Not Under the Law

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v. 16).  

- Galatians 5:16–17

Paul’s admonition that we walk in the Spirit so as not to gratify the flesh (Gal. 5:16) points to the believer’s ongoing struggle. Already we enjoy salvation, having received the Spirit through faith in Jesus (Eph. 1:13–14). Still, our fleshly nature is not yet obliterated even though our glorification is sure (Rom. 8:1–30). Until death, our evil desires oppose the Spirit (Gal. 5:17), the war growing more heated as the Spirit reveals our sin to us, conforming us to Christ. Martin Luther says, “The more godly a man is, the more does he feel that battle.”

Following the Holy Spirit’s lead, we mortify the flesh (v. 16; see Rom. 8:13) and are not “under the law” (Gal.5:18). Certainly, not being under Torah cannot mean that its ethics are now optional. Otherwise, God denies His own standards, which is impossible (Rom. 7:12; 2 Tim. 2:13). Moreover, Galatians 5:18 in context shows that those not led by the Spirit break the so-called moral laws of the old covenant. The Mosaic law forbids sexual immorality, idolatry (Ex. 20:3, 14), and all the other works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19–21. But to bear the Spirit’s fruit is to fulfill the Law, for love is commanded therein (Gal. 5:22; see Lev. 19:18). Even though we are not “under law,” by the Spirit we live it out.

If those in the flesh and those under the Law are not Spirit-led (Gal. 5:16, 18), then to be under the Law is to be in the flesh. To be under the Law is to repeat the error of the Israelites who in bondage to sin looked to the Mosaic law as an end in itself, not as a guardian to take them to the Messiah (Rom. 6:14–23; Gal. 3:21–26). As Augustine says, people “under the law” are motivated by the Law’s threatened torments, not love of righteousness (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT vol. 8, p. 81; hereafter ACCNT). They do the Law outwardly to avoid punishment, not from the heart, the font of impurity (Matt. 5:21–30; 15:18–20). Therefore, they do not see the depth of their iniquity or need of grace.

Yet we are led by the Spirit and know we cannot keep the Law in our own power. We see Torah not as an end in itself, as if we ourselves can through its statutes kill the flesh; rather, seeing our sin defined in the Law, we daily turn to Jesus for pardon, drawing upon the Spirit to crush evil (Rom. 8:5, 13).  

Coram Deo

John Calvin comments, “If we would obey the Spirit, we must labor, and fight, and apply our utmost energy; and we must begin with self-denial.” Walking by the Holy Spirit is the denial of the self and one’s fleshly desires and turning to Christ to follow His example, asking the Spirit to enable us to do so. Consider today where you might be following the desires of the flesh and not the way of the Spirit. Repent and ask the Spirit to help you follow Jesus.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 23:14
Isaiah 44:1–5
John 6:63
1 John 1:5–7

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343