This article is the 16th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. To read other articles in this series click here.
According to Romans 8:3-8, there are two alternative ways of living. One can walk by the flesh, with a mind focused on the flesh, or one can walk by the Spirit, with a mind focused on the Spirit (see Part 15). In the book of Galatians, Paul stresses a very similar point.
Two Ways of Living
Paul spent a considerable part of his letter to the Galatians arguing that those who are in Christ are free, both from their pagan past and from the demands of the Jewish law.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.Galatians 5:1
For you were called to freedom, brothers.Galatians 5:13a
But Paul also emphasized that a Christian’s freedom comes with responsibility. A Christian’s freedom must not be abused as an opportunity to emphasize the flesh, but is for the specific purpose of loving and serving one another. Unfortunately, the controversies in the Galatian churches led to behavior that Paul could describe as “biting” and “devouring” one another.
Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.Galatians 5:13b-15
It is then that Paul makes his point. If Christians are going to fulfill the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” there is only one way to do this. This cannot be accomplish by them in emphasizing, or finding their true identity in the “flesh” by getting circumcised. Emphasizing the flesh ultimately leads to a disastrous way of life. It can only happen by the Spirit.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.Galatians 5:16-24
Crucified with Christ
Underneath these two contrasting lists (the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit) lies Paul’s understanding of what happens in baptism. Notice that Paul concludes his two lists by speaking of those who “belong to Christ Jesus” who have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” As noted previously (Part 12), Paul assumed that all Christians had been baptized in the Spirit and had the Spirit who was sent into their heart (cf. Gal. 3:2-7, 27-28; 4:4-7).
First Paul describes the condition he refers to as “in the flesh.” Those who find their identity by emphasizing their fleshly characteristics will ultimately produce the “works of the flesh.” But those who belong to Christ Jesus have gone through a “crucifixion” with him (cf. Gal. 2:20; Rom 6:1-4) . What they have “crucified” is the kind of life which is driven the passions and desires of the flesh. As a result of their “crucifixion” they now begin to bear new “fruit.”
The Spirit and Self-Control
It is important to note that the nine attributes described by Paul as the fruit of the Spirit (i.e. love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control) are not characteristics which will develop by a person’s own efforts apart from the Spirit. But neither should we imagine these attributes as things which simply happen “to” a Christian without them thinking or intending to practice them. Christians must make up their minds to live this way. It is not a matter of simply being baptized, and then putting our bodies on autopilot mode while the Spirit takes over control.
If that were the case, there would be no reason for what Paul says next.
If we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.Galatians 5:25
Similar to what Paul says in Romans 8:5-8, if we are going to walk by the Spirit, we must intentionally keep our minds focused on, and submissive to the path that the Spirit lays before us. Contrary to the idea of the Spirit taking control of someone’s mind or body, Paul says “self-control” is part of the fruit of the Spirit. A Spirit-filled, Spirit-led life is a self-controlled, self-disciplined life. It is a life which intentionally follows the footprints laid by God’s Spirit.
Paul’s point is that if we choose to follow the steps laid by God’s Spirit, God’s breath, God’s words, and God’s way of thinking (cf. Part 1), this is the kind of fruit we will see in our life. When Christians demonstrate these characteristics, it can only be attributed to God’s Spirit, because this fruit will not develop when we follow our own steps, or the steps of any other man.
The Importance of the Spirit
The point Paul makes is as relevant for the church today as it was then. There are many today who emphasize the need for love, patience, kindness, goodness, etc. with an attitude towards God’s word that deemphasizes doctrine whenever they fear it will lead to arguments or disagreement. There are others who are so passionate about defending “the truth” (or rather their party or sect’s definition of the truth; a false “truth” which is determined by their fleshly identity) that their lives are filled with fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.
Paul’s answer to these two errors is short and clear. As Christians, we must be people who are determined to follow His Spirit, His breath, His words, and His way of thinking. If we live by the Spirit, our lives will bear His fruit.
Christians who are concerned with speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) do themselves a disservice when they do not ground in their teaching, as Paul did, in a biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit.