Galatians 5:16 says: “… walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” But how do I walk by the Spirit? How do my daily actions take on that aroma of Christ, and what does walking by the Spirit even look like?
First, Paul’s guidance here suggests that the reader is actively seeking a way to resist the flesh and that the Holy Spirit is living inside him, so this is not guidance for outsiders or nonbelievers. In fact, before I opened the door to Jesus, I had no real hope of not carrying out my flesh’s desires. My corrupt heart wanted to do them; why would I resist? I needed a new heart before walking according to anything other than my flesh was going to take place, and Jesus accomplished that work once He came in (for more on this idea, see “The Christian’s Heart”).
Receiving a spiritual “heart transplant” was the catalyst for my transformation; sanctification or being made like Christ (1 Jn. 3:2) starts there for every believer and continues throughout the portion of our lives we spend on this earth. Indwelling the new heart, the Holy Spirit changes His approach. He no longer needs to influence the believer from without, like a strange external force, because He now lives within and begins explaining and applying God’s word to us. Who better, since He is the Author!
So as a man following Christ on the road of sanctification, how do I deny my lingering flesh what it demands and respond to the Holy Spirit instead? Paul makes it clear that my flesh has been crucified (Gal 5:24-35), but how do I “walk by the Spirit?” One hint is in the next verse from 1 John 3: “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” (v. 3) Paul also provides direction for this troubling question in Colossians 3:8-13, targeting specific sinful thoughts and actions. Peter reinforces this in 1 Peter 2:1-3. Both passages instruct believers to “put aside” deceit, slander, abusive speech and others (see referenced passages for more). These are not demands for absolute perfection; nor are they unattainable, for God is not capricious.
The truth is that, though my flesh has been crucified, it is still dying on the cross. Though its efforts are futile for eternity, they can still hinder my growth and effectiveness for Christ. The Father knows this and provides the Holy Spirit, His word, the peace of Christ, true faith, knowledge of salvation – all defenses and weapons He has designed for us to don and employ in the battle. (Eph. 6:10-17) But we must lift them, put them on, learn to wield them well.
For those who claim sanctification is 100 percent God’s doing, or that all works by believers are sinful still, these passages can be problematic. While all the strength is certainly God’s, we are called to “be strong… in the strength of His might.” (Eph. 6:10) and to “rid yourselves” of fleshly attitudes and actions (Col. 3:8, NIV) Among many other portions of Scripture which deal with this most agonizing yet critical topic these clearly describe the essential role of the believer’s choice and will.
Without Jesus, the only hope any of us have is merely that which we have desperately imagined. It is utterly hopeless for one who is still under the law, still unrestored to fellowship, even sonship, with the Father, to walk by the Spirit. But for he who trusts in God’s work accomplished through the sacrifice and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ, sin has been cleansed, his heart is new, and the Holy Spirit has come to live there. That man has access to the One Who made all things and promises deliverance, but he still must ask and then be willing to act.
God’s redemptive intent springs to life and brings the reality of His vanquishment of death to the forefront of our days. If you know Christ and He is Lord to you, though your flesh continuously attempts to regain its former authority, know that it can not; God’s work is not temporary or passing. You are redeemed! As John 3:31-36 irrevocably establishes, “He who comes from heaven [Jesus] is above all… the Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
The tension you feel, the anxiety, the indecision, the good choices and the bad – these are all signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence within you, busily fulfilling God’s promises. See them as evidence of His gift – you’ve been given new legs! They’re designed to walk by the Spirit. But, like a new foal or fawn, you stagger around, stumbling occasionally, stretching and getting used to them. Don’t fear that. Don’t interpret the difficulty as unforeseen or proof that you’re just not redeemable – believe His promise. Through the agreement of His surpassing power and love and our trust in Him, He will bring each of us home and invite others along the way.