What Does Walking in the Spirit Mean?
Paul begins Gal. 5:16-26 with the command: “Now, I say walk in the Spirit” (5:16a). Here he recalls the theme of the Spirit from 3:14-5:4. The Spirit is the proof that the blessing of Abraham has been distributed to Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ and that the new age has dawned in Christ (1:4; 3:13-14). The Spirit is the one who provided the Galatians with Spiritual and supernatural experiences (3:2-5). Those who have the Spirit are sons of God, heirs of the promise, and children of Abraham (4:5-31), just like Isaac, because Christ set them free from the law (5:1). Those in Christ await final justification as they walk in the Spirit (5:5).
Now, Paul urges the Galatians to walk in the Spirit (5:16). By this, he means the Galatians must live in light of their deliverance from the present evil age (1:4) and in light of the freedom for which Christ died to redeem them (3:13; 5:1). To state the point in the words of 5:13: “do not use your freedom as an occasion for the flesh” (5:13). 5:16b supports this interpretation with the words: “That is, do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” Many English translations give 5:16b the gloss “and you shall by no means fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” This interpretation suggests that if one walks in the Spirit, then one will by no means fulfill the flesh’s desires. This is certainly true.
But the second statement in 5:16b seems to define what walking in the Spirit entails (“By no means fulfill the lusts of the flesh.”). Paul emphatically explains to the Galatians that walking in the Spirit means they should not under any circumstances fulfill their sinful desires (5:16). The strongest support of this interpretation is context.
5:13 begins with a reminder that the Galatians were called by God to be free from slavery under the law (cf. 4:21-5:1). Paul immediately urges the Galatians not to use their freedom from the law’s slavery as an occasion for them to live lawlessly and to fulfill their sinful desires (5:13). Instead, they should enslave themselves to one another in pursuit of love for each other (5:13), for the entire law is fulfilled by love (5:14). He offers an example of love by stating its opposite: back-biting, devouring, and consuming one another (5:15).
After commanding the Galatians to walk in the Spirit in 5:16, Paul provides reasons in 5:17-26. In 5:17, he states flesh and Spirit have desires that are opposed to one another, so that the Galatians should not give in to these desires. In 5:18-21, he lists some examples of the desires of the flesh and then warns that they will not inherit the kingdom of God if they walk in pursuit of their sinful desires. Finally, in 5:22-23, he gives examples of walking in the Spirit.
In 5:24, he affirms that those in Christ put to death the flesh with its sinful passions, a statement which recalls Paul’s remarks in 2:17-19 where he says that he died with Christ. He concludes in 5:25-26 with exhortations to the Galatians to walk in the Spirit, which he then again explains by commanding the Galatians to walk in the Spirit by exhorting them not to be envious of one another or to irritate one another (5:25-26). Thus, 5:16a states positively what 5:16b states negatively: walk in the Spirit; that is, do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. And 5:17-26 gives examples of how to walk in the Spirit and to avoid living in obedience to the flesh’s desires with a shocking statement in 5:21 about the terrible consequence of not walking in the Spirit: failure to inherit the kingdom of God
In 5:17, Paul offers the reason for the command in 5:16: “because the flesh has desires contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit has desires contrary to the flesh, because these things are opposed to one another.” Flesh represents the present evil age (1:4). Spirit represents the new creation (6:15). Thus, these two ages have nothing in common. The new age of the Spirit leads to life (2:16-5:1, 5; 4:3), and the old age of the flesh leads to a curse (1:8-9; 3:10-14) and failure to inherit the kingdom of God (5:21). Thus, the old age of the flesh and the new age of the Spirit are opposed to one another.
Since the old age of the flesh and the new age of the Spirit are opposed to one another, the intended result should be that those who walk in the Spirit should avoid living in obedience to the flesh’s desires even if they should desire to do “these things” (5:17). Flesh in Galatians most often is a negative word, representing an existence in the present evil age (1:4), an existence under the curse of the law (3:10), an existence imprisoned under sin (3:22-24), an existence under the elements of the world (4:3), an existence under spiritual slavery (4:1-8), and an existence under idolatry (4:9).
