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Galatians 5:16-21 “Growth Through Struggle”

In the past weeks we’ve seen that the motivation for morality in false religions is fear-based. It doesn’t matter what religion you pick, if it’s not authentic Christianity fear is at the heart of why people do good things. People fear they won’t be good enough to go to heaven. People fear they won’t be liked by others. People fear the unknown. They fear death.

But in gospel Christianity, the motivation is a dynamic of love, as we saw in the last chapter.

Galatians 5:6 says...

6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love.

And Galatians 5:14…

14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

And 1 John 4:18…

18 There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears is not complete in love.

So how do we grow in love? The Apostle Paul’s answer to that is that growth occurs as we struggle.

There is a struggle going on inside of Christians that is driving out fear and producing love.

What is the struggle between?

Verse 16 says…

16 I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh.

In this verse we see there are two natures at work in every Christian: the way of the Spirit and the desire of the flesh.

In Greek the word for “desire of the flesh” in this context does not refer to our physical bodies but to our sinful desires. The flesh is our sinful heart, our human nature. Or you could say it is the part of our hearts which is not yet renewed by the Spirit.

We see in verse 17 that the flesh and the spirit are contrary to each other.

17 For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want.

It may seem at first that this is a battle between something inside us and outside us but in reality the battle is all taking place within us. There are two kinds of desires, desires of the flesh and desires of the Spirit and these conflicting desires wage war within us.

The helpful way to think of “the Spirit” is as that part of the Christian heart being made new by the Holy Spirit. Before we were Christians our sinful natures, our flesh, was left unopposed to carry out its desires. And that’s what we did, we carried out our sinful desires in opposition to God. But once we became Christians the Holy Spirit started battling to create a new nature, a new heart.

Ephesians 4:22-24 says the Holy Spirit works to remove…

…your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on, the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.

At the center of the conflict is what the CSB calls a battle of “desires.” In older translations the word is translated “lust” but that is too narrow a translation because the word includes more than just that. In newer translations the word is translated “desires” but honestly that may not be any better because it’s too broad a translation.

Literally, the word for “desire” means an “over-desire.” This is crucial to understand because the main problem our heart has is not so much our desire for bad things, but our over-desires for good things. When a good thing becomes our “god”, it creates an “over-desire.”

1 John 2:16 says

“For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s possessions—is not from the Father, but is from the world.”

In other words, the things in the world and our possessions are not evil, it is our lust, or desire for them, that is sinful.

So verse 17 literally reads:

For the flesh over-desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh...

Notice that Paul does not say the Spirit “over-desires.” The Greek is different the second time “desires” is used in this verse. After all, how could the Spirit desire something too much? But don’t miss that the Spirit does have desires and what the Spirit desires is at least as strong as what our flesh desires.

What is it that the Spirit longs for? John 16:14 says the Spirit desires to glorify Jesus. So our flesh desires to glorify created things, other people, and ourselves, but the Holy Spirit desires to glorify Jesus Christ.

13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own, but he will speak whatever he hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.

So, the Spirit desires to show us the truth of Christ and to glorify Christ. And ultimately, this is what the Christian wants, too, but there is a struggle going on.

In Romans 7:22–23, Paul says,

“For in my inner self I delight in God’s law, 23 but I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body.”

“Delighting in God’s law”, doing what pleases him, is what we as Christians most want to do yet there is another desire within us that wages war against it.

At first, this may seem discouraging, but actually Paul means for the idea to give us great hope. Paul follows up in Romans 7:24-25 saying...

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I myself am serving the law of God, but with my flesh, the law of sin.

There is a war going on in our minds but thanks be to God that through Christ we are being rescued! We have been and are being made new through the Holy Spirit fighting on our side.

We can’t lose! Let’s understand a little more…

How the struggle works

There is a striking parallelism between verse 16 and verse 18.

Verse 16 says

16 I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh.

18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

So we are to “walk by the Spirit … be led by the Spirit”, and this is set in contrast to “carrying out the desire of the flesh” … or being “under law”.

For Paul, carrying out the desire of the flesh, giving in to our sinful nature, and being under the law are either very closely linked, or even just different ways of speaking about the same thing. This close connection tells us a lot about our sinful nature and what it’s true objective is. Our sinful nature doesn’t want to just be sinful for evil’s sake.

Our sinful nature within us wants us to be our own savior and lord. Before becoming Christians this was our default motivation. The desire of the flesh is to be “under law”; it rejects the free gift of Christ’s righteousness and salvation, and continues to seek its own.

