Let Us Walk by the Spirit

This is the second in a series of messages on the Holy Spirit. Last week we dealt with the cause of the new birth. I argued from John 3:5–8 that human nature, with which all of us are born, will not enter into the kingdom of God unless it is changed. This change is called being born again. And what this means is that the Spirit of God creates something new; he takes out of us the heart of stone that rebels against God, and he puts into us a new heart which trusts God and follows his ways. Or to put it another way, the Holy Spirit establishes himself as the new ruling principle of our life. "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." In other words, that which is begotten by the Spirit has the nature of the Spirit, is permeated by the character of the Spirit, is animated by the Spirit. This change is owing wholly to the Spirit's work of free grace, prior to any saving faith on our part. The new birth is not caused by our faith; on the contrary, our faith is caused by the new birth. "No one can come to the Son unless it is granted to him by the Father" (John 6:65). Therefore, the life we have in Christ is owing wholly to the work of God's Spirit, and we have no ground for boasting at all. We live by the Spirit.

Now what? Galatians 5:25 states concisely what our next step should be. "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit." Paul is in full agreement with Jesus that it is by the work of the Holy Spirit that we have been given new life. "Even when we were dead through trespasses God made us alive together with Christ . . . We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:5, 10; Colossians 2:13). Just as God once said, "Let there be light," and there was light, so he "has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). Now Paul, in Galatians 5:25, draws an inference from how our new life in Christ began: if it began by the Spirit, then all our subsequent life ought to be carried out by the Spirit (see Galatians 3:1–5). If it was by the free and sovereign power of the Spirit that our new spiritual life came into being, then the way that new life should be lived is by that same free and sovereign power. "Walk by the Spirit" means do what you do each day by the Spirit; live your life in all its details from waking up in the morning until going to sleep at night by the enabling power of the Spirit. But what does that mean, practically speaking? How do we "walk by the Spirit"?

Let's observe a few things in the immediate context of Galatians 5 and then bring in some other Scriptures in order to get as full an answer to this question as we can. I'll conclude by describing five things involved in walking by the Spirit.

How Do We Walk by the Spirit?

The phrase "walk by the Spirit" occurs not only in verse 25 but also in verse 16, "But I say, walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh." So here we see what the opposite of walking by the Spirit is, namely, giving in to the desires of the flesh. Remember, "flesh" is the old, ordinary human nature that does not relish the things of God and prefers to get satisfaction from independence, power, prestige, and worldly pleasures. When we "walk by the Spirit," we are not controlled by those drives. This is what verse 17 means: the flesh produces one kind of desires, and the Spirit produces another kind, and they are opposed to each other. Walking by the Spirit is what we do when the desires produced by the Spirit are stronger than the desires produced by the flesh. This means that "walking by the Spirit" is not something we do in order to get the Spirit's help, but rather, just as the phrase implies, it is something we do by the enablement of the Spirit.

Ultimately, all the good inclinations or preferences or desires that we have are given by the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Spirit we are mere flesh. And Paul said in Romans 7:18, "I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing." Apart from the gracious influences of the Holy Spirit, none of our inclinations or desires is holy or good, "for the mind of the flesh is hostile to God's law and does not submit to it because it cannot" (Romans 8:7). The new birth is the coming into our life of the Holy Spirit to create a whole new array of desires and loves and yearnings and longings. And when these desires are stronger than the opposing desires of the flesh, then we are "walking by the Spirit." For we always act according to our strongest desires.

Therefore, "walking by the Spirit" is something the Holy Spirit enables us to do by producing in us strong desires that accord with God's will. This is what God said he would do in Ezekiel 36:26, 27:

A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you . . . I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes.

Thus when we "walk by the Spirit," we experience the fulfillment of this prophecy. The Holy Spirit produces in us desires for God's way that are stronger than our fleshly desires, and thus he causes us to walk in God's statutes.

Led by the Spirit and Not Under Law

This, then, explains the two parts of the next verse in Galatians 5, verse 18, "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." It is easy to understand, in view of what we have seen, how Paul could shift from the phrase "walking by the Spirit" in verse 16, to "being led by the Spirit" in verse 18. The phrase, "being led by the Spirit," simply makes more explicit the initiative of the Spirit in the life of a Christian. We don't lead him; he leads us. We are being led by him through the stronger desires he awakens within us. "Walking by the Spirit" and "being led by the Spirit" refer to the same thing. "Being led by the Spirit" stresses the Spirit's initiative and enablement. "Walking by the Spirit" stresses our resulting behavior. The Spirit leads us by creating desires to obey God, and we walk by fulfilling those desires in action.

