Walk by the Spirit, Not the Desires of the Flesh

“The Christian life is not a playground; it’s a battlefield.” I still remember the grey-bearded guest preacher who first spoke that sentence in a Bible college chapel service in the late 1980s.

If you think the Christian life is a playground then you’ll never get serious about holiness. You’ll never really push yourself. Instead you will just flit around, here and there. Over time, you might make a little progress toward growing up, but you’ll always find yourself gravitating back to the kiddie jungle gym where life is easy, and there is no real challenge. But every true Christ-follower knows firsthand that there is something more to the Christian life. There’s something more to fighting the good fight of faith.

There’s a struggle…always a struggle…between sin and righteousness. Yes, the struggle between good and evil can exist in an unbeliever, to some extent, unless their conscience has been so seared by repetitive sin that they no longer feel any tinge of guilt or longing to change. But the believer in Jesus, on the other hand, is more aware of the struggle because he has the Holy Spirit living within him. Here’s where remembering the Spirit’s first name is helpful. The Holy Spirit is holy. He is God. He is the third person of the trinity. Therefore, he grieves when we sin, and he empowers us to overcome sin, so that we may be transformed into the image of Christ. Since we are in a war, and the world, the flesh, and the devil are always working against the Spirit’s agenda, we must get serious. We must get serious about sanctification, overcoming sin, and becoming like Christ. But we cannot do it without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

In Galatians 5:16-21, the apostle directs every believer to live under the influence, and by the empowerment, of the Holy Spirit, not the desires of sinful flesh. He then gives two reasons. But, first, he gives a command. He begins with a word of contrast: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Why does verse 16 begin with the word, But? Well, you may remember from last Sunday, that in the previous verses, the apostle contrasts the flesh with love; that is, love is a higher principle than liberty. The libertine; that is, the person who uses freedom in Christ as an excuse to keep sinning, does not experience the same inner struggle that the true believer does. Why? Because he just keeps doing what his natural flesh wants him to do. But the Spirit-controlled believer walks differently.

What does it mean to “walk” by the Spirit?

Our “walk” is our pattern of life and conduct. It’s used this way throughout Scripture. William MacDonald describes it this way:

To walk in (or by) the Spirit is to allow Him 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 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.[1]

I would add this: To walk by the Spirit means to walk according to the ways of God that He revealed in His Word. I get this by interpreting Scripture with Scripture. The command to “be filled with the Spirit,” in Ephesians 5:18, parallels Colossians 3:16. Both of these Scriptures describe the kind of life that flows out of the heart that is filled with the Word of God. As I’ve said before, the Holy Spirit’s ministry is married to the Word of God. This is not “putting God in a box,” as some might accuse, but simply recognizing the Spirit’s own sovereign choice to work alongside Scripture, since it is the word of the living God.

Two reasons to walk by the Spirit

The apostle gives two reasons to live under the governance of the Spirit, not the desires of the flesh.

  1. You are a soldier in a spiritual war (vv. 17-18).
  2. You are a citizen of God’s kingdom (vv. 19-21).

If living by the desires of the flesh is your pattern of life then you need to check your spiritual birth certificate. Perhaps it’s a counterfeit. Again MacDonald writes, “The passage does not teach that a drunkard cannot be saved, but it does say that those whose lives are characterized by the above catalog of fleshly works are not saved.”[2] In other words, the fruit of your life—how you walk—tells the real story about whose kingdom you belong to, because a person’s verbal claims to know Jesus are sometimes hollow. A former pastor of ours used to say, “Your walk talks, and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.”

A warning from Jesus

In Matthew 7:16-23, Jesus warned against false professors:

You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

The call of God is clear. We must walk by the Spirit, not the desires of the flesh. In Christ, we are called to walk in a manner that is worthy of our calling. This requires that we get serious about fighting the war against the flesh. We are soldiers. But we are also citizens of a new kingdom.

While writing to the church in Ephesus, the apostle exhorts us:

…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.

(Eph. 5:8-10, 15-16)

Watch or listen to the sermon, “Walk by the Spirit” by searching on the title here.

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