Spirit-Powered Living: A Positive Interpretation of Galatians 5:16-18

By Dr. Mark A. Jacobson, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology

“What chance does a believer have of staying faithful to the Lord, living a godly life, and avoiding the spiritual shipwrecks that seem to be all too common today?”  If my question hints at resignation, even despair, it is because so many believers have succumbed to sin, making decisions to disobey God and reject wise counsel. They have damaged their own reputations, some irreparably, and dishonored the cause of Christ.

We all know it is difficult to resist temptation; we all know the shame and disappointment when we give in.  We sympathize with Paul when he—yes even he—says, “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27)  Living a life characterized by obedience is not easy.  What we do not need, however, is preaching and teaching that makes it worse, that leaves the impression that continuous sin and failure are inevitable, even normal for the Christian.

Too many sermons and writings imply that the Christian life is so fraught with temptations—that Satan is so crafty and we are so weak—it is highly questionable whether any believer, especially someone in full-time ministry, will make it through life without falling victim to grievous sin.  Paul addresses this very issue in Galatians 5:16-18. At first glance, he appears to agree—the Spirit and the flesh are engaged in such a fierce battle that “you may not do the things that you please.” (v. 17)  However, an in-depth look at the text, along with other Scripture passages, reveals a very different point of view.

The theme of Galatians 5:16-18, and the surrounding context of verses 13-25, demonstrate that the normal Christian life is a godly one, characterized by righteousness rather than sin.  Not only can we live a godly life, it is only normal that we do.  This article argues that although we are not free from the presence of sin, we do not need to be defined and dominated by it.  Rather, we can live victoriously over it,[1] and remain faithful to the Lord.

The Starting Point

Verse 16 begins, “But I say, walk by the Spirit.”  The “but” confronts the contentiousness plaguing the churches in Galatia at the time Paul was writing to them, noted in the previous verse, “But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.” (v. 15)

Paul returns to this problem at the end of the chapter, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.” (vv. 25-26)  Rather than presenting a detailed discussion of the reasons for this nasty state of affairs, it is sufficient to say that pressures the first Christians felt as they engaged the critical issue of Gentile observance of Torah stirred up highly volatile emotions.  The discord was serious enough to catch Paul’s attention, resulting in his well-known contrast between the works of the flesh (note the many synonyms for contentiousness) and the fruit of the Spirit (note the synonyms for harmonious living) in vv. 19-23.

Paul confronts his readers with their uncharitable behavior, letting them know it is not normal for those who claim to have received the Spirit (3:2), that is, for those who are saved.  We find here certain expressions he customarily used to denote those who were saved.  Used somewhat synonymously in 5:16-26 are: “walk by the Spirit” (v. 16), “led by the Spirit” (v. 18), “live by the Spirit” (v. 25) and “walk by the Spirit” (in v. 25, “walk” is different in the Greek than in v. 16).

Paul pairs the imperative “walk by the Spirit” in verse 16 with “live by the Spirit,” and the passive “led by the Spirit” in verses 18 and 25. These indicate that they are his way of defining salvation in pneumatological terms.  In christological terms, believers “belong to Christ” (v. 24).  To “walk in the Spirit” is the normal condition of those who “live in” and who are “led by” the Spirit.  The basis for Paul’s urging the Galatians to quit their bickering and fighting is that those who are led by the Spirit need only live out the natural consequence of the new spiritual life they possess—a life of godliness.

The Natural Consequence

The language of the second half of v. 16, “and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh,” is emphatic in the original language.  That is, Paul sets the Spirit in complete opposition to the flesh.  A consideration of several authors’ insights is valuable here. F.F. Bruce rightly paraphrases it, “ … ‘and you will by no means fulfill the desire of the flesh.’ ”[2]  J.B. Lightfoot expresses Paul’s thought even more clearly, “Walk by the rule of the Spirit.  If you do so, you will not, you cannot, gratify the lusts of the flesh.”[3]   Ronald Fung speaks of the “… inevitable result of life lived by the Spirit,”[4] that we will not carry out the desire of the flesh.

Timothy George connects the promise to the experience of the Galatians:

“Paul had earlier reminded the Galatians of how they received the Holy Spirit upon hearing him preach the message of Christ and His cross (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.”[5]

As mentioned before, Paul specifically has in mind the anger, contentiousness, and fighting that threatened to tear the churches asunder (vv. 13-15).  These are incompatible with true Christian faith; this is not how Christians normally act.  Can we behave in this manner?  Of course we can, and we do.  Who among us has not had to endure the bickering and fighting related to “music wars,” or other highly contentious debates in our churches?

