The Bible holds out no promise that life in this world will be easy for the Christian. In fact, Paul minced no words when he told young Timothy that "all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12). But our difficult passage through this world involves internal persecution as well as external persecution; spiritual conflict as well as ,I>physical conflict. In Galatians 5:16-17, Paul clearly shows that the Christian life is a life of internal conflict. Throughout Paul's letter to the Galatians, he passionately and persuasively shows that salvation is not achieved by what we do; rather salvation is received by faith in what Christ has already done. False teachers had come to the region of Galatia preaching that God's salvation blessing depends ultimately on us. Paul wrote his letter to correct that teaching by showing that God's salvation blessing does not depend ultimately on us; rather God's salvation blessing depends ultimately on God. One would never or could never earn their salvation by "doing everything right." In fact, Paul, especially in chapters three and four, uses the Old Testament to show that salvation by grace alone is not unique to New Testament theology. Salvation has always been by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone. Old Testament believers looked forward to the promised Redeemer who would one day come. New Testament believers look backward to the Redeemer who already came and who will one day come again. Paul is therefore not ambiguous in showing that God, not man, is the author and the achiever of salvation. But receiving salvation without any effort on our own does not mean that once we have been saved, justified, the Christian life is therefore effortless. In fact, Paul shows that if we "let go and let God" we will be consumed. We must continually "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" if we want to experience God-centered success in the midst of this life-long conflict.
In Galatians 5:16-17, Paul points out three things about the Christian in conflict that are necessary for us to understand if we desire to be faithful followers of Christ. He points out the reality of the conflict, the location of the conflict, and the solution to the conflict.
The Reality of the Conflict (v.17)
Far from being a life of internal ease, comfort, and convenience, the Christian life is a life lived on the frontlines of spiritual battle. For the Christian, life is war in a very real sense. Paul not only points this out clearly in 5:17, but he does so even more explicitly in Romans 7:14-20. In those verses Paul expresses his ongoing angst as he struggles against sin. He had been given new desires, new affections, and new longings as a result of regeneration, but he found that when he wanted to do good, evil was right there with him. The struggle that Paul expresses in Romans 7 is a struggle that he identifies and defines in Galatians 5:17. It is a struggle between flesh and Spirit, remaining sin and the reigning Spirit. In order for us to understand this struggle, however, we must first take a look at what gives rise to this conflict.
Before we were saved, we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 2:13). Before God saved us, we were "dead men walking": physically dying and spiritually dead! We were in bondage to sin. Sin not only reigned over us, it also reigned in us. Sin controlled our thoughts, our affections, and our behavior. Ephesians 2:2 tells us that sin directed every part of our lives so that we were captivated by the "ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air." Romans 8:7-8 tells us that "by nature we are hostile toward God. We do not submit to God's law, in fact, we are incapable of submitting to God's law. By nature we are unable to please God." But when God converts us, regenerates us, something revolutionary takes place in our soul. We are not only objectively transitioned by God from the realm of spiritual death to the realm of spiritual life, but God the Holy Spirit subjectively removes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh so that we become, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:17, "a new creation." For those who are in Christ, the old has passed away, and the new has come. God the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ in his death to sin and transfers us from the kingdom of sin to the kingdom of righteousness. This external transfer inevitably leads to, and is inseparable from, an internal revolution. Paul explains the relationship between the external transfer and the resulting internal revolution in Romans 6:4-6: "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin." What Paul is saying in those verses is this: for the Christian, for the one who has been united to Christ, sin no longer has mastery over you; sin no longer has dominion in you-you are no longer a slave to sin. You have been raised to newness of life: a newness that expresses itself in new thoughts, new desires, and new behavior. You will think differently, feel differently, and live differently.
This, however, begs the question: If sin no longer has dominion in us or mastery over us then why does Paul in Galatians 5:17 and Romans 7 speak so clearly about a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit? If we have been delivered from the kingdom of sin, why do we still sin? Doesn't this mean that for the Christian, the struggle with sin is over?
The Biblical answer to these heartfelt questions is, "not yet." To be sure, for those who have found forgiveness of sins in Christ, there will one day be no more sickness, no more death, no more tears, no more division, and no more tension. There will be, for the pardoned children of God, complete harmony. We will work and worship without the interference of sin. We who believe the gospel will enjoy sinless hearts and minds along with disease-free bodies. All that causes us pain and discomfort will be destroyed, and we will live forever. We will finally be able, as John Piper says, 'to enjoy what is most enjoyable with unbounded energy and passion forever.' J.I. Packer describes well what the Christian's experience will one day be: 'The life of heavenly glory is a compound of seeing God in and through Christ and being loved by the Father and Son, of rest and work, of praise and worship, and of fellowship with the Lamb and the saints. The hearts of those in heaven say, "I want this to go on forever"-and it will.' One day the New Heavens and the New Earth will be set up and there will no longer be any trace of decay. But until that time the Bible promises that there will be an ongoing struggle between flesh and Spirit.
