What it is not to be led by or walk in the Spirit?
It is very common in any Christian circles to hear a discussion about the “leading of or walking in the Holy Spirit”. Well at least in my experience. But regardless of being a buzz phrase in Christianity, many Christians today doesn’t really know what the leading and walking in Spirit really means. Some says that it is to have an extraordinary encounter with God. Others will tell you that the leading of the Holy Spirit is the subjective emotions or feelings that we are experiencing, commonly called “personal convictions”. Still some would argue that we are being led by the Spirit if we’re bent on obeying the commandments of God in the Bible. So which is it? My aim is to show you from scriptures what it means to be led by the Spirit or to walk in the Spirit.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do 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 prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. – Galatians 5:16-18
The Law of Christ
Before we answer what it means to be led by or to walk in the Spirit, I’ll give you some context and background first. At the beginning of chapter 5, Paul was reminding the Galatian believers that it is for freedom Christ has set us free, he says this because there were some agitators who wanted to circumcise the Galatians for them to be justified. This is to reject Christ’s perfect righteousness that we received through faith alone and return again to one’s own efforts at law observance. In verse 13, Paul anticipated that this freedom can be used as an opportunity for the flesh.So he told them that this freedom must be used through love by serving one another, for the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So the way I connect verses 16-18 to the rest of the context is this: Paul is telling us that to fulfill the law of Christ without going back to the yoke of the law and sin, we must be led by and walk in the Spirit.
What it is not?
Now let’s go to our main point. I think it is much easier for me to say what the leading of the Spirit is not, for us to understand what it really is. So let us begin. Being led by or walking in the Spirit..
Is not being led by our mere subjective feelings and emotions.
In verse 17, it says that “the desires of the flesh are against the desires of the Spirit and the desires of the Spirit are against the desires of the flesh.” But what kind of “flesh” is being referred to here? Most of the time in Paul’s letters, it is not simply referring to our physical bodies. Seeing the parallel between Galatians 5:24 and Galatians 2:20, you will notice that Paul was using the word flesh in at least two different senses. In 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Now compare it with 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” In 2:20d, “flesh” is referring to our bodily existence which is not evil in itself (“I now live in the flesh”). But notice that in 5:24 the “flesh” is crucified and in 2:20a “I” is crucified.The words “flesh” and “I” was used interchangeably. So, flesh here, I believe, is referring to the self apart from the Spirit. This includes our wills, minds, desires, and feelings. It is the non physical, subjective aspect of you apart from the Spirit’s influence. In other words, our subjective feelings, apart from the Spirit’s influence, are still of the flesh. I agree that the internal workings of the Holy Spirit is in one sense subjective too(that’s why for some, they confused the work of the Spirit in them with their emotions, because both are subjective), but it is not mere subjectivity, it is grounded from outside of us objectively. What I mean by objectively is this; a person can really know whether he’s being led by the Spirit or not. You can verify or even falsify if indeed it’s the Holy Spirit that’s leading you. The reason I say this is because in John 6:13, Jesus refers to the Spirit as “the Spirit of truth”, and that he will guide us in all “truth” and the Bible is the “sword of truth” (Ephesians 6:17). The leading of the Holy Spirit is always consistent with God’s word. Hence walking in or being led by the Spirit is more than subjective feelings. To be clear, it is not without feelings or emotions, but it is more than that. It is, more importantly, based on the truth outside of us, namely the word of God. So to walk in the Spirit is to be led by the Spirit in all the truths of scriptures.
Is not just an observance of a list of do’s and don’t s.
