Galatians 5:16-26 Living by the Spirit
Brandon Goodin Elder
“For freedom Christ has set us free”. Paul has addressed the Galatians with this point. Their conscience has been set free from the guilt of their sin through the cross of Christ. They were set free to pursue righteousness. In fact, they had the “hope of righteousness”. They had the certain expectation that God had made them righteous and that He was certain to continue that work through Christ. They had been set free from death through Christ’s resurrection. They had been set free from the devil because he was no longer able to wield sin and death against them. Returning to dead works to make themselves presentable to God was to return to an unbearable slavery. Even if those works had the appearance of things which God required of His people in past times. It was not the law that had set them free. The One to whom the law testified of had come. Christ is the one who set them free. The same is true for us. We are free from sin, death, and the devil through Christ. “The question now is how are these things possible? And the answer is, by the Holy Spirit. He alone can keep us truly free.”
Walk by the Spirit – Galatians 5:16
In verse 13-14 Paul tells the Galatians to “not use [their] freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” He further makes it clear that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Paul makes it clear that it is only when they “walk by the Spirit” that these things are possible. To walk by the Spirit will be to move in the opposite direction of “gratify[ing] the desires of the flesh”. The flesh being our old rebellious sinful nature which is passing. This same idea is expressed in Romans 8:4 where the believer is identified as those who have the “righteous requirement of the law […] fulfilled in them” and those who “walk […] according to the Spirit”. It is also important to take note that Paul has communicated before that what is started by the Spirit must continue by the Spirit (Gal. 3:2-3). If we are going to be people who are law abiding citizens of Christ we must walk by the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who gave us a new nature in the beginning and it is Holy Spirit that will continue His work in our sanctification.
Internal War – Galatians 5:17
Paul provides a description to the Galatians of the internal conflict that every Christian is subject to. It is not just a moral conflict like any man may experience. It is an internal spiritual conflict where the Spirit of God wars against the flesh. Since the Christian walks by the Spirit they too are at war against the flesh. It is a civil war. The new man warring against the old man. This isn’t a foreign enemy. This is the believer’s sinful nature. It is the believer who desires the sin and the righteousness simultaneously. No wonder why we “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness”. There remains in us that which wars against the God we now love.
Led by the Spirit – Galatians 5:18
This internal war is evidence of being led by the Spirit. The fact that a Christian is aware of this conflict should be an encouragement and a comfort. The faithful are reminded they are not under the curse of the law. The law of the Spirit of life has set us free from the law of sin and death. As William Perkins says, “The privilege then is that God does not impute the defects of obedience to such as truly believe and repent, but He accepts their imperfect obedience as perfect and absolute. […] And the consideration of God’s merciful acceptation must stir us up to an earnest care and conscience of good duties.”
Works of the Flesh – Galatians 5:19-21
Here Paul provides a non-exhaustive list of sins (“and things like these”). Paul is identifying sins that the Galatians would have been familiar with. This list was meant to grab their attention. Examining this list more closely reveals four categories of sins. Sexual, Religious, Social, and Indulgent. This is not a hard division. Commentators each categorize these sins a little differently. The general form is helpful in identifying those things that war against the Spirit.
|Sexual||sexual immorality||Adultery and fornication|
|impurity||Sins like those of Sodom|
|sensuality||Words, gestures, or apparel that incite inappropriate sexual desire|
|Religious||idolatry||Worshipping false gods; Worshipping the One True God with devised worship|
|sorcery||Practicing divination; Calling on demonic forces and Satan|
|Social||enmity||Hatred for carnal reasons. These include political, racial, or religious|
|strife||Quarreling for the sake of personal pride|
|jealousy||Zeal for the wrong reasons. Being displeased by another’s fortune.|
|fits of anger||Angry outbursts; Losing temper|
|rivalries||Getting ahead at the expense of others|
|dissensions||Taking sides against others|
|divisions||Spreading of false ideas (including false teaching and doctrines)|
|envy||Spite; Rejoicing at another’s misfortune;|
|Indulgent||drunkenness||Intoxication; Getting wasted;|
|orgies||Revelry that includes sexual misconduct, drunkenness, and gluttony|
Modern believers would be wise to consider this list of sins and be aware of the sins in their day and time that war against the things of the Spirit. What modern sexual, religious, social, and indulgent sins can be added to the list?
