Galatians 5:16-17

Sermon preached on May 28, 2017 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2017. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

A couple of months ago there were a few articles and tweets on the web that were critical of United Airlines when they refused to allow three girls to board a flight from Minneapolis from Denver. The girls were wearing 'leggings' and because of that the agent at the gate refused to let them on the plane. One of the girls changed and was allowed to board but the other two were not allowed to board. When some people heard about it they were aghast that the airline would be allowed to police what girls and women were wearing. They thought it was outrageous and they complained.

Things calmed down when the airline revealed that the passengers in question were not permitted to board because they didn't meet the criteria for 'Pass riders'. Most airlines have a policy in which employee family members and guests can fly for free or at a greatly reduced cost. But if they do so they are obligated to dress in a way that represents the airline well. The airlines require that pass riders wear clothing that looks neat and professional. When those three pass riders went to the gate they didn't meet the criteria so they were denied boarding. They were held to a higher clothing standard than ordinary passengers.

Marg and I once encountered this. In the last year of my brother's life we made several flights to see him. When one of Marg's uncles, who had retired from a major airline, heard about this he offered us greatly reduced passes for one of our trips. But one of the things he drilled into us before we went on the trip was that we had to dress well. He told us we were not allowed to wear shorts or jeans or anything informal. We had to dress up, he said, because we were, in a way, representing the airline. He drilled that into us and was very concerned about it.

In our text we have a similar, but much deeper rule. It's not concerned with mere outward appearances—but with our inner life as well. The apostle Paul tells us that we are to live by the Spirit. He wrote, (Galatians 5:16–17)

"So I say, live by the Spirit,
and you will not gratify
the desires of the sinful nature.
For the sinful nature desires
what is contrary to the Spirit,
and the Spirit what is contrary
to the sinful nature.
They are in conflict with each other,
so that you do not do what you want."

Paul commands Christians to 'live by the Spirit'. A more literal translation would be, 'walk in the Spirit'. Christians are expected to live their lives in a particular way, guided, enabled and empowered by the Spirit. The Spirit is our new principle of life. Our text could be paraphrased as, 'be always walking by the Spirit' or 'be a person characterized by walking by the Spirit'. (Douglas Moo, Galatians, BEC) We are to say 'no' to the sinful nature and live according to the Spirit.

This is the opposite of what our society tells us. Sometime ago I heard someone say,

"The only thing that our society considers a sin today is to call something a sin."

He was obviously exaggerating because there are still certain things that just about everyone would call a sin. Child abuse whether it's physical or sexual is still considered a sin by just about all people. Bullying is also still considered a sin. Murder is considered a sin by most people.

Many of the things that have traditionally be called sinful, which the Bible calls evil are no longer considered bad. Some people consider breaking your marriage vows as a good thing, not a bad thing. They will tell you that it's wrong to stay in a bad marriage, that healthy people move on. I'm not endorsing bad marriages but one of the things that makes bad marriages is the fact that people have stopped working to make it a good marriage. They teach that committing adultery and leaving your wife and kids is not bad if you find your soul-mate. They think it's something good. Same sex marriage is considered good and those that oppose it are considered people of hate. Abortion is approved and accepted. It's considered part of a woman's right.

According to our society you should do whatever you want. You shouldn't deny yourself anything you want. It tells you to 'follow your heart', or 'inner light', your passions, your dreams—whatever makes you feel good. Be true to yourself, they will tell you.

But our text tells us to,

live by the Spirit and not by the sinful nature.

The word that is translated 'sinful nature' here is what some older translations render with word 'flesh'. Spirit and flesh are used in different ways in the New Testament. In our text they refer to the, (Devoted To God, p. 94)

"characteristics of the two ages or epochs in which the Christian lives."

We have not been yet made perfect. We are still sinful. Our old nature has not been totally removed from us. But the power of sin over us has been decisively defeated. We have been given the Spirit. We are called to holiness. We are called to be like God. It is in the Spirit we find that way. He leads us in all truth, in God's Word.

One of the reasons Jesus died was to secure the Spirit for us. In John 16:7 Jesus told His disciples that unless He went away the Spirit would not come to them. But because of His death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, Christ has become for us the Life-giving Spirit. The Spirit was poured out on the church on the Day of Pentecost. He is now with us, living in us. We have a new principle of life. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:9,

"You, however, are controlled not
by the sinful nature but by the Spirit,
if the Spirit of God lives in you."

The Spirit is transforming us. As we read in 2 Corinthians 3:18,

"And we, who with unveiled faces
all reflect the Lord's glory,
are being transformed into his
likeness with ever-increasing glory,
which comes from the Lord,
who is the Spirit."

What is Christian living all about? Sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes you'll hear Christian preachers talk about Christian living and it seems like their message is essentially—

"Try harder! Put more effort in trying to be holy. Work harder at it."

There is certainly a biblical emphasis on putting a lot of effort into our sanctification. For example, in 2 Peter 3:14 the apostle wrote,

"So then, dear friends,
since you are looking forward to this,
make every effort to be found spotless,
blameless and at peace with him."

And in Hebrews 4:11 the writer wrote,

"Let us, therefore, make every effort
to enter that rest,
so that no one will fall by following
their example of disobedience."

