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QUESTION: What Does it Mean to Walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16)?

This question comes from Galatians 5:16 where the apostle Paul says, “But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The idea in this verse is that if we will walk by the Spirit, we will overcome our sinful desires. So it is imperative that we discover what it truly means to walk by the Spirit. 

This term “walk” carries an interesting meaning. It was a Hebrew term that described one’s life, one’s conduct, or someone’s “walk of life.” This is repeated throughout the Old Testament in various passages like these:

“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. It’s another word for living or 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). Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born of the Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God. This is what happens at conversion. When we trust Jesus by faith and repent of our sins, the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual life. It is by the Spirit that we are born again. He takes what Jesus did on the cross and applies it to us—the Spirit gives us life. (Rom. 8:11)

So although we already live by the Spirit in this sense, then why are we commanded here to live by the Spirit (or walk by the Spirit)? Because there is action required of us. 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.

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 says that the desires of our flesh are not from God, we should avoid them, and abstain from them because they wage war against our own souls (1 John 2:16; Rom. 13:14; 1 Pet. 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. 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.


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You’ve Got Questions: What Does Jesus Mean by “You Are the Salt of the Earth” in Matt. 5:13?

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), after concluding the section known as the Beatitudes (5:2-12), He says this: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt. 5:13).

First, to discover what Jesus is saying, it’s important to see that He doesn’t literally mean that the disciples are salt. That would be utter insanity to say that the disciples’ physical form is composed of entirely salt. Because of the context of this passage, we know that Jesus compares the disciples to salt. Jesus compares them (and us) to this earthly element. Still, we might think that this is a strange comparison. To find out what Jesus means here, it’s helpful to define how salt would have been used in Jesus’ day. There were many uses for salt in His time (nearly all of them still in use today). It was used as a preservative to prevent corruption, fertilizer, it was used to add flavor, and it was used to symbolize wisdom (Lev. 2:13; Ezek. 43:24). There were many other uses, as an element in sacrifices, a purifier, a condiment, a preservative—and it was associated with several symbols: it was a sign of purity, of necessity, of loyalty, of peace, of good speech, and even wisdom. It’s not likely that Jesus is limiting His comparison of the disciples any one of those uses for salt. Because of the wide range of uses, it’s really impossible to single out any one, and attempt to do justice to the passage.

But essentially, when it comes to the uses of salt—it affects what it comes in contact with right? It affects meats by preserving them, it affects food by adding flavor, it affects ice by melting it, and so on. That’s what Jesus was saying here. He is talking about making an impact on the world—affecting the world around you. We know this is true from what Jesus says we are the salt of. We, as His disciples are the salt “of the earth.” Jesus wants us to act like salt here, and make an impact. The way we will make a true impact is by being effective for the glory of God (see v. 13b and v. 16). Jesus wants us to make an impact on everybody (for God’s glory) just as salt affects everything that it comes into contact with.¹


1. To learn/read more, see Kingdom People Making a Difference where this entire passage is explained.