Therefore, the sin underneath all sins—the motive for our disobedience—is always a lack of trust in God’s grace and goodness, and a desire to protect and guard our own lives through self-salvation.

So, another way to say this is we have two partly intact motivational systems within us, two systems that motivate us to do what we do. We are continually being motivated to do what we find desirable or what we think we need.

The sinful nature, the flesh, is really our old motivational system—with its own goals and its own needs and drives. For Christians, our sinful nature has been damaged but it’s still not gone. It sets itself to motivate us to obtain things which in and of themselves are good but turn into idols when we seek to save ourselves through them.

For example, we think “if so and so will love me I can have worth...if I have a good career then I’ll be happy...if my children will be more obedient to me then I’ll be content...” None of these desires are wrong but over-desiring them turns them into idols.

What the Flesh Works

Verses 19–21 list “the works of the flesh” or of our sinful nature. It’s important to notice they are not all actions. They are not all things we do, but also things we think. Our attitudes are just as much over-desires of our flesh, too.

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

You can divide this list up into four groups. Those having to do with sexuality, with religion, with relationships, and with substance abuse.

There are three words in verse 19 having to do with the works of the flesh in the area of sexuality:

  • sexual immorality (porneia), which is sexual relations between unmarried people;
  • moral impurity (akatharsia), ie: unnatural sexual practices;
  • promiscuity (aselgia), ie: uncontrolled sexuality.

There are two words in verse 20 having to do with the area of religion:

  • idolatry (eidololatria) and sorcery (pharmakeia). Because Paul has paired idolatry with sorcery here we know he is referring to very specific occult and pagan religious practices. He’s not just talking about general idolatry, but about specific religious substitutes for God.

Then, in verses 20–21, come eight words that describe how the flesh destroys relationships. Four of these are destructive attitudes:

  • hatreds (echthrai), meaning hostility, an adversarial attitude.
  • selfish ambition (eritheia), namely competitiveness, a self-seeking motive;
  • envy (phthonoi), coveting, desiring what others have;
  • and jealousy (zdlos), the zeal and energy that comes from a hungry ego;

Four describe the results of these attitudes in relationships:

  • strife (eris), being argumentative or seeking to pick fights;
  • outbursts of anger (thumoi), outbursts of anger;
  • dissensions (dichostaiai), divisions between people (which is what outburst of anger leads to);
  • and factions (aireseis), permanent parties and warring groups.

Finally, there are two words that refer to substance abuse:

  • drunkenness and carousing or you might say “drinking parties”.

Now I won’t go into any further description of them. You can study into them on your own and even add to the list. Notice Paul uses the term “such things” by which he means etcetera. This list could go on and on and we should give that some serious thought.

But, right now, especially notice Paul has a sharp warning for “those who do such things.”

They will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v 21).

Paul is referring to habitual practice, rather than infrequent, and repented-of, lapses. For someone continually to indulge the sinful nature without battling against it is to show that the Son has not redeemed them, and that the Spirit has not renewed them. Paul is not looking to undermine Christian assurance here; but he is aiming to banish complacency.

The argument that a person has been set free to live however they want isn’t true. We have been set free from the curse of the law. And we have been set free from the penalty for breaking it and now through the power of the Holy Spirit we have been given the ability to battle against our sinful human nature and become more like Christ.

True Christians will be engaged in this battle.

One of the blessings of this last week for me was being shown just how far I still have to go. So much selfishness, envy, and jealousy, were exposed in me this last week. I was jealous of the time other people had with my Dad. I was angry at times when my siblings didn’t agree with me. I was impatient.

And all the while I was complaining about the faults in others. It was a rough week, but it was also a blessing.

I call it a blessing because I don’t want to live in ignorance of my faults. I want to change, at least the Spirit within me does. My flesh would prefer the status quo but I thank God that He is changing me. I thank God for the struggle because He’s making me more loving.

Next week we’ll look more at what he’s turning us into. We’ll look at the fruits of of Spirit. This week we emphasize the negative and next week the positive.

As we prepare to think about the fruits of the Spirit let’s not forget that we are in midst of a great struggle. It is primarily a struggle of two opposing motivations but they are not equal motivations. The Holy Spirit will win the struggle within us. We are being changed and we are glorifying God as we become more like Christ.

Galatians 5:22-25 “Living by the Spirit”

Galatians 5:1-15 “For freedom, Christ set us free”