Paul has warned and exhorted the Galatians extensively concerning legalism, liberty, and in-fighting. He goes on to make himself even clearer. He calls out specifically what they are to do and how they are to do it. Notice, as a gracious good leader, Paul starts by telling his people not just what to do, but how to do it.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. ~Galatians 5:16-18
Paul has just finished telling these guys not to fight with one another. He gives them a specific alternative: fight sin. If these guys would just put half the effort they had invested in disputing with one another into disputing with their own hearts, they would be on to something. He tells them specifically how to fight sin: walk in the Spirit – the Holy Spirit that is.
At first glance, Galatians 5:19-23 may seem like a simple list of do’s and don’ts. Look carefully and it is obvious that this is not the case. Notice Paul does not say, “do this list of things” or “don’t do this list of things.” Surely, that is his hope and prayer, but it is not his instruction. Rather, his instruction is only this: walk in the Spirit. Walk in the Spirit.
Walking involves action; movement; forward motion. Christians cannot sit around passively waiting for God to make them holy any more than obese people can sit around the gym passively waiting for God to make them fit. Instead, we are called to move forward through his power by actively obeying his Spirit. And, yes, that takes effort and willingness on our part. It takes blood, sweat, and tears just like physical fitness does. No, that is not a works mentality; it is a Biblical exhortation given and demonstrated by both Jesus and Paul repeatedly.
If we do this, Paul says we, consequently, will not do what is contradictory to it. It is not, “Do this, don’t do that.” No. It is, “If you do this, you won’t do that.” Ceasing to sin is a natural outflow of submitting to the Holy Spirit. Because sin is antithetical to the Spirit’s every prompting, our submission to Him trumps our inclination to sin. It is simply more desirable; more powerful; more influential; more able to lead us than the empty, fleeting desires we used to obey. Considering the magnetic force and draw of sin, I’d say this should give us great encouragement and comfort. We are in able hands. “It is our duty and interest in this struggle to side with the better part, to side with our convictions against our corruptions and with our graces against our lusts.” ~Matthew Henry
Because the Spirit’s works and sin’s works are in diabolic opposition, doing one automatically cancels the other. The best part, Paul adds after his painstaking discourse on “legal” troubles within the church, is that when we are led by the Spirit, we are altogether free from the law! We do not need it to be hammered at us over and over and over again because we are walking in the very light of its author! Not because we don’t have to obey it! God forbid! On the contrary! Of course we want to do right and follow God’s laws; we love him! It is natural to obey when your heart’s desire is to follow your ferociously fascinating Father! Who needs a scolding law enforcer to make them obey? Not God’s kids!
“If you act under the guidance and government of the Holy Spirit and of that spiritual nature and disposition he has wrought in you, if you make the word of God your rule and the grace of God your principle, it will hence appear that you are not under the law, not under the condemning, though you are still under the commanding, power of it.” ~Matthew Henry
It is only after Paul describes how Christians are to avoid sin that he tells them what sin generally looks like. He tells the Galatians that sin is very obviously recognizable. The works of the flesh are not mysterious. Know what they are and, if you are practicing them or the like, know that you are not currently walking in the Spirit – or headed for heaven for that matter, because, as Matthew Henry says, “Christ will never own those who yield themselves servants of sin.”
Therefore, he urges, consider the fruits of the Spirit and examine yourself. If you do these things, you need not worry about the law. There is no law against doing right! Fleshly works have been crucified in those who belong to Christ! Let’s act like it, guys! This isn’t rocket science! We needn’t go from one extreme to the other! It is not, “Oh, no law? I guess I’ll sin and prove it.” NO! It’s “Oh! The law is not the boss! Jesus is! Hallelujah! I want to please him every minute because of his amazing grace!!!”
Paul concludes with another warning against pride, disputing, and envy. These, also, are in direct opposition to our spiritual jaunt. Doubtless, these are the very things that foster most feuds and divisions in the church. If it hadn’t been for the presence of these attitudes, Paul wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
Hear him. Christianity is not complicated. It is not do this; don’t do that. It is walk this way. If we walk in the Spirit, we will be following Jesus and supernaturally avoiding lawlessness and sin.