This text holds the key to all of life. Walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. In one short statement Paul solves all our problems. If we do not carry out the desire of the flesh – if we do not sin – all life’s issues that begin with us go away. No more angry outbursts, no more falling to lust, no more critical thoughts or words, no more laziness, no more self-absorbed life. The daily battles with sin all end in victory – the sun always shines and the breezes are always warm and at our back.
The problem, of course, is really understanding this and living it. It is very easy to say, “Walk by the Spirit.” But what does it mean on a daily basis? How do we walk by the Spirit? What are the things we must do? Is it our responsibility to walk by the Spirit or is it the default status for every Christian? Can I walk by the Spirit sometimes and not walk other times? Am I not a believer if I continually fight sin in my life and oftentimes do not win? How much of this is human effort versus God working?
There is so much here and much of it difficult to grasp. But look at the payoff if we can understand it and incorporate it into our lives. “You WILL NOT carry out the desire of the flesh.” Note that – he does not say, “…do not” – he says, “…WILL not.” The payoff is that we WILL NOT serve our selfish nature when we walk by the Spirit. This is the true meaning of freedom. This is Paul coming full circle. This is the other side of Paul’s statement in 5:1 – It was for freedom that Christ set us free. We are free from the standard of perfection but we also have the ability to be free from ourselves.
Paul begins this verse with contrast. He says, “But I say…” – he contrasts it with what he just said in verse 15. Those who do not use their freedom to serve one another – who see freedom as an opportunity to serve their lusts and live selfishly – bite and devour one another. BUT – the one who walks by the Spirit is different. He will not carry out the desire of the flesh.
We can serve others through love or we can turn our freedom into an opportunity for the flesh. And we can walk by the Spirit or we can carry out the desire of the flesh. Verses 13 and 16 give us the contrast in ways of life and the choices available to us.
This is the key verse of the text. The rest of the passage elaborates on this statement and gives us clues as to how we can understand it and appropriate it for ourselves.
Verse 17 is important to give balance to verse 16. Paul describes here a life of conflict – and he is clearly talking to believers. We are certainly to walk by the Spirit, but apparently we also continue to struggle with sin. We continue to fight the flesh. Being a Christian does not mean the end of temptation, and walking by the Spirit is not a once-for-all proposition wherein our fleshly desires go away forever.
Paul paints a very graphic picture – our new nature is in direct opposition to our old. What we are naturally is not at all what we are in Christ. This explains the Sermon on the Mount. The citizen of the kingdom of God is radically different from the citizen of the world. Love your enemy, give your money away, put others before yourself, turn the other cheek, do not seek recognition for your good works, forgive others repeatedly, do not store up treasure on earth, do not judge others, do everything for God’s glory – all these go against our natural desires. No man lives this way apart from the gospel.
Paul ends this verse with an interesting statement. He says you may not do the things that you please. He might mean that since we have a new nature we cannot do the things we naturally want to do. We cannot do the deeds of the flesh he is about to describe in verses 19-21. The other possibility is that he means our old nature keeps us from doing the good things we want to do. Our inclination to sin makes it hard to do the righteous acts our renewed mind wishes to do. This would go along with Paul’s words in Romans 7:15-25 about doing what he does not want to do and not doing what he does. This is probably the more accurate interpretation and seems to fit the context of continual conflict that the verse discusses.
Consider: A life of conflict is therefore not bad. Living in battle-mode is part of being a believer. As a matter of fact, it makes sense that this is actually a vital mark of the Christian. A non-Christian does not have within him two natures in direct and utter opposition. Christian living is battlefield living – it is why Paul told the Ephesians to put on the armor of God (6:10-17). It also means if we do not struggle with sin we are in danger. No battle likely means we have surrendered.
So here is our first clue. Walking by the Spirit does not mean our fight with sin is over – the fight goes on for as long as we live. And if we fight, it makes sense that we occasionally lose (…so that you may not do the things that you please). And if we lose, it follows that perhaps our walking by the Spirit is not the same every day (since if it were, we would never give in to the flesh). Therefore, walking by the Spirit must have a human component and the walk is not simply a default setting that happens outside of the believer’s will.
