An Exegetical look into Galatians 5:16-25

The book of Galatians provides the reader with a landscape of Pauline theology that guides the discussion of living according to the way of the Spirit. The Gospel is the central theme that surrounds much of what the apostle is explaining in addressing the social and even racial divisions that have developed in the church of Galatia. Opposition towards these new Christian converts in the form of Jewish teachers have provoked the necessity of this epistle due to their different gospel, causing confusion and disunity within the community. It is this uniqueness of the Gospel that sets the tone for Paul’s argument with these so-called teachers of the law who insisted on following the customary requirements of Jewish traditionalism. Paul is particularly concerned with how the Galatian church is attacking one another. With this in mind, Paul begins to outline the dual nature of every believer and a remedy for how they are to govern the conflict between the flesh and spirit. This blog post will seek to conclude how Paul presents his moral argument of living out the Gospel character and exhibiting how the spirit is the genuine means of living a victorious life of freedom in the service of love. 

Λέγω δέ, πνεύματι περιπατεῖτε καὶ ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς οὐ μὴ τελέσητε. 17 ἡ γὰρ σὰρξ ἐπιθυμεῖ κατὰ τοῦ πνεύματος, τὸ δὲ πνεῦμα κατὰ τῆς σαρκός, ταῦτα γὰρ ἀλλήλοις ἀντίκειται, ἵνα μὴ ἃ ἐὰν θέλητε ταῦτα ποιῆτε. 18 εἰ δὲ πνεύματι ἄγεσθε, οὐκ ἐστὲ ὑπὸ νόμον. 19 φανερὰ δέ ἐστιν τὰ ἔργα τῆς σαρκός, ἅτινά ἐστιν πορνεία, ἀκαθαρσία, ἀσέλγεια, 20 εἰδωλολατρία, φαρμακεία, ἔχθραι, ἔρις, ζῆλος, θυμοί, ἐριθεῖαι, διχοστασίαι, αἱρέσεις, 21 φθόνοι, μέθαι, κῶμοι καὶ τὰ ὅμοια τούτοις, ἃ προλέγω ὑμῖν, καθὼς προεῖπον ὅτι οἱ τὰ τοιαῦτα πράσσοντες βασιλείαν θεοῦ οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν. 22 ὁ δὲ καρπὸς τοῦ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἀγάπη χαρὰ εἰρήνη, μακροθυμία χρηστότης ἀγαθωσύνη, πίστις 23 πραΰτης ἐγκράτεια· κατὰ τῶν τοιούτων οὐκ ἔστιν νόμος. 24 οἱ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ [Ἰησοῦ] τὴν σάρκα ἐσταύρωσαν σὺν τοῖς παθήμασιν καὶ ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις. 25 Εἰ ζῶμεν πνεύματι, πνεύματι καὶ στοιχῶμεν. Gal. 5:16-25

But I say, walk in Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. These are opposed, to keep you doing the things you want. But if Spirit led, you are not under law. Now are the works of the flesh evident, which are immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, anger, rivalries, dissention, division, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these, I warn you as before that these things do not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit also step in the Spirit.

Paul’s formula begins with his thesis as a general principle for how this conflict within the Galatian church should be resolved, “Walk in the Spirit” and so you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:16). As Paul begins to diagnosis what is occurring, he starts by rewording a promise that was issued by the Galatian teachers who focused on daily living according to the law.[1] This promise we will later see is specifically guided by the Spirit in contrast with the flesh that wages war against one another. Paul’s thematic statement (5:16) differentiates between the freedom of flesh and freedom of the Spirit is now set in detail and he will go on to petition for a Spirit-filled life of love. He encourages a life that doesn’t gratify but is rather satisfied in the Spirit. What is driving Paul’s motivation for this kind of language is found in this promise “if” you walk in the Spirit. This was in opposition to what Jewish tradition followed as the means of not pleasing through the circumcision of the law by natural means. Paul’s argument consisted of the Jewish law as incapable of accomplishing this task but only through the power of the Spirit and the finished work on the cross was the law fulfilled (Rom. 8:3).

