The Flesh vs. The Spirit

Many, if not most, believers struggle to live the Christian life. Salvation was easy – just believe in Jesus and you’re saved. But living the life for some reason is hard.

In Romans, Paul wrote about our freedom from the penalty of sin, and instructed us not to let sin reign in us (“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.” Romans 6:12). But after that he spoke of His own incapacity to live a righteous life:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. … (18-19) For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.

– Romans 7:14-15 (DRC)

Paul was not speaking of his life before he was saved. He speaks in the present tense. He had these problems as he wrote this letter. He says that while he delights in the law of God, he finds himself brought into captivity to sin:

For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

– Romans 7:22-23 (Green)

Paul could not keep the law as a saved believer, and neither can you or I. When you are honest with yourself, you will find your experience matches that of Paul’s. The harder you try to keep the law, the more you fail – if not in practice, at least in spirit.

The problem is that when you try to keep the law, you are trying to do so in your own strength. This will not work. The Law is good, but you are not. Your efforts to do so are doomed to fail because they spring from your corrupt nature – the flesh. View the law as a standard to be achieved, and your flesh will take up the challenge, and sin will result. While the law may be good, in your life the law becomes the power of sin:

I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died …

– Romans 7:9

… the strength of sin is the law. …

– 1 Corinthians 15:56 (AKJV)

The most problematic church in the New Testament was the Galatian church. This church was trying to observe the Mosaic law and this was the church Paul was hardest on.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?

– Galatians 3:1-3

The Galatians had faith in Christ to save them, but not to maintain their salvation. They were trusting in their own efforts (i.e. the law) for sanctification. They were trusting God only enough to begin His work in them, but not to carry it on to completion. This is the same problem many of us have. We may say we trust in Christ for our salvation and sanctification, but in practice we like to help Him along.

What was Paul solution? He told the Galatians:

I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.

– Galatians 5:16

The solution to living a holy and righteous life, one that pleases God, is given here. It is not striving to keep the law – it is not a work at all. It is a walk with the Holy Spirit, the simplest of things.

At least, it sounds simple, but what does it mean? If it is so simple, why aren’t there more believers who are doing it?

The problem is that many believers don’t realize that sanctification (becoming holy and righteous) is on the same basis as justification (being declared holy and righteous). Just as you were saved by relying on God’s work (Jesus’ death), so you are to be made holy by relying on God’s work (the Holy Spirit working in you). Don’t look to yourself for victory over sin in your life. Look to God, to Jesus Christ:

The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

– 1 Corinthians 15:56-57 (AKJV)

O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!

– Romans 7:24-25 (ESV)

It is because Jesus Christ finished His work and was glorified that you have been given the Holy Spirit:

But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

– John 7:39 (AKJV)

In speaking to His disciples about the Holy Spirit, he said “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:8). Now, even though Jesus is sitting in heaven at the right hand of God, interceding for us, He has fulfilled His promise. He is also living inside each one of us. This is because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9).

Because the Holy Spirit is living in you, living the Christ-like life should no longer be an act, but the real thing – Jesus Christ living through you.

“For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

– Galatians 2:19-21 (HNV)

Paul said it was not his own life, but Christ Himself who lived in him. You need to know this also. Living in the Spirit is living by faith because it is trusting God to work through you.

Speaking to a large audience, D.L. Moody held up a glass and asked, “How can I get the air out of this glass?” One man shouted, “Suck it out with a pump!” Moody replied, “That would create a vacuum and shatter the glass.” After numerous other suggestions Moody smiled, picked up a pitcher of water, and filled the glass. “There,” he said, “all the air is now removed.” He then went on to explain that victory in the Christian life is not accomplished by “sucking out a sin here and there,” but by being filled with the Holy Spirit.

– Today in the Word, September, 1991, p. 30.

To live in the Spirit is to have the Holy Spirit as your source of life. He directs and empowers your life to do what pleases God. The result is a holy (but not “holier-than-thou”) life.

How do I live in the Spirit?

All believers have the Holy Spirit, but not all live and walk in Him. In Galatians 5, Paul compares the results of a fleshly life versus a Spirit-led life:

I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

– Galatians 5:16-26

Notice that the results of the flesh are called “works”, but the results of the Spirit are called “fruit”. Why the difference? Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, etc. are all the results of our effort. But the fruit of the Spirit is not the result of our effort because it is “of the Spirit”. Fruit is always God’s work.

Does a tree have to struggle to produce fruit? You may say you don’t know. Ok, how about human beings… does a pregnant woman need to struggle to get her unborn baby to grow? Does she have to concentrate and strain, grunt and sweat to cause eyes, ears, arms, legs, etc. to form and grow? No. All she has to do is take care of herself, and God will form the baby exactly as He desires it.

