Living Victoriously

Galatians 5:16-26

5:16-18 – Here is my advice. Live your whole life in the Spirit and you will not satisfy the desires of your lower nature. For the whole energy of the lower nature is set against the Spirit, while the whole power of the Spirit is contrary to the lower nature. Here is the conflict, and that is why you are not free to do what you want to do. But if you follow the leading of the Spirit, you stand clear of the Law.

5:19-21 – The activities of the lower nature are obvious. Here is a list: sexual immorality, impurity of mind, sensuality, worship of false gods, witchcraft, hatred, quarrelling, jealousy, bad temper, rivalry, factions, party-spirit, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like that. I solemnly assure you, as I did before, that those who indulge in such things will never inherit God’s kingdom.

5:22-25 – The Spirit however, produces in human life fruits such as these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance and self-control – and no law exists against any of them. Those who belong to Christ have crucified their old nature with all that it loved and lusted for. If our lives are centred in the Spirit, let us be guided by the Spirit.

5:26 – Let us not be ambitious for our own reputations, for that only means making each other jealous. (JBP)

Almost all believers have heard that God wants His children to live victorious Christian lives. The question is: How do we do that? Romans 8 and Galatians 5 show us how. Victorious living isn’t possible to accomplish apart from the enabling of the Holy Spirit. French Arlington once wrote:

Romans 8:14 says believers are led by the Spirit. The Spirit manifests the Christian life in us as we are led by Him. He inspires our hearts and minds to do what is good and right. As we allow ourselves to be led by Him, He adorns our lives with graces that identify us as God’s children.

Galatians 5:16 says believers walk in the Spirit. It is similar to being led by the Spirit, but in the New Testament, walking emphasizes a way of life. As we walk in the power of the Spirit, we march in line with Him and walk the steps that the Spirit walks. As we follow the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit flourishes in our lives.

Galatians deals primarily with freedom in Christ. But up until this point in the letter, he has not defined freedom in practical terms. With these verses, he does so, showing that only one who depends on the Holy Spirit is truly free, and that freedom is not the same things as license. Indeed, the Christian concept of freedom is service, both to God and to man and expresses itself the fruit of the Spirit, which is contrasted with the works of the flesh in verses 14 and 15.

Paul’s greatest desire with these verses is to give a complete picture of the Christian life. To view the Christian life as simply a way to live freely and do what one pleases is wrong. But so is a life lived merely serving others with no thought behind the actions. Christian freedom, according to Paul, is a freedom to serve God and others as motivated by love (verse 6). True Christianity resembles a long, narrow bridge over a place where two polluted streams meet: the stream of legalism and the stream of libertinism. The believer must never lose his balance, lest he fall into the refined rules and regulations of man or into the gross, excessive vices of sin.

1. A remedy for evil, verses 16, 17

In the previous verses, Paul listed some things that are far too common among Christians: biting, devouring, and destroying. The solution is living by the Spirit; once a person lives by the Spirit, he will gradually cease to gratify the desires of the flesh. It is the Spirit alone who can keep the believer free.

Verse 16 clearly implies that there is a conflict or struggle between Spirit and the flesh, between the believer’s new nature and his old, sinful nature. Two Greek terms are used in verse 16.

  • Sarx. The NIV has translated it as “sinful nature,” but it’s exact translation is “flesh.” Generally, it refers to the body of a man, his material self. When used in the NT, especially by Paul, it came to mean man as a fallen being, who is capable of great acts of selfishness and evil. It is often used in connection with another Greek word, psychikos, to denote the limitations of being human, both in body, thought, and morality. In other words, man as sarx in totally incapable of knowing God apart from a special revelation and a redemption that removes the barrier of sin. Legalism is what appeals to the sarx, because rules and regulations are designed by the sarx. Libertinism also is attractive to the sarx, because it gratifies that part of man’s nature.
  • Pneuma. This word is almost always translated “spirit,” but originally meant “wind.” In time, the word came to refer to the spirit of a man, his conscience, or the incorporeal part of a man. It also refers to angels, demons, and the Holy Spirit. It is the latter mean that Paul emphasizes in verse 16. The Holy Spirit is not naturally in a man; He takes up residence after a man becomes born again.

So, Paul tells the Galatians that it is the Spirit who makes it possible for the believer to live in victory over sin, but only to the degree that that same believer “lives by the Spirit,” or as some translations put it, “walks by the Spirit.” The Greek word, peripateite, really means “to walk” and is written in the present tense, indicated a continuous action and a continuous need. It is also an imperative, which demonstrates it is the believer himself who chooses to walk by the Spirit or not.

