What Does It Mean to Walk by the Spirit? (Galatians 5:16)

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Image by geralt. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

The Bible’s Answer

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Galatians 5:16–17, ESVUK)

Just before this, St Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia that Christ, who set them free from the ceremonial laws of Moses (Gal 5:1–6), has called them to freedom, not to follow their fleshly desires, but to love one another, which is the essence and fulfilment of the law of Moses (Gal 5:13–14). Paul warned them that if they live according to the flesh by bitterly attacking and arguing with one another, they may consume each other (Gal 5:15).

St Paul then provides the solution to this: if we don’t want to gratify the desires of the flesh, then we need to walk by the Spirit. Simply put, walking by the Spirit is the opposite of walking by the flesh. When one walks by the flesh, they perform the works of the flesh, which is sin (Gal 5:19–21). When one walks by the Spirit, on the other hand, they perform the fruit (or works) of the Holy Spirit, which is virtue (Gal 5:22–23). To walk by the Spirit, then, simply means to live a life in which one actively seeks to repress their sinful impulses in order to practise virtue in accordance with the desires of the Holy Spirit, who lives within Christians and empowers them to live righteous and godly lives (Gal 3:14; 4:6; 5:25; 1Cor 6:19–20; Rom 8:13).

The whole of Galatians chapter 5 is actually a summary of the first part of Romans chapter 8; it is essentially Paul’s commentary of Romans 8, which he applies to a particular situation of his day (namely, the Judaizers insisting to the Galatian Christians that circumcision is necessary for salvation). Paul starts by saying that in Christ, the Holy Spirit has set us free from obeying the law of sin and death, so that we may obey the law of the Spirit of life (Rom 8:2) (the law of Christ and love, as per Gal 5:13–14). Then, Paul describes walking according to the Spirit, which he also calls living according to the Spirit, as setting one’s mind on the things of the Spirit, rather than the flesh (Rom 8:4–6), and by putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit (Rom 8:13), who leads and dwells in Christians (Rom 8:9, 14).

What Walking by the Spirit Looks Like

In Galatians, Paul shows us what this looks like when put into practice, by contrasting the works of the flesh with the works of the Spirit:

18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:18–23)

Paul’s phrase: “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18) means that the ceremonial/dietary/judicial laws of Moses no longer apply to Christians, because the Holy Spirit, who dwells in them (1Cor 3:16, 12:3; Rom 8:9), has put them in the new covenant (2Cor 3:5–6) of grace and truth (Jn 1:17), and because Christ has set them free from the old covenant (Gal 5:1, 13; Heb 8:6, 13) by fulfilling it on their behalf (Mat 5:17).

When Paul talks about the flesh, he is not saying that our bodies, which God created, are sinful (Gen 1:31; Ps 139:13–14; 1Cor 6:15, 18–20; 2Cor 6:16); rather, he is talking about how from birth, all people inherited original sin from the first humans, Adam and Eve (Rom 5:12–14, 18), which gives us the natural inclination to want to commit sin (Rom 7:22–23). When we succumb to these desires of our flesh, we commit sin (Jas 1:14–15). If Christians want to put to death the deeds of their sinful desires, then they need to let the Holy Spirit take lead of their lives, by actively contemplating the things of the Spirit, hating evil and loving good (Ps 97:10; Pr 8:13; Am 5:15), and putting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control into practice.

This isn’t always easy, because we are weak (Heb 4:15), and it requires us to regularly devote ourselves to watchfulness, prayer (Mat 26:41; Lk 21:34; 1Cor 16:13; Col 4:2) and Bible reading (Ps 119: 9–11; Mat 4:4), flee from vices (1Cor 6:18; 10:14; 1Tim 6:11; 2Tim 2:22), and discipline our bodies and keep them under control (1Cor 9:27). Nevertheless, the Spirit helps us in our weakness (Rom 8:26), and God the Father always provides a way for us to endure temptations to sin (1Cor 10:13). Paul then says:

24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:24–26)

That is to say, since we Christians have been made alive spiritually by the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5–6; Eph 2:1–2, 4–5), let us live out that reality in our daily lives. In Baptism, we died and rose with Christ, and the old sinful self was crucified with him, to set us free from sin’s power in the new life we now live in Christ (Rom 6:3–5, 6–7, 13). In Christ, we are a new creation (2Cor 5:17), which no longer lives for the self, but for Jesus, who “died for all“, so that those who belong to him may live for him (2Cor 5:15). Pride, provocation, and envy are works of the flesh; if we replace them with love/humility, gentleness, and joy, and practise them, then we are walking by the Spirit, because these are the virtues that he delights in.