As Christian's, we still struggle with sin; we are not yet perfect. And while it is true that sin has already been dethroned, it has not yet been destroyed. John Murray says, "It is one thing for the enemy to occupy the capital, it is another for his defeated hosts to harass the garrisons of the Kingdom." In other words, sin still remains in us but sin is no longer in control of us. Remaining sin is not the same as reigning sin. For the Christian, sin remains but it no longer reigns. Sin, which used to occupy the throne in our souls before we were saved, has now been overthrown, but it continues to harass us. God now occupies the throne in our souls, he now has dominion in us and mastery over us, but remaining sin continues its ruthless assaults. It employs a guerilla-warfare type strategy in that it continually resists God's new governing authority in and over our souls. We are, therefore, genuinely new creatures, but we are not yet totally new creatures. And this remaining presence of sin in the Christian will inevitably involve conflict in their heart and life. Kris Lundgaard illustrates this ongoing struggle between flesh and Spirit this way:
Think of your sanctification in terms of Christ's coming to earth. In his first coming he inaugurated his kingdom in the world: he is already ruling and reigning, he has defeated the god of this age, he is seated on his throne at the right hand of the Father; yet the opposition remains, the battle continues. In his second coming he will consummate his kingdom, ridding it from every enemy. Being born again is the first coming of Christ to your soul: he truly reigns and rules in your heart. But the defeated enemy remains and the battle continues. Your glorification after death is the second coming of Christ to your soul, when every last trace of the law of sin will be disintegrated.
So while the "war" has been won, the "battles" continue. And Paul wants us to know that these battles are real: "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other." But Paul not only identifies the reality of the conflict, he also identifies the location of the conflict.
The Location of the Conflict (v.17)
It is fascinating to note that Paul uses the word "desires" three times in these verses (v.16-18). The word literally means "yearnings" or "longings." Paul uses that word to show the location of this ongoing conflict between the Spirit and the flesh. The struggle between flesh and Spirit is not first a struggle with errant behavior; it is first a struggle with errant desires. For the Christian, Paul wants us to know that there is a war being waged every day at the level of our desires, our yearnings, our longings.
In the Bible, as surprising as this may sound, the Christian life is defined and described primarily, though not exclusively, in terms of affections, not decisions. The Christian life is not first a matter of right behavior, but right desires. In fact, Jesus condemned affectionless behavior in Matthew 15:8, when he spoke to the Pharisees saying, "[you] people honor me with [your] lips but [your] heart is far from me." In another context, James 1:14-15 tells us that desire precedes action, not vice versa. To be sure, how we act and what we do as Christians is all important. God wants obedient Christians who behave. But what we want is a surer test of who we are. In regeneration, God renovates the soul by implanting new desires, new yearnings, new longings.
All of us who are Christians can testify to that time in our life when we knew a radical internal change had taken place. I knew a radical internal change had taken place in me when I began longing for those things I had previously run away from and running away from those things I had previously longed for. I no longer wanted to be with the same people in the same places doing the same things. I wanted to be with Christians; I wanted to pray; I wanted to read my Bible and commune with God; I wanted to be in worship on Sunday mornings with God's people. My entire inward disposition had been changed. My behavior didn't change over night, but I began loving the things God loves and hating the things God hates. I began to love righteousness and hate sin. To be sure, that doesn't mean my struggle with sin was over. In fact, in a very real way, it was then that my struggle with sin truly began. One who is dead in sin does not struggle against sin. It is only after the scales fall from the eyes of our hearts so that we see for the first time just how dark and evil our sin really is that we begin to struggle intensely against it. It is only when God makes "his light shine in our hearts, [giving] us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" that we finally see ourselves for what we really are: desperate sinners in need of a Savior (2 Cor. 4:6). 1 John 1:8, in fact, warns us: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."