The sober warning, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” may strike a little bit of fear the heart of a believer. Christians should be rightly convicted if they find themselves engaging any of these sins. They should not despair though. They should run to Christ (1 John 1:9). Paul has in view those who gratify the flesh. Their chief goal is to fill up on these sins. If the outward life of a man is in pursuit of the flesh then it can be assumed he is not “led by the Spirit”. He is one who “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” These are the “works of the flesh.” It is emphasized in these verses that works of the flesh cannot save. In fact, the works of the flesh accomplish the opposite. They bring condemnation (John 3:18).
Fruit of the Spirit – Galatians 5:22-23
Notice fruit is singular. This is not an array of fruits (variety). This is the fruit of the Spirit. The list of virtues is a descriptive list of the ingredients of this one fruit. These are the virtues that are grown in those who walk by the Spirit. They are tangible and identifiable. This is not an exhaustive list. For example, it does not contain hope (Romans 5:4,5) or godliness (2 Peter 1:6) in this list. John Stott suggests the following general categorization of this list of virtues. These virtues contrast against the list of sins that Paul previously expounded.
|God and Man||love||Selfless sacrificial affection that we return to God and serve one another with.|
|joy||Contentment not based on circumstances; Based on the hope of the Gospel; Exhilaration from right standing with God;|
|peace||Tranquility of mind resulting from right standing with God through Christ.|
|Man||patience||“Long suffering in hardship.”|
|kindness||“Constant readiness to help.”2|
|goodness||“connotes complete moral excellence. […] sanctified by the Holy Spirit and willingness to be generous”2|
|Personal||faithfulness||“faithful and just in the keeping of our honest promise and word”|
|gentleness||Humble, sweet, and mild|
|Self-control||“restraint and self-discipline not to be ruled by passion”2|
As Philip Graham Ryken says, “Notice that this is a catalogue of virtues rather than a list of rules.” The Christian must be careful not to see these virtues as things they will check off to have peace with God. Peace with God is through Christ. It is not by the rigorous observation of a list of virtues. These virtues should be approached with a view towards what will result from walking by the Spirit.
Crucify the Flesh – Galatians 5:24
Notice who has crucified the flesh in this verse. As John Stott says, “done not to us but by us”. It is the believer themselves that crucifies the flesh. Jesus refers to this when he says, “deny himself and take up his cross.” This is language for denying the flesh with its passions and desires. When the Christian turns to Christ in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit they crucify the flesh. Certainly, we are also crucified with Christ. An act which is done to us when we are united with Christ in his death. The crucifixion in this context is different than what is taught in Galatians 2:20 and Romans 6:6.
To crucify the flesh is the right response to sin in the flesh. The old man is to be fixed to the cross because he is a shameful criminal. The Christian is to turn their back. The analogy of the crucifixion and how it relates to the believer’s disposition and experience of denying the flesh is vivid. The right attitude towards crucifying the flesh should be pitiless and decisive. But, the process is painful, gradual, and certain. Despite the grim imagery, the Christian draws hope from this. If we are to enjoy the fruit of the Spirit we must follow this path. The Spirit is at work in those who are His maintaining true freedom. Therefore, the faithful “wait eagerly for the hope of righteousness.” Right obedience results in true freedom.
Live by the Spirit – Galatians 5:25-26
If we live by the Spirit then we will walk in step with His leading. How is it we know His leading? We engage the common means of grace that have been provided. We read the Scriptures and hear them preached, pray, enjoy the Lord’s table, fellowship with the saints, be baptized, and fast. If we are humbled under the leading of the Holy Spirit then we will not be in the habit of sinning against each other. We will uphold the law and love our neighbor as ourself.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (IVP Academic, 1984), 145
 Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians (P&R Publishing, 2005), 233
 William Perkins, Perkins Commentary on Galatians (Reformation Heritage Books, 2005),
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (IVP Academic, 1984), 150
Header Image digitally reproduced with the permission of the Papyrology Collection, University of Michigan Library.