The book of Galatians is actually a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the churches in the Roman province of Galatia (modern-day Turkey). He wrote it to respond to attacks against his apostleship and to defend the gospel of Christ. In the fifth chapter, specifically verses 16-26, Paul shares an essential truth about living a life that pleases the Lord.
Verses 16-17 describe the inner battle with which every believer is familiar: the flesh vs. the spirit. The flesh is your old sinful nature that you received when you were born; the spirit is your new nature that you received in Christ when you were born again. These two natures are constantly in conflict within you — the old nature wants to pull you toward sin and ungodliness and the new nature wants to pull you toward that which is good and godly. The only way to live in victory is to walk in the Spirit: “Walk in the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v.16). To “walk in the Spirit” is to live for the Lord day by day in His power.
You do not gain victory over the flesh by struggling against it, but rather by surrendering to the Holy Spirit. The secret is not so much in trying to battle against those old desires and habits, but rather filling your life with the presence of God and surrendering to His will, His ways, and His Word. As you do that, the desires of the flesh no longer have the power over you that they once did.
The only way you can ever not fulfill the lust of the flesh is to walk in the Spirit day by day. It is a daily battle, but it is a battle in which you can have daily victory. The winner of the battle will be evident in your life. If you allow the flesh to dominate, the “works of the flesh” will be evident (v.19). On the other hand, if you allow the Spirit of God to dominate and if you walk in the Spirit (live for the Lord day by day in His power), then “the fruit of the Spirit” will be evident in your life (v.22).
The seventeen words which describe the works of the flesh comprise a filthy, dirty list. Someone said these words give us “a catalog of corruption”, and it is what the old nature will produce if you allow the flesh to dominate. Peterson’s paraphrase of the list captures the ugliness of the flesh:
“It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”
(The Message, NavPress, 1994.)
In contrast to that awful list is the fruit of the Spirit (v.22-23). As you live day by day for Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, these nine characteristics will be manifested in your conduct (not all at once — the Christian life is a walk, not a leap from lostness to perfection). As you walk in the Spirit, the characteristics of Jesus will become obvious in your behavior. Because of what Jesus did on the cross for you, and because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in you, you can live in victory over sin!