by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



According to early church scholar Thomas Aquinas, Paul is speaking here of being under the rule and guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom we should follow as the One pointing us in the right direction. For the knowledge of what God planned for us is only gained from the Holy Spirit. As Paul told the Corinthians: “Eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of mankind what things God has prepared for them that love Him,” and immediately added, “But to us, God has revealed them by His Spirit.” [1] Also, as one who motivates us, the Holy Spirit stirs up and turns our affections into wanting to do what’s right: “Whoever the Spirit of God leads, they are the children of God;” [2]Your good Spirit will lead me to the right place.” [3] [4]

Aquinas goes on to write that if we take “spirit” for the Holy Spirit, and the desire of the Holy Spirit is against evil things, it seems to follow that the flesh is against what the Holy Spirit desires for us. However, says Aquinas, this is the error of Manichean thinking.[5] The Holy Spirit doesn’t resist essential human needs, says Aquinas. Instead, it battles those desires that bring embarrassment or excessiveness. That’s why Paul said earlier that those led by their spirit would not fulfill the wishes of the flesh that may make us look bad or weak in faith. For in things necessary for living, our spirit does not contradict the natural functions of the body, as we are told: “No person hates their own body.” [6] [7]

Haimo of Auxerre concurs with this idea of sinful tendencies using the body for its desires. He notes that the spirit makes the flesh unhappy because it delights in fasting, abstinence, purity, and all such things that are contrary to the flesh. But we must always follow their spirit because it seeks those things by which the soul lives to God.[8] So for Haimo, the real battle between the flesh and the spirit is that each one wants to use the body for its purpose, which is diametrically opposed to each other.  One is influenced by the sinful nature and the other by the spiritual nature.

Listen to Martin Luther’s confession about his battle with the flesh. He tells us that when he was a Benedictine monk. He thought he was lost forever whenever he felt an evil emotion, sexual desire, anger, hatred, or envy. H tried to quiet his conscience in different ways, but it did not work because sinful desires would always come back and gave him no rest. He told himself that since he permitted these sinful tendencies like envy, impatience, and the like, his joining this holy order of monks was all in vain, and all his good works were good for nothing. He admits that if at that time he understood this passage here in Galatians about how the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, He could have spared himself many a day of self-torment. He would have said to himself: “Martin, you will never be without sin, for you are human. Don’t despair, resist the flesh.” [9]

Fellow reformer John Calvin believes that Paul is also offering this as a remedy to the confusion that was engulfing the assemblies in Galatia. Seeing a congregation disintegrate is no casual event. Whatever threatens, we must fight against it with the most determined resistance. But how is this to be accomplished? We, by not permitting our sinful tendencies to rule in us, and by yielding ourselves to the directions given us by the Spirit of God. The Galatians received instructions that they were unregenerate, destitute of the Spirit of God and that the life they were living was unworthy of real Christians. From where was their abusive conduct towards each other coming? They needed to confess that it was driven by their sinful tendencies? Paul tells them, this proves that the Holy Spirit was not leading them.[10]

From Calvin’s perspective, the believers in Galatia were being led into error by both seen and unseen forces pushing them in this direction.  The seen contributor was the teaching they received about the need for adding circumcision to their spiritual experience in the Anointed. In other words, depending on the works of the flesh for salvation, along with the Spirit and grace of God. The unseen factor was that their sinful nature taking advantage and involving them in other aspects of the flesh. To put it another way: by using their sinful nature to satisfy their spiritual nature’s needs, then this same sinful nature could also supply their passions.  And since their spiritual nature was now happy, what the sinful nature wanted to have was of little concern to their spiritual nature.

But Paul admonished them to “walk in the spirit,” or “live on a spiritual level.” In other words, let God’s Word and the Gospel of the Anointed become their rule of behavior, their standard of faith, their light, their guide, their spiritual and moral compass. Don’t lean on your intellect to survive and conqueror, lean on the Anointed, His grace, His strength, and His mercy to help you in your daily walk and interaction with others. Paul doesn’t say that we will not need to deal with passionate suggestions in our spiritual walk, or that we will never experience the temptation to follow carnal urges on occasions.  None of us are that perfect.

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) focuses on the Greek verb teleō here in verse sixteen and its inherent ambiguity. It means we can interpret it in two different ways. When used in the passive sense of bringing something to a close, bring it to an end “not fulfill,” [11] or in the active sense of performing, carrying out, completing such as “will not fulfill.” [12] If used it in the passive sense here in verse sixteen, then the exhortation consists of what must be omitted. In other words, we must walk in our spirit so that the desires of the flesh are not fulfilled. On the other hand, if it’s used in the active sense, then by walking in the spirit, we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.

