War of the Soul: Empowered to Fight Through Walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-18)

The Day Peter Parker Was Transformed

Spider-Man is without a doubt my favorite, and probably the best super hero there ever was and will be. You probably know his story. He was a high school student in New York when the bite of a spider exposed to radiation grants Peter Parker all sorts of different powers such as super strength, the ability to shoot webs from his hands, and have “spidey-sense” (which enables him to be aware of danger). That day transformed Peter’s life.

As the story goes on, Peter’s Uncle Ben who is unaware of his powers tells him these famous words before he dies, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spider-Man had the choice to either restrain his powers, or unleash his powers for the good of others. Many times he restrained his powers and his friends and family suffered, but when he did use them, many people were saved from death at the hands of villains. It seemed like everyday there was a new villain in New York City, and I’ve always wondered if that was just a coincidence.

But since high school, Peter Parker was transformed, and was given an unbelievable power. We have a picture of what has happened in the Christian’s life from this story. We as believers in Christ have also been transformed and the Person who lives in us has incredible power. He is the Holy Spirit who teaches and helps us (John 14:26; Rom. 8:26), He is the Holy Spirit who convicts (John 16:7-15), He lives within us (Ezekiel 36:26-27; 1 John 4:4), and He is the Spirit who empowers us (Rom. 15:13).

However, when we decide to restrain His power, we fall into sin and we have no power to be obedient to God. But when we access His power, we can overcome sin and we will be given the strength we need to carry out God’s commands in obedience to Him.

That’s where our text from Galatians comes in. It teaches us that in order to unleash the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, we must walk by the Spirit of God in order to overcome sin , and have the freedom from self-effort and power to live in obedience to God. Let’s see how this happens. The best place to start is with the text.

The Text: Galatians 5:16-18, ESV

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

I. The Command to Walk by the Spirit (v. 16)

Notice first the command to walk by the Spirit. The idea in this verse is that if we will walk by the Spirit, we will overcome our sinful desires.

That’s what Paul tells the Galatians. If they walk by the Spirit, they will not carry out their sinful desires. Notice that Paul gives a command and a promise in v. 16 saying, “But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

A. The Command: Walk by the Spirit

First let’s look at his command: “walk by the Spirit.” We’re going to see first what this means. Paul tells the Galatians to walk by the Spirit of God. And really this term “walk” carries an interesting meaning. It was a Hebrew term that described one’s life, someone’s conduct, someone’s “walk of life.” We are familiar with this in the Old Testament:

“For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him” (Deut. 11:22).

“But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’” (Jeremiah 7:23)

This Hebraic term is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to picture one’s life. And life is a lot like walking isn’t it? Walking is something we learn to do. We are taught as a toddler how we are to walk. That’s how life is—it’s something we learn how to do. We learn how to interact with people, develop relationships, get jobs, have families, and so on.

Walking is also step-by-step. Life is a lot like that. It’s just one day at a time—one small step at a time. We learn one thing one day, and another the next. So we understand walking in the Scriptures as talking about our conduct, conducting one’s life, living step-by-step just like walking.

So Paul tells the Galatians to live step-by-step “by the Spirit.” Walking by the Spirit is a continuous, regular action. It is a habitual way of life. It is submitting every step of our daily lives to the Spirit’s control, so that He can move us forward in our Christian lives.

Now, already we live by the Spirit because He gives us new spiritual life. Everyone remembers what Jesus says to Nicodemus about this (John 3:3-6). This religious ruler talks with Jesus at night and Jesus tells him that he must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of heaven. Nicodemus is puzzled at Jesus’ statement, thinking that he means one must go back into his mother’s womb and be born a second time (gross right?). But Jesus tells him that He is talking about spiritual rebirth that happens through the Holy Spirit. So it is with every believer: it is by the Spirit that we are born again. We were once dead in our sins, spiritually dead, and unresponsive to God because of dead state (Eph. 2:1). But the Holy Spirit makes us alive, and He takes what Jesus did on the cross and applies it to us. So theologically speaking, we already understand that we live by the Spirit as a believer.

