We like rules and guidelines. As much as we complain about them, rules give us a sense of being okay. Rules allow us to justify our actions regardless of the rule itself is just or right. Throughout Paul’s letter, he challenges the Galatians to a different standard. In many ways, Galatians 5:16-18 answers an unasked but ever-present question – Since we’re called to freedom, how do we avoid sin if not through obedience to the Law?
Paul answers, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” (Galatians 5:16–18, NASB95) If you walk by the Spirit, all is well. If you walk by the flesh, then we have a problem. But how do we know the difference
Deeds of the flesh
Paul provides one of his famous lists, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19–21, NASB95) If we’re honest, we’ve all fallen prey to one or more of these. The warning at the end is dire, but we need to provide some context. It doesn’t mean if we fall once or twice, but if we constantly practice these things without remorse, then it is wise to question if the Spirit is in us.
Fruit of the Spirit
In comparison to the deeds of the flesh, Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22–23, NASB95) There is no law here. Meaning the fruit never violates the Law, and there are no rules or boundaries which can contain them. You are free to grow all the fruit of the Spirit you can handle. Here’s the difference, we choose and pursue the deeds of the flesh. And nearly all of them are outward, visible behaviors. The fruit of the Spirit, on the other hand, is grown inside of us and then acts towards the world we encounter. It is the Spirit that grows the fruit, but we must be open to growth and change.
The truth is that those who have put their trust in Christ have put our old man to death. Paul writes, “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:24–26, NASB95). You see, even here, the flesh can creep in as we “inspect” the fruit of others instead of encouraging the fruit of others.
The temptation here is to create another set of rules and laws. XYZ is walking by the Spirit; ABC is not. Some of this will be obvious. But some is simply a regurgitation of religious legalism in another form. The question comes down to grace, can we offer the same grace we’ve received from God to others?
We don’t avoid sin by creating a list of dos and don’ts. It is impossible to create a set of rules which covers every eventuality. It’s been tried before and failed – one example is the Pharisees. Sin is avoided through walking by the Spirit, seeking to please and worship God. This requires an honest look at our choices, attitudes, and words. What is really motivating us? But also know this – we are constantly learning and growing in how to walk with the Spirit more fully.