The Gospel in Galatians
 by E.H.  “Jack” Sequeira 

13 – Spirit Versus Flesh

In Luke’s gospel, we have an account of Christ’s visit to his home town, Nazareth.  He goes to the synagogue on Sabbath and the priest hands him the scroll of Isaiah to read.  He opens it to what we know as chapter 61 and reads verses 1 and 2, “The Year of the Lord’s Favor”:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn....

As our introduction to our study, we will read what Jesus read and how he responded to it.  Luke 4:18-21:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Christ came to set us free.  But free from what?  The apostle Paul, whom God chose to expound the good news of salvation, proclaimed — in his epistles and, especially, in Romans and Galatians 5:1-15 — that this freedom was freedom from the guilt and condemnation of the law, freedom from legalism, that is, using the law or good works as a method of salvation and freedom from the power and our slavery to sin.

This freedom, as we saw in our last study examining Galatians 5:13-15, does not give us license to sin but sets us free to live a life of self-control and loving service.  But, how can we live such a life?  This is the question that many sincere Christians ask.  “We appreciate the assurance of salvation that the gospel brings to us,” they say, “but how do we live the Christian life, a life of self-control, a life of loving service?  We are still struggling in our Christian experience.”

This study, Galatians 5:16-26, answers that question.  But before we examine this passage, it is important for us, as Christians, to understand what takes place in us, at our conversion, when we believe and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior.  This change in us takes place in our minds.  Our English Bible calls this repentance.  The Greek word means a change of mind, a making of a U-turn of the mind.  But no change takes place to our flesh or to our sinful nature.  In Ephesians 2:3, Paul tells us that the unbeliever follows a life of sin with his flesh, or, sinful nature and also with his mind:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.  Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

But, in Romans 7:15-25 (see text below), where he discusses the experience of the believer who has not yet learned and understood to walk in the Spirit or who is still trying to live under the law, the apostle Paul tells us that there is a total contradiction between the flesh, which is unchangeable, and the mind, which has made a U-turn.

The second thing that we need to realize at conversion is that we experience what is known as regeneration or the new birth.  2 Peter 1:2-4 tells us that we become partakers of the divine nature:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.  His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

In the dialogue Jesus had with Nicodemus in John 3:5-8, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Nicodemus, you need to be born again.  You need to be born from above.  You need to be born of the Spirit.”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

These twofold experiences every true, genuine believer has gone through — a change of mind and the new birth — brings about a great tension between the converted mind and the Spirit, and the unconverted flesh which still is part of our being.  Paul graphically describes this struggle between the converted mind and the unconverted and unconvertible flesh in Romans 7:15-24:

I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work:  Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?

But our question is, “Can we, as Christians, overcome the flesh?” Do we have to live with this frustrating tension between the converted mind that desires to do good, to obey the law of God, to fulfill the will of God, and the unconvertible flesh that desires and loves to sin?

Because of this frustrating experience, there are many Christians who question their conversion when they face such turmoil.  But the fact is, the believer has two natures.  These two natures are at war with each other.  This will continue until our dying day.  A believer still has a sinful nature with which he was born.  But because of the new birth experience, regeneration, the believer also becomes partaker of the divine nature.  These two natures, the flesh and the Spirit are at constant war with each other.  Hence the tension between flesh and Spirit is in reality a good sign.  It is evidence of our conversion.  If we don’t have this tension then we need to question whether we are a born again Christian.

But that still doesn’t answer the question, “Can this sinful flesh, which contradicts the desires of the converted mind, be subdued and conquered?” Romans 7 proves, clearly, without any shadow of a doubt, that our converted minds, no matter how sincere they are or how strong-willed we are, cannot, and I repeat, cannot in and of themselves conquer the flesh.  Yes, it is possible, by using our willpower, to subdue the flesh for a season, but to overcome it, to conquer it, the answer is, “No.” Paul’s conclusion in Romans 7:24-25a is:

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

How does Jesus do it?  The answer is found in Galatians 5:16-26.  Paul makes it absolutely clear that, through the indwelling Spirit, we can mortify the deeds of the flesh.

With this background, we are now ready to examine this passage.  He is talking to believers whom he has convinced to stand free in the freedom they have in Jesus Christ.  Galatians 5:16-26:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The acts of the flesh are obvious:  sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

This is a tremendous passage in terms of Christian living.