The other mistake that a Christian might commit is to reduce our walk in the Spirit by mere observance of some list of do’s and don’t s. Devoid of passion or feelings so to speak. To some, what matters most is to muster up some will power, and that you need to be really resolute in obeying the laws of God. Feelings of happiness, delight or pleasure in our walk are but optional. The focus is what I must do. But notice that the word “led” in verse 18 is in the passive voice. Meaning, it is the work of the Spirit that is being emphasized here. Not ours! Just as our birth into the kingdom of God is the work of the Spirit, even so our walking in it. A good illustration used by John Piper was to describe our walk in the Spirit “not like climbing a ladder in which we have to use our own strength, but rather it’s more like a locomotive on a train. Being led by his power. So “walk by the Spirit” means stay hooked up to the source of power and go wherever he leads.” Another image of “walking in or being led by the Spirit” is found in Galatians 5:22-23;
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Again you will see that the emphasis here is the Spirit’s bearing of fruit. Obedience to the law flows naturally because the Spirit that bears fruit is in us. The remarkable thing about this promise is that even though Paul gave us a list, nevertheless it is still one fruit. Take note that fruit is singular. Unlike the law that gave us a list of things that we ought to do, the Spirit summed it up in one fruit. Similar to Paul’s understanding of the law of Christ : the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Is not without a fight and war
Walking in the Spirit is not like walking in the park where everything is going smoothly and peacefully. Instead our walk can be very ugly and maybe at times bloody. There’s a constant war and struggle. There’s the gouging of one’s eye, cutting off a hand, and denying of the self. In verse 17, there is a war between the desires of the flesh and the Spirit. Both are trying to prevent us from doing the things that we want to do. But what are the things that we want to do in the first place you should ask? Human beings are not neutral when it comes to spiritual things. We’re born loving and hating, liking and disliking. We’re born as God-haters and sin-lovers. What we want is to dishonor God and disobey him. But after conversion, there comes a new norm, the Spirit takes residence in us, we become God lovers, and we take delight in his law. Now we have two competing desires because the former was not yet removed from us. Romans 7:15 -23 have a similar concept:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Theologians disagree on whether this text is referring to the pre-conversion Paul or is it the post-conversion Paul. I believe it’s the latter, because he says that “he delight in the law of God”, and only true Christians can delight in God’s law. This makes much more sense because if this is the pre-conversion Paul, then the language of war would not make any sense since by nature, apart from the Spirit, we don’t really make war against the desires of the flesh but instead, we are in love with it. So real Christians, even the apostles before us, do experience struggle and war. In fact, the war is necessary. If there is no war within us, then it must only mean one of this two things, either you’re dead and now with our Lord, perfected and enjoying him forever, or you’re still alive, and the reason there’s no war within you is because your allegiance is with the enemy. John Owen is very helpful to me about this constant fight against sin and the flesh. Here’s a quote from Owen’s Mortification of Sin:
Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. Let no man think to kill sin with few, easy, or gentle strokes.
Since there’s a war going on therefore we must fight until we drop! No middle ground. We cannot ease into the Kingdom without blood on our hands.
It is not without a victory
Though there’s a battle that must be fought, sin that must be killed, but the victory is certain. Verse 16 says that the result of walking in the Spirit is that we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. RSV translated 16b as a command instead of a promise and says, “Do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” I believe the other major versions are right to make it a promise instead of a command because this particular Greek construction, as John Piper also pointed out, has that meaning everywhere else in Paul. The verse should be translated as, “and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” However, I like ESV’s used of the word “gratify”. Because I take that to mean that to overcome the desires of the flesh, we must starve it in order to weaken it and eventually kill it. But killing it must come as a result of walking in the Spirit because we cannot do it on our own. It is a fulfillment of a promise. And we must trust the Spirit in fulfilling it. We are not trusting the Spirit if we are taking it on our own hands. So if the killing of sin is contingent upon our trust in the promised victory, then walking in the Spirit is walking by faith and trust in the promise of God.
Summary, Application and Conclusion
If you can still follow me in our quest to understand what walking in or being led by the Spirit really means, you will notice that the common thread that unites those 4 points is our reliance on God’s word for our walk in the Spirit. First, the word of God gives us objective and direction on our walk. Second, the word of God is the means by which we are attached to the source of power, because here we find Christ, and abiding in his word, we abide in him. Third, the word of God is the sword of the Spirit that we will used for battle. Fourth the word of God is the source of faith by which we trust the promised victory of the Spirit over the desires of the flesh, for faith cometh by hearing and hearing the word of God. So we must fill our lives by the word of God so that the desires of the flesh will be starved to death. It is fighting the promises of sin with greater promises from God’s word. It is battling unbelief with the faith giving word of God. Therefore brethren, let us eat and enjoy Christ in his word, that is the only way we really walk in and be led by the Spirit.
- What are the common misconceptions about the concept of being led by the Spirit?
- What is the flesh being referred to in verse 16 – 17?
- How did John Piper described the leading of the Spirit?
- Is the fighting and killing of sin necessary and why?
- Is verse 16b a command or a promise?