But why then are we also commanded here to live by the Spirit? I thought we already did? Well, we do, but Paul implies here that there is action required of us. We are still to walk each step of our lives empowered by the Spirit. That’s what Paul means when he says to walk by the Spirit.

Think about it. We take many “steps” every day. We make a choice whether or not we will pray and read the Bible in the morning. We make a choice to call other drivers something non-Christian. We make a choice to minister to someone or stay quiet and do nothing. We make a choice to fall into temptation or resist it by God’s power. Every step we take needs to be guided by the Spirit in this walk we call life.

B. The Promise: Overcoming Sin

There’s a wonderful result from walking by the Spirit. Paul attaches a wonderful promise onto this command saying that when we do walk in the Spirit, that if we will make the effort to walk by the Spirit, we “will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v. 16b).

There is no negotiating here. You will not gratify the desires of flesh if you are walking by the Spirit. These desires of our flesh are what remains of our sin nature. Yes Christ redeemed us, and yes we are new persons in Christ, but we are not entirely free from the presence and power of sin—and sin has power through our desires. The Bible has much to say about the desires of the flesh:

“For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16).

“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14).

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11).

We will be fighting our old sin nature until the day we pass from this earth and are glorified with the Lord in His eternal presence. But until then, we are in a constant fight.

The only way to overcome the desires of our flesh is to submit each step of our daily lives to the Spirit. To walk by the Spirit. This is ultimately the only way to overcome our sinful desires. There are no other solutions or ways. For some problems, there is only one solution—and this is one of them.

There was a man once who didn’t quite understand this principle of having only one solution to a problem. You may have heard his story. He was a hardworking man who really liked hamsters and snakes as pets. He went to his local pet store one day and bought a well-trained hamster and a well-trained snake. They were so well trained that he decided to let them run free throughout the house as he carried out his daily tasks. One night he came home to find the hamster missing, but the snake very content. He thought the hamster escaped through a hole in the door, so he patched it up, went to the pet store and bought another hamster. He lets them run free again, comes home the next night and the hamster was gone, but the snake was doing just fine. He thought the hamster might have fell through a hole in the floor, so he patches the hole. Day after day he purchases another hamster at the pet store, thinking that they’re all disappearing because of holes in his house. He was trying to solve the problem of his hamsters going missing with all the wrong solutions—there was only one solution to his problem, to get rid of the snake that was turning his hamsters into snacks!

And that’s the way it is with overcoming sin – there’s only one solution overcoming sin in our lives. Often times we try to solve the problem of sin in our lives with the wrong solutions—trying harder, committing ourselves, saying to ourselves, “Never again will I sin in this or that way.” But the only sure solution to overcoming sin is by walking by the Spirit of God. The flesh cannot be tamed, it cannot be reformed, it cannot be trained, and it cannot be improved—but it can be overcome by walking by the Spirit. I wonder if you’re walking by the Spirit today?

If you don’t walk by the Spirit, Paul says of you in Romans 8:7-8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

II. The Reason to Walk by the Spirit (v. 17)

We’ve seen the command to walk by the Spirit, but why is it so important to walk by the Spirit? What’s really at risk here, if anything? And for that matter, who’s to say we can’t walk by the Spirit and commit sin at the same time?

Paul answers in v. 17 by giving us the reason to walk by the Spirit. The idea in this verse is that we must walk by the Spirit because there is a conflict taking place within us between the flesh and Spirit—and we cannot claim neutrality (we can’t be walking by the Spirit and by the flesh at the same time).

There is a real conflict going on that you are a part of. You’re in this because you’re a Christian—you have been saved by the grace of God, God has redeemed you, He has made you a new person and even given you a new heart—but sin still lives inside you. There is some of you that is unredeemed until you will be glorified in His presence one day. So until then, we will continue to have a deadly conflict of desires taking place in our hearts. Paul explains this in v. 17.

Listen to Paul in v. 17, “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.” Paul tells us why it is so crucial to walk by the Spirit, because there’s a war going on!

A. Desire vs. Desire (v. 17a)

He says “[Walk by the Spirit because] 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.” Paul says there is a conflict of desire taking place. It is not a cosmic battle between the flesh and the Spirit somewhere out in space, but a battle between the flesh and the Spirit for your desires.