The branch of the vine does not worry, and toil, and rush here to seek for sunshine, and there to find rain. No; it rests in union and communion with the vine; and at the right time, and in the right way, is the right fruit found on it. Let us so abide in the Lord Jesus.

-James Hudson Taylor

Trees don’t have to struggle to produce fruit. It is part of their nature. All they need is plenty of water, good soil, and sunshine and fruit will appear automatically. The same is true of spiritual fruit. You cannot produce spiritual fruit through your own efforts. It is not the result of effort. All you need to do is take care of yourself spiritually (i.e. spend time in God’s word, pray, confess your sin, trust God, follow His leading, etc.), and God will produce the fruit in your life:

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.

– John 15:4-5

Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper.

– Psalm 1:1-3

Personal weakness is actually an advantage, because it forces you to rely on God’s strength – and His strength will become evident when you rely on it. Paul gladly boasted in his infirmities for this reason ( 2 Corinthians 12:9). It is when you come to the end of yourself that God can work unhindered by your “help”.

Paul instructed the Galatians to walk in the Spirit ( Galatians 5:16). The meaning of “in” is explained in John 17 where Jesus prayed for His disciples and for us. He prayed for oneness not only between all believers, but for oneness with God, just as He was with the Father:

“that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.

– John 17:21

This oneness is unity of mind and spirit, sharing the same purpose. It is like your arm being one with your body. It responds to your will virtually automatically. You respond to its touch. It is a part of you. To be one with your husband or wife is intimate sharing and responding to each other, to know what each other likes and dislikes and seeking the good of the other. This is what being “in” the Spirit is all about.

What does living in the Spirit entail?

SEEK HIS GUIDANCE. You must actively seek to know what pleases God and ask for guidance.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord.

– Ephesians 5:8-10 (MKJV)

LISTEN FOR HIS VOICE. You are one of Jesus’ sheep.

“And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. … And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.

– John 10:4, 16

When you ask God for guidance, expect Him to answer, to speak to you, through His word, through circumstances, to your heart. Therefore, listen for it. Become familiar with His voice in the Bible. When you do, you’ll be able to recognize the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12), and you’ll be able to distinguish His leading from imposters.

OBEY. Not in a legalistic way, through self-effort, trying to impress God. When you hear God speak, do what He leads you to do.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.

– Romans 8:14 (ACV)

Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.

– John 14:23

Following His leading immediately. Trust implicitly in not only His direction, but His supply of whatever is needed to carry it out. You don’t have to know God’s plan or reasoning. Your job is just to “do the duty that lies nearest” as Oswald Chambers would say.


“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

– Matthew 11:28-29 (MKJV)

For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.

– Hebrews 4:10

Leave the results in God’s hands – keep your hands off! For example, when presenting the gospel to the lost, bring the message (and do it well), but remember that true conviction and repentance is the Holy Spirit’s work, not yours. He does it in His own time and way.

SEEK ONENESS WITH GOD. Seek to conform your desires, likes, dislikes, purpose and will to His. Make this a priority! This requires the conscious exercise of faith at first.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

– Romans 8:5 (HNV)

DON’T GRIEVE THE HOLY SPIRIT. By sin, by not following His leading when you recognize it, or by hindering someone else’s walk. You cannot walk with the Spirit when sin has hurt your relationship with Him.

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

– Ephesians 4:30 (ESV)

Do not quench the Spirit.

– 1 Thessalonians 5:19 (ACV)

Also, be responsible with the blessings God has given you, but make sure you don’t “smother” the Holy Spirit’s work through over management.

“Quench not the Spirit.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19

The voice of the Spirit is as gentle as a zephyr, so gentle that unless you are living in perfect communion with God, you never hear it. The checks of the Spirit come in the most extraordinarily gentle ways, and if you are not sensitive enough to detect His voice you will quench it, and your personal spiritual life will be impaired. His checks always come as a still small voice, so small that no one but the saint notices them.

Beware if in personal testimony you have to hark back and say – “Once, so many years ago, I was saved.” If you are walking in the light, there is no harking back, the past is transfused into the present wonder of communion with God. If you get out of the light you become a sentimental Christian and live on memories, your testimony has a hard, metallic note. Beware of trying to patch up a present refusal to walk in the light by recalling past experiences when you did walk in the light. Whenever the Spirit checks, call a halt and get the thing right, or you will go on grieving Him without knowing it.

Suppose God has brought you up to a crisis and you nearly go through but not quite, He will engineer the crisis again, but it will not be so keen as it was before. There will be less discernment of God and more humiliation at not having obeyed; and if you go on grieving the Spirit, there will come a time when that crisis cannot be repeated, you have grieved Him away. But if you go through the crisis, there will be the p


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