Pastor David B. Curtis

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Walking by the Spirit

Galatians 5:16-18

Delivered 06/05/2005

Our passage for this morning is one of the most important passages on the Christian life in the New Testament. It answers a question all of us have asked at one time or another: Why is it taking me so long to get better? We've all wondered about that, haven't we?

It may be expressed like this: "I thought by now I wouldn't struggle so much with anger. Why is it taking me so long to grow in the Christian life?" Or, "I still get tempted by pornography. Why is it taking me so long to grow?" Or, "I go to church every Sunday, but I still have so many doubts. Why is it taking me so long to grow?" Or, "I thought I'd be a better person by now, but I've got so many bad habits. Why is it taking me so long to grow?" Or, "I'm a bitter person even though I cover it up most of the time. Why is it taking me so long to grow?"
When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, God did not allow them to conquer it all at once. Because there were many entrenched enemies in the hills of Canaan, the Jews had to fight for every inch of it. Then they had to fight to keep what they conquered. It took them many years to possess the entire land. I believe this is a picture of the Christian life. There is victory to be had, but it will not come easily or quickly. We are in a warfare with the flesh, which will not easily yield its ground. Whether we wish to admit it or not, we will struggle with sin and temptation as long as we live. There is no reprieve from this struggle, and that's one major reason why it takes so long for any of us to grow.

We need to begin this morning with a brief review of last weeks message so we can keep these verses in context:

Galatians 5:13-15 (NASB) For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." 15 But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.

If we are going to understand this text, we must have an understanding of what is meant by "the flesh." In our last study we saw that Paul uses the word "flesh" to mean: "something that is totally human, with no special grace attached." In Paul's use of the term "flesh" in Galatians, he does not simply mean: "possessed of a physical body"; rather, he means: "limited to only a physical body and the physical strength it contains."

So the flesh is what you do in your own power, in your own strength, what you can do yourself - which is legalism. Legalism is anything that I think I can do in order to make myself more righteous before God. It is human achievement; it's a form of self-righteousness.

In Paul's view, flesh and Spirit fall into redemptive-historical categories, serving to elucidate the contrasting natures of the two covenant ages. Seeking to live by law really boils down to seeking life independently of God, which was the basic sin of Adam. To walk after the flesh is to seek life in terms of what man can accomplish of himself.

Galatians 6:7-8 (NASB) Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life.

If we take "flesh" here to refer to a sinful life, then sowing to the Spirit would mean living a holy life. This would mean that everlasting life is a product of living right. This would be salvation by works. We know that salvation is not of works.

Romans 4:5 (NASB) But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness,

What Paul is saying in Galatians 6:7-8 is: when a man seeks to gain the gift of God by human possibility, the very act itself is sin, because it bears the fruits of self-righteousness. You cannot earn a right standing with God by what you do.

Walking after the flesh was not a problem only faced in the first century. Many today are walking after the flesh, they are trying to gain favor with God by their works. They are trying to please God by the things that they do. A good example of this would be Catholic theology, which says: "By my deeds I can not only earn merit for myself, but if I earn more merit than I need to get into heaven; my extra merit goes into the treasury of merit to be applied to someone else to get them our of purgatory." What that says is not only can I by my merit earn my own salvation, but I can over earn it and apply what is left over to someone else's salvation. That is walking after the flesh. And to walk after the flesh is to be condemned. If you are trusting in something that you've done to get you into heaven, you'll never get there.

Paul tells the Galatians and us how to overcome the flesh by walking by the Spirit:

Galatians 5:16 (NASB) But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.

Here we see a contrast between the Spirit and the flesh. This struggle is made clear in the next verse:

Galatians 5:17 (NASB) For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.

Paul says we are to "walk by the Spirit" - this is a present-tense command: "Continue to walk by the Spirit." The Christian walk is a daily routine. It isn't something you come to at one point in your life and say, "From now on I commit myself to walking in the Spirit." No. It's not a once-for-all event.

This command 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.

What does it mean to "Walk by the Spirit"? This is very important for us to understand. So let's see if we can practically define it.

