“I SAY then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witch-craft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.”
There has never been a person in all human history to whom the truths of Scripture do not apply, and there never will be such a person. The life story of each person, as Fr. Glenn reminds us, will eventually be enfolded into the life story of the Word made Flesh, Jesus. The Scriptures speak to each of our lives. Because of this great truth, I have sometimes tended to read Scripture as though it were a private message composed directly and immediately to me. When I do that, the question I ask at every moment of every verse is, “What is this text saying to me?” Now, that is a crucial question to ask, but if it’s the first and only question I ask, I am liable to end up with some muddled theology.
Today’s epistle is a prime example. If we read it as though it were written directly to us—if we fail to take into account the context of the letter and the specific recipients of St. Paul’s advice—we will come away with a deeply distorted picture of the Christian life, a skewed vision of what it means to be in Christ here and now.
So what I want to do today is to figure out who the “ye” is in this particular section of the Epistle to the Galatians—and then to figure out why that matters for us. In order to do that, we have to take a step back from the text at hand to see the big picture of the epistle.
The Epistle to the Galatians is St. Paul’s angriest letter. Like all his epistles, it is carefully constructed and beautifully rendered. Yet this elegant text is punctuated by moments of bewilderment, frustration, and even fury. Galatians is the only epistle in which St. Paul neglects to give thanks for the church or person whom he addresses. In the very place where he would normally say something to the effect that “I thank God whenever I think of you,” he instead writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1:5, ESV). He quickly follows that with the pronouncement of anathemas—“Let them be accursed,” he twice declares. Twice he calls his audience foolish. And then, in what may be the most visceral and shocking moment of the entire Pauline canon, St. Paul exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves” (5:12, ESV).
What is prompting St. Paul’s furious interjections here?
According to St. Paul, troublemakers have come into the church and corrupted the one true gospel by insisting that Gentile Christians must become circumcised in order to ensure right standing before God. The specific issues of law and gospel are not entirely necessary to understand our text—and Bp. Jones spoke about that last week in unpacking Galatians 3—so I will not belabor the point.
Suffice to say, St. Paul fiercely denounces any attempt to place human boundaries around the grace of God by requiring Gentile Christians to be circumcised. He puts it quite starkly in Galatians 5:2 & 4—“Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing… Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” The churches of Galatia are in dire straits. They have fallen away from the gospel—and St. Paul is furious.
With that in mind, let us return to the passage at hand. By this point in the epistle, St. Paul has put forth his own experience of calling and ministry as a model for the Galatians. He has also interpreted a number of Old Testament passages in the light of Christ—always emphasizing that God’s righteousness comes to us as a gift, without any preconditions.
In chapter 5, St. Paul shifts from exegetical interpretation of Scripture to a comparison of life in Christ with life apart from the gospel. Interestingly, today’s text gives us St. Paul’s first mention of “the Spirit” in the epistle.
“I SAY then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”
One of the keys to this passage is St. Paul’s contrast between “flesh” and “Spirit.” At first, you might think he is talking about two parts of the human person—on the one hand, a person’s physical materiality which is bad, and, on the other hand, a person’s non-corporeal spirit, which is good.
But it turns out that is a gnostic heresy, so if that is your interpretation, you might want to reconsider! And as many commenters, from the church fathers on down, have pointed out, it does not make much sense in the context of the passage. The “works of the flesh” include “adultery” and “fornication” and other sins related to physical desire, but St. Paul also lists idolatry, witchcraft, and heresies, which aren’t sins of the flesh in any bodily sense.
The Greek word for flesh is sarx, and Fr. Glenn has unpacked this for us a couple of times during our study of John. To put it succinctly, biblical authors sometimes speak of “flesh” in terms of God’s creation or in terms of the Word made flesh. This flesh is clearly good and precious.
