Follow the Spirit

Explore the Bible Series

July 5, 2009


Background Passage: Galatians 5:16-26

Lesson Passage: Galatians 5:16-26




Our previous study revealed Paul’s opposition to both legalism and libertarianism.  Perhaps we should take a moment to consider what “legalism” means.  If I might, this introduction will, in part, describe the nature and danger of legalism; then, we will consider Paul’s ethical alternative to legalism and libertarianism.  As I see it, legalism has the following characteristics.


1.      Legalism implies that conformity to an external code of conduct will merit the Lord’s salvation.  Legalist seldom assert rule-keeping as a means of grace.  They conceal their agenda with the language of grace, much as the Galatian Judaizers did in Paul’s day.  Nevertheless, the underlying message centers on meritorious salvation; thus, it undermines the gospel of grace and diminishes the centrality of the cross.

2.      Legalism constructs an extra-biblical ethical system for believers; that is, it creates a man-made code of conduct that binds the conscience of the Lord’s people.  In Galatia, I surmise that circumcision was an initial step toward requirement, by the Judaizers, that believers adhere to other laws, the dietary code, for instance.  Paul understood the slippery slope of legalism.  If he had yielded to the legalists’ demand for circumcision, other demands would have followed.  Circumcision was a gateway to a full-blown legal system of conduct. 


I grew up in the context of a stifling fundamentalist ethic that made many demands for which I find no warrant in Scripture.  My precious, godly parents did not buy, wholeheartedly, into this system, but the churches we attended certainly espoused these views, and this approach to Christian morality proves very damaging.  It produces unnecessary guilt, pride, self-righteousness, and, at times, rebellion.  Paul understood the dangers of this form of legalism, and he vigorously opposed this tendency.


No doubt, Paul’s legalistic opponents accused the apostle of teaching a loose, libertine ethic that would lead to immoral conduct among the churches.  They feared, it would seem, that Paul’s refusal to submit to the ceremonial law would engender a dangerous tendency toward immoral behavior.  These false teachers misunderstood Paul’s ethical theology, a misunderstanding Paul’s corrected in the passage we consider this week.  For the apostle, Christian conduct arose from a living union with the Holy Spirit.  Rather than encouraging an external code of conduct, Paul claimed that the regenerate heart, indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit, would produce fruit in the believer’s life. Stated somewhat differently, Paul believed that what a person is will influence what a person does.




Lesson Outline:


I.       Paul’s Fundamental Ethical Principle (vv. 16-18)

A.    The principle stated (v. 16b) “Walk in the Spirit”:  The “Spirit”, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit who indwells all believers.  An internal principle of holiness resides within all Christians, and this principle (person) provides an inward impulse to holy living.  The Spirit transforms the heart and will; thus, the believer acts upon this internal impulse.  One may conform to an external code of conduct without engaging the heart, but the righteousness that arises from the Holy Spirit comes from within.  Also, the word “walk” implies a consistent manner of life that increasingly progresses toward holiness.  John Bunyan expressed this well in the title to his classic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Christians, by the very nature of regeneration, make gradual progress toward holiness.  This, it seems to me, is the essence of Paul’s views on Christian ethics.

B.     The reality of remaining sin (vv. 16b-18): Paul was no idealist.  He realized that a sin principle, the flesh, remained within believers.  Vaughan summarizes the essence of the flesh, “The word stands for all the tendencies and impulses which lead to wrong conduct.”  The flesh no longer has dominance over a Christian, but it remains as a powerful, ungodly influence.  It wages a formidable, fierce opposition to the Spirit.  The two impulses, fleshly and spiritual, pull the believer in opposing directions, and, at times, the believer does fleshly things, things which he does not really want to do (See v. 17b).   The law has no capacity to overcome the influence of the flesh.  Only the leadership of the Holy Spirit can transform a person in such ways that affect real changes in behavior.


II.     The Works of the Flesh (vv. 19-21): Curtis Vaughan organized this section under four headings.  In Verse Twenty-One, Paul asserted that anyone who practices such things, as a way of life, will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

A.    Sins of impurity (v. 19): I use the terms translated by the New King James Version.

1.      adultery: Paul used the word pornea (from which we get the word “pornography”), and it denotes general sexual misconduct.  In the ancient world it often referred to prostitution, but, in this context, Paul seems to use the term more broadly.

2.      fornication: This word, in Paul’s time, often referred to the infection that attended serious wounds.  The apostle used it to reflect his concern about any form of sexual sin.

3.      uncleanness: This term means sexual debauchery, lewd behavior.

4.      licentiousness: Translates a word that depicts open shamelessness, public violations of decency.

B.     Sins connected with pagan religion (v. 20a)

1.      idolatry:  Of course, this term means the worship of idols.

2.      sorcery: Paul used a term from which we get our word “pharmacy”.  Witches, in the ancient world, used various kinds of drugs to promote their craft.  Witchcraft and idolatry, in the apostle’s mind, were sister sins.

C.     Sins of temper (vv. 20b-21a)

1.      hatred: hostility, a general unwillingness to get along with others

2.      contentions: Describes those who promote a spirit of dissention and discord.

3.      jealousies: an envious heart that resents the advancement of others

4.      outbursts of wrath: eruptions of anger, fits of rage

5.      selfish ambitions: selfish personal advancement

6.      dissentions: a party spirit that promotes divisiveness

7.      heresies: similar to the previous term, it denotes divisiveness

8.      envy: ill-will toward others

9.      murders: the logical end for all of these moral maladies

D.    Sins of drunkenness (v. 21b)

1.      drunkenness: the misuse of alcohol

2.      revelries: public dissipation associated with drunkenness


III. The Fruit of the Spirit (vv. 22-23)

A.    Love: agape, the highest, most noble form of love

B.     Joy: delightful gladness, spiritual cheerfulness

C.     Peace: may refer to peace with God or harmonious relationships with brothers in Christ

D.    Longsuffering: forbearance and patience

E.     Kindness: graciousness toward others, involves generosity and pleasantness

F.      Goodness: denotes beauty and beneficence

G.    Faithfulness: loyalty and trustworthiness

H.    Gentleness: humility and meekness, preferring others above self

I.       Self-control: self-mastery over one’s passions


IV. A Final Summary of Paul’s Ethic (vv. 24-26): Paul observed that believers had crucified the works of the flesh (with its passions and desires), and they must remember this fact as they face the myriad of ethical decisions in life.  The Holy Spirit has given the believer life (the New Birth), and Christians must walk as new creatures, in the life-giving Spirit. Paul concludes this section with a warning about pride, a conceit that promotes provoking and others to sin and personal envy of others.