The point is, however, that no one should say, “Well, this kind of behavior is normal for us Christians; this is just the way we are.  Try as we might, we will fail.”  In some of our darker moments, it may seem like that is the case, but Paul never takes this view.  Living in and being led by the Spirit supernaturally produces a life of obedience to God in general, and specifically in this case, a life demonstrating love for one another (v. 14 and the emphasis on love in the fruit of the Spirit, vv. 22- 23).

The Question of “Flesh”

Verse 17 states, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.

Paul’s varied use of “flesh” is important. In v. 13, it has the connotation of the sinful nature, while in v. 25 “flesh” appears to be another way of referring to the “old man” of Romans 6:6, since both have been crucified.  If so, “flesh” in Gal. 5:24 represents the life of the Galatians before coming to Christ.  This also makes good sense of “the deeds of the flesh” in vv. 19-21a, since “those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (v. 21b)

Thus, the contrast inherent in the “fruit of the Spirit” and “the deeds of the flesh” was not intended by Paul to distinguish an obedient Christian from a disobedient Christian; the issue goes much deeper.  Paul is suggesting that if these works of the flesh characterize the Galatian believers, they have no reason to think that they are saved.  Because vv. 16-17 introduce vv. 19-21, very likely the same contrast is intended in these verses.  Even if this interpretation is granted, which is debatable, a problem still remains with the final clause, “so that you may not do the things that you please.”  To what does this refer?  Does it mean that we are not able to do the good things that we want to do?  Or does it mean that we are not able to do the sinful things that we want to do?  Or both?

The answer rises from the next verse.  Whatever the thought of v. 17 is, it supports the principle of v. 16 (“for”), thus carrying the thought forward, instead of contradicting it.  C.F. Hogg and W.W. Vine take this approach, arguing that v. 17 confirms the declaration of v. 16.[6]  To do that, they must interpret the latter part of the verse in a way that is opposite the way this passage is often preached.

According to their interpretation, Paul is not saying that in the tug-of-war between the flesh and Spirit it is a toss-up as to which is the stronger and which will prevail.  In v. 16 Paul states emphatically that life in the Spirit leaves absolutely no room for the kind of life that we had before we were saved.  In v. 17, Paul explains why that is the case: the flesh and the Spirit are so diametrically opposed to each other that to walk by the Spirit means that we will not, can not, do the things that we otherwise would if we were controlled by the flesh.  Ben Witherington agrees:

“It is important to stress that the context here is positive, especially in view of the second half of v. 16, and furthermore Paul certainly does not think that the Spirit and the flesh are equal powers in the Christian’s life, or in the life of the Christian community.  It must be remembered that in Paul’s own earlier argument he stressed that the Galatians had already started in the Spirit, and he was warning them against finishing or bringing the Christian life to a conclusion in the flesh. (3.3)  Gal. 5:16ff  is a further development of this earlier idea introduced by way of rhetorical question.  The context therefore suggests it is unlikely that Paul is here speaking of the flesh frustrating the following of the Spirit’s lead or of a stalemate of flesh and Spirit.”[7]

An argument supporting this line of reasoning is the significance of the contrast between Spirit and flesh in Pauline thought.  Charles B. Cousar removes the contrast from the realm of the inner nature of the Christian to that of the forces at work in the world, an eschatological, salvation-history perspective.

“'[F]lesh,’ precisely because of its polarity to the Spirit, becomes associated with the old age, the field of force invaded by the Spirit . . . .  It is misleading in this context to translate sarx (“flesh”) as “lower nature” (NEB), “sinful nature” (NIV), or “human nature” (TEV), as if it were an anthropological term, implying that the individual is divided into two parts, a spiritual nature and a fleshly nature.  Instead, the Spirit and the flesh are two powers engaged in an apocalyptic combat, with the battlefield being the Galatian congregation.”[8]

In a similar context, that dealing with the Law, Paul develops the Spirit-flesh contrast in the way that Cousar has suggested.  In Romans 8:1-11, Paul is clearer that “Spirit” has to do with the realm of the saved and “flesh” with the realm of the unsaved.  While it is not as clear here, one can see the saved-unsaved contrast surface in v. 21, as was just mentioned.  Those who do the works of the flesh cannot excuse their behavior because they are immature, carnal Christians.  Paul does not give them this option.  If these things characterize their lives, they have good reason to question their profession to have received the Spirit.

