We’ve had quite a long introduction to the passage we’re studying this week. Two whole posts here and here. We’ve learned that God is passionate about helping people become the kind of people that live in line with his heart. But how? By following laws? No. In those introductory posts we discussed Paul’s clear message in Galatians that Christians are free from the law. But we are not free to indulge our sinful nature. Instead God has set us free from the law so that we can can love. But how do we become people who love?
In Galatians 5:16-26 Paul describes the inward change God desires to bring in his people. Paul talks about this transformation using a variety of terms that pretty much all mean the same thing. In verse 16 and 25 he writes, “live by the Spirit.” In verse 25, he also calls it “keep in step with the Spirit.” In a later writing, Ephesians 5, verse 18, he would call it being “filled with the Spirit.” Christians are inwardly transformed when we are so aligned with the Holy Spirit that we live by the Spirit.
What Paul is talking about is when people say to the Spirit, “I need you. My life depends on you, Holy Spirit. I cannot do this without you.” I wonder how many of us actively, intentionally cultivate that kind of dependence on the Holy Spirit?
Remember that Paul would also write in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you, so honor God with your body. When you honor God with your body, you’re not following a law to look good on the outside. No, you are desiring to live a holy life because God’s Spirit lives on your inside. God is with you. God the Spirit is in you.
That’s why in another writing, Paul says, “You can grieve the Spirit.” In Ephesian 4:30, Paul says that we can grieve the Holy Spirit by how we talk and act with one another. Back here in Galatians 5, he says pretty much the same thing in verse 16 when he says, “live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” He depicts the two as if they are totally at odds with one another: it is the sinful nature vs. the Spirit.
Paul explains these almost as if we have competing forces at work in our lives. It sounds a bit like the classic illustration of a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The demon is tempting us to do bad and the angel is encouraging us to do good. But that illustration is not what Paul is teaching here, as if the battle is coming at us from the outside.
Instead, he is talking about a sin nature within us, and that sin nature is part of who we are. It is in our nature. But what does that mean, our “sin nature”? It might be confusing because when God created the world, including humans, as we read about in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 1, God looked at his creation and said, “It is good.” In fact, he said, “It is very good.” Not to mention that we are created in the image of God himself (Genesis 1:26-27). So are we good or are we bad?
There’s a lot of disagreement about the question of human nature, and there always has been a lot of disagreement. The disagreement boils down to this: Are humans inherently good or are they inherently bad? What I have noticed is that each side tends to describe their viewpoint as so important, they claim that if you view things from the other side, you are horrible and part of the reason why the world is falling apart. As if they know for sure the world is falling apart. It’s as if they are saying the fate of the world rests on you believing things their way. I think they’re making a big deal over the wrong thing.
What do we read in the Bible? We read that God created us good. And we also read that we have a sin nature. That means we have a possibility for doing good and for doing evil. Clearly, doing evil is out of line with God’s desire for us, and doing good is in line with God’s desires for us. But just as clearly, we still do evil. The evil we do could be small, seemingly inconsequential, but it could be really bad too. Even after they become Christians, Christians still struggle with evil. That is what Paul means in verse 17 when he says that this conflict can lead us to do things we don’t want to do. (Remember the tongue-twister Paul wrote about this in Romans 7? See this post for more details.)
Do you want to act like jerk? Not really. Maybe in your anger, you partially want to act like a jerk, but I suspect most people, when they are jerks, would prefer not to be. Do you want to say horrible things to your spouse? No. Do you want to hurt people? No. But you probably still do sometimes. You get so frustrated or sad or angry or hurt, that you can do something you regret. What do we do when we do what we don’t want to do?
Paul’s solution in verse 16 is really straightforward, “If you live by the Spirit, you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” If you live by the Spirit, you won’t do evil. Whatever Paul means by “live by the Spirit,” it is the key to turning away from the acts of the sinful nature.
What are the acts of the sinful nature? Paul doesn’t list out every possible sin. But he does name a few. Look at Galatians 5, verses 19-21. There are some doozies in there, like witchcraft, orgies, and fits of rage. So be careful not to look at this list and think, “Oh, Paul only cares about the really bad stuff, and I’m not into that.” Instead, there are plenty of sins mentioned that could apply to many of us.
Check back in to the next post as we’ll look more closely at the acts of the sinful nature Paul lists.