It is a real, deadly, costly, conflict of desire against desire taking place. And do you know where your desires are located? Your heart. Here’s the thing about the conflict: It’s not happening somewhere outside of you. It’s not happening in the world. It’s not even the flesh coming to you and fighting the Spirit. This conflict is much closer than you might think. In fact, this conflict is closer to you than the Bible in your hands—this conflict is happening in your heart.

“Guard your heart!” says the writer of Proverbs. Why? “for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). This conflict is happening inside of us. It is happening where our affections lie, it is happening on the throne of our emotions and intellect. You need to know where it is taking place or it will be as destructive to you as terrorism. That’s the thing about the war on terrorism. We never know where it’s going to be. When the Twin Towers were attacked, we didn’t know it was going to happen. When shootings from terrorists take place, we never know it is going to happen because we don’t know where the terrorists are. They are hidden. Don’t let the same thing happen to your heart. You know where this conflict of desire is taking place. If you are ignorant to this fact, it will be as destructive to you as a terrorist sneak attack.

It is a conflict of desires. Paul says that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.” Even though we’re saved, what remains of our old sin nature still has desires from time to time. We aren’t completely free from those desires. And those desires crave things that are contrary to the Spirit of God. The flesh wants to stifle the Holy Spirit’s work of making you more and more like Christ. The flesh is that which says, “This sin will never hurt!” “Haven’t you done enough for God today?” and things of that nature. Not once has the flesh ever benefited you in your walk with God. Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:33).

I hope you realize that this conflict is taking place, because the only thing worse than a real, deadly, costly conflict taking place is not knowing that it is taking place. The only thing worse than a conflict is not knowing that there is one.

The Holocaust was an atrocity that we did not know was taking place when it was taking place. We had no idea that conflict was going on. Jews fighting for their lives against the Nazi Regime. Communication was almost prehistoric compared to what we have today and there was no way to know that it was going on. When the USA discovered that it was happening, countless lives had already been lost. We didn’t’ know that conflict was taking place, and it caused great damage and many lives were lost. And it’s the same way with this conflict taking place in our hearts. It’s already dangerous that a conflict is taking place inside of you, but if you don’t realize that it is—it is much more deadly. A conflict you don’t know about is the worst kind of conflict.

But notice too, that Paul says the Holy Spirit has desires against the flesh. The Holy Spirit has desires, too. He desires what God desires, for He is God. He wants you to be like Christ and be a purified servant set apart for His purposes. The flesh is completely opposed to that in every sense. So what are we to make of this conflict?

B. We Cannot Be Neutral (v. 17b)

Paul tells us about the results of this conflict in v. 17b: “for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” He adds, “these are opposed to each other.” And that is very clear. The flesh is set against the Holy Spirit in every sense, and the Holy Spirit is set against the flesh in every sense. What the flesh wants, the Holy Spirit hates. What the Holy Spirit wants, the flesh hates.

But what happens because of this opposition and conflict? “to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Paul says that it keeps you from doing the things you want to do. You can’t do what you want to do, because you are either doing what the Spirit wants you to do, or you are doing what the flesh wants you to do. You are not free to be neutral and do the things you want to do. The flesh and the Spirit are fighting each other and their power and influence determine the direction of your choices and decisions—you don’t. You can only do what the flesh or the Spirit wants. You are either controlled by the flesh or by the Spirit.

It’s like taking a long road trip driving down a two-lane interstate road. You never stop driving. You may change lanes to go faster, avoid traffic, or avoid an accident, but you are in one lane or the other. That’s the way it is with the flesh and the Spirit. At all times, you are driving in one lane or the other. You might be driving in the lane of the flesh or the lane of the Spirit, but you will never stop driving. You are in one or the other. You cannot be neutral in this conflict. You are feeding one and starving the other. You can’t feed both at the same time, nor can you starve both at the same time.