The interpretation that v. 17 confirms the meaning of v. 16, while it fits nicely with the overall thrust of 5:16-25, still leaves questions. One is the fact that Paul says that Spirit and flesh oppose each other “so that you may not do what you want.”  Why stress the mutual opposition if his point was only to say that the Spirit overcomes the flesh?  This has led some scholars to take a different approach to the conflict between flesh and Spirit.  Cousar makes the following suggestion:

“The clause expresses purpose (and not result) and declares the intent of each power, namely, to thwart the work of the other.  As Williams comments, “The flesh and the Spirit oppose each other in order to keep Christians from doing what they might otherwise do if the other adversary were not on the field.”[9]  Nothing is implied about the status of the readers until 5:18.  . . . The readers are not victimized by a standoff between the flesh and the Spirit because their identity and allegiance are with the Spirit.”[10]

One must keep in mind that Cousar does not see “flesh” as the sinful nature, but rather as the realm (his “old age”) in which sin, fueled by the Law, holds sway over sinful mankind.

A variation on Cousar’s view is that “flesh” is the sinful nature of a Christian, at the same time retaining the overall sense of victory.  Thus, “so that you may not do the things that you please” refers to both the willing to do good and also the willing to do wrong.  This is the way Fung takes it.  “The verse then means that in the Spirit-flesh conflict, it is impossible for the believer to remain neutral: he either serves the flesh or follows the Spirit.”[11]  See also F.F. Bruce[12] and John Eadie[13] for the view that 5:17b refers to both.  Eadie’s thinking on the phrase “these are in opposition to one another” is as follows:

“Both these interpretations [flesh or Spirit are victorious] are therefore wrong; for the words are used of actual contest, not of decided mastery on either side.  The phrase [‘for these are in opposition to one another’] describes not only actual antagonism, but undecided result.  It is true in the case of all who are born again, that the conflict ends in the victory of the spirit, but the apostle here does not include the issue, he speaks only of the contest.”[14]

While this interpretation is possible, it does not work well as an explanation for the positive statement in v. 16.  Explanations, by their very nature, assuming they are crafted wisely, are never so complex as to leave readers in a state of greater confusion.   The best choice, then, seems to be that the clause “so that you may not do the things that you please” refers to the things of the flesh—the contentious, unloving behavior threatening to destroy the church (vv. 13-15).  Witherington settles on this as the best solution:

“. . . I thus conclude, especially in view of the warnings to the Galatians in this very context about avoiding acting on the desires of the flesh which lead to various works of the flesh, that ‘what you want’ refers to these sinful desires or inclinations and that Paul is saying in essence that the purpose of the conflict or tension in the Christian life, the purpose of the eschatological warfare between flesh and Spirit in their midst in which they must be active participants, is so that they will not act out their sinful desires.  This is precisely what the assurance in v. 16 was about and v. 17 just reinforces the point.”[15]

This interpretation corrects a common misconception, and this understanding is further supported by the passage’s neat envelope structure.  At the end we find this assertion: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (v. 24)  Our decision of how to interpret v. 17 must take this statement, as well as v. 16, into account.  Paul seems to be saying the same thing in v. 16 and v. 24, namely, those who are saved no longer are in bondage to sin; they can and must live godly lives if they are Christ’s.  Verse 17 must not be taken in a way that contradicts this central message, no matter how one understands the contest between flesh and Spirit.

The Key to Understanding

Galatians 5:18 concludes, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” In many sermons, the speaker has ignored this verse or passed by it so quickly as hardly to be noticed.  This is extremely unfortunate, because when rightly understood, it provides the theological background for making sense of the previous two verses. It is the key that unlocks the meaning of this entire section.  

This verse is incomprehensible apart from a wider knowledge of Pauline theology with respect to the Spirit, the Law, the flesh and sin.  We need first to understand Paul’s thinking about what it means to be “led by the Spirit.” He is not referring to a subjective leading of the Spirit in the life of the individual Christian.  Furthermore, he is not talking primarily about sanctification (sanctification is, of course, in the background) with this terminology, which takes on somewhat of a technical meaning for him.

