A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 5:16-25. The flesh and the Spirit.
The main emphasis of the second half of the Epistle to the Galatians is that in Christ life is liberty. We were in bondage under the curse or condemnation of law, but Christ has set us free from it. We were slaves of sin, but now we are God’s children. Yet each time Paul writes of liberty he adds a warning that it can very easily be lost. Some relapse of liberty into bondage (5:1); others turn their liberty into licence (5:13). This was Paul’s theme in the last two paragraphs which we have considered. In particular, in verses 13-15, he has emphasised that true Christian liberty expresses itself in self-control, loving service of our neighbour and obedience to the law of God. The question now is, how are these things possible? and the answer is, by the Holy Spirit. He alone can keep us truly free.
This section in which Paul elaborates this theme is simply full of the Holy Spirit. He is mentioned seven times by name. He is presented as our Sanctifier who alone can oppose and subdue our flesh (verses 16, 17), enable us to fulfil the law so that we are delivered from its harsh dominion (verse 18) and cause the fruit of righteousness to grow in our lives (verses 22, 23). So the enjoyment of Christian liberty depends on the Holy Spirit. True, it is Christ who sets us free. But without the continuing, directing, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit our liberty is bound to degenerate into licence.
The theme of this paragraph may be divided into two and entitled ‘the fact of Christian conflict’ and ‘the way of Christian victory’.
1). The fact of Christian conflict (verses 16-23).
The combatants in the Christian conflict are called ‘the flesh’ and ‘the Spirit’. Verses 16,17: *Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify (NEB ‘you will not fulfil’) the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh…*. By ‘the flesh’ Paul means what we are by nature and inheritance, our fallen condition, what the New English Bible and J.B.Phillips call our ‘lower nature’. By ‘the Spirit’ he seems to mean the Holy Spirit Himself who renews and regenerates us, first giving us a new nature and then remaining to dwell in us. More simply we may say that ‘the flesh’ stands for what we are by natural birth, ‘the Spirit’ what we become by new birth, the birth of the Spirit. And these two, the flesh and the Spirit, are in sharp opposition to each other.
Some teachers maintain that the Christian has no inner conflict, no civil war within himself, because (they say) the flesh has been eradicated and his old nature is dead. This passage contradicts such a view. Christian people, in Luther’s graphic expression, are ‘not stocks and stones’, that is, people who ‘are never moved with anything, never feel any lust or desires of the flesh’. Certainly, as we learn to walk in the Spirit, the flesh becomes increasingly subdued. But the flesh and the Spirit remain, and the conflict between them is fierce and unremitting. Indeed, one may go further and say that this is a specifically Christian conflict. We do not deny that there is such a thing as moral conflict in non-Christian people, but we assert that it is fiercer in Christians because they possess two natures – flesh and Spirit – in irreconcilable antagonism.
We must consider now the kind of behaviour to which the two natures are prone.
Tomorrow: Galatians 5:19-21. The works of the flesh.