But, the Christian must realize and believe that even though the struggle against the flesh is intense, since he has been set free, since he has been transferred from the kingdom of sin to the kingdom of righteousness, his deepest desires have changed. An internal revolution has taken place. A Christian's deepest desire is for God first, not sin. This is why J.I. Packer has said, "When a Christian sins he is momentarily suffering from an identity crisis." Every time a Christian yields to temptation, he is living contrary to who he really is, he is being inconsistent with who he has been remade to be. When Christians do give in to temptation, they are, in those moments, being deceived by the flesh to think that sin, not God, is what they want most. In reality, however, a Christian, even in the most intense moments of temptation, desires God more deeply than sin. This is Paul's point at the end of v.17. After describing the conflict between flesh and Spirit he says that the flesh's opposition to the Spirit "keeps [us] from doing the things [we] want to do." Similarly, in Romans 7:19 Paul says, "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing." A regenerate heart (i.e., a heart that has been raised by God from spiritual death to spiritual life) wants God more than it wants sin. It desires God more deeply than it desires anything else in the universe. It is a heart that cries out with the Psalmist, "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." A Christian heart longs for God, thirsts for God, and pants for God, more than it longs, thirsts, or pants for anything else. If Christians do not understand this about themselves, they will never experience success in their fight against the flesh.
Paul not only identifies the reality of the conflict and the location of the conflict, but also the solution to the conflict.
The Solution to the Conflict (v.16)
I am hesitant to use the word "solution" here because it could potentially mislead someone into thinking that life on this earth can be without the Spirit-flesh conflict. The Bible assures us that we will be battling the world, the flesh, and the Devil until we die or Christ comes back, whichever comes first. But Paul does want us to know that we are not left to our own devices as we fight these ongoing battles. He wants us to know that sanctification is progressive. He encourages us by saying, essentially, that even in the midst of this internal conflict, we are growing. If we walk by the Spirit, we will move forward in our battle against remaining sin. In fact, according to Paul, there is no other way to approach this conflict than to walk by the Spirit.
What then does Paul mean when he admonishes us to "walk by the Spirit?" When Paul admonishes us to "walk by the Spirit", he means, "walk in conscious reliance on God." In the Bible, walking by the Spirit designates a life of God-reliance, while walking according to the flesh designates a life of self-reliance. In other words, to walk by the Spirit is to live your life for God's glory, not your glory; God's fame, not your fame. It is living a God-centered life, not a self-centered life. Walking by the Spirit means that you are so consumed by God that you shout with both your life and your lips, "Our God reigns!" Paul is saying: if you walk by faith and not by sight, if you live your life consistent with the deep new desires you have been given, if you reckon yourself dead to sin and alive to God in everything you do, you will not gratify the shallow desires of the flesh. It is when we are so captivated by the magnificence of God's glory that we find sin to be an unsatisfying waste of time. It is when we entrust the details of our life into the good hands of our sovereign God that we begin to distrust the deceit of the flesh. "I know of no other way to triumph over sin long-term", says John Piper, "than to gain a distaste for it, because of a superior satisfaction in God." The only way to survive this ongoing, lifelong conflict between remaining sin and the reigning Spirit is to know that God is more gratifying than sin. Trust and obey God in all you do and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. To walk by the Spirit, then, is to "trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths" (Prov. 3:5-6).
To be sure, we will not walk flawlessly. We will stumble and we will fall. But even though sinless perfection is reserved for the "next world", if we walk by the Spirit, we will grow. As we walk by the Spirit, God will be working in us: recreating our hearts and minds, reversing the affect of sin in our lives, and reordering our priorities. Christians are people in process. So while we are not yet what we will be, we are no longer what we used to be. 'We are at present', says Maurice Roberts, 'in a state of transition. God has not finished his work in us as yet. But when God's work concerning us is complete we shall be all that we ought to be and all that we now long to be.' We find ourselves in a parallel situation to Israel during her wilderness wanderings in that, while we have left Egypt, we have not yet entered the Promised Land. But if we "keep walking" we will make it.
So, Paul wants us to know that the Christian life is a life of war, a life of internal conflict. And though the conflict is real and takes place at the powerful level of our desires, it is not a hopeless conflict for those who are in Christ. In fact, though the battles wage on, the war has been won. Sin and death were dethroned at the cross of Christ.
There is perhaps no better description of the internal transformation that has taken place in the life of a Christian than Horatious Bonar's hymn "I Was a Wondering Sheep." Notice his description of what we once loved and what we now love:
I was a wondering sheep, I did not love the fold; I did not love my shepherd's voice, I would not be controlled. I was a wayward child, I did not love my home; I did not love my Father's voice, I loved afar to roam.
I was a wandering sheep, I would not be controlled, but now I love my shepherd's voice, I love, I love the fold. I was a wayward child, I once preferred to roam; but now I love my Father's voice, I love, I love his home.
 John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in being God (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1991) pg.24
 J.I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1993) pg. 266-267
 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955) pg. 145
 Kris Lundgaard, The Enemy Within: Straight Talk About the Power and Defeat of Sin (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1998) pg. 152
 John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1986) pg.11