Remember that Christian living is the fruits of the gospel.  It makes no contribution to our acceptance before God.  We are accepted by God and before God on the basis of the doing and dying of Jesus Christ and nothing else.  The only way you and I can be accepted before God is through the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  The Galatians had sidetracked from this wonderful truth because they had submitted to the false teaching of the Judaizers, that, besides believing in Christ, you must be circumcised and you must keep the law of Moses and so on.  Keep in mind that Christian living, wonderful as it may be, does not contribute one iota towards our salvation.  It carries no merit with it.  Christian living is the fruits of the gospel.  It is the evidence that we are already justified.  We are already perfect in Christ through faith in His life and death, through His shed blood.

Paul says to Christians, “I say then, walk in the Spirit and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” Then, in verse 17, he describes the tremendous tension and the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit:

For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.

Verse 17 is an explanation of verse 16.  If we read verse 17 by itself, it sounds as though Christians are incapable of living a life of godliness, loving service, a life that is pleasing to God.  But, in verse 16, Paul tells us that as we, as Christians, walk in the Spirit, then, we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.  He is not talking about walking by building up our willpower.  The will cannot conquer the flesh but, if we walk in the Spirit, we shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.  We have sinful natures that are constantly bombarding us with sinful desires.  We don’t have to be convinced of this because we are all familiar with it.

Can we say, “No” to our flesh?  The mind may be able to say “No” to the flesh for a season but, sooner or later, especially when we are tired or under pressure, the mind gives in and the flesh takes over.  It takes the mind into captivity and makes us do what our converted minds hate to do.  This is the Romans 7 experience.  But Paul is telling us, in Galatians 5:16 and in Romans 8:5 onwards, that, if we walk in the Spirit, if we allow the Holy Spirit to control our minds, then, the flesh will actually be subdued and conquered so that the flesh will not be able to do what it wants to do.  Galatians 5:16:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Romans 8:5-8:

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.  The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.  Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

Galatians 5:19-21 is helpful:

The acts of the flesh are obvious:  sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Notice that, when the sinful acts are produced in the believer, these are referred to as works of the flesh.  But, Paul tells us in Romans 8:9 onwards, that we Christians are not of the flesh because we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior.  Romans 8:9-13:

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.  And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.  But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness.  And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation — but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it.  For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

We are now born again Christians.  We are to be walking in newness of life which is the Spirit.  And if we walk in the Spirit, if we are led by the Spirit then we are not under the law.  Paul is saying in verse 18 of Galatians 5:

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

What does it mean by this?  To be under the law, as we saw earlier, means that we are living under the jurisdiction of the law.  To live under the jurisdiction of the law means that we must obey the law in and of ourselves in order to be saved.  To be under law means that the law requires us, as individuals, through our own self effort, to obey it perfectly.  If we disobey, we shall die.

It is only under grace, only when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, only under the umbrella of righteousness or justification by faith alone, that the Holy Spirit is given to us.  The questions Paul asked in Galatians 3:1-5 were:

You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.  I would like to learn just one thing from you:  Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?  Are you so foolish?  After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?  Have you experienced so much in vain — if it really was in vain?  So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

God gives us His Spirit only when we recognize that we are total sinners, one hundred percent sinners, incapable of saving ourselves.  Therefore, we have, by faith, accepted the gift of God, Jesus Christ, as our righteousness and our redemption and our security and as our obedience to salvation.

The work of the Holy Spirit is not to produce righteousness in us in order to save us.  We are saved by the doing and dying of Christ and nothing else.  The work of the Holy Spirit is to make real in our experience this salvation because, in the salvation that God obtained for all men in Jesus Christ which Christians have accepted by faith, we have salvation full and complete in the holy history of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  This includes salvation from the guilt and punishment of sin, salvation from the power and slavery to sin, and salvation from the presence and nature of sin — all three are ours by faith in Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit is sent into our lives to make this real in our experience.

The moment we accept Jesus Christ by faith the Holy Spirit comes and dwells in us.  We experience the new birth, or regeneration.  The first thing that the Holy Spirit does is to convince us that we are children of God.  We are no longer slaves to sin but free people, children of God.  We have been set free by the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit works in us with His power to subdue and conquer the flesh so that the will of God, which we could not keep before our conversion, will now become a reality as we walk in the Spirit.  Finally, at the Second Coming of Christ, “the perishable will be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” [1 Corinthians 15:54].

