At the close of his State of the Union address before Congress on January 6, 1942, and only a month after declaring war on the Axis powers, President Franklin Roosevelt shared his vision about the kind of world he wanted after the war was over. He said four basic freedoms should be guaranteed to all people: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. But that world and our own needs a fifth freedom: freedom from the tyranny of our sinful nature. One of Paul’s major themes in Galatians is freedom and how we can be emancipated from our sin.
In our passage today, Paul first gives a command: Walk in the Spirit (16-18). Paul is confronting the Judaizers, who taught that justification and sanctification came about at least in part by keeping the law. No amount of religious legislation can change man’s basic sin nature. It is not law imposed on the outside, but love implanted on the inside that changes a person (Rom 7:15 – 8:4). There are 14 references to the Holy Spirit in this book. The Spirit is the key to living to a victorious Christian life. “Walk” implies progress, moving from where you are to where you should be, and involves action. It takes effort and is an ongoing way of life. The Christian life is not passive surrender; it requires great effort, as in combat or an athletic endeavor (v17). The solution though is not to pit our will against the flesh, but to surrender our will to the Holy Spirit. Being “led by the Spirit” or “walking in the Spirit” is the opposite of “yielding to the flesh.” Some will say, “I’ve tried the Christian life and it didn’t work.” There is absolutely no way you can be defeated in the Christian life if you walk in the Spirit. This is a command from God, but conflict will come. However, God never commands something He doesn’t provide the means to accomplish.
But next, see the conflict, the warring of the two natures (17, 19-23). Flesh or “sarx” is not referring to the body; the body is not sinful but neutral. Flesh refers to the carnal man, the old man, the un-surrendered self that stands in opposition to the work of the Spirit. Spirit and flesh have different appetites and perspectives, hence the conflict. Paul’s list of fleshly works is not exhaustive, but representative (see also (Mark 7:20-23; Rom 1:29-32; I Tim. 1:9-10; II Tim 3:2-5)
In this list we find three major categories of sin. First, there are sensual sins (19, 21b). Adultery and fornication, from the word “porneia,” are all sexual immorality. Uncleanness refers to a corrupted heart and mind that is defiled and sees filth in common phrases and pictures. Lewdness describes a wanton sexual appetite that knows no shame and is devoid of concern for others. Drunkenness and revelries or orgies are self-explanatory.
There are also superstitious sins (relating to spiritual realm) (20a). Idolatry is putting things ahead of God and people. We are to worship God, love people, and use things – too often we love self, use people, worship things, and leave God out. Witchcraft or sorcery is from the word “pharmakeia” and refers to drugs. Ancient religions and occult practices today use drugs to move adherents to an altered state of consciousness.
Lastly, we see social sins (20b-21a). Hatred is desiring the worst towards someone. Contentions is our word for strife. Jealousies mean desiring what others are or have. Wrath refers to angry outbursts. Selfish ambitions, dissensions, and heresies all refer to causing divisions or creating cliques. Those who practice these things are barred from Heaven! But there is no middle ground between flesh and spirit–we are either in one category or the other.
There is a contrast between “works of the flesh” (plural) and “fruit of the Spirit” (singular). No one could habitually do all the sins of the flesh, but the fruit of the Spirit is produced completely in all believers. Fruit grows out of life. When you hear the word “works,” you think, effort, labor, strain. When you hear the word “fruit,” think beauty, quietness, the unfolding of life. Some groups emphasize the showy, charismatic gifts but neglect Christian character that is emphasized in verses 22-23. Fruit is to be eaten, not put on display yet all around us are people starving for these fruits. There is no law that can produce this fruit (23b). The law may curb sin, but it cannot produce fruit.
Finally, Paul talks about the conquest, wrestling with the flesh (24-25). Crucifixion was used by the Romans to make examples out of a defeated foe. A defeated foe holds no power over anyone. Paul is reminding us as believers that our flesh has been crucified! Rendering us dead to the passions and desires of the flesh (24b).
Growing up on a farm, we butchered our own meat. When a batch of chickens quit laying eggs, Dad would chop their heads off and Mom would scald them in boiling water before plucking off the feathers. Decapitated chickens were very scary to us kids because the head of the chicken would be lying beside the chopping block but the body of the bird would be flopping and flying about. Those chickens were dead and harmless, the message just hadn’t gotten through to their bodies yet.
Before salvation, our bodies and minds were very much alive to sin. We had to follow our master, but now we have been emancipated. The flesh is crucified and although we will wrestle with it as long as we are in this world, we do not have to serve its lusts and appetites any longer. Because of God’s provision, we can walk in the Spirit.