Paul now describes the believer as one who is led by the Spirit. This is a slightly different way of looking at our status in the Spirit. We walk but He leads. And if we are led by the Spirit we are not under the Law. This is simply another way for Paul to express our freedom. We are free in Christ, we are His children, we have His Spirit and we are thus no longer under the Law.
There is another facet to this, however. If we are led by the Spirit we will fulfill the Law. This goes along with verse 14 – if we love our neighbor we fulfill the Law. The Spirit leads and enables us to obey. He changes our desires such that we want to obey. We are not under the bondage of the Law because we no longer feel bound to do what we do not want to do – we now desire to obey the Law because of the Spirit.
This is clue number two as to what it means to walk by the Spirit. The Spirit leads. If we walk by the Spirit it means we go where He wants to go. We are not in control – our lives are directed by Him. God in fact is NOT our copilot – we are not even in the cockpit.
These four verses describe what it means to live outside of the Spirit’s leading. These are the desires of the flesh the one who walks by the Spirit will not carry out. Paul wants to make it clear to his readers what it is that marks the one who does not belong to Christ.
He begins by pointing out that it is not hard to identify the one who is outside of the Spirit. He says the deeds of the flesh are evident. This does not mean that all sin is public, but a man’s nature shows itself eventually. He also does not mean that every item on this list applies to every person – but all are possibilities for the one walking according to the flesh.
The list itself includes sexual sin, religious sin, interpersonal sin, and drunkenness and carousing. He does not mean for the list to be exhaustive. He ends by saying, “…and things like these.” Interestingly, he does not include some really obvious sins like adultery, theft, lying, and murder. It is almost like he wants to avoid sins that many would think they are not guilty of. The ones he lists tend to be more common and are the breeding ground for the more major sinful acts. Every act on the list is based in selfishness.
He finishes the list with a sober warning. He reminds them that he has warned them about these before – perhaps when he was with them – and wants to warn them again. Those who practice these deeds will not inherit (important to note the word – we do not earn, we inherit) the kingdom of God. This does not mean the believer who falls to one or more of these deeds is lost. It means the one who practices them (I Jn 3:7-10) – whose life is typified by them – shows that he is not God’s child and is bound for eternal destruction.
The mark of one who walks by the Spirit is the fruit his life produces. The Spirit bears fruit where He lives. This is not the fruit a man produces on his own – it is what the Spirit produces in his life. This is the product of walking by the Spirit and following the Spirit. The contrast between the fruit of the Spirit and the deeds of the flesh illustrates the opposition Paul discussed in verse 17.
The fruit is listed as nine characteristics. It does not appear that Paul intends the list to be broken up – as if some characteristics are meant for some believers and some for others. Note the word fruit is singular – this is all of a piece.
This goes along with Jesus’ words toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:15-23). He told the disciples they would know false teachers by their fruit. Likewise, He also said good trees will bear good fruit. If the Spirit is around He is evident. If the Spirit is not evident He is not around. There is no such thing as a good non-fruit-bearing tree.
Paul ends this list by saying, “…against such things there is no law.” No law is needed for the believer who bears this fruit. Law restrains and condemns – neither is necessary for this life.
It is important for the believer to remember both lists Paul discusses here. He warns us against the deeds of the flesh, but he also makes sure to inform us of the fruit of the Spirit. Too often in the Christian life we focus wholly on the sins we do not want to commit. We set up defenses, we make ourselves accountable, we pray to be strong in the face of temptation. But it pays to remember that this is only half the story. We are not only to avoid the deeds of the flesh – we are also to bear the fruit of the Spirit. No team wins by only playing defense. It is not only what we put off that marks us as God’s children, it is also the fruit we bear under the leadership of His Spirit.
Paul’s list becomes another clue. It does not help with how to walk by the Spirit but it does help with knowing if we are. If we walk by the Spirit our lives will show it. Fruit is evidence of our walk.
These two verses instruct us as to how to avoid the deeds of the flesh and bear the fruit of the Spirit. We must do two things – crucify the flesh and walk in line behind the Spirit.
Paul says first that if we belong to Christ we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Note who does the crucifying – it is those who belong to Christ Jesus. WE crucify the flesh. We have been crucified with Christ (2:20), but WE crucify our flesh with its passions and desires. And while this crucifixion took place at conversion, we must renew our vigilance every day because the crucified one takes a long time to die.
Crucifixion produced death not suddenly but gradually. True Christians do not succeed in completely destroying the flesh while here below; but they have fixed it on the cross, and they are determined to keep it there till it expire. – John Brown
When we came to Jesus Christ, we repented. We ‘crucified’ everything we knew to be wrong. We took our old self-centered nature, with all its sinful passions and desires, and nailed it to the cross. And this repentance of ours was decisive, as decisive as a crucifixion. So, Paul says, if we crucified the flesh, we must leave it there to die. We must renew every day this attitude towards sin of ruthless and uncompromising rejection. In the language of Jesus, as Luke records it, every Christian must ‘take up his cross daily’ (Luke 9:23). – John Stott
Secondly, Paul says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” The word for walk in this verse is different than in verse 16. Here it means to ‘walk in line’ or ‘follow in line’ – not simply to walk. Thus our responsibility – if we live by the Spirit (if we are believers) – is to follow where the Spirit leads. A mark of the believer is to be led by the Spirit (verse 18) and our responsibility is to willingly walk directly behind Him. The Spirit empowers us but we must willingly submit to Him and follow His leading.
This seems to be the final clue in the passage as to what it means to walk by the Spirit. We must crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. Determine daily to kill our fallen nature in the most decisive and gruesome way. Crucify it – make it die a slow and painful and merciless death. And then we must just as decisively follow the lead of the Spirit that indwells us. Determine to obey. Determine to walk. But we walk with the confidence that we do not walk alone and we walk in the power the Spirit provides. The Spirit leads and empowers and we walk.
The promise of verse 16 is amazing. Walk by the Spirit and do not sin. Walk by the Spirit and enjoy true freedom. Walk by the Spirit and no longer fall to your selfish nature. It is hope for every discouraged Christian. It is the key to a progressively sanctified life. But by itself it is only a neat Christian statement. It sounds good but if we do not really understand it or know how to appropriate it into our lives it is of little use. Words do not help in the face of a dissolving marriage or a wayward child or an ugly addiction or habitual sin.
That is why it is wonderful that Paul does not write just to sound good. He does not simply leave us with religious jargon we can quote to each other when we do not know what else to say. He gives us more and he explains what this promise means – and how we can understand it and live it out.
The text itself gives us clues. To walk by the Spirit does not mean we do not continue to struggle with sin. It is not a once for all state that means we no longer are susceptible to temptation. It includes battle. It is about being led by the Spirit but also determinedly walking where the Spirit leads. It involves crucifying our fleshly desires and keeping them on the cross daily. And if we walk our lives will bear fruit – the Spirit always shows Himself.
But one question remains unanswered. HOW? How do we follow the Spirit’s lead and how do we keep the flesh on the cross? While Paul does not specifically address this in this passage it can really only be through prayer, the Bible, and fellowship with others who are walking by the Spirit. To walk in line with the Spirit we must know the Spirit’s will – and that is in the Father’s word. And to take advantage of the power the Spirit provides we must pray. We must immerse ourselves in the divine nature to know where to walk. And immersion involves more than 10 minutes in the morning. To take advantage of the incredible promise Paul writes about here we must commune daily and love daily and study daily and pray without ceasing. It is a relationship between son and Father. And for a son to know the Father’s will he must talk and listen – pray and study.
Walking by the Spirit is what we do when the desires produced by the Spirit are stronger than the desires produced by the flesh. – John Piper