Summary: Galatians 5:16–18 introduces the passage by setting forth the nature of Spiritual Warfare between the flesh and the Spirit. In this we see 1) The Warfare Command (Galatians 5:16), 2) The Warfare Conflict (Galatians 5:17), and 3) The Warfare Caution (Galatians 5:18).

One of the most tragic elements of warfare is the event of collateral damage. Often in military operations, civilians are caught in the crossfire. Whether it is in Palestine or Iraq, civilians often get hurt between two fighting forces. Sometimes, one side, usually the weaker one, deliberately puts others in harms way in an effort to defend itself. It is truly tragic when someone is in the midst of a battle and does not realize it. They take no action to avoid the conflict and are unaware of the danger.

Every one of us in smack dab in the middle of a battlefield. The weaker force of our flesh wages war against the Spirit. Although a defeated foe, the flesh will attempt to do as much damage to us as possible against the stronger force of the Spirit. In order not to be caught in the crossfire of the battle, we must realize that a battle rages and take appropriate measure. More simply, we may say that ‘the flesh’ stands for what we are by natural birth, ‘the Spirit’ what we become by new birth, the birth of the Spirit. And these two, the flesh and the Spirit, are in sharp opposition to each other. (Stott, J. R. W. (1986). The message of Galatians: Only one way (p. 146). Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.)

Having just shuddered to contemplate the possible ruin and annihilation of the Galatian churches through their unruly attacks on one another, Paul now moves on to describe the divinely appointed remedy for this grave dilemma (George, Timothy: Galatians. electronic ed. Nashville : Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1994 (Logos Library System; The New American Commentary 30), S. 385) The remedy is rooted in understanding the problem. Just as Isaac and Ishmael were unable to get along, so the Spirit and the flesh are at war with each other. The battle will be lost if people seek an external set of laws to stop the conflict. The Law was designed to show the problem, not provide the solution. On the other end, the battle will also be lost if people seek to throw off all restraint and be a law unto themselves, to live however they feel at the moment, according to fleshly desire. The solution to the problem is to be ruled internally by the Holy Spirit. There can be no spiritual life unless the Spirit has first worked that life in the believer (1 Corinthians 12:3). And, on the other hand, where the Spirit is active in a person’s life, there will inevitably be spiritual life and a new spiritual nature (John 3:6). (Panning, A. J. (1997). Galatians, Ephesians (p. 97). Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House.)

Do you struggle with focus? Do you find yourself being tempted and feel trapped? Are you dissatisfied in your holiness or find it difficult in knowing how to please God? God has provided a means of following him. Believers have the Holy Spirit of God inside them to convict of sin, guide on the path of righteousness, and empower them to do so.

In its most profound yet simple definition, the faithful Christian life is a life lived under the direction and by the power of the Spirit. That is the theme of Galatians 5:16–26. The opening paragraph here in Galatians 5:16–18 introduces the passage by setting forth the nature of Spiritual Warfare between the flesh and the Spirit. In this we see 1) The Warfare Command (Galatians 5:16), 2) The Warfare Conflict (Galatians 5:17), and 3) The Warfare Caution (Galatians 5:18).

Having the Spirit control the Flesh in Spiritual Warfare means understanding:

1) The Warfare Command (Galatians 5:16)

Galatians 5:16 [16] But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (ESV)

Before we can understand the solution, we have to first understand the problem. What is Paul referring to in this text? Paul begins this text with a contrast “But/so”. This word ties in with verses 13–15. The strategy for removing the divisiveness that marred the Galatian church was to serve one another in love, but that too was humanly impossible. People cannot, in their own power, show love to all people at all times. But God has provided the means to meet his commands—the Holy Spirit.( Barton, B. B. (1994). Galatians (p. 177). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.)

Believers are called to “walk by the Spirit” (pneumati peripateite). Paul uses the phrase “walk” thirty times in his other epistles as a favorite way to describe the Christian life. It shows action, direction, a goal, and in this verse a companion Guide along the way. Paul had earlier reminded the Galatians of how they received the Holy Spirit upon hearing him preach the message of Christ and his cross (Gal. 3:1–3). Here he was exhorting them to continue the walk they had begun on that occasion. If they continued to walk in the Spirit, they would not be halted by the fleshly appeals of the Judaizers, their own libertine tendencies, or the debilitating disputes within their churches. Although this is the only place in Galatians where the word “walk” is used in this sense, it is a common Pauline designation for one’s daily conduct or lifestyle. In its wider usage the Greek word means not only “to walk” in a general sense but “to walk around after someone or to walk in a particular direction.” (Boles, Kenneth L.: Galatians & Ephesians. Joplin, Mo. : College Press, 1993 (The College Press NIV Commentary), S. Ga 5:16).