All of us have heard preachers say, "Let the Spirit lead you," or "Allow the Spirit to control you," and have gone away puzzled as to what that means practically. How do we walk by the Spirit? You walk by the Spirit when your heart is resting in the promises of God. The Spirit reigns over the flesh in your life when you live by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself for you and now is working everything together for your good.

Galatians 5:6 (NASB) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.

Living faith always produces love. But Galatians 5:22 says love is a fruit of the Spirit. So if love is what faith necessarily produces, and love is a fruit of the Spirit, then the way to walk by the Spirit is to have faith:

Galatians 3:23 (NASB) But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.

The coming of faith liberates a person from being under law. But what does 5:18 say? "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law." How then are we led by the Spirit? By faith. By meditating on the trustworthiness and preciousness of God's promises until our hearts are trusting in Him. This is how the Holy Spirit fills and leads:

Galatians 3:5 (NASB) Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?

The Spirit does his mighty work in us and through us only by the hearing of faith. We are sanctified by faith alone. The way to walk by the Spirit and so not fulfill the desires of the flesh is to know the promises of God and trust them, rest in them.

Galatians 2:20 (NASB) "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.

Who is the Christ who lives in Paul? He is the Spirit:

Galatians 4:6 (NASB) And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"

How, according to 2:20, does the life of the Son produce itself in Paul? How does Paul walk by the Spirit of the Son? "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God." Day by day Paul trusts the Son. Day by day he casts his cares on God and is borne along by the Spirit. How, then, do we walk by the Spirit? The answer is plain. We walk by faith. And we do this by meditating on His unspeakable promises day and night and resting in them. We should be trusting in Him all the time. The more we think about our dependence on Him, the more consistent we will be in trusting in Him and in walking by the Spirit.

Listen to what Martin Luther had to say: "When the flesh begins to cut up the only remedy is to take the sword of the Spirit, the word of salvation, and fight against the flesh. If you set the Word out of sight, you are helpless against the flesh. I know this to be a fact. I have been assailed by many violent passions, but as soon as I took hold of some Scripture passage, my temptations left me. Without the Word I could not have helped myself against the flesh."

Paul put it this way to the Colossians:

Colossians 3:16 (NASB) Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

"Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you"- the word of Christ can be either the subjective genitive (the word delivered by Christ) or the objective genitive (the word about Christ). I think we can take it both ways - we should let the word delivered by Christ and the word about Christ richly dwell in us. This precise phrase is only found here and in Romans 10:17 in the NASB, though "word of the Lord" is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:8; 4:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:1. Elsewhere we find the phrase "word of God." Paul uses this particular phrase here, because he is exalting Christ in Colossians.

Paul tells the Colossians that they are to let the word of Christ "richly dwell within you" - Dwell is from the present active imperative of enoikeo, and means: "to live in," or "to be at home." Paul calls upon believers to let the Word take up residence and be at home in their lives. We are familiar with our home; where all the closets are, where we have items stored. We must thoroughly acquaint ourselves with the Word. The Word should become so familiar to us that we know it like we know our homes. The idea is to let the Word of God dwell inside and live at home in our lives. The Word of God needs to inhabit us. This is more than just reading the Bible.

Paul adds that the word is to "richly" dwell in us. "Richly" is from an old adverb plousios, which has the twofold meaning of quantity and degree; it means: "abundantly, applying it and using it in all its teaching, but also using it constantly, at all times and in all circumstances."

Now, I want you to see something about this text in Colossians that is very important. Look with me at:

Ephesians 5:18 (NASB) And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit,

Paul tells the Ephesians to "be filled with the Spirit," then he says:

Ephesians 5:19-22 (NASB) speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; 20 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; 21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

Paul tells the Colossians, "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you...," then he says:

Colossians 3:16-18 (NASB) ... with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. 18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

It is clear that these two concepts, "letting the word of Christ richly dwell within you," and "being filled with the Spirit" are identical, because the passages that follow each are so similar. The result of being filled with the Holy Spirit is the same as the result of letting the Word richly dwell in one's life. Therefore, the two are the same spiritual reality viewed from two sides. To be filled with the Spirit is to be controlled by His Word. To have the Word dwelling richly is to be controlled by His Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is the author and the power of the Word, the expressions are interchangeable. In other words, the WORD-FILLED CHRISTIAN is a SPIRIT-FILLED CHRISTIAN.