The last clause of verse 17 is illuminating: They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. This phrase has come to mean different things, depending on you interpret it.

  • The sinful nature keeps you from doing the good you want to to;
  • The Spirit keeps you from doing the evil you are tempted to do;
  • Each nature hinders the desires of the other.

So which is the correct way to understand this? The parallel passage is found in Romans 7:15-16,

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.

In view of this, it seems likely the first option is the correct one, especially in light of verse 18, which is all about victory through the Spirit.

In view of verses like Romans 6:6, there are those who say there is no real conflict between the old and new natures. The suggestion is that the “old man” or our old natures, have been forever eliminated, yet we know by our own experiences that is simply not true. We understand that as the believer grows in grace, his old nature becomes increasingly powerless, but it can never be completely eliminated in this life. Indeed, the Christian will forever need to live dependent upon God’s grace. Which is the way it should be.

2. Works of the flesh, verses 19-21

Paul now shows us how the spirit and the flesh are in conflict by listing the works of the flesh and contrasting them with the fruit, or the works, of the Spirit. Paul probably listed these vices because these were ones that the Galatians were having particular problems with. Without spending a lot of time on these sins, we note that they are divided into four categories:

  1. Sins that violate sexual morality
  2. Sins from the religious world
  3. Sins against other human beings (social sins)
  4. Pagan sins

Paul, with a pastor’s heart, tells his readers that anybody who continues to indulge in their former sinful habits cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.

3. Fruit of the Spirit, verses 22-23

Over against these sins is a new way of life: living the produces the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is the good that expels the evil from one’s life (Hendriksen). Paul is not talking about the gifts of the Spirit, which are temporary and extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit that come upon believers from time to time. He is speaking about special endowments given to every single believer. The fruit of the Spirit includes:

Love. The word is agape, and is the highest form of love. It is the kind of love that God loves us with. Because the Spirit of God dwells within believers, believers are able to love with God’s love.
Joy. The Greek is chara, and it corresponds to the what all the world wants: happiness. Joy, though, unlike happiness, is permanent. Happiness depends on outward circumstances, joy does not.
Peace. The Greek eirene is roughly the same as the more familiar shalom. But it means so much more than just peace, even though that is an accurate translation. It is God’s gift to man, so that makes it very special. That gift was made possible by the work of Christ on the Cross, which put man at peace with God and also with other believers. Even though this peace is given to man, it is something believers are to strive for, according to 1 Peter 3:11. Just how important is peace? It is mentioned in every NT book, for a total of 80 times.
Patience is the ability to put up with others. This is the idea of “longsuffering,” an attribute of divine quality. We read about in Joel 2:13, Return to the LORD your God,for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
Kindness best describes the way God acts towards man. It is slightly difficult to define, but when we read in the Bible that “God is good,” we get a hint of what Paul is saying here. God is good toward man, even though man doesn’t deserve it. That is now how we are to treat others.
Goodness (agathosune) is sort of like kindness, and equally hard to define. The primary idea here is that a person treated well whether or not it is reciprocated.
Faithfulness is a trait we want in everybody we have dealings with. Simply put, it means that a person is trustworthy and dependable. It is a description of the character of a person who would die for his faith, Rev. 2:10; 3:14.
Gentleness describes a person who is in control of himself so much that he never gets angry at the wrong time, only at the right time.
Self-control is, to me, a most interesting word. In the Greek it looks like enkrateia, and is the quality that gives the believer victory of fleshly desires. William Barclay, of enkrateia, wrote this: [It]is a great quality which comes to a m an when Christ is in his heart, that quality which makes him able to live and to walk in the world, and yet to keep his garments spotless.

When Paul says there is no law against the fruit of the Spirit, Paul is contrasting that notion with the notion that the Law was given to restrain evil. But the fruit of the Spirit is not evil, therefore the Law is powerless against it.

4. Two Keys to Victory, verses 24-26

Paul has made it clear that the war between the flesh and Spirit is unending and unrelenting. The key to victory is found in two things, which Paul outlines in these remaining verses:

First, Paul tells his readers that they had been crucified with Christ. In modern language, we might say something like: Be what you are. Be in practice what you are in principle.

Second, Paul reminds the believers that while their old natures are dead to sin, they are made alive by the Spirit. Another way to read verse 25 would be like this:

If the source of life is the Spirit, then the Spirit must be allowed to direct our steps, so that we make progress, advancing, step by step, toward the goal of perfect consecration to the Lord. (Hendriksen)

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