Illustration: For example, the students of Aristotle were known as the Peripatetics because of their habit of following the philosopher around from place to place as he dispensed his teachings. In Paul’s vocabulary, to walk in the Spirit or be led by the Spirit means to go where the Spirit is going, to listen to his voice, to discern his will, to follow his guidance (George, Timothy: Galatians. electronic ed. Nashville : Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1994 (Logos Library System; The New American Commentary 30), S. 386).

The fact that peripateo (walk) is presented here in Galatians 5:16 as a present tense/imperative indicates that Paul is speaking of continuous, regular action, in other words, a habitual way of life, to “keep on walking”. And the fact that the verb is also in the imperative mood indicates he is not giving believers an option, or suggestion, but a command (Walvoord, John F. ; Zuck, Roy B. ; Dallas Theological Seminary: The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL : Victor Books, 1983-c1985, S. 2:607). To walk by/in the Spirit is to allow the Spirit to have His way. It is to remain in communion with Him. It is to make decisions in the light of His holiness. It is to be occupied with Christ, because the Spirit’s ministry is to engage the believer with the Lord Jesus. When we thus walk by/in the Spirit, the flesh, or self-life, is treated as dead. We cannot be occupied at the same time with Christ and with sin( Wiersbe, Warren W.: The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, Ill. : Victor Books, 1996, c1989, S. Ga 5:13). t is more than mere guiding, more than mere pointing out the right way. It is a controlling influence. As William Hendrickson put it: “It is that constant, effective, and beneficent influence which the Holy Spirit exercises within the hearts of God’s children whereby they are being directed and enabled more and more to crush the power of indwelling sin and to walk in the way of God’s commandments, freely and cheerfully (William Hendriksen. Galatians New Testament Commentary. Baker Publishing House. 2004. p. 217)

In Galatians 5:16 there is an important causal relationship. Paul does not give a second command in this verse, that believers should walk by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh. These “desires/lusts of the flesh” (epithumei kata) refer to a yearning passion for. They include: yearning, wanting, craving, hungering, thirsting, and longing (Leadership Ministries Worldwide. (1996). Galatians–Colossians (p. 80). Chattanooga, TN: Leadership Ministries Worldwide.)

When a faithful believer walks by the Spirit, the result is that they will not gratify the desires of the flesh. What are those desires that Paul refers to? Though most often referring to an evil lust, the word epithurnia can refer to a strong, compelling desire of any sort, good or evil. This is expressed by the strongest negation possible in Koine Greek which utilizes the DOUBLE NEGATIVE with an AORIST SUBJUNCTIVE which means “never under any circumstances (Utley, R. J. (1997). Paul’s First Letters: Galatians and I & II Thessalonians (Vol. Volume 11, p. 58). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.)

Please turn to Romans 13

There are many things that are good in themselves. It is good to be married, have kids, work, eat and play. But if any of these things become an end in themselves, then we are no longer walking by the Spirit, for the Spirit has the end of glorifying God. We can too easily deceive ourselves and make our spouse, kids, work or recreation the main point of all we do. When these become defacto gods in our lives then we have taken what is good and make it a god.

In Romans 13, Paul shows the misuse of many good things in themselves as a warning:

Romans 13:13-14 [13] Let us walk/behave properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. [14] But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (ESV)

• These two opposite behaviors are mutually exclusive, so that at all times in our Christian lives we are either walking by the Spirit or are functioning in fleshly desire, but never both at the same time. To walk by the spirit is to have a life that is Christlike, the saturation of a believer’s thoughts with the truth, love, and glory of the Lord and the desire to be like Him in every way. It is to live in continual consciousness of His presence and will.

