Let the Spirit Lead

Sunday School Lesson for July 13, 2003

Background Passage: Galatians 5:16-26

Focal Teaching Passage: Galatians 5:16-23

Conflict and the Leadership of the Spirit (5:16-18)

Verse 16

Having delivered a solemn warning to the believers of Galatia regarding their conduct and attitudes toward one another (5:15), Paul provided the antidote to such selfishness and strife. His prescription, to "walk by the Spirit," represents a call to live a life that is fully under the command and leadership of the Holy Spirit. Throughout this passage Paul repeatedly highlighted the theme of life under the Spirit’s reign by means of four key phrases—each of which is synonymous with the others [see George, 386]. For example, Paul called upon his readers to "walk by the Spirit" (v. 16), to be "led by the Spirit" (v. 17), to "live by the Spirit" (v. 25a), and to "walk [or follow] the Spirit" (v. 25b). Each of these four phrases, then, describe a life "completely and continuously under the control and direction of the Holy Spirit" [Cole, 211].

The exact meaning of these lines can best be understood as we remember the contrast Paul has continually drawn between the "flesh"—what we were apart from the transforming power of Christ—and the "Spirit"—what we are as the new, regenerated and redeemed people of God. To "walk by the Spirit," then, indicates one’s continual submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ—evidenced daily by faith in Christ and humble obedience to God’s will. It means to "go where the Spirit is going, to listen to his voice, to discern his will, to follow his guidance" [George, 386].

As far as Paul was concerned, when God’s people consistently follow the leadership of His Spirit they will not "carry out the desire of the flesh." Thus, the antidote to all the strife, confusion, tension, turmoil, discord and other such abuses so frequently known among the brethren of South Galatia is clear enough. Nothing less than a wholehearted surrender to Christ, His Word, His will, and the leadership of His Spirit will suffice.

Verse 17

The seriousness of Paul’s exhortation to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit is evidenced by the reality of the intense conflict that each believer is continually engaged in. According to the apostle, the "the flesh" is always hostile to "the Spirit." There is, in other words, a raging battle going on in the heart of every child of God (see Romans 7:14ff for a similar picture of the Christian life). The "desire" of the "flesh" is always "against" that of "the Spirit" and vice versa. The two forces are "in opposition to each other," and often the believer does not end up doing what he knows is right—"so that you do not do the things that you please." This inner warfare is the experience of every follower of Christ and will continue until our sanctification is completed in heaven. In the meantime, however, those who are indwelt by the Spirit must be diligent to trust in the power of Christ, His total victory over evil, and His righteousness that has been credited to them by God.

Verse 18

The section ends with a restatement of Paul’s basic argument from 5:1 that the believer in Christ is free from the Law. Here Paul contrasts living under the leadership of the Holy Spirit—"led by the Spirit"—with a life of bondage—"under the Law." The juxtaposition of these phrases makes it apparent that the life of faith in Christ, characterized as life in the Spirit, "stands in irreconcilable conflict with existence ‘under’ the Law" [George, 388]. In other words, the Spirit of God leads believers into the enjoyment of authentic spiritual freedom from any obligation to secure divine favor through obedience to the Law (cf. Rom. 8:3-4). However, it is important to remember that this does not imply that there is no place or function for the Law in the life of the believer. As Dr. George explains, "believers are now energized to fulfill the true intention of the law precisely because they have been set free from the law by the possession of the Spirit" [388]. Thus, while not impacting our salvation or our standing before God, the Law, particularly the Ten Commandments, represents God’s will for our conduct as His covenant children.


The Works of the Flesh (5:19-21)

At this point, Paul presents a dramatic picture of the radical change that grace prompts in the lives of those who believe in Christ. The two lists—the works of the flesh in 5:19-21 and the fruit of the Holy Spirit in 5:22-23—are intended to graphically display the "total contrast between the ‘natural’ life and the ‘spiritual’ life and does so in embarrassing detail, no doubt very appropriate to the situation in Galatia, as in any other pagan area" [Cole, 211]. As the two lists are compared and contrasted, be aware of the fact that Paul deliberately spoke of the "deeds" of the flesh as opposed to the "fruit" produced by the Spirit. That is, it is no accident that Paul did not produce a list of "deeds of the Spirit." This reveals the fact that the "deeds of the flesh" are "the products of fallen human beings in their devising, conniving, and manufacturing efforts at self-actualization," while the "fruit of the Spirit" is a "gift [from God], not the result of human ingenuity" [George, 390]. Below is a brief description of the works produced by the "flesh."

Note the powerful warning that Paul presented in verse 21. Those who "practice," or habitually engage in such activities, "shall not inherit the kingdom of God." In other words, those who participate in these activities with no remorse or sense of divine conviction "show themselves to be without the transforming gift of faith which leads to the gift of the promised Spirit" [Cole, 216].


The Fruit of the Holy Spirit (5:22-23)

Verses 22-23

In radiant contrast to the evil produced by the "flesh," Paul depicted what life in the Spirit was really all about in practical terms. This list of nine manifestations of the one Spiritual "fruit" does not necessarily represent a comprehensive listing of all the Spirit-produced graces, but those that especially display the beauty of the Spirit-controlled life.

Since these graces represent the "fruit of the Spirit," it is clear that they are not the product of human work, discipline, or determination—they are gifts given to every child of God. In other words, this is where the Spirit is leading every believer—toward the display of Christian character as represented by this list. While the "deeds of the flesh" violate God’s will and Word, there is "no law" against the spiritual fruit (v. 23).


Major Themes for Reflections and Application

One: How does the Spirit lead us?—Reflect upon some of the practical ways the Holy Spirit leads those who belong to Christ. Hint: Consider how He leads both objectively (through the Word of God), and subjectively (through inner conviction). Also give consideration to how the Spirit directs and leads our lives through others in the body of Christ.


Two: To fight or not to fight—Look carefully at 5:17. Is the presence of continual inner conflict over evil a bad thing or good? In other words, should we necessarily be discouraged when our conflict with evil is especially intense? What does such warfare tell us about ourselves? Hint: Is it possible that the presence of conflict is really an assurance of our salvation?


Three: Evil works or spiritual fruit?—What should a believer look like? What about a local church? Which list should characterize us as the people of God? Since the answer is quite obvious, see if you can suggest some ways that we can manifest more "fruit" than "works." Hint: Consider the place of repentance, accountability, submission, prayer, worship, sacrifice, and service.