As Arminius sees it, Paul uses teleō here in the active sense. As long as we are walking in our spirit then fulfilling the desires of the flesh never comes up for consideration. Thayer in his Greek Lexicon takes the same view. In other words, instead of going around trying our best not to commit the lust and desires of the flesh, that is a passive form of sanctification. But when we live and work in the spirit then our whole focus is on what is holy, not that which is unholy.[13] When used in the passive sense, then any hope of being fulfilled and living in spiritual wholesomeness is lost. Only when we become active in producing the fruit of the spirit will we lose any interest in the desires of the flesh.

English Puritan Presbyterian minister John Flavel (1628-1688) was preaching on the Royal Office of Jesus the Anointed, and how it is a blessing for the redeemed of God living in a sinful world. He says that one of the kingly acts of the Anointed is how He helps keep His servants away from letting their sinful tendencies lead them ignorantly astray from the true path of holiness.[14] At the same time helping their hearts to develop the tendency to remain faithful. As much as it hurts all of us to admit, backsliding is always a danger for believers.

Then the Lord, like a shepherd, watches in tenderness over them, staying with them even though, at times like King David, they are on the brink of sliding back into the cesspool of sin.[15] The Lord is more interested in saving His children from sinning than rescuing them from sin. That’s why, on occasions, the Lord helps prevent such fallings away by warning His servants of the traps ahead. He then gives them the strength they need to resist temptation, even turning what started as a temptation into a test of their faithfulness. That’s what Paul was telling the Corinthians.[16]

That’s why His children often bless His Holy Name, who, out of the goodness of His heart, prevents any disaster from overtaking them. Flavel believes this is what’s behind Paul’s exhortation here in verse sixteen to walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the desires of the flesh. There’s no way to keep them all away from tempting us, but we are not forced to give in to them. God’s Spirit dwells in us to help us overcome temptation and cause it to die like a seed that fell into the dirt of temptation so that it does not germinate and sprout into full bloom and produce embarrassing fruit.[17]

John Wesley (1703-1791) often defended his view of the doctrine of sanctification against charges that he was preaching some form of maintaining salvation through efforts of always trying to be right and do right. But nothing was further from the truth. Entire sanctification was not a goal to reach and celebrate, but a gift to be received and practiced. For Wesley, justification, like sanctification, is the gracious gift of God, received by faith. For himself, he continually taught in private and in public that we are sanctified as well as justified by the same grace, but not the same act of grace. Like the two sides of a coin. It was quite evident that these great truths illustrated each other quite powerfully. Exactly as we are justified by faith, so are we sanctified by faith.

 For Wesley, faith is the condition, and the only circumstance, upon which sanctification is granted, just as it is the state for justification to be given. None are sanctified but those who are justified. And none are justified without then being sanctified. Faith is the only requirement for both. Everyone that believes and is justified is also made holy. These do not depend on any other factors. In other words, no person is sanctified until they first believe: Every person when they believe are sanctified.[18] One might say that for Wesley, the fruit of the spirit was, in fact, the fruit of a sanctified spirit. Yet, justification and sanctification are two different gifts of grace. Justification brings you into God’s presence, then sanctification allows you to live your life to the glory of God. As the disciples learned, then the infilling of the Holy Spirit anoints you to spread the good news of salvation.

[1] 1 Corinthians 2:9

[2] Romans 8:14

[3] Psalm 142:10

[4] Aquinas, Thomas: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[5] Manichaeism refers to a fusion of religious philosophies taught by the Persian prophet Mani, combining elements of Zoroastrian, Christian, Buddhism, and Gnostic thought in the third century, and opposed by the imperial Roman government and Roman Catholic Church. It was based primarily on the supposed primordial conflict between light and darkness or good and evil.

[6] Ephesians 5:29

[7] Aquinas, Thomas: ibid.

[8] Haimo of Auxerre: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[9] Luther, Martin: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[10] Calvin, John: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[11] See Matthew 7:28; 13:53, 19:1; 26:12; 2 Timothy 4:7; Revelation 15:8

[12] See Luke 2:39; 12:50; 18:31; 22:37; John 19:28, 30; Acts of the Apostles 13:29; James 2:8;  Revelation 10:7; 11:7; 15:1; 17:17; 2 Corinthians 12:9

[13] Arminius, James, The Works of Vol. 2., op. cit., A Dissertation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, First Part, pp. 308-309

[14] Matthew 6:9-13

[15] Psalm 73:2

[16] 1 Corinthians 10:13

[17] Flavel, John: The Fountain of Life, Sermon 16, pp. 192-193

[18] Wesley, John: The Sermons of – Sermon 43: “The Scripture Way of Salvation”

About drbob76

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