When Paul says, "Be filled with the Spirit," he is giving a command. The word "filled" is the Greek word pleroo, which means: "controlled." Believers who have the Spirit are commanded to be controlled by Him. So, the question is: How are we controlled by Spirit? The Spirit's control is not an automatic, mechanical control. The Spirit's control is brought about by means. We must take possession of the divine strength He has made available to us in Christ. We appropriate the controlling grace of the Spirit through the means of letting the word of Christ richly dwell within us.

Believers, we need more than a casual acquaintance with the Bible. God's word is to dwell in us abundantly - it is to saturate us. It must become part of our very being, transforming the way we think and act. To use an illustration from the area of computer technology, it must be the program always running that controls everything else. Everything depends on it.

The Word of Christ is the only source of truth we have about God:

2 Timothy 3:16 (NKJV) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,

Paul is saying to Timothy that the Bible comes from God. He is its ultimate author. The Bible provides information that is not available anywhere else. The Bible is divine self-disclosure. In it the mind of God is revealed on many matters. With a knowledge of Scripture, we do not have to rely on secondhand information or bare speculation to learn who God is and what he values. In the Bible, God reveals himself.

1 John 5:3 (NKJV) For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.

We love God by living in obedience to Him. How can we possibly do this if we don't spend time in the Bible to know what obedience is?

He is our Creator and Redeemer. If we are going to live a life of purpose, we must know who He is and what He expects from us. The only place that we can get that information is from the Word of God. And I believe that the only way we can walk by the Spirit is to have the Word dwelling in us.

We grow in our Christian walk as we read and study the Bible. The only place where we are going to hear God's voice is in His Word. The world around us will always be giving us the view of the flesh, but we'll only get God's view as we spend time in His Word letting it abundantly dwell within us.

Paul is not saying: Let the Word of Christ have a few minutes of your time. He is saying, "Let the Word of Christ LIVE in you!" God's Word should permeate every aspect of your life. When something happens in life, a scripture should come to your mind as to how to respond to the circumstance. When this happens, and we yield to the Scripture, we are walking by the Spirit.

The Greek word for "walk" is very ordinary. It means to walk from one place to another. It's in the present tense, which means: "keep on walking." To walk means: "to take a series of small steps in the same direction over a long period of time." Walking implies steady progress in one direction by means of deliberate choices over a long period of time. To walk in the Spirit means something like: "let your conduct be directed by the Holy Spirit" or "make progress in your life by relying on the Holy Spirit." It has the idea of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide every part of your life on a daily basis.

Walking is slow compared with driving a car or flying in a plane. It's not flashy at all. And sometimes walking can be tedious, slow, dull, drab, and downright boring. And yet if you've got to get from point A to point B, walking will get you there eventually. All you have to do is just start walking and don't stop until you get there.
Every day all of us make thousands of decisions. Most of them seem tiny and inconsequential. Certainly most of them seem to have no moral component. They are just little decisions we have to make. Will I get out of bed? Will I take a shower? Will I eat breakfast? If so, what will I eat? Will I drive to work? If so, what will I listen to while I drive? Who will I talk to today? How will I relate to my coworkers? Where will I eat lunch? What time will I leave work? What will I say to my spouse as soon as I walk in the door? Will I sit down, or will I go play with my children? And on and on it goes, all the way down to something like: Will I tie my shoes and tuck in my shirt today?

The crucial insight is this. There is no such thing as a truly neutral decision. Because every choice we make is intricately linked with every other choice before it and every choice we will make later; all our "little" choices are not really little at all. Every choice we make either takes us a step toward the Spirit or a tiny step toward the flesh. And even the "meaningless" choices lead us in one way or the other. The fact that we can't always see the implications of a decision doesn't mean they aren't there.

To walk by the Spirit implies that we are maintaining an ongoing communion with God. We are exercising those spiritual disciplines that keep our hearts focused upon the Lord, that turns our feet away from sin, that warms our love for Christ. How are you going to walk by the Spirit if you are not in any sort of communion with Him?

Paul goes on to say that if we walk by the Spirit - "You will not carry out the desire of the flesh."