III. The Results of Walking by the Spirit (v. 18)

We’ve seen the command to walk by the Spirit (v. 16), and the reason to do so (v. 17), and I realize at this point that we may be tempted to despair because of what Paul has just said about this conflict of desires taking place in our hearts. What hope do we have for overcoming the desires of the flesh? We have great hope. Notice what Paul says in v. 18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

Paul is saying, “Yes, there is a real, deadly conflict taking place, but if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” “Under the law?” It seems like Paul should have said, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the flesh—you are free from its dominion to serve and fulfill the desires of the Spirit.”

But he doesn’t say that. He says that the Galatians are not under the law if they are led by the Spirit. What does he mean then? It seems to interrupt the flow of this passage, but it doesn’t. To understand this, we need a bit of a history lesson.

Law to the Israelites

God gave the Israelites a unique code of law to direct His people in their worship, their relationship with Him, and their social relationships with one another. It served many purposes: to establish them as a nation, to set them apart so they could reflect God’s glory, and finally to show the people their need for Him, thus paving the way for the Christ to fulfill the whole law and take the punishment for transgression against the law.

The people could never keep the whole law. They had no heart transformation in order to do so. So they were promised throughout the OT that a Messiah would come and change their hearts—and many placed their faith in this Messiah who would come.

These promises culminate in a passage in Jeremiah:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

They looked forward to that day when God would write His law on the hearts of His people, when they would be transformed and enabled to carry out His laws.

The Spirit to God’s People

That day came when Jesus ascended after His death and resurrection and the Holy Spirit came to indwell believers in Acts 2. This is the Holy Spirit who would enable them to carry out the laws of God and overcome sin. The old system of self-effort, and not being able to keep the law is one sense of what Paul means by “under the law,” here. It is pre-Christian system of trying to be obedient to God’s laws with no desire or power to do so.

But you’d think after Pentecost the early Christians would know that the Holy Spirit enabled them to do the commands of God and overcome sin right? Wrong. A group of Jews known as the Judaizers came in teaching that you must follow the law of Moses to be saved, and that the only way to overcome sin is by keeping the law. They were trying to solve an internal problem by external solutions. They taught that the law was the only safeguard against sin. They had infiltrated the Galatian church to whom Paul is writing, and Paul is telling them: “If you are saved, you should be walking by the Spirit—and if you are walking by the Spirit you will be led by Him—and if you are being led by Him, then you are not under the old system of law—you are not required to keep the laws of God by your own effort, but you have power to keep the laws of God through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence!”

That’s what Paul means by not being under the law. We might think this is irrelevant. But we do the same thing that the Galatians had a problem with. We think we can overcome sin by our own self-effort. We think, “Things are going to be different this time.” We lie awake at night and say, “Never again.” “Never again will I lose my temper, never again will I get on that website, never again will I take a drink.” We try harder and harder and make more commitments, but we are believing the same lie as the Galatians if we think that there is an ounce of strength in our flesh to overcome sin and carry out the commands of God.

“But,” says Paul, “if you are led by the Spirit,” you can overcome sin and carry out the commands of God. Notice that Paul emphasizes the leadership of the Holy Spirit here. It is not being led by Him for tough decisions, but we will be walking by the Spirit as such a habit that He leads us every day. If we’re walking by the Spirit, then we will be led by Him—led by His power source. Every step enabled and empowered and guided by Him.

Having the Spirit’s presence in our lives means two things:

1.) The ability to overcome sin. The Spirit of God enables and empowers us to trump over the presence of sin in our lives by His conquering presence (vv. 16, 18). Before we were saved, we had no ability or desire to overcome sin, but now we have both, thanks to God the Spirit who lives in us.

2.) The ability to carry out God’s commands. The other side of this coin is that we have the power and ability to do God’s will revealed in the Bible, as we continually submit to His power and leadership in our daily lives.

Paul is telling the Galatians that they are free from self-effort in trying to overcome sin and to carry out the commands of God. I learned about this great truth in a humorous way a few years ago. I was praying outside (it’s always good to pray outdoors right?) and I was saying something like, “Lord, I pray You’d help me to overcome sin by Your power today. Lord, if I think for one second that I can overcome sin and do Your will by my own strength,if I think that I can do this on my own, then I’m going to . . .” And before I could finish my prayer, I slipped on something outside and fell flat on my back. I just laughed after that, and said, “Lord, thanks for that reminder.” Beloved, please understand that the same thing will happen to you if you attempt to overcome sin and do God’s will by your own self-effort, you will fall flat on your back.

