C.F.W. Walther on the Difference Between Walking in the Flesh and Walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-24)

“Walk by the Spirit,” Saint Paul instructs us (Galatians 5:16). Does this demand that whoever wants to call himself a Christian and be saved must be totally spiritual, pure, and holy, with no trace of sin? If so, one would search for a Christian in vain. Despite the work of the new birth, the abysmal corruption with which we entered this world is not completely removed. Grace may be strong within us, but it cannot wipe sin out of the heart. Even among the true children of God, evil thoughts still arise. Even the holiest people often feel the most shameful lusts in their soul. In fact, the holier one is, the more often he is visited with terrible trials and temptations to sin. Even the holy apostle Paul once had to confess, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). David also sighed for justification: “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12).

Even the righteous, who walk in the Spirit, are tempted by the sin in them, and they also stumble and fall. True Christians are often so covered with weaknesses and defects that faultfinders deny that they can be in a state of grace. Although the true Christian who walks according to the Spirit continues to be a poor sinner, like the false Christian, and as much as the child of the world resembles the child of God in many respects, there is a difference between the two  that is as stark as the distinction between life and death. Today’s text spells it out for us. As long as a man lives in sin, having no power to hate it and to fight against it, the Spirit is not in him and he walks according to the flesh on the way to hell. Whoever walks in the Spirit still has fleshly desires within him, but he is also empowered to hate sin and fight against it so it does not gain dominion over him. If someone sins because he wants to, he walks according to the flesh. If someone walks in the Spirit, he, too, commits sin, but this is not what he wants to do and he abhors what he has done.

The one who can peacefully resolve to do something he knows is a sin thereby sins on purpose and walks on the path of the flesh, which leads to destruction. However, the one who walks in the Spirit, although he also sins, does so, not on purpose, but out of weakness and rashness. The one who takes pleasure in sin or is indifferent toward it thereby lives in the flesh. However, the one who walks in the Spirit daily bears sorrow over his sin, is filled with anguish and grief, and often laments his sins with a thousand bitter tears of repentance. Those sins are his greatest distress, his heaviest burden, and his greatest cross. The one who recognizes what he does as sin but regards it as of no importance is still living in the flesh. However, the one who walks in the Spirit considers even the smallest of sins as great and terrible. The one who seeks to excuse and defend his sins when they are held before him is still living in the flesh. However, the one who walks in the Spirit tries to recognize clearly the depth of his fall, and as soon as his conscience convicts him, he immediately declares his guilt before God and man, condemning himself before others can do so.

If someone has committed a serious sin and is at peace with it, if he has delayed repentance instead of earnestly seeking God’s grace and forgiveness, he is still a child of sin and death and walking in the flesh. However, if someone is walking in the Spirit, he can, like Peter, quickly gather himself up after a fall, throwing himself before God with repentance and deep shame. He implores His heavenly Father for forgiveness and grace for Christ’s sake, and he does not rest until his conscience has been cleansed and he is certain of reconciliation with his heavenly Father. If someone has sinned in such a way that the Spirit of God has retreated out of his heart, he still lives in the flesh. But if someone walks in the Spirit, he too can grieve the Holy Ghost at times, but he never expels Him from his heart by wanton sins. Sin can rise up in his heart against the Spirit, but it never usurps the Spirit’s reign in the life of the true Christian.

Wow. This is just so well put.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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