This explains, then, why we are not "under the law," as verse 18 says. "If you are led by the Spirit (i.e., led by him to obey the law), then you are not under law." You are not "under law" in two senses. First, you are not under the law's condemnation because you are fulfilling the just requirement of the law. That's what Paul meant in Romans 8:4 where he said that Christ died "in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk according to the Spirit." When you walk by the Spirit, you fulfill the basic requirement of the law and so you are not under its condemnation. The second sense in which we are not under law when we "walk by the Spirit" or are "led by the Spirit" is that then we don't feel the pinch or burden of the law demanding of us what we have no desire to do. When the Spirit is leading us by producing godly desires, then the commands of God are not a burden but a joy. So in that sense too, walking by the Spirit frees us from being under the law. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Works of the Flesh and Fruit of the Spirit

Now, if we look at verses 19–24 which follow, we will find one more expression about the Spirit which confirms and expands what we have seen so far about "walking by the Spirit." In these verses Paul contrasts the "works of the flesh" (19–21) with the "fruit of the Spirit" (22–23). The opposite of doing the "works of the flesh" is "bearing the fruit of the Spirit." This is exactly the same contrast we saw in verse 16: "Walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh." The "works of the flesh" are what you do when you "gratify the desires of the flesh." The "fruit of the Spirit" is what appears in your life when you "walk by the Spirit." Therefore what we have in these verses are three images of the Spirit's work in our life: "walking by the Spirit" in verse 16, "being led by the Spirit" in verse 18, and bearing "the fruit of the Spirit" in verse 22.

Why does Paul refer to the "fruit of the Spirit" instead of the "works of the Spirit" to match "works of the flesh"? In view of what we have seen so far, I think the reason is that Paul wants to avoid giving any impression that what the Spirit produces is our work. It is not our work; it is his fruit. What we do when we walk by the Spirit is simply fulfill the desires produced by the Spirit. And what better way is there to describe the ease of following our strongest desires than to say it is like having the Spirit's fruit pop out in our attitudes and actions? Therefore, just like the phrase "led by the Spirit," so also the phrase "fruit of the Spirit" stresses the Spirit's initiative and enablement to fulfill God's law.

Love Your Neighbor

The last thing we want to notice in these verses about "walking by the Spirit" is that it refers basically to one kind of behavior: loving behavior. The first thing mentioned in the fruit of the Spirit is love in verse 22. This is emphasized even more in verses 13 and 14:

You were called to freedom, brethren, only do not use your freedom as an occasion for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Just as the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit are contrasted in verses 19–23, so here giving in to the flesh and serving each other through love are contrasted in verses 13 and 14. This shows that love is the all-encompassing lifestyle of one who bears the fruit of the Spirit, is led by the Spirit, and walks by the Spirit. This is confirmed by the reference to the law in verse 14 and verse 18. In verse 18, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." In verse 14, "If you love your neighbor, you fulfill the whole law." Therefore, loving your neighbor and being led by the Spirit (or walking by the Spirit) are almost synonymous.

Almost. But there is a crucial difference which should make us very grateful that Paul taught what he did about the Holy Spirit. If all we were ever told was, "Love your neighbor," we probably would have set about trying to do it by ourselves and would have turned love into a work of the flesh. We know this happens because of 1 Corinthians 13:3 where Paul says:

If I give away all that I have and if I deliver my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.

Nothing! Listen carefully now. This is utterly important for your life. Yet it is understood by so few. It is possible to undertake the most sacrificial acts imaginable for other people and still not please God. Give away all your goods and your own life, too, and come to nothing in God's eyes. It is possible to be eulogized by the world as the greatest philanthropist or the most devoted martyr and still not please God. Why? Because what pleases God is walking by the Spirit and being led by the Spirit and bearing the fruit of the Spirit! The great problem in contemporary Christian living is not learning the right things to do but how to do the right things. The problem is not to discover what love looks like but how to love by the Spirit. For Paul it is absolutely crucial that, if we came to life by the free and sovereign work of the Spirit, we learn to walk by the free and sovereign work of the Spirit. In view of the sovereignty of the Spirit who leads us where he wills by the stronger desires he creates within us, what should we do? What, very practically, is involved in obeying the command, "Walk by the Spirit"?

Five Steps Toward Walking by the Spirit

Let me conclude by mentioning five things that I think we must do so that it can be truly said that we are walking by the Spirit.

