by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



It could be that Paul was inspired by the words God gave His people through the prophet Ezekiel when He said to them: “I will also put a new spirit in you to change your way of thinking. I will take out the heart of stone from your body and give you a tender, human heart. I will put my Spirit inside you and change you so that you will obey my laws. You will carefully obey my commands. I will save you and keep you from becoming unclean. You will remember the bad things you did. You will remember that those things were not good. Then you will hate yourselves because of your sins and the terrible things you did.” [1]

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory on the human personality gives some insight into what’s transpiring here in Paul’s mind.  Freud explains that we have our own human trinity controlling our lives.  The instincts and needs of the body, such as hunger, sleep, etc., are expressed by something he calls the “Id.” [2] Whenever the Id wants to satisfy these cravings, it sends a message to what he labeled as our “Ego.” [3] Then our Ego seeks food to calm our hunger, or a bed where we can lay our heads, or a coat to keep us warm, and so on.  But the final decisions are made by our “Super Ego.” [4]  For instance, if our Id says I’m hungry. The Ego says okay let me select some food, and suggests scrambled eggs and bacon. Our Super Ego may chime in and say “No!” to the Ego; reminding it that the Id is on a diet; there are too much fat and calories in that food, so choose something else.

From the Apostle Paul’s perspective, that part of man which gives our sinful tendencies a hiding place serves as a backdoor for the devil to gain access to our spiritual Ego is the Id—the flesh. Thus, the born-again Ego needed some guidance in responding. That’s why Paul insisted that our spiritual Super-Ego be transformed and set free to choose spiritual principles over sinful philosophies. He spells this out very clearly in his subsequent letter to the Romans: “Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to completely dedicate yourselves to God because of all He has done for you. Kneel at the altar and consecrate yourselves to live holy lives—the kind He wants to see. This is the true way to worship Him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God change you into a new person by transforming the way you think. Then you will learn to follow God’s good and pleasing and perfect will for your life.” [5]

Early church preacher Chrysostom has a clear view of what Paul is stressing here. For the Apostle, nothing, I mean nothing, renders us so susceptible to love as being spiritual. Likewise, nothing is more encouraging to the Spirit who dwells in us than the willingness to love. Having spoken of the cause of this self-eating disease of bickering among believers, Paul likewise mentions the remedy which restores spiritual health. And what is this remedy to eliminate these destructive evils? It is life in the Spirit. That’s why he tells the Galatians here in verse sixteen to walk guided by the Spirit, and they will not give in to the wrongful desires of the flesh.

Chrysostom acknowledges the battle between the wants of the flesh and the desires of the spirit, often going on in a believer’s life. However, he does not believe that when Paul speaks of the flesh, he is talking about the body. Chrysostom gives his definition of the flesh. For him, it is having a worldly mindset, lazy and careless in doing what’s right. Paul calls this the “flesh,” and this is not an accusation against the natural needs of the body, but a charge against the lazy soul when it comes to morality. The flesh is an instrument, and no one feels any hostility or hatred against a tool except for the person who abuses it. For it is not the majestic hunting knife that people hate, but the murderer who used it on an innocent victim; he is the one we despise and want to punish.

 However, says Chrysostom, calling out the soul’s faults and failures by naming the bodily member, is used as an accusation against the flesh. We accept that the flesh is inferior to the soul, yet it is useful in and of itself. Therefore, anything inferior to what is higher may itself be good. However, evil is not inferior to good but opposed to it. Now, if someone can prove that evil originates from the body, then they are at liberty to accuse the flesh. But, if you are attempting to blame that part which accomplished the harm instead of pointing the finger at what thought it up and initiated it, you are letting the soul off free from any responsibility. This kind of thinking is from human logic infected with the virus of wickedness.[6] [7]

Jerome detects that some are caught between remaining spiritual in their behavior or going back to their old way of living. They struggle daily against being reduced to living like a sinner. Here in verse seventeen, Paul admits that the “flesh struggles against the spirit.” People need the literal and definitive interpretation of Scripture, not an allegorical and figure of speech doctrine. And in the strict sense of Scripture, it shows that we do not have it in our power to fulfill the Law even when we wish to follow each law to perfection.[8] Such homiletical therapy of feel good all the time, or taking scriptures out of context was not only a problem in Jerome’s day but continues to this day. For instance, when someone takes a promise God made to an individual or specific group in Bible days and spins it as God’s promise to do the same for us today. Let us all be glad God did not mean for us to take the same promise he gave to Abraham about his children outnumbering the stars and apply it to ourselves.