Illustration: 6729 “Step By Step”

But how does the Spirit lead? Barbara C. Ryberg expressed it like this: “He does not lead me year by year Nor even day by day, But step by step my path unfolds; My Lord directs my way. Tomorrow’s plans I do not know, I only know this minute; But He will say, “This is the way, By faith now walk in it.” And I am glad that it is so, Today’s enough to bear; And when tomorrow comes, His grace Shall far exceed it’s care. What need to worry then, or fret? The God who gave His Son Holds all my moments in His hand And gives them, one by one”. (Barbara C. Ryberg in Tan, Paul Lee: Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations : A Treasury of Illustrations, Anecdotes, Facts and Quotations for Pastors, Teachers and Christian Workers. Garland TX : Bible Communications, 1996, c1979)

Having the Spirit control the Flesh in Spiritual Warfare means understanding:

2) The Warfare Conflict: (Galatians 5:17)

Galatians 5:17 [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. (ESV)

Along with many others in the New Testament, this verse makes it obvious that walking by the Spirit is not simply a matter of passive surrender. The Spirit-led life is a life of conflict, because it is in constant combat with the old ways of the flesh that continue to tempt and seduce the believer. It should be noted that the flesh (Sarx) is the term Paul often uses to describe what remains of a person” after they are saved. It refers to unredeemed humanness, the part of a believer that awaits future redemption at the time of glorification (Rom. 8:23). Until then believers have a redeemed self (cf. Gal. 2:20) living in an unredeemed humanness, and that creates great conflict.

Please turn to Romans 7

The flesh is that part of a believer that functions apart from and against the Spirit. It stands against the work of the Spirit in the believer’s new heart. The unsaved person often regrets the sinful things they do because of guilt and/or painful consequences, but they have no spiritual warfare going on within them, because they have only a fleshly nature and are devoid of the Spirit. The sinful things they do, though often disappointing and disgusting to them, are nevertheless consistent with their basic nature as an enemy of God (Rom. 5:10) and a child of His wrath (Eph. 2:3). They therefore have no real internal conflict beyond whatever conscience may remain in their sinful state.

Things are different for believers. Paul himself, like every other believer, faced that constant struggle with the flesh, as he confesses in his letter to the Romans:

Romans 7:18-19 [18] For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. [19] For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (ESV)

Romans 7:21-24 [21] So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (ESV)

• So long as we remain in this present life, we never outgrow or transcend the spiritual conflict Paul was describing in this passage. There is no spiritual technique or second blessing that can propel the believer onto a higher plane of Christian living where this battle must no longer be fought. One of the greatest dangers in the Christian life is complacency, the temptation to imagine oneself invulnerable, and hence impervious, to the allurement of the flesh. Yet Paul’s words were addressed to the entire believing community. No Christians are so spiritually strong or mature that they need not heed his warning, but neither are any so weak or vacillating that they cannot be free from the tyranny of the flesh through the power of the Spirit. “In the battle between the forces of flesh and Spirit there is no stalemate, but the Spirit takes the lead, overwhelms, and thus defeats evil.”(Betz, Galatians, 281. as found in George, Timothy: Galatians. electronic ed. Nashville : Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1994 (Logos Library System; The New American Commentary 30), S. 387)

It is only in the lives of believers that the Spirit can fight against the flesh, because it is only in believers that the Spirit dwells. At regeneration, the Holy Spirit removes the old nature and creates a new nature (Eph. 4:24; 2 Peter 1:4). There is a remaining element, called the flesh in scripture, that now wages war against this new nature.

Only a believer can truthfully say as Paul just said in:

Romans 7:22-23 [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23]but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (ESV)

Only in believers are the unredeemed flesh and the Spirit living in the redeemed self opposed to each other, to keep believers from doing thing things that they want to do. Believers do not always do what they wish to do. There are those moments in every Christian’s experience when the wishing is present but the doing is not. The Spirit often halts our flesh desires, and the flesh often overrides the will that comes from the Spirit. It is no surprise that this frustrating conflict led Paul to exclaim:

Romans 7:24 [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (ESV)

• Although the Christian life is warfare, it is warfare in which victory is always possible. In His high priestly prayer Jesus spoke of the authority His Father had given Him “over all mankind” (“all flesh,” from sarx; John 17:2).

Unfortunately, some Christians have lost the tension between the human and the divine and have taught the idea suggested in such popular expressions as “Let go and let God.” Rightly used, such an expression can be helpful. If it is understood to mean letting go of one’s own resources and self-will and surrendering to God’s truth and power, the idea is scriptural. But if, as is often the case, it is unfortunately used to teach the idea that Christian living is little more than passive submission and yieldedness to God, it is contrary to all the militant terms and commands for great effort and commitment that pervade the New Testament (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 9:24–27; Heb. 12:1–3). As Paul instructed Timothy:

2 Timothy 2:3-4 [3] Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. [4] No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. (ESV)

Any battle is lost if a participant does not know whom they are fighting or what the objective is. This principle is carried forward to other examples. Paul compares a faithful believer to an athlete who recognizes to what they must battle and with a particular objective:

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 [24] Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. [25] Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. [26] So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. [27] But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (ESV)


Hebrews 12:1-3 [12:1]Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2]looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. [3] Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (ESV)

• Every believer has the indwelling power of God’s own Spirit to do battle with their own weak and sinful flesh, in order that they not do the things that they want to do/please their flesh.