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 flesh. This is a promise, but the fulfillment of this promise depends on the implementation of the command - walk by the Spirit. What a great promise! This promise should make us be very desirous of walking by the Spirit.

Galatians 5:17 (NASB) For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.

We could interpret this as grace and legalism are opposed to one another; they're two completely different belief systems. Legalism is ultimately an issue of the heart. It actually has to do with your core belief; and the only place where this can really be changed is deep down in your heart; what you believe to be true.

Either you believe: I can make myself more like Jesus; I can accomplish my own righteousness; I can complete my own salvation, therefore I live that way. Or you believe: My flesh cannot make me more righteous; therefore I am totally dependent on the Spirit of God within me to accomplish this. It is going to have to be Him, because I can't do it. Those two views are opposed to one another.

That is why Paul says I cannot, then, just do as I please; because my natural bent, my natural momentum is to do it myself. That's what comes easily; that's what comes naturally. And if I just do as I please, that's the path I'm going to go down. Paul says basically, that you have to make a conscious effort if you're going to walk by the Spirit. It has to be an intentional choice that you make to acknowledge: I cannot do this myself; I must be yielded and dependent upon Him.

What I want us to see from this verse is that struggle is a normal part of the Christian life. Many Christians prefer not to hear this truth, because they want a Christianity that proclaims "all victory all the time." They want a guarantee that all their problems will be solved if they will follow the right formula. But the conflict between our flesh and the Spirit is continual and inevitable.

Thus, with the same mouth we curse, and we bless. We love, and we hate. We serve, and then we steal. We proclaim Christ, and then we lie to our friends. We read the Bible, and then we watch dirty movies. We sing in the choir, and then we have an affair. And so it goes. The manifestations differ, but all of us feel the struggle in one way or the other.
Too much contemporary teaching on this topic seems to imply (if not to state directly) that a Christian may reach a place or a state where the struggles of life disappear altogether. Such a teaching is both false and unbiblical. It is also dangerous, because by promising what it can never deliver, it sets up Christians for failure and immense discouragement when they cannot achieve the promised "victory" over sin.

The Quietists were mystics of the late seventeenth century who believed that a one-time surrender to God would initiate a passive union with God. The Quakers were influenced by the Quietists. Even the evangelical Bible conferences at Keswick, England were quietistic in emphasis. Hannah Whitall Smith's The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1952) and the sermons of Charles Finney both promote the idea that a Christian needs to do very little but rely on the Spirit. Quietists believe that walking in the Spirit does not require any effort on our part, and when there is effort, we hinder the holiness that God wants to accomplish. The concept of surrender in quietism is vital to living a virtuous holy life. Some believe that when one completely surrenders, he receives a second work of grace so that the sin nature becomes eradicated, and the Christian supposedly never sins again.

But Galatians 5:17 should make it clear that no one escapes the conflict. No one can avoid the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. No one gets a Christian life free from outward pressure and inward turmoil. And there is no second blessing or spiritual experience that can magically propel you to a state where you no longer struggle with sin. That won't happen until we get to heaven. Between now and then, we walk the hard road, fighting every day to stay on the right path.

Years ago there was a missionary who was moved by God to share the Gospel with a group of Native-Americans on a reservation that was close by. The missionary prayed and prayed and over the course of time the Lord opened a door for him to befriend the Chief of the tribe. As the two men got to know one another, the missionary was able to share his faith in Jesus Christ. The missionary had prayed for the Chief for months, and the day came when his prayers were answered, and the Chief believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior.

The missionary and the Chief became fast friends. They spent a lot of time in prayer together and they studied the basics of the Christian faith day after day. The Chief was hungry to learn more and more. His hunger was the springboard for how quickly he grew in his understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

Several years later, the missionary had been led by God to go to other mission fields and share the gospel. Even though he was no longer working daily on the reservation with the Chief, he prayed for his friend often and stopped by to see him whenever he was on furlough. On one of his visits, the missionary and the Chief were talking when the missionary asked,"How are you doing? What has the Lord been doing in your life and the life of your people?" The Chief told his friend about those who were coming to know Christ, and how God had been faithful, when he stopped in mid-sentence. He said, "I have seen the Lord work in marvelous ways among our people, but I have to be honest with you ­ it is like there is a war going on in me. It is like there is a good dog and a bad dog that are living in my heart, and they are always at war with one another." The missionary knew what the Chief was talking about, because he was describing his own life. The missionary reached out, grabbed the hand of his friend, and asked, "Which dog is winning?" The Chief said, "The one that I feed the most."

