As the Apostle Paul brings closure to his thoughts regarding love being supreme over and above the fleshly extremes of license and law, he raises a tension regarding how to ensure this love will prevail. Galatians 5:16 and following resolve this tension with profound clarity, and the resolution is the antithesis of self-effort. “Walk by the Spirit,” the apostle pens, “and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” To amplify this need, Paul puts forward a poignant contrast between works of the flesh, which is that determination to live by self-effort, whether it be utter license to sin or bondage to law, and walking with the Spirit of God, from whom comes the power to live freely.
Works of the Flesh. The word flesh speaks to a person’s determination to function by means of self-effort, catering to his or her most base instincts and nature. It should be noted that this is in complete contrast to walking in the Spirit, and is violently opposed to such an opportunity, just as walking in the Spirit is violently opposed to living a “flesh-centered” life. Lest one wonder just what it might look like to cater to his or her base nature, Paul offers some real and raw particulars. This list of items he lays out are by no means exhaustive, thus his words in Galatians 5:21, “and things like these”, yet they helpfully portray the common dynamic of disfunction and depravity colliding together, giving attention to sexual atrocities, division, crass living, and allegiance to empty things (see Galatians 5:19-21). That Paul would ensure this is not an exhaustive list, and that there is plurality to what he puts forward, speaks to the open-ended and diverse nature of self-effort.
Walking By the Spirit. Contrasting self-effort is a relationship with the Holy Spirit. The ultimate and non-negotiable key to living a truly free life is not by catering to selfish desires (license), nor by succumbing to some rules and rituals (law), but by going about in partnership with and allegiance to the Holy Spirit. To appreciate the power of this opportunity it helps to know some basic things about the Holy Spirit.
First, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, therefore fully God, personal, and infinite. We are introduced to him in the second verse of the entire Bible (see Genesis 1:2), and his participation in the Divine Community is likewise affirmed in Genesis 1:26, wherein it is said, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'” (emphasis added).
Secondly, the Holy Spirit makes himself available to the redeemed as an advocate, helper and counselor (Gk., paraklete), testifying to all that is true and equipping the saints regarding the person of Jesus Christ (see John 14:15-26; John 15:26-27). Moreover, it is his role to prick the consciences of men regarding sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:5-15).
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit transforms our lives as we choose to walk at his side. This, of course, is the point of Galatians 5:22-23. Whereas catering to the flesh litters the trails of life with no end of garbage, walking with the Spirit produces wholeness and balance in our lives, making us to be full and fulfilled. The reason the apostle uses the singular fruit is to amplify the well-rounded package of spiritual maturity that results as one is in fellowship with God’s Spirit. The items listed as part of the “fruit of the Spirit” must be lumped together; one cannot pick and choose which fruit he or she wishes to employ. They must all come together as one: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It is likely they are not in any particular order, though one cannot help but miss that love comes first, a possible nod to Paul’s belief that love is the polestar that keeps one from gravitating toward the extremes of license and law (see Galatians 5:13-15). Furthermore, the use of fruit reminds all of us that whatever virtures develop in our lives come not by our own self-effort (in contrast to catering to the flesh) but by some external influence. Just like the farmer cannot make fruit grow, but must depend upon many external influences (weather, for instance), so it is with the spiritual life.
The Apostle Paul uses two words for “walking” with the Spirit. The word used in Galatians 5:16 (Gk., peripateo) has to do with walking in an orderly manner, while the word used in Galatians 5:26 (Gk., stoicheo) has to do with walking in a straight line. Together these evoke a powerful picture of companionship that is well-ordered and natural and enduring. We have established, albeit is simply, that the Holy Spirit is the source of our spiritual power and provision. The job we have as followers of Christ is to walk with him. To walk with him is not a mere excercise, like a woman who “power walks” around her neighborhood. It is a necessity for every moment of our existence. To walk with him is arduous and requires patience. To walk somewhere in the days of the Apostle Paul was tough duty, often wearisome, often long, often dirty. It was no easy thing. Finally, one learns much from the long walk, soaking in the elements, breathing in the fresh air of precious companionship. Long and enduring walks lend themselves toward this, whereas brief spurts down the path leave the spiritual appetite wanting, and only amplify our determination to be ultimately independent. With these things in mind perhaps the following prayer will prove helpful for the man or woman wanting to go the distance with God’s Spirit:
Father, thank you for the provision of the Holy Spirit in my life. Help me to respond to his presence, to be sensitive to his voice, and to yield to his leadership in all things. Therein is my freedom; therein is my true joy; therein is where your glory is found. Amen.