16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. – Gal 5:16-18 NASB
Put a Leash on that Dog!
Moving along in Galatians, we continue to look at the nature of Christian freedom. We see here that in consonance with the rest of Paul’s writings, and with the teachings of Jesus about the Holy Spirit in the gospel of John, there is no notion of Christian virtue that is not rooted in the supernatural. You either operate by the unction of the Holy Spirit, or you operate by the flesh. So even if you are extremely zealous to keep the law, if it is not by the unction of the Spirit then you are still operating by the flesh.
Notice that the flesh isn’t just the neutral factor you have left if there is no supernatural unction. The flesh has its own spiritual bent. It always sets its desire against the Spirit. It is the seat of the split we have inherited from Adam: we prize the forbidden. If it were not for the law, were we given the freedom, we would wildly sin. The unbelieving virtuous man believes that true virtue means putting a stronger leash on this dog. They believe that the highest virtue is to want the forbidden but to at least tell others that as long as you don’t act out, it is OK. I’ve heard any number of preachers teach this exact thing. Jesus has definitively swept away this notion in the sermon on the mount, where He made it clear that if you are even angry or you even look, you are guilty of the fires of hell. Perhaps they are able to pretend they have attained such heights of self-control. However, this longing for the forbidden is the sin. This is why if you even think it, you are guilty. It is not enough that we don’t act out on our sin. Our sin isn’t simply that we have performed certain sins in the past. Our sin is that at our root, we are sinners.
Amazingly Paul teaches here that the Christian believer also still has this fleshly dog still tugging at the leash. However it is that we are to understand that we have died, that we have been crucified with Christ, it does not mean that our flesh and its longing for sin has been eliminated. Our flesh is still active. There are things that would please us that we will not do if we walk by the Spirit. Being a Christian does not mean these things are gone. The kind of teaching that says that if you are a real Christian, you will bear the fruit of never sinning, is simply not true. Paul does not teach that in Romans 7:14-24, and he does not teach it here. What Paul is saying is that there is a new and different way that equates with freedom that handily solves this problem. If this were medicine, this would be a chronic condition, where the old medicine doesn’t really work at all, and the new medicine keeps the symptoms in complete remission. I know a lot of people would like this to be different, and will take issue, but they will have to look at Galatians 5:17 and give an explanation for it. There are things that please us, which are still there in us, which walking by the Spirit will not lead us to do.
The actual teaching here is that if you simply plod along, step by step, slowly through the day, by the Spirit, in some passive way you will not carry out this ever-present desire of the flesh. You will look back and say, “Oh – look! I didn’t handle that the way I might have.” In other words, the law points at the forbidden things and says, “self – notice these forbidden things, and don’t do them.” It looks at the desire of the flesh and obsesses with ways to put a better leash on it. But the walking by the Spirit is an entirely different focus. It says, “don’t worry about that stuff. Look over here at this, isn’t it beautiful? Wouldn’t it be great to speak an encouraging word here? To give a gift over there?” And before you know it, you’ve forgotten. You find a new pressure, a pressure to enjoy the things of the Spirit of God. And this defeats the flesh’s desire for the forbidden much more easily than the law’s approach.
Now here is something to keep in mind. However we come to understand the idea of walking by the Spirit, we have to remember that for Paul, this way of living circumvents or is different than being under the law. The flesh sees its beauty in the forbidden and counts success as denying itself, and the Spirit of God sees things differently. But if we walk by the Spirit, if we are led by the Spirit, we are not under the law. It is the flesh that clings to the law, is mindful of the forbidden thing, and loathes such freedom as Paul espouses.
The Spirit and Freedom
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. – 2Co 3:17 NASB
Let’s go to Romans and look at what Paul says about the Holy Spirit:
5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. – Rom 5:5 NASB
Now when we read Romans 5:5, we tend to think that it means that we are to exhibit the qualities of love to others, because the Holy Spirit sort of beats us into submission. But it doesn’t really mean that at all. It is not the responsibility to love which is poured out. It is love, directly for us, with no further purpose. In context, Paul says we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand. He goes on to talk about how God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8). We can assume that this is the kind of love that God is pouring out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit. It is God’s love for us that has been poured out within our hearts.
Furthermore, He is the Holy Spirit. He is whole and pure. We can be certain that God does not share our split idea of the good. What is right, God delights to do. What is not right, God hates. God does nothing that He does not delight in, and all that He delights in is upright through and through. As John the Apostle says, God is love. The Spirit of God is Holy because there is no variation or shifting shadow – everything He does is just and everything he does is beautiful. God is not coerced by a threat of punishment – everything He does is from absolute freedom.
Why is this important? Because this is the love that is poured out within our hearts. This is the wonder of what God has done for us – He has LOVED us! He has expressed His radical delight in us. We are His joy! God is throwing a banquet for us – we are His biggest party! In fact, we are His bride, His lover. These things are hard to believe aren’t they?! He has rent apart the universe and emptied Himself of His very godhood for the love of us. He forged forgiveness with His very blood for the love of us. This is the revelation from the Holy Spirit in our hearts that is poured out. When one has come to know and believes such a love, it is entirely transformative. I was loved while yet a sinner – and so I can believe that the sinners around me are also greatly loved. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). When the Holy Spirit sheds this knowledge that we are very greatly loved, it produces a great love in us.
My experience bears this out in a huge way. When the revelation came to me that despite my sin from which I had repented unsuccessfully over and over and over, God fiercely and greatly loved me, I was undone. I wept from my gut strange tears of sorrow and joy that such a man as I had been given such a great gift. It didn’t change me in terms of immediate perfect repentance. I realized that such lies were unnecessary and harmful. This revelation changed me in terms of how I viewed my own sovereignty over my belovedness. I was no longer in charge of my sense of worth and blessing – God was in charge of these things. And I wanted to share this with everyone, because I could see that no one is in charge of their own belovedness. In Christ we are free! I became obsessed with the great great news of a tremendous joy. I wanted to tell people! It was not a burden, it was play. It was joy. It was the best party ever. It was freedom. Don’t you think that this is surely what Paul means when he says that if we walk by the Spirit we will not carry out the desires of the flesh? Who needs sin and who needs the law, in the face of such an overwhelming love and joy? I don’t have a responsibility to tell people about the great love of God. I have the joy and privilege to share this great message of the one-way love of God. I like it! I love seeing all the crying sons and daughters come home to their love-torn Father! And I think that’s how this all works. This is how we walk in the Spirit: we believe the love which God has for us. It becomes the air we breathe, not as a burden and a law, but as lavish and even scandalous grace.
New Commandments and Old Commandments
Notice that we believe the love which God has for us. It is a communal belief, and this is important. We are a community of beleivers. He has wiped the slate clean for us all, and we all have the love of God poured out within our hearts. This is why the commandment to love is a new commandment:
7 Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. 8 On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining. 9 The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. – 1Jo 2:7-10 NASB
34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. – Jhn 13:34 NASB
It is not actually a new commandment to say that we ought to love one another. What is new is that God has expressed a great great love for us written in blood and with resurrection supernatural persistence. This is the love by which we are now defined. This is not some fake theological theory. It is something that is true, that is real in Him and in us. When we believe that, the Holy Spirit pours out the manifestation of His love, and we see each other from His perspective, not the law’s perspective. Seeing our neighbor with the eyes of faith really is loving them. It means believing it is God’s love which defines each of us despite our shortcomings and failures and sin. And this is the key to the new commandment to love, and the key to walking by the Spirit.
Good God this is beautiful news. What could possibly be more liberating? Praise God for His wonderful gifts! Hallelujah!
1 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Rom 8:1-4 NASB