Thus, the contrast is not between a Spirit-filled Christian and a disobedient Christian.  The contrast is what Paul says here that it is—to be led by the Spirit is not to be under the Law.  In Pauline theology, Law and Spirit are two realms, two spheres of existence.  To be under Law is to be unsaved and bound in sin; to be led by the Spirit is to experience the life and freedom that the Spirit gives.  In other words, as was mentioned earlier, to be led by the Spirit is the mark of all the saved; to be under the Law characterizes the unsaved Jew.  Elsewhere Paul makes this explicit: “For all who are being led by the Spirit, these are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

Also critical to understanding this statement is recognizing the connection between two closely related themes in Paul’s theology, the first being “under the Law” and the second being in bondage to sin.  The relationship of Law to sin has been a major emphasis since chapter 3.  To understand how Paul develops these key themes in chapters 3 and 4 is to understand his statement in 5:18.

Law is set against the Spirit in the opening of chapter 3, vv. 3-5.  This essential opposition between the two was a principle of critical importance for the Galatians, since a group of agitators was pressing for the Gentiles to be circumcised and to observe certain Jewish rituals.  Only by observing Torah could these Gentiles be considered part of the people of God.  Paul fights against this notion, and frames his argument in terms of Law vs. Spirit.  This is the way he begins the chapter.

Did the Galatians receive the Spirit by observing Torah, or through their common faith in Jesus? (v. 2) Are they maturing in their faith, and are they experiencing miracles in their presence as a result of Torah or the Spirit?  These rhetorical questions were meant to contrast Jewish life under Torah and life together—Jew and Gentile—in the Spirit.  While the bondage-to-sin theme is not introduced in the early part of chapter 3, failure under the Law is clearly asserted from vv. 10-14.

The theme of unsaved Jews being bound to sin while under the Law is expressed first in non-metaphorical language (vv. 15-22) and then in the metaphor of the Law as pedagogue (vv. 23-29).  In the former section, Paul clearly states the relationship between the Law and sin: “Why the Law then?  It was added because of transgressions” [that is, to mark sin out as transgressions] (v. 19).

Yahweh needed to convince His people they were in need of a right standing with Him, so He gave them Torah, which they could not and did not keep.  God’s intent is then illustrated by Paul with the metaphor of a strict teacher.  Israel under the Law was in bondage to sin in a similar way that a minor child under the tutelage of a pedagogue lacked the freedom of an adult son.  Only in Christ could they be set free from the bondage of sin and spiritual death.

The bondage theme becomes even more pronounced in the pedagogue metaphor in Gal. 4:3, “So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world,” a reference at least to Torah and perhaps to any system of laws that in and of themselves could not grant spiritual life.

Taking all of these aspects into consideration, we realize the profound significance of v. 18.  The reason the Galatians can, should and must live in love with one another is that they (Paul is particularly aiming his comments at the Jews) have been freed from their former bondage to sin while they were “under the Law,” denoting the time before they came to be “led by the Spirit.”  The old life was characterized by failure to do what Yahweh commanded. Their new life in the Spirit has freed them to live godly lives.


Galatians 5:16-18 is far too important in the life of the church not to be correctly understood and taught.   It heads one of the most familiar texts in all the New Testament regarding the Christian life, the works of the flesh, and the fruit of the Spirit.  This text needs to be proclaimed in a way consistent with Paul’s conviction. We who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh—our old way of life, dominated by sin—and now have the ability to live a godly life. May we hear more of this great victory brought through Christ.

[1] I use “victorious” as John does in 1 John 3:7-9; 5:4,5; etc. not with triumphal, “higher life” connotations characteristic of 18th and 19th century Methodism, with its perfectionistic tendencies.

[2] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians, New International Greek Testament Commentary, eds. I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Gasque (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 243.

[3]J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1921), 209.

[4]Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 248.

[5]Timothy George, Galatians, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994), 386.

[6]C. F. Hogg and W. W. Vine, The Epistle to the Galatians, reprint (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, n.d.), 279.

[7] Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia—A Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 394.

[8]Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 102.

[9]Sam K. Williams, Galatians, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 149.

[10]Ibid., 103.

[11] Fung, Galatians., 251.

[12]Bruce, Galatians, 244-45.

[13]John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, reprint (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 409-10.

[14] Ibid., 411.

[15]Witherington, Galatians, 394.

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