The Spirit represents the new age in Christ, an age that personifies in Christ the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham—realized through God’s universal outpouring of the Spirit upon Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Christ (3:14; 4:4, 29). The flesh and the Spirit have nothing in common! Consequently, those in Christ should not fulfill the flesh’s desires. And if Christians are led by the Spirit, they are not under the law’s condemnation (1:8-9; 3:10-14; 5:18; see also Rom. 7:1-8:11).
Being led by the Spirit means to walk in the Spirit and not to fulfil the lusts of the flesh (cf. Gal. 5:16). The Spirit’s leadership is not mystical. Rather, his leadership is clearly discernible by avoiding the vices (and the things like these) mentioned in 5:19-21, and instead producing the virtues in 5:22-23. Those who are led by the Spirit (i.e. those who walk in the Spirit; i.e., those who do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh) are not “under the law” (i.e. not under the present evil age and the slavery and condemnation that go along with it [1:4; 3:10-14; 4:5-6, 21-31; 5:1]).
In 5:19-21, Paul gives explicit examples of the works/lusts of the flesh. In fact, he asserts: “the works of the flesh are evident” (5:19). Earlier in the letter, Paul polemicized against “works of law” or “Torah-works” as a badge of covenant membership within the people of God (2:16; 3:2-5, 10-14). But now he polemicizes against “works of the flesh” as an acceptable badge of those who are justified by faith in Christ apart from works of law (5:19; see also 2:16; 5:4).
His thesis is that his earlier argument that Gentile Christ-followers are justified by faith in Christ apart from works of law does not in any way promote or encourage a sinful lifestyle (2:16-5:26). To the contrary, the new age of the Spirit creates opposition with the old age, represented by the law and the vices in 5:19-21, and the new age, represented by the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23).
Modern interpreters of Galatians must remember the Gentile Christ-followers in Galatia would have in all likelihood practiced many of the vices mentioned in 5:19-21 since often a Gentile manner of life included a sinful pattern of life that Jews would have deemed contrary to their law (see Exodus-Deuteronomy). Certain groups of Gentiles were virtuous (see Seneca, Virtue). Yet, some Jews would have generally associated Gentiles with a sinful pattern of life (see Gal. 2:15).
Paul does not provide an exhaustive list of “works of the flesh.” He outlines in 5:19-21 the pattern of life that represents the works of the flesh (=the old age) that Christians should avoid. And he highlights the grave consequence of failing to avoid them (=failure to inherit the kingdom of God) (5:21). He mentions “sexual immorality,” “impurity,” “indecency,” “idolatry,” “sorcery,” “enmities,” “dissension,” “jealousy,” “fits of angers,” “selfish ambitions,” “divisions,” “factions,” “envies,” “given over to drunken ways,” “orgies,” and “things similar to these” (5:19-21).
Each of these vices fractures social relations within Christian communities. And the law condemns each of these vices since each one reveals a lack of love for those in Christ (see Gal. 5:13-14). But the Spirit produces “love,” “joy,” “peace,” “patience,” “kindness,” “goodness,” “faithfulness,” “humility,” and “self-control” (5:22-23). And the law does not condemn these virtues (“against such things there is no law” [5:22b]). Those under the law are under sin, under bondage, under a curse, and under a temporary guardian (3:13-4:7). But those in Christ have crucified the flesh along with its sinful passions and lusts (5:24).
So, what does walking in the Spirit mean, and is this necessary for eternal life? Walking in the Spirit refers to living in faithful obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Obedience to our Lord is not optional. Christians must walk in the Spirit and avoid the lusts of the flesh or else they will not inherit God’s kingdom (5:21).
God’s kingdom in Galatians is another way of talking about new creation (6:15) and eternal life (6:8-10). Only those who walk in the Spirit are able to prove they’ve been justified by faith and find themselves worthy of inheriting the kingdom of God (2:16-21; 5:16-26). In Galatians, works are not the foundation of future eternal life before God, but good works produced by the Spirit are necessary for our future eternal life (5:5, 16-26). Therefore, Christians, walk in the Spirit!
All translations of biblical texts are my own.
Examples where Paul talks about being “under the law,” see Gal. 3:23; 4:4-5, 21.