Think about that, believer, do you find that to be true in your own life? Do you find that it's the one you feed the most that wins the battle? What happens when we feed the flesh? And what happens when we feed the Spirit? So many believers want to feed the flesh, and then wonder why they have no victory in the Spirit.
This conflict between the flesh and Spirit is seen all through Scripture:

Matthew 26:41 (NASB) "Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."
John 6:63 (NASB) "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.
Philippians 3:3 (NASB) for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,

The Jews placed all their confidence in the flesh. They were physical decedents of Abraham, they had the mark of circumcision, they physically performed the ceremonies, and they outwardly did the duties and traditions of the law. But it was all of the flesh, and it got them nowhere. To place one's confidence in what we can do ourselves is to have confidence in the flesh.

Romans 4:1 (NASB) What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?

The use of flesh there refers to Abraham's humanness, which was susceptible to sin. Paul is asking: Did Abraham make himself righteous? No. What did his flesh produce? It didn't produce a thing. The flesh is that part of man that cannot produce anything but sin. It refers in the previous verse to all of Abraham's efforts apart from God.

Romans 13:13-14 (NASB) Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.

This passage deals with living by legalism as opposed to living by the Spirit and fulfilling the whole law by love. It offers good insight into the meaning of the Christian walk. The fact that putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and walking in the Spirit both result in not fulfilling the lusts of the flesh implies that they are essentially the same thing. The Spirit- filled life of walking by the Spirit is the equivalent to living a Christlike life. Walking by the Spirit involves saturating my life with the person of Christ. He should dominate my thought patterns as I live in the consciousness of His presence. Since the Spirit's work is to point to Christ, walking by the Spirit means that my life is patterned after the Lord Jesus Christ.

Galatians 5:18 (NASB) But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.

The discussion has been the Spirit and the flesh. I've been trying to make a case that I think what Paul is talking about when he talks about the flesh is legalism - that drive within my heart to say, "I can do this myself." Well, this verse nails it down - that is exactly what he is talking about, because he is contrasting the Spirit with the law, and he is almost using law and flesh as synonyms in this passage.

"If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law." - this statement is a first class condition in the Greek text indicating that the writer assumed the statement was true for the sake of his argument. Other information about what he said determines whether it is really true. In this case, Paul seems to have believed that the Holy Spirit does indeed lead every Christian (cf. vv. 24-26). The question is will we follow His leading and walk after the Spirit (v. 16) or will we walk after the flesh? The Holy Spirit leads us to do the moral will of God. He does this primarily through Scripture by helping us understand the will of God as He has revealed it there.

We might have expected Paul to write that since we are led by the Spirit we are not "under the flesh," but instead we read "under the law." His point was that the Christian cannot overcome the desires of the flesh by remaining under the law. The Judaizers were advocating submission to the law as the way to overcome the flesh, but Paul advocated submission to the Spirit.

To live by the flesh is depending upon the resources and abilities of the physical body, or humanness. To live by the Spirit is depending upon the resources and abilities of the Spirit, whom God gives by grace through faith. In both cases, the fundamental issue is "depending." The critical difference is the object of the dependence. In "living by the flesh," the person who is living is depending upon what he is and has as the result of his physical heritage (genetic composition, intelligence quotient, education, etc.). In "living by the spirit," the person who is living is depending upon what the Spirit of God is and has - and what God has promised to do through Him.

Walking in the Spirit is not some mystical experience reserved for a few special Christians. It's God's design for normal Christian living. It's nothing more than choosing (by God's grace) to take tiny steps toward the Spirit day after day after day. Those tiny steps do not remove the struggle, but they allow you to walk by the Spirit even while you feel the pull to go in another direction. The pull of the flesh is always with us in one form or another. But we can choose to walk by the Spirit every day.

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