1. Acknowledge

First, we must acknowledge from our hearts that we are helpless to do good apart from the enablement of the Holy Spirit. As Paul says in Romans 7:18, "I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing." What did Jesus mean when he said in John 15:5, "Without me you can do nothing"? Of course we can do something without Jesus: we can sin! But that's all we can do. So, the first step of walking by the Spirit is: admit this fact and let it have its devastating effect on our pride. We cannot do anything pleasing to God without the constant enablement of the Spirit.

2. Pray

Second, since it is promised in Ezekiel 36:27 that God will put his Spirit within us and cause us to walk in his statutes, pray that he do it to you by his almighty power. Many of you know the glorious, liberating experience of having an irresistible desire for sin overcome by a new and stronger desire for God and his way. And as you look back, to whom do you attribute that new desire? Where did it come from? It came from the merciful Holy Spirit. Therefore, let us pray like Paul did in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 for that chief fruit of the Spirit: "Now may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men." And let's pray like the writer to the Hebrews did in Hebrews 13:21,

And now may the God of peace . . . equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ.

If it is God alone who works in us what is pleasing in His sight, then above all, we must pray. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10).

3. Trust

The third step involved in walking by the Spirit is faith. We must believe that since we have come under the gracious sway of God's Spirit, "sin will no longer have dominion over us" (Romans 6:14). This confidence is what Paul meant by "reckoning ourselves dead to sin and alive to God" (Romans 6:11). We simply count on it that the Spirit who made us alive when we were dead in sin wills our holiness and has the power to achieve what he wills. You may remember in one of my sermons on prayer I said that one of the things we believers can pray for with undoubting faith that God will do it is our sanctification, which is the same as being led by the Spirit.

The reason we can is that we know that God will cause his children to be led by the Spirit. And the way we know this is because of Romans 8:14, where Paul says you can't even be a child of God unless you are led by the Spirit. "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God." If you are a child of God, you have a solid and unshakable promise that God will give you victory over those powerful desires of the flesh. One word of caution: do not prejudge the timing of the Holy Spirit's work. Why he liberates one person overnight but brings another to freedom through months of struggle is a mystery concealed for now from our eyes.

4. Act

The fourth step in walking by the Spirit after you have acknowledged your helplessness without him, prayed for his enablement, and trusted in his deliverance is to act the way you know is right. Notice: this is not step number one. If this were step number one, all our actions would be works of the flesh, not fruit of the Spirit. Only after we have appealed for the Spirit's enablement and thrown ourselves confidently on his promise and power to work in us, do we now work with all our might. Only when we act with that spiritual preparation, will we be able to say with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:10,

By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.

Or in Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (see also Romans 15:18, 19). A person who has acknowledged his helplessness, prayed for God's enablement to do right, and yielded himself confidently to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit has this astonishing incentive to do righteousness, namely, the confidence that, whatever righteous act he does, it is God almighty who is at work in him giving him the will and the power to do it. It is a sign of hasty prejudice when a person says, "Well, if the Spirit is sovereign and I can't do any good without his enablement, then I may as well just sit here and do nothing."

There are two things wrong with that statement: it is self-contradictory, and it is unbiblical. It is a contradiction to say, "I'll just sit here and do nothing." If you choose to sit in your chair while the house burns down, you have chosen to do something, just as much as the person who chooses to get up and save himself and others. Why should you think the one choice any more inconsistent with the sovereignty of God than the other? And such a statement is also unbiblical because Philippians 2:12 and 13 says,

Beloved, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (get out of the chair, the house is on fire!) because (not "in spite of" but "because") God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

It is a great incentive, not discouragement, that all our effort to do what is right is the work of almighty God within us. At least for myself, I am greatly encouraged when the going gets rough that any effort I make to do right is a sign of God's grace at work in me. "Let him who serves serve in the strength which God supplies, that in everything God may get the glory" (1 Peter 4:11). To God be the glory!

5. Thank

The final step in walking by the Spirit is to thank God for any virtue attained or any good deed performed. If without the Spirit we can do no right, then we must not only ask his enablement for it but also thank him whenever we do it. Just one example from 2 Corinthians 8:16. Paul says, "Thanks be to God who puts the same earnest care for you into the heart of Titus." Titus loved the Corinthians. Where did that come from? God put it in his heart. It was a fruit of the Spirit. So what does Paul do? He thanks God. And Titus should, too. Thanks be to God who puts love in our hearts!

"If we live by the Spirit, then let us also walk by the Spirit." Let us acknowledge from our heart that we are unable to please God without the Spirit's constant enablement. Let us pray for that enablement. Let us trust confidently in the Spirit's power and promise to give that enablement. Then let us do what we know is right. And having done it, let us turn and say with all the saints, "Not I, but the Spirit of Christ within me." Thanks be to God! To him be glory for ever and ever! Amen.

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org