A Commentary by John Stott
We now turn to the attitude which we are to adopt towards the Holy Spirit. This is described in two ways. First, it is to be *led by the Spirit* (verse 18). Secondly, it is to *walk by (AV ‘in’) the Spirit* (verses 16 and 25). In both expressions in the Greek text ‘the Spirit’ comes first for emphasis, a simple dative is used (there is no preposition, whether ‘in’ or ‘by’) and the verb is in the present continuous tense. At the same time there is clearly a distinction between ‘being led by the Spirit’ and ‘walking by the Spirit’, for the former expression is passive and the latter active. It is the Spirit who does the leading, but we who do the walking.
First, then, Christians are portrayed as being ‘led by the Spirit’. The verb is used of a farmer herding cattle, of a shepherd leading sheep, of soldiers escorting a prisoner to court or prison, and of wind driving a ship. It is used metaphorically of both good and evil spirits – of the evil power of Satan leading men astray (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:2; Eph.2:2), and of the Holy Spirit leading Christ during His temptations in the wilderness (Lk.4:1, 2) and leading the sons of Godtoday (Rom.8:14). As our ‘leader’ the Holy Spirit takes the initiative. He asserts His desires against those of the flesh (verse 17) and forms within us holy and heavenly desires. He puts this gentle pressure upon us, and we must yield to His direction and control.
And His that gentle voice we hear,
Soft as the breath of even,
That checks each fault, that calms each fear,
And speaks of heaven.
For every virtue we possess,
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness,
Are His alone.
But it is a great mistake to suppose that our whole duty lies in passive submission to the Spirit’s control, as if all we had to do was to surrender to His leading. On the contrary, we are ourselves to ‘walk’, actively and purposefully, in the right way. And the Holy Spirit is the path we walk in, as well as the guide who shows us the way.
This becomes clear when a careful comparison is made between verses 16 and 25. The English of both verses contains the verb to ‘walk’, but the Greek words are different. The verb in verse 16 is the ordinary one for walking, but that in verse 25 (*stoicheo*) refers literally to people being ‘drawn up in line’. Hence it means to ‘walk in line’ or ‘be in line with’. It is used of believers who by sharing Abraham’s faith are said to ‘walk in line with’ his footsteps or follow his example (Rom. 4:12). Similarly, it describes Christians who ‘walk in line with’ the position they have so far attained (Phil. 3:16) or the requirements of the law (Acts 21:24) or the truth of the gospel (Gal.6:16). In each of these cases here is a rule, a standard or a principle, which is being followed. In Galatians 5:25 this ‘rule’ or ‘line’ is the Holy Spirit Himself and His will. So to ‘walk by the Spirit’ is deliberately to walk along the path or according to the line which the Holy Spirit lays down. The Spirit ‘leads’ us; but we are to ‘walk by’ Him or according to His rule.
As, therefore, we ‘crucify the flesh’ , repudiating what we know to be wrong, so too we must ‘walk by the Spirit’, setting ourselves to follow what we know to be right. We reject one path to follow another. We turn from what is evil in order to occupy ourselves with what is good. And if it is vital to be ruthless in turning away from the things of the flesh, it is equally vital to be disciplined in turning towards the things of the Spirit. The Scripture says we are to ‘set our minds on the things of the Spirit’, to ‘seek the things that are above’, to ‘set our minds on things that are above’, to ‘think about these things’ (i.e. whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely and gracious) (Rom.8:5, 6; Col.3:1, 2; Phil.4:8).
This will be seen in our whole way of life – in the leisure occupations we pursue, the books we read and the friendships we make. Above all in what older authors called ‘a diligent use of the means of grace’, that is, in a disciplined practice of prayer and Scripture meditation, in fellowship with believers who provoke us to love and good works, in keeping the Lord’s day as the Lord’s day, and in attending public worship and the Lord’s Supper. In all these ways we occupy ourselves in spiritual things. It is not enough to yield passively to the Spirit’s control; we must also walk actively in the Spirit’s way. Only so will the fruit of the Spirit appear.
We have seen that the works of the flesh are many and evil, that the fruit of the Spirit is lovely and desirable, that flesh and Spirit are in continuous conflict with each other so that by ourselves we cannot do what we want to do, and that our duty is to crucify the flesh, rejecting its evil ways, and to walk by the Spirit, fostering His good ways.
This victory is within reach of every Christian, for every Christian has ‘crucified the flesh’ (verse 24) and every Christian ‘lives by the Spirit’ (verse 25). Our task is to take time each day to remember these truths about ourselves, and to live accordingly. If we have crucified the flesh (which we have), then we must leave it securely nailed to the cross, where it deserves to be; we must not finger the nails. And if we live in the Spirit (which we do), then we must walk by the Spirit. So when the tempter comes with evil insinuations, we must round on him savagely, and say to him: ‘I belong to Christ. I have crucified the flesh. It is altogether out of the question that I should even dream of taking it down from the cross.’ Again, ‘I belong to Christ. The Spirit dwells within me. So I shall set my mind on the things of the Spirit and walk by the Spirit, according to His rule and line, from day to day.’