Flesh vs. Spirit

            The resources for living out this victorious life can only be found and experienced in the person of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 5 Paul begins to outline four distinct verbs that define the life of a Christian: to walk in the Spirit (v.16), to be led by the Spirit (v.18), to live by the Spirit (v.25a) and to keep in step with the Spirit (v.25b).[2] The emphasis on the Spirit is what Paul has been arguing for (3:3) in providing the believers with an alternate understanding of how to conduct themselves according to the Spirit rather than the letter of the law. The Spirit is the guidance for their day-to-day lives as the struggle with their sinful nature begins to wage war. Since the entrance of sin into the world, the flesh (σὰρξ) and spirit (πνεῦμα) are diametrically opposed to one another and this same conflict is present in the communal life of the Galatian church. This ethical dualism between the flesh can be described as the old natural self while ‘the Spirit’ we have been redeemed with a new kind of spiritual birth. This inner conflict is what Walter Russell argues for when rendering the terms σὰρξ and πνεῦμα suggesting that they should be viewed in a corporate rather than individualistic sense.[3] This dualistic nature of flesh and spirit in humanity is the conflict that results in the freedom from the external code to now walking in the Spirit.

            For Paul, this means that believers have been called into a freedom that is not bound by the law, indulging in their sinful nature but instead are guided by the Spirit. This results in Paul’s use of epithymia or desires which probably has its roots in Genesis 4:7 because of the Jewish understanding of that verse were sin is crouching at the door concerning the biblical character,  Cain. The historical importance of this passage contains theological significance in how Jewish life was conducted in living according to law and unable to fulfill its obligation under the law. This phrase used by Paul (5:18) can be denoted as a shorthand for “under the curse.” Todd Wilson explains, 

One has reason to suspect that Paul may have resorted to this shorthanded expression as a way of being more economical and perhaps even more rhetorically forceful as the Galatians would have heard this expression with the curse of the law still ringing in their ears – 3:10-14 thus providing a fixed point of reference for all subsequent uses of under law (3:23;4:4,5,21;5:18). One should not also underestimate the significance of the fact that Paul opens the letter of Galatians with a striking double anathema or curse upon anyone who preached another gospel (1:8-9).[4]

Those who are under this law are susceptible to the curse that the law brings and Paul’s message is concerned with the nomistic lifestyle of the Judaizers. No person can perfectly obey it and was given to reveal God’s holy standards of living with the understanding that humanity is depraved, needing the Holy Spirit. The word for flesh that Paul uses contains a meaning of certain thoughts of human limitations on an intellectual and moral level that makes it incapable of fully comprehending God. Yet, these Jewish teachers intended to promote a different gospel under the umbrella of the law to follow a moral code. The law and flesh are closely linked together in how they work and Paul now provides a representative list of how they are actively engaging in human nature.

The Works of the Flesh

Paul presents the Galatian church with a comprehensive list of virtues and vices that point to his argument that presents the contrast between natural and spiritual life. He seeks to persuade his audience of these vices that were typical within paganism during his day as he begins to elaborate on his thesis statement concerning freedom (5:13-18). Longenecker explains these two lists further: 

His purpose in presenting these two lists is to bring his readers to two realizations: (1) that libertinism, which focuses on “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (v. 13), has dire, negative consequences, and (2) that serving one another “through love” (v. 13) and living “by the Spirit” (v. 16) have significant, positive results. Paul’s two conclusions highlight (1) that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v. 24), and so cannot live in the libertine fashion; and (2) that “since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25), thereby expressing “the fruit of the Spirit” in our lives.[5]

Paul develops the antithesis of flesh and Spirit into a category of two listings of ethical qualities and will demonstrate how to inherit the kingdom of God by living in step with the Spirit. The effects of the flesh are a combination of actions and attitudes that disrupt relationships and places a wedge on how we are to live in freedom. This was not an uncommon list within Judaism or is an exhaustive one. Paul saw the works of the flesh as a spiritual battle and manifestation of eschatological warfare between these superhuman powers and the apostle warns that future judgment awaits those who submit to its rule.[6] These fifteen items appear in the lives of those who have forgotten to love God and others. These deeds of the flesh all contain three specific areas that the inhabitants of the church at Galatia were experiencing, mainly that of sex, religion, and relationships. Although there are attempts to place them into more specific categories or sets for individuals, Martyn suggests that these are considered marks of the community, under the influence of the flesh and those marks led by the Spirit.[7]

