Galatians 5:16 “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”
As emphasized in the analysis of the previous verse, the Judiazers’ arguments centered on the sanctity of the community – we need the rules of the Law to keep people from falling into sin and depravity. But Paul has just argued that a relationship with Jesus is based on freedom, and that slavish devotion to rules only leads to “indulging the sinful nature.” But even in freedom, we are warned to not “use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” (5:13). It seems to be a paradox – We’re not supposed to sin, yet we’re supposed to be free from the rules. How is this going to work?
Verse 16 begins the revelation of the answer to this age-old question.
"So I say, live by the Spirit.” In the original Greek, the work translated in the NIV as “live” literally means “walk.” It was part of the Jewish cultural viewpoint of the Law to refer to following the Law’s principles as a “walk.” The Jews saw their devotion to the Law as having a relationship with the Law – it was a mindset designed to mold one’s behavior by familiarity, like becoming intimately familiar with terrain by walking through it over and over. The Greeks really had no cultural parallel for this concept. To tell a Greek of that era to “walk by the Law” or “walk by the Spirit” would have seemed foreign. Yet, this is precisely why this concept needed to be driven home. Paul is aiming his instruction at those who were familiar with and related to Jewish culture, and is encouraging them to “walk” outside of it. To give up cultural concepts and rules as a basis for defining who we are in God, and “walk” instead with and in a relationship with God Himself.
And while the word here literally means “walk” it is also proper to translate it as “to live.” The verb tense here is present, and its intensified. It could be translated as “go on living by the Spirit” or “continue to live by the Spirit.” It implies habitual conduct. The “walking” or “living” here also implies we are to be responsive to the Spirit, controlled by the Spirit, and guided by the Spirit. This goes way beyond the concept of rote obedience. Again, it’s all about RELATIONSHIP.
But I think a few things need to be established. The relationship is based on the promise. (Galatians 3:6-9). The promise and its power result in a complete transformation – we are made new. (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15). Our foundational nature and relationship with God is changed. We are no longer slaves to sin, but sons of God. (Galatians 3:26 – 4:7). Our ability to resist sin, the “sinful nature” or “flesh,” is not so much a matter of our will, or ability, but is based on this change of nature, and on the relationship with God, and the indwelling of His Spirit, and on the POWER of the Spirit. This change of nature, the “walk” in the Spirit that is habitual, responsive, controlled and guided is fueled by God’s limitless power. It is SUPERNATURAL. The same miraculous power that raised Jesus from the dead, that gives us miracles and gifts (Galatians 3:5 – I don’t think we can discuss this without including the essential nature of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2 (and in Galatians 3:5) and the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a supernatural manner), this power helps us to be free of the sinful nature, of the “flesh.” Yes, there is always choice involved, a day by day, minute by minute choice. But the combination of changed nature and indwelling power makes that choice less of a struggle – we are truly, really free! (See Galatians 5:1).