But at other times, they will use the same word in a clearly negative sense. Flesh becomes bad, as Fr. Glenn has said, when we treat “our flesh as though it has a life of its own apart from God.” Although good in and of itself, flesh becomes sin when we cannot see beyond it—when we deceive ourselves into thinking we can derive ultimate meaning from it (Cousar, 135). Flesh, in this sense, is not a particular aspect of the individual or something internal to a person. Instead, it is more like the idolization of the physical in general.
But in Galatians 5, St. Paul adds a further twist. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit,” he says. The New American Standard’s typically literal translation reads, “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit.” Flesh here is not something passive. It’s active. It’s personified. And it’s working against the Holy Spirit.
Back in 5:13, St. Paul urges the Galatians not to use their liberty as “an occasion to the flesh.” One commenter contends that the imagery is of the flesh gaining a foothold, a kind of military base of operations (Martyn, 485). Here Flesh acts as a power in its own right, external to the individual. It is an active force for evil—a cosmic power not too far removed from St. Peter’s depiction of the devil in 1 Pet. 5:8 as “a roaring lion,” walking “about, seeking whom he may devour.” Thus the “works of the flesh” are a list of evil’s offspring—the many products of sin, the flesh, and the devil.
The picture here is of a war between two cosmic powers: Flesh versus Spirit, the Devil versus the Holy Ghost. The churches of Galatia constitute the battlefield on which these two powers meet. So what is the result of the battle? St. Paul says that “ye cannot do the things that ye would.” The two powers seem to be deadlocked, leaving the Galatians paralyzed.
Now, to return to where I started, if we assume that Galatians is written directly to us, then we might believe that this is the normal state of Christian life—paralyzed, helplessly passive amidst an as-yet-undecided battle between God and the devil. Indeed, many today do believe that this is the plight of the Christian. Salvation has changed our status from damned to saved, but that change in status does not result in any real freedom from sin in this life. We are still the same sinners we were before—just forgiven!
But there is a problem with that reading, and the problem is that the letter to the Galatians is to the Galatians! What do we know about those Galatians? Some of them, at least, have fallen away from grace! They have deserted Jesus and have turned to a corruption of the gospel.
If, based on this passage, we conclude that Christians exist in a state of paralysis—wishing to live rightly but doomed to sin due to their own frailty—we have completely inverted St. Paul’s message! The whole thrust of the passage and of the epistle as a whole is that, by the cross of Christ, we have been freed from bondage to sin and death.
“I SAY then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.”
We often read the two lists that follow this pronouncement as “dos” and “don’ts.” St. Paul tells us “the works of the flesh” so that we know not to do them, and then he describes “the fruit of the Spirit” so we will do those. But I don’t think that is St. Paul’s main point here. He is not saying “thou shalt not” and then “thou shall.” Instead, he is presenting us with two pictures. The first picture shows us life apart from the grace of God, which is characterized by “the works of the flesh”:
“Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.”
It is a grim and disturbing picture, but it does not depict us.
Back in chapter 3, St. Paul told the Galatians that “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3:27, ESV). And in today’s reading he confirms that “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (5:24). Christ lives in us, as he tells us in chapter 2, and so we are not subject to the “works of the flesh.”
Instead, as those who have put on Christ, our lives will reflect the “fruit of the Spirit.” Above all, we will be characterized by love, the kind of love Bp. Jones showed us through the story of the Good Samaritan last week. And a life of love is filled with joy and peace—yet it is also, lest we think it is all sunshine and butterflies, long-suffering.
That latter list—the fruit of the Spirit—is the true picture of the Christian life.
I hope you are starting to see why this matters. If you misread St. Paul here, you are likely to have a totally false vision for Christian living. You might see yourself as hopelessly imprisoned under sin, still captured by “the works of the flesh.” And there is no prophecy quite so self-fulfilling as hopelessness.
But glory be to God, this is not our plight. Yes, the devil still roams around like a lion, “seeking whom he may devour.” We will still fail. We will still sin. But if we are in Christ, this will not be the characteristic bent of our life. By God’s grace—through the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ—we have been freed from the powers of sin and death. We are enslaved to nothing but our beloved, Christ Jesus. And so we are free—truly free—to walk by the spirit in “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.”