            The given community at Galatia understood the dynamic of spiritual disposition in the lives of each other. This was perceived in both aspects of the deeds according to the flesh and in walking by the Spirit. Paul’s message directly and specifically emphasizes this function of the work and character of the Spirit. The apostle’s words of “walking by the Spirit” is considered a daring one that exposes one’s self to the possibility of being politely ignored, laughed at, and made to look even foolish.[8] It is this leading by the Spirit (v.18) in the daily lives of the community that results in the truth of the Gospel. Our personal feelings sometimes lead us into desires of anger, frustration, or resentment but it’s the inner force, governed by the Spirit, that Paul was attempting to communicate to the church how we are to live. This was somewhat a radical concept for Jewish culture to perceive as for centuries they were instructed how to live according to the Mosaic law and precepts. Paul is now presenting a new way of living that consists of walking with the Holy Spirit that has the supernatural power to deny the desires of the flesh. To be under the law afforded no protection from these works of the flesh and the power of sin. The substance of Paul’s moral argument has been advocating for a lifestyle that is guided by the Spirit rather than the law. It could be that the Judaizers during this time saw a necessity in trying to impose the law on the Gentile believers because of the immorality that may have been operating in the community. The apostle’s concern was not rectifying this kind of debauched behavior with behavior modification but a victorious life that consisted of an interrelationship with the Spirit. The deeds of the flesh mentioned are in contradiction to the Holy expression of God and those who indulge would not inherit the Kingdom (5:21). F.F. Bruce explains: 

The expression ‘kingdom of God’ has not appeared earlier in the letter, but Paul could assume his readers’ familiarity with it, no doubt because it had figured in his original preaching to them (προεῖπον may refer to oral instruction). (According to Acts 14:22, he and Barnabas warned their South Galatian converts that ‘through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God’.) The kingdom of God for Paul lies in the future: it is the heritage of the people of God in the age to come, the resurrection age. The gift of the Spirit here and now is the first installment (ἀπαρχή, Rom. 8:23) and guarantee (ἀρραβών, 2 Cor. 1:22) of that coming heritage.[9]

The warning is clear from Paul towards these new converts of Galatia that the freedom given by the Spirit should not be compromised by any of these vices which distort the teaching of the Gospel into another so-called Gospel. This promised inheritance is only obtained by faith alone that transforms the heart of the person, leading them into the virtues of the Spirit.  

The Fruit of the Spirit

These spiritual qualities are incompatible with the workings of the flesh and are controlled and guided by the Spirit. Paul divulges this list not only to contrast the previous list but also to demonstrate that human effort is inconsequential in fulfilling it and maintaining the standards of Holiness. Another reason for Paul drawing out the comparison of this list was to counter his opponents in how they understood the Mosaic law by interpreting it by God’s Messiah, claiming that Christian relationships of loving service also constitutes the fulfillment of the law.[10] These 9 graces which are mentioned harmoniously are like a tree that grows fruit but all fall under the same root system. Paul begins this list with “love” (agapē) which is the measuring rod and goal of freedom. Ronald Fung clarifies, “that believers have been set free for mutual service through love (v. 13), and the measure of their freedom is (at least in part) their ability to place themselves in loving service of their neighbors.”[11] This inclusion of love goes back to the Old Testament Shema in Hebraic tradition and this kind of love was sacrificial towards one another within the community. Paul had already stated that love was an expression of faith (5:6) and the whole law was fulfilled in love (5:13). It is this love that motivates the apostle and fuels responsive love in the virtues presented that can only portrait the character of Christ. While the flesh demands and disassociates from the community, it is the Spirit that produces a fruitful harvest that connects one another through the vine of God’s love.