Jesus Christ Perfectly Walked by the Spirit

Paul showed us what a life of walking by the Spirit should look like, but he did not provide a real-life example. In the four Gospel accounts, though, we do have a real-life example of what this looks like in Jesus Christ. The man Jesus is the incarnation of God (Jn 1:1–3, 14; 20:28–29; Heb 1:8–9), who, being one with the Father and the Holy Spirit in being (Jn 10:30; Mat 28:19), was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth (Lk 1:35; Jn 3:34; Ac 10:37–39).

As God, Jesus is the incarnation of righteousness itself (1Cor 1:30–31), and he lived a life of complete sinlessness and purity (1Pet 2:21–22). This means that Jesus’ life is the perfect model for what it means to walk by the Spirit. Below are some Bible passages which show the fruits of the Spirit that Jesus exhibited at various points throughout his ministry.

  • Love: Though Jesus is truly God, he left Heaven and came to Earth for our sake (Jn 1:1–3, 14; Jn 6:38). Though Jesus did nothing wrong, he voluntarily gave up his life to save those who did not deserve to be saved (Mk 10:45; Jn 3:16–17; 10:17–18; 12:44–50). Jesus’ entire life on Earth was characterised by love: he miraculously fed the 5,000 who followed him out of compassion (Mk 8:1–10), looked out for the poor and needy (Lk 12:33), corrected abuse of power (Mat 15:1–9), forgave a woman caught in adultery and saved her from the death penalty (Jn 8:1–11), provided his widowed mother, Mary, with a home and caregiver before he died (Jn 19:25–27), etc.
  • Joy: Jesus rejoiced in the Father’s will by the Holy Spirit (Lk 10:21–22) and always gave thanks to his heavenly Father (Jn 6:11; 11:41–42).
  • Patience: Before calling the Twelve Apostles, Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father all night (Lk 6:12). Jesus also had to show patience to his disciples, who oftentimes were dull of understanding (Mat 16:5–12).
  • Kindness: Jesus did not ignore social outcasts of the time, but gave his attention to them and helped them, including lepers (Mk 1:40–45), tax collectors, prostitutes (Mk 2:13–17), Samaritans (Jn 4:7–30), those excommunicated from the Synagogue (Jn 9:35–41), etc.
  • Goodness: Jesus taught that it is not a sin, but morally righteous, to do good on the Sabbath, by miraculously healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mk 3:1–6; Lk 6:6–11). He helped thousands of people by doing similar healings and exorcisms for them all throughout Israel (Mat 4:23–24).
  • Faithfulness: When the crowd of Roman soldiers and temple guards came after Jesus and his disciples to arrest them based on false charges, Jesus stood up for his disciples, allowing them to escape while he alone got arrested (Jn 18:7–9). Even though Peter had abandoned Jesus by denying him three times, Jesus did not abandon him, but restored him to full fellowship after his resurrection (Lk 22:31–34; Jn 21:15–19).
  • Gentleness: Jesus never returned violence with violence, even after a temple guard unjustly struck him during his trial before Anas (Jn 18:19–24), and even after his enemies came after him with swords and clubs to arrest him (Mat 26:47–52).
  • Self-control: Jesus resisted all of Satan’s temptations, even after fasting for 40 days and nights in the wilderness (Mat 4:1–11; Lk 4:1–13). Jesus, being afraid of suffering, did not want to be crucified, but prayed that his Father’s will be done, and carried it out faithfully till the end (Mat 26:36–46).

Conclusion

Jesus walked by the Spirit perfectly, by living a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, so that in him, the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:1–4). We are not our own, for Christ bought us at the price of his precious blood (1Cor 6:19–20; 1Pet 1:18–19). So, let us give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, whom God our Father rose from the dead and exalted at his right hand (1Pet 1:20–21), by walking by the Spirit all the days of our life.

Other Bible passages which use the imagery of walking for further study: Romans 6:4; 13:13–14; Ephesians 2:10; 5:2 Colossians 1:9–11; 2:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:11–12; 4:1.

To learn how to have your sins forgiven, and spend eternity with Jesus Christ, please read the following article.

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