If we are led by the Spirit we will have the power to overcome sin and the ability to do God’s commands.

IV. How Can We Walk by the Spirit?

We’ve unpacked this wonderful passage verse-by-verse. So far we’ve seen that we should walk by the Spirit so we can overcome sin (v. 16), then we saw that the reason why we should walk by the Spirit is because there is a deadly conflict taking place in our hearts (v. 17), and finally that we are free from trying to please God by our own efforts (v. 18). But how does one walk by the Spirit? We need to know how. I have a few suggestions.

1.) Acknowledge Your Helplessness. You need to recognize and acknowledge that you need Him and His power to overcome sin and do God’s commands. I’ve heard it said before, “God won’t put on you more than you can handle.” That’s not in the Bible, you know that? If you could handle it, why would there be a need for the power of God? The first step in walking each step of each day by the Spirit’s power is to recognize that you need Him to guide your steps. We cannot overcome sin and be obedient to God without Him. Remember Jesus in John 15 where He says, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5)? You know what you can do apart from Christ? You can sin. But you can’t be obedient to Him and overcome sin.  Realize that you need Him, and acknowledge it before Him. God saved us by the Holy Spirit and He will sustain us by the Holy Spirit. Acknowledge your helplessness.

2.) Trust His Power. This goes hand in hand with #1. If we realize we are helpless, then we must also realize that He is our Helper—and we must trust Him. We may despair and think that God is done with us when we are stuck in habitual sins or feel like we’re not progressing in our faith—but that’s where trusting His power comes in. God is not done with you! “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). We must acknowledge that we need His help and power, and then believe that He will grant it to us.

3.) Allow Him to Control Your Thought Life. There is a close correlation between our thought life and mind with walking by the Spirit. If there is a conflict of desires, and desires are in our heart, and the only way to get to the heart is through the mind, then we need to think on the things that would be pleasing to God. That’s how spiritual growth works and that’s one way walking by the Spirit works. What is going on in your mind funnels down into your heart—influencing your decisions and desires. We need to be thinking His thoughts, and allowing Him to control what goes on in our thought life. And what we’re thinking is revealed by how we live. “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). You need to get the word of God into your heart, but the only way to do so is by getting it first into your mind—this happens by reading and studying it.

4.) Thank Him for the Victories. When you do overcome sin, praise God in prayer. When you are obedient to the Lord by His power, lift up those hands and sing Him a song. “Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting” (Psalm 147:1).

5.) Do It Step-By-Step. All of these things must be done step-by-step. That’s what walking is. It’s not running or jogging. And sometimes walking gets hard—it can be tiresome. But constantly and daily we must acknowledge our helplessness, trust His power, submit our minds to Him, and thank Him for those victories.

Peter Parker’s Greatest Regret

Unfortunately, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man chose sometimes failed to use his powers. Many of his friends died because he didn’t use his powers in the right ways and at the right times, and many times he was defeated by villains. But nothing hurt Peter Parker as much as the death of his Uncle Ben, which he later learned was his own fault.

Spider-Man was trying to make money by wrestling large opponents in a local fighting ring. When he felt like he was underpaid by the owner, he walked away angry. As Spider-Man leaves, a man robs the fighting ring owner and Spider-Man lets him go because he felt cheated. Later that night Uncle Ben dies by a gunshot from a car thief. Later on, Spider-Man discovers that it was the burglar that he had let go in the fighting ring.

Spider-Man lived with the consequences and damage of not using his powers to do good. And this principle applies to us in our relationship with the Holy Spirit. If we are not living step-by-step by the Holy Spirit’s power, it will cause great damage to our relationship with God, our relationships with others, and our witness and effectiveness to our lost and dying world. Are you walking by the Spirit today?


This message was delivered at Ohio Valley Baptist Church in Ballard County, KY on the 30th day of August 2015.

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