Illustration: Holy Spirit

At the close of World War II, two pictures appeared in a magazine showing a soldier in conflict with a tank. The first showed a huge tank bearing down on a tiny soldier, about to crush him. The picture was proportioned to show the odds involved when a foot soldier with a rifle faced a tank. The next picture showed what happened to that soldier’s odds with an anti-tank weapon, in his hands. This time the tank appeared to be shrunken in size and the soldier at least equal in size, if not a little larger. Without the power of God released in our lives, when in conflict with sin we are like an infantry soldier in the presence of a tank. We cannot do a thing. But by trust in the power of the living God at work in us, we can say no and make it stick. We can turn and begin to live as God intended us to live (Michael P. Green: 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Books, 2000, S. 189).

Finally, having the Spirit control the Flesh in Spiritual Warfare means understanding:

3) The Warfare Caution (Galatians 5:18)

Galatians 5:18 [18] But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (ESV)

Please turn back to Romans 7

As a repeated warning to believers who were being influenced by the Judaizers, Paul added in Galatians 5:18, But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. To live under the Law is to live by the flesh, even when one is not actually committing sin, because that is the only avenue available to the legalist. The flesh is powerless to fulfill the Law, and the Law is powerless to conquer the flesh. Rather as Paul explained in Romans 7:

Romans 7:8-11 [8] But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. [9] I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. [10] The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. [11] For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (ESV)

• The solution to this problem, is not for people just to try harder to resist their own carnal desires.

Freedom comes in ways previously unsuspected: Jesus delivers from guilt (Rom 8:1) and the Spirit begins installing a new set of desires (Gal 5:22–23) which we have limitless permission to pursue. The law could condemn our misbehaviors, but was powerless to change them in any permanent way. We who are being led by the Spirit , walk the path that increasingly leads to the final and total escape from our lifelong plight. But how does the Spirit lead us? The surest way, of course, is through the precepts and principles of Scripture, the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). Followed through, this command speaks of a way of living in which all aspects of life are directed and transformed by the Spirit. (Hansen, G. W. (1994). Galatians (Ga 5:16). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.)

Please turn forward to Romans 8

The Holy Spirit writes God’s Law on our hearts (Heb. 10:14–17; see 2 Cor. 3) so that we desire to obey Him in love. “I delight to do Thy will, O my God: yea, Thy Law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8) (Wiersbe, Warren W.: The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, Ill. : Victor Books, 1996, c1989, S. Ga 5:13).

In Romans 8:2, the apostle wrote:

Romans 8:2-4 [2] For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. [3] For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, [4]in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (ESV)

Romans 8:12-14 [12] So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. [13] For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. [14] For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (ESV)

Romans 8:26 [26] Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (ESV)

• As already mentioned, the most effective way for a Christian to oppose the desires and deeds of the flesh is to starve them to death, to “make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Rom. 13:14). The surest way to fall into a sin is to allow oneself to be in situations where there is temptation to it. On the other hand, the safest way to avoid a sin is to avoid situations that are likely to pose temptations to it. A believer should “consider the members of [his] earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amount to idolatry” (Col. 3:5). When our Lord told us to pray, “Do not lead us into temptation” (Matt. 6:13), He revealed that there is a part to sinful temptation that we must avoid.

A believer who is not actively involved in resisting evil and failing to seek to do good is not being led by the Spirit. A believer can accomplish nothing for the Lord in their own power, but, on the other hand, the Spirit can accomplish little through a believer apart from the believer’s submission and commitment. The opposite extreme of quietism is traditionally labelled “pietism,” in which a believer legalistically strives in his own power to do everything the Lord commands. In pietism, there is an overbalance on the side of discipline, self-effort, and personal diligence. The Christian life is not a matter of “All of Him and none of us,” as the popular saying has it; and it is certainly not a matter of all of us and none of Him. It is the balance of our yieldedness and commitment with the Spirit’s guidance and power

Philippians 2:12-13 [12] Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13]for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV)

(Format Note: Some Base Commentary from MacArthur, J. (1996, c1987). Galatians. Includes indexes. (151). Chicago: Moody Press.)