the sinful nature. Then they do not do whatever they want, but only what the Spirit directs them to do.
Those who are living by the guiding power of the Spirit in their lives and are fighting each day against the influence of the sinful nature do not need to be supervised and restrained by the law. So Paul says, If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law (v. 18). Life in the Spirit was pictured in verse 16 as an active determination: "Walk by the Spirit!" Walking demands active determination to get up out of the soft armchair and endurance to keep going at a steady pace. But now Paul speaks of life in the Spirit as passive submission: if you are led by the Spirit. The verb suggests pressure and control. A donkey and her colt were led by the disciples to Jesus (Mt 21:2). Soldiers arrested Jesus and led him away (Lk 22:54). Soldiers arrested Paul and led him away (Acts 21:34; 23:10). Paul has already described the control of the law in similar terms: "we were held prisoners by the law, locked up" (3:23); "the law was put in charge to lead us" (3:24), "subject to guardians and trustees" (4:2). But while the law exercised control, it could not give life or transform character (3:21). The law controlled by locking up all under sin (3:22). Now Paul depicts an alternative kind of control: the control of the Spirit. Life begins with the Spirit (3:3); children of promise are born by the power of the Spirit (4:29). The Spirit produces a transformation of character (5:22-23). The one who submits to the control of the Spirit is not under the control of the law.
If the Spirit is leading you to forgive your sister who wronged you instead of being resentful toward her, you are under the control of the Spirit rather than under the restriction of the command "You shall not kill." When your conduct is guided and empowered by the Spirit, your conduct will fulfill the law, so you will not be under the condemnation or supervision of the law.
Life by the Spirit involves active obedience to the direction of the Spirit (v. 16), constant warfare against the desires of the sinful nature by the power of the Spirit (v. 17) and complete submission to the control of the Spirit (v. 18). Such a life will be an experience of freedom from the control of the sinful nature and the control of the law.