And in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 Paul said,

"Do you not know that in a race
all the runners run,
but only one gets the prize?
Run in such a way as to get the prize.
Everyone who competes in the games
goes into strict training.
They do it to get a crown
that will not last;
but we do it to get a crown
that will last forever.
Therefore I do not run
like a man running aimlessly;
I do not fight like a man beating the air.
No, I beat my body and make it
my slave so that after
I have preached to others,
I myself will not be disqualified
for the prize."

We must work hard. But the truth we need to be aware of is that we have no power to succeed on our own. In John 15:5 Jesus told us that. He said,

"I am the vine;
you are the branches.
If a man remains in me and I in him,
he will bear much fruit;
apart from me you can do nothing."

In 2 Corinthians 12:9 God said to the apostle Paul,

"My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power
is made perfect in weakness."

God gives us strength. He gives us power. All our power comes from God. Herman Ridderbos described the relationship between our effort and the Spirit this way, (Galatians, p. 203)

"The principle of the Spirit does not make human effort unnecessary, but arouses it and equips it to put all its forces into the service of the Spirit."

The Spirit is our source of life. The apostle Paul continued in 2 Corinthians, (verses 9–10)

"Therefore I will boast all the more
gladly about my weaknesses,
so that Christ's power may rest on me.
That is why, for Christ's sake,
I delight in weaknesses,
in insults, in hardships,
in persecutions, in difficulties.
For when I am weak,
then I am strong."

Sinclair B. Ferguson writes, (Devoted To God, p. 93)

"God never throws us back to rely upon ourselves and our own resources. He encourages us rather to grow up as Christians by digging down ever more deeply into the riches of his grace in Jesus Christ."

We see this principle clearly in Ephesians 6:10. Paul wrote,

"Finally, be strong in the Lord
and in his mighty power."

That's the only way we can be strong. We must be in the Lord and rely upon and use His mighty power. He is our strength. In Philippians 4:13 Paul wrote,

"I can do everything through him
who gives me strength."

It's only be resting in God, relying on His power that we are able to overcome the old nature. Living by the Spirit means living by the Spirit's power, drawing upon His life, His strength.

So what we should realize here is

what an incredible privilege and honor God has given us.

When God saved us, He did not immediately take us to heaven. But He has given us the Spirit. In the Spirit He has given us new life. Even now, in a sense, we enjoy some of the life of the age to come. We have been created new. We have been freed from the bondage of sin. As the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17,

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,
he is a new creation;
the old has gone,
the new has come!"

We have a new citizenship, our citizenship is in heaven. We are strangers and pilgrims here on earth. This is not our true home.

We are in Christ. We participate in the new creation. We are being renewed in the image of Jesus. I like one of the ways that Sinclair Ferguson describes it. He says we are possessed by the Spirit, (p. 98)

"and are breathing his atmosphere."

Already we are part of the new creation. This means we have a great obligation to live a Spirit filled lives. In Galatians 5:25 Paul wrote.

"Since we live by the Spirit,
let us keep in step with the Spirit."

We are to live such Spirit filled lives that we should be able to say with the apostle Paul, (Galatians 2:20)

"I have been crucified with Christ
and I no longer live,
but Christ lives in me."

The second thing we see in our text is that

you are not to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

This is where the today's society is totally wrong. We are to deny the desires of the sinful nature. They belong to the old order, to the way of death. We are to put them to death. In Romans 7:18 Paul said this about the sinful nature.

"I know that nothing good lives in me,
that is, in my sinful nature."

Indeed in our text the Spirit and the flesh are described as opposing one another. It tells us to,

"not gratify the desires
of the sinful nature.
For the sinful nature desires
what is contrary to the Spirit,
and the Spirit what is contrary
to the sinful nature.
They are in conflict with each other…"

According to the sinful nature we can live any way we please except in obedience to God's commands. That's how opposed the flesh and the Spirit are. The sinful nature will let you do anything you want with one exception—it will not let you obey God. Romans 8:7 shows us this as well. It says,

"the sinful mind is hostile to God.
It does not submit to God's law,
nor can it do so."

John Calvin writes, (Commentary)

"Disobedience and rebellion against the Spirit of God pervade the whole nature of man…"

To grow in holiness, Calvin says,

"we must begin with self-denial."

Sinclair Ferguson describes the Christian life this way, (Devoted To God, p. 94)

"we are now involved in a Spirit-against-flesh war."

In Romans 7:14f we see the struggle in the apostle Paul. The sinful nature still wants to rule us. We must not let it. It is the way of death. In yoru life don't make any provision for the flesh.

The third principle we should understand about walking in the Spirit or gratifying the desires of the sinful nature, is that

it's one or the other.

Walking by the Spirit or gratifying the desires of the sinful nature is an either-or proposition. You can't do both. It's just like when Jesus said, (Matthew 6:24)

"No one can serve two masters.
Either he will hate the one
and love the other,
or he will be devoted to the one
and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and Money."

You have to choose one or the other. In fact everyone does choose one or the other. If you do not choose to walk in the Spirit you've automatically chosen to allow the sinful nature to rule you. You've chosen the way of death. Romans 8:13–14 says,

"For if you live
according to the sinful nature,
you will die;
but if by the Spirit you put to death
the misdeeds of the body,
you will live,
because those who are led
by the Spirit of God are sons of God."

Which are you going to choose? Are you going to choose life by the Spirit, or death by following your sinful desires?