What Does It Mean to Walk in the Spirit?

Life in the New Covenant

Galatians is probably Paul’s first epistle, sent to instruct the young church about basic doctrine and practice to be lived out differently now according to the new covenant. Serious adjustments were required of these new believers. The arrival of the Spirit entailed a new way of relating to God. Their previous way of life in the old-covenant era was no longer the norm, and believers faced opposition and misinformation regarding their new freedom in Christ. Paul, a converted Jew himself who had previously opposed Christianity, fully understood this contested yet basic truth: salvation is, and of necessity must be, a free gift given in Christ to be received by faith. As a result, Paul pointed to the law’s limitations and its temporary function. Not that he considered the law itself to be deficient, but the misguided agitators in Galatia—the so-called Judaizers—who advocated continued dependence on Torah (law) observance for righteous living needed resolute correction.

In Galatians, Paul addresses believers’ ongoing relationship with God and the sustenance of spiritual life in their relationship with God. In the new covenant, this