Now we get into the nitty-gritty of living practically the realities of what Paul has been teaching. Since we have, in deed, been justified by faith and not by works, since we have obtained righteousness through the work of Christ and not though our own effort, how are we to live in that truth and how are to love our neighbor as Paul encouraged us to do in the previous verses? These next two verses set the stage for us to understand and live the truth of the gospel. Here Paul points to the reality of our struggle with the old sinful nature and he gives us the key to gain the upper hand in this struggle. Once we understand these two verses the rest of the chapter becomes clear. In this post I will briefly touch on the struggle. Next week I will explore Paul’s instruction to “walk by the Spirit.”
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify 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, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal 5:16, 17)
Even as new creations in Christ, as born again persons, we still carry remnants of the old sinful nature, the flesh that sought to be independent of God and opposed to Him. And yet the Holy Spirit still fills us, instructs us and leads us. It is this paradox that we live in and which Paul addresses here. The flesh still wants to exercise control over our lives. We are tempted to go back to what was comfortable, to what seemed to make us happy, or at least, gave us a sense of control over our lives, but that is the opposite of what the Spirit does. He wants to take control of our lives and decisions, to bring us into true peace and comfort, to show us what true happiness is. But, we think, what if what the Spirit says is hard or uncomfortable or brings us pain? Or what if He is messing with us? We hold back a little. We try to have it both ways – a little flesh and a little Spirit. And we are neither fulfilled nor happy in either world. It feels like a “two steps forward and one step back” life, or more often “one step forward and two back.” So we beat ourselves up and promise to try harder, only to face the same conflict.
And yet that same conflict is the evidence that the Spirit really is in our lives, speaking to us and guiding us. If it were not true, there would be no conflict, no war of Spirit and flesh. We would simply live by the desires of the flesh without regard to the things of the Spirit. But that is not what we do, we don’t easily yield to the flesh. We struggle against it by the Spirit. The war is on. One of the schemes of the devil is to convince us that the battle is lost because we are tempted, because we see the desires of the flesh rise up. That is not true and we need to reject that thought immediately.
I may be distressed by the battle I see going on in my life and sometimes I see more defeats than victories, the point is that the war is on and I am an active participant in that war. John Calvin wrote, “… though the sons of God, so long as they groan under the burden of the flesh, are liable to commit sin, they are not its subjects or slaves, but make habitual opposition to its power. The spiritual man may be frequently assaulted by the lusts of the flesh, but fulfill them, — he does not permit them to reign over him.”
We should not be surprised, distraught or discouraged when we see sin rise up in us. It is part of our current reality – the Kingdom of God is now and not yet, it is here but still coming in its fullness. The hope and encouragement is that we are not stuck in our old sinful nature. The promise stands that we are now able by the freedom we have in Christ to live in the fullness of the Spirit-led life and do battle with our old nature. The hope is that there IS hope.