Paul goes on to talk about how the flesh and the Spirit oppose and contend against each other, something every believer can identify with. This struggle is a part of our lifelong battle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil, as the Holy Spirit works to make us progressively more like Jesus. Sometimes we can grow weary and discouraged with this struggle and even doubt our salvation, but actually it is a sign of life. Walking by the Spirit is the pathway to overcoming the desires of the flesh and living a holy life. What a great encouragement—to know that we don’t have to stay trapped in our sins, in an endless demoralizing cycle of defeat after defeat with no way out!
Practically speaking, how do we walk by the Spirit and overcome the desires of the flesh? We must allow ourselves to be “led by the Spirit” (emphasis added; v. 18). The word led is a present-passive verb, indicating that we should continuously surrender and yield ourselves to the desires of the Spirit, whose leading is always diametrically opposed to the desires of our sinful flesh (our old self). Our surrender to the Spirit’s leading is an act of the will, a choice we must make; it is saying yes to the Spirit’s leading and no to the desires of the flesh. We will say more about that ahead. But for now, let’s be clear that as we allow the Spirit to influence, direct, and empower us, we can overcome the flesh. Certainty about this is crucial, and uncertainty is self-defeating.
At this point some concrete examples might help us better understand the struggle between the Spirit and the flesh and where surrender to each leads. In Galatians 5:19–21, Paul says, “Now the works of the flesh are evident.” In what follows, he gives a list of various works of the flesh, the self-centered life, that were common in Paul’s day (and in ours). It provides a representative sample and is by no means exhaustive. For clarity, I have given the meaning of each word, drawing from the work of two highly acclaimed New Testament scholars.3
Sexual immorality has been a perennial problem in human societies since the fall because it is rooted in one of our strongest drives. The Greek word used here, porneia (from which we get pornography), encompasses a variety of sexual sins, including using prostitutes, committing adultery, engaging in premarital sex, homosexual acts, and incest.
Impurity is an even broader term covering any inappropriate sexual activity, that is, sexual activities that make a person unclean and unfit for approaching God. One example would be viewing pornography, which has a long history and was part of Greco-Roman culture.
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