Galatians 5:16 “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.”
Since the day you became a Christian, you have been involved in a war. On one side we have our sinful flesh, our sinful nature. Some Christians seem surprised that they still have a sinful nature after coming to faith. They thought that sin would now be a thing of the past for them.
Actually, your sinful nature didn’t change at all when you became a Christian. It is the same rascal it has always been. It is 100%, undiluted, pure rebel, and that is the way it will be until the day you die. The only difference is: now it has some competition.
On the other side of this war is the Spirit within you. Whether you take Paul’s words to mean the Holy Spirit, or whether you take him to mean your own believing, converted, Christian, human spirit where the Holy Spirit lives, will make little difference for understanding his urgings to us here. These two are devoted allies. They fight the same battles. At the time we are fighting the urge to sin, we are not able to tell a difference between the impulses of the Holy Spirit and those of our Christian spirit, anyway.
These two, flesh and Spirit, are waging a war within us. They are locked in a battle to the death. Since they are opposites, “the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.” There can be no compromises, no cease fires, and no surrender on either side. This war continues until either the sinful nature drives faith and the Spirit completely out, and we cease to be Christians; or until physical death delivers the final blow to our sinful nature, and we are free of it forever.
In the meantime, if we are going to live by the Spirit, it is important that we acknowledge this battle. It is the reason we continue to sin. “They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” Have you found that you can’t be as good as you want to be? Do you still find yourself slipping up? If that is not the case, check on one of three things: have you lost your faith altogether, giving the sinful nature total control? Do you find it difficult to be honest with yourself? Or, do you still have a pulse?
As we struggle, there is a temptation to look outside ourselves for the reason. “I would live a better life if only Satan didn’t press me so hard and single me out for such unique and difficult temptations.” “I would live a better life if the people around me weren’t always getting me into trouble.” But neither Satan nor our friends put a gun to our heads and force us into sin. They may tempt us, but they don’t force us. To win this war, we need to recognize where it is happening, and who the enemy is.
A second temptation in this battle gives too much credit to our corrupt hearts. Many voices tell us man is noble at his core. Our minds and thoughts may lead us down the wrong path if try to analyze things too carefully. But if we follow our feelings, they won’t steer us wrong. Follow your heart.
After all, God made me this way, and if I am physically attracted to some other person, why should I deny myself the pleasures of their body– no matter that I am already married to someone else, or that we have no marriage commitment to each other, or that we are of the same sex. It just “feels” right. People apply this same kind of thinking to how they vent their anger, rationalize drug use, or selfishly spend their money, to name a few examples.
The heart is not a safe guide. It is often allied with the wrong side. Winning the battle, Paul says, involves “living by the Spirit.” That is more than a matter of personal effort. It requires more than a rededication to Biblical standards of right and wrong. Earlier in this letter Paul asked the people, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3). In other words, go back to the Spirit, where your Christian life started. And you don’t get the Spirit by performing moral acts. He comes to those who hear and believe God’s word.
Specifically, the Spirit comes to those who hear the good news. Listening to and believing the gospel, where we find Jesus dying for our guilt, forgiving every sin, rising to promise us life, seeking us out to claim us as his own by faith, and now ruling the universe for our benefit, is the big weapon for winning the spiritual war within. We can’t live by a Spirit we don’t have. But if the Spirit’s place in our hearts grows with faith in the gospel, his place in our behavior will grow as well. Then more of the spiritual battles will start to go our way.