But here in Galatians 5, Paul is dealing with what we call sanctification, Christian living.  From beginning to end, the walk of the Christian is a walk of faith alone.  We are justified by faith alone.  We are sanctified by faith alone.  This is not sitting back and doing nothing because faith is always a struggle.  Faith is saying, “Not I, but Christ.” For us to say, “Not I, but Christ” always involves a struggle because, by nature, we are self-dependent.  By nature, we are egocentric; therefore, there is a struggle.  Paul calls it a fight of faith.

When we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, faith is not simply a mental assent to truth; faith is saying that I am crucified with Christ.  In other words, “I was executed” or, as Paul says in Romans 6:6, the old self life died with Christ on the cross so that my Adamic, egocentric, sinful life that I was born with, was submitted to my death on the cross, through faith.  In exchange, I accept the life of Christ which Jesus gave me at the cross.  Romans 6:6-7:

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

At the cross, the corporate life of the human race, that stands condemned under God’s law, died.  Paul tells us in Romans 6:7, “He that is dead to sin is freed [or justified] from sin.”  Or he says in Romans 7:1, the law has dominion over us as long as we are living:

Do you not know, brothers and sisters — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?

The moment we die, we are freed from under the jurisdiction of the law.  The law was not done away with at the cross; we were done away with.  The old life was done away with.  In exchange, we receive a new life.

We read these wonderful, sublime statements in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

It is not I but Christ who lives in me.  This is the fundamental principle of genuine Christianity.  From beginning to end, the formula of the gospel is the same, “Not I, but Christ.”

Here Paul is telling us we need to put into practice this truth that we accepted and which led to our conversion.  When Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ” in Galatians 2:20, he uses the perfect tense, which in Greek means something that took place in the past but is still going on.

When we accept Christ, we are submitting to something that took place at the cross.  But the effect of that submission must go on throughout our lives.  It is the same as making the marriage vow.  When a man and woman are married, they make vows to each other.  This takes place once, but now they have to put those vows into practice as they live the marriage life.  So, also, the Christian must put into practice what he has submitted to by faith when he first came to Christ.  In view of this, we walk in the Spirit.

Paul explains “walking in the Spirit” in Romans 8:5 onwards [text above].  The minds of those who are walking in the Spirit are preoccupied with the things of the Spirit.  The minds of those who are walking in the flesh are preoccupied with the things of the flesh.  This can be explained very simply.  As already mentioned, a converted, born again Christian has two natures.  He has the old nature which is dead by faith but in reality is still there, and he has a new, born again nature.  He is a partaker of the divine nature.  Therefore, we have two natures.  Both these natures have desires.  The flesh wants to sin.  The Spirit wants to live a life pleasing to God.  Both these natures put these desires into the converted mind.  The flesh cannot do what it wants without the consent of the mind.  Also, the Spirit cannot do what it wants without the consent of the mind.  The Battleground in Christian living is the mind.

When a Christian is walking in the Spirit, preoccupied with spiritual things, praying without ceasing — which means keeping our minds totally connected with the Spirit — then the Spirit will give the mind the power to say “No” to the flesh.  Since the Spirit of Christ is stronger than the law of sin and death in us, the Spirit will gain victory every time.

But the Spirit does more than gain victory in our lives.  It also produces fruit.  Notice in Galatians 5:22-23a, Christian living is not works but it is fruit bearing:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The flesh does works because it originates from us but what the Holy Spirit produces in us does not originate in us or through us but through the Holy Spirit.  Yes, it is produced in us, but the source of that holy righteous living, that life of self-control and loving service is produced in us through the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, Paul calls it fruit bearing.  The fruit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering and so on.  Verse 23b:

Against such things there is no law.

Therefore, what we fail to do under law we can now do under grace.

Paul ends this wonderful chapter 5 of Galatians by saying that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with all its desires and passions.  We must live by the Spirit because Christianity is not simply accepting Christ as our Savior mentally, but Christianity is participating in Christ.  To participate in Christ we must constantly say, “Not I, but Christ.” This is the truth that sets us free, not only free from condemnation of the law but free to live a life that is pleasing to God.  Galatians 5:24-26:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

We will end with 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Paul tells us that we who are set free in Christ, looking at Christ with open face, are transformed from glory to glory, even by the Spirit of the Lord.


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