            This divine love is not only unmerited but is transformative in how we are to conduct ourselves according to God’s Word. The Spirit of Christ which is characterized by love has become the embodiment of this new life as disciples. Paul will go on to explain and conclude that a victorious life can only be obtained by crucifying the flesh (v.24) and walking in the Spirit (v.25). A life that desires the flesh leads to spiritual death while a life that is reliant on the Spirit is able to daily take up of one’s cross. This mortification of the flesh is a self-crucifixion process and for Paul, the law and flesh belong to the same pre-Christian order; the cross serves believers having been crucified in the historical crucifixion of Christ.[12] The morality of humanity is unable to live within the means of purification that is demanded from the justice of God but needed a Savior to reconcile the world to God. The Spirit is the source of life, the flesh has been executed and can no longer rule and reign your passions and desires. With this new life in the Spirit, comes with it a new way of living that the Galatian church can now embark on. It is in this rejection of the old nature and the shaping of the new through the Spirit that one can express the virtues listed in Paul’s epistle. This walking in the Spirit implies someone who follows a direct course with a leader as marching in a line. To be led by these virtues is what Paul was outlining for his readers, just as the law instructed rules for living, so the Spirit takes the lead in how someone ought to follow. 


            The application put forth in the presentation of this paper demonstrates the necessity of what Paul was trying to convey to his audience, mainly that morality without the Spirit’s regeneration work is futile for living in victory. The works of the flesh are unable to produce a character that is in alignment with the proper display of love because it seeks to distort the true meaning of the Gospel. Paul has been contending for a righteousness that is Spirit lead, conforming to the person of Christ. The obedience the Judaizers were attempting to impose on these new Christian converts consisted of the Mosaic law that resulted in an oppressed state of living rather than experiencing the freedom that came as a result of the finished work of Christ. The same way that Christ serviced the world by dying on the cross was Paul’s exhortation for presenting his case for spiritual freedom in the life of the Christian and the community to which they belonged too. This freedom was not only for them but was intended to liberate this distortion of the truth, setting the mind free as faith is expressed through love.

            The church today can grow from Paul’s encounter on how to conduct one’s life according to the leading of the Spirit. The promise of the Gospel ensures that life lived in the Spirit can combat the works of the flesh and the church today can promote this Gospel by service to one another. To discount the fruits of the Spirit leads to a nominal life controlled by the affairs of selfish ambitions that forsakes the inheritance of the kingdom. The model of the cross has instituted that we are not our own, bought with a price that demands us to resist the vices that try to ensnare the believer. Love becomes the hope that guides our path, establishing the collective body of Christ to be united despite cultural or social differences. For Paul, he came up against these Jewish teachers of the law who were presenting a different gospel and clarifying what the Gospel of God is supposed to resemble. A Gospel of unity that offers grace and peace to the brokenhearted, focusing on the condition of the soul and not just on the natural appearance of humankind. The law lacked the integrity to maintain the divine relationship with God and instead, Paul’s presentation of the Spirit becomes the authoritative means of salvation. To the Gentile church of Galatia, this would be a fruitful walking in the Spirit, in the service of love, that would lead them into a life of victory.


[1] Martyn, J. Louis. Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 33A. Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven;  London: Yale University Press, 2008, 492.

[2] George, Timothy. Galatians. Vol. 30. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994, 386.

[3] Silva Moisés. Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001, 183.

[4] Wilson, Todd A. 2005. “’Under Law’ in Galatians: A Pauline Theological Abbreviation.” The Journal of Theological Studies 56 (2): 362–92.

[5] Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians. Vol. 41. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1990, 249.

[6] Hays, Richard B. The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11. 2nd ed. The Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, xl.

[7] Martyn, J. Louis. Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 33A. Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven;  London: Yale University Press, 2008, 496.

[8] Lewis S. Hay. 1979. “Galatians 5:13–26.” Interpretation 33 (1): 67–72.

[9] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982), 251.

[10] Ukwuegbu, Bernard O. “Paraenesis, Identity-Defining Norms, or Both? Galatians 5:13-6:10 in the Light of Social Identity Theory.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70, no. 3 (2008): 538–59.

[11] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 263.

[12] Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982, 256.

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