Augustine also mentions that some people think the Apostle Paul denies that we have a free will. They do not understand that this is said only of them that refuse to hold on to the grace of God they received by faith. Nothing else enables them to walk guided by the Spirit and not fulfill the sinful tendencies of the flesh. By refusing to hold on to grace, it keeps them from doing what they want to do for God. By performing the works of self-righteousness under the law, they experience defeat due to their sinful tendencies. Not only that but by giving in to these desires of the flesh, they desert the grace of God given to them by faith in the work of Jesus the Anointed, who provided the required sacrifice on their behalf.[9]

A contemporary of Augustine’s, Ambrosiaster, gives his exposition of what Paul is saying. He writes that Paul presupposes two laws here, as he also does in his letter to the Romans, which are contrary to one another.[10] One of these is the law of God; the other is the law of sin. The latter is in the flesh because it fills its lust by taking delight in invisible things. The divine law clamps down on this and drives out the law of sin by advising people to follow the strength of their spiritual nature and not be captivated by things desired by their sinful nature. The law of sin, on the other hand, works undercover to afflict people with temptations so that they compromise the commandments of the divine law.

But the law of God works against this by calling them back and telling them not to do what the law of sin suggests. When they do what the law of sin suggests, they will be ashamed and horrified afterward.  Therefore, we must obey the commands of the law of the Spirit and ignore those of the flesh. Even their conscience accuses them if they agree to the law of sin because it knows how terrible its suggestions are.[11] To this, I might add, says Augustine, that giving in to the dictates of the sinful nature will result in worship of Satan while adhering to the dictates of the spiritual life will lead in the worship of God.  He uses the word “worship” here in its Biblical sense, which means to bow down to, to obey, to revere, and reverence.

We must keep in mind that Paul reminds the Jews of the laws they followed to earn self-righteousness before God, and the non-Jews who followed their practices to please the gods of the heathen temples and thereby deprive themselves of wrongdoing to please these idols.  So, Paul is suggesting that even though they are led now by the Holy Spirit and have a new spirit within them, not to allow the things they once did when they walked by sight, to lead them away from what they do now by faith.  Paul emphasizes this by telling them to let the Spirit lead them in the direction God, and the Anointed as their Redeemer and Savior, want them to go. Otherwise, it will put their hand back to the grip of the Law. They will then be led in the opposite direction of Works and Ceremonies, becoming their Redeemer and Savior.

Haimo of Auxerre (c. 800 AD), mentions that there are differences of opinion among various Church teachers as to what Paul is saying here in verse sixteen. Some assert, such as John Cassian, that the Apostle spoke here about the spirit of a human being.[12] Others, such as Augustine, say he is referring to the Holy Spirit. The truth is, both opinions are perfectly suitable, and either one is acceptable without violating the true faith. First, let us look at what John Cassian said, that walk in the spirit means to live as someone led by the spirit. But what is the essence of a human being? It is the principal aspect of the soul, which might be called the reasonableness of the mind through which a person is capable of discerning what they should desire and what they ought to shun. So that means Paul is saying that if we live according to the reasonableness and understanding of the mind, you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.

Haimo then looks at Augustine’s view. Most scholars accept that the writing of the Holy Scriptures occurred with inspiration from the Holy Spirit. It also means that the teachings and guidelines contained in the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel came by way of the Holy Spirit. So what Augustine is saying is that we are to walk as the Holy Spirit teaches and directs us from these divine Scriptures. Especially, the way we live and conduct ourselves, walking and growing from virtue to virtue, from faith to hope, from hope to love, and from love to action. By doing so, then a person will not fulfill the desires of the flesh. To know more fully what Paul is talking about, read what he says in the following verses.[13]

[1] Ezekiel 36:26-31

[2] According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the Id is the personality component made up of unconscious psychic energy that works to satisfy basic urges, needs, and desires.

[3] For Freud, the ego is the component of our personality that is responsible for dealing with reality.

[4] The superego is the aspect of our personality that holds all internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from parents and society – our sense of right and wrong.

[5] Romans 12:1-2

[6] Ephesians 6:12

[7] Chrysostom: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[8] Jerome: On Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). op. cit., p. 84

[9] Augustine of Hippo: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[10] Cf. Romans 7:14-15

[11] Ambrosiaster: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., pp29-30

[12] The Conferences of John Cassian: Ch. XI

[13] Haimo of Auxerre: On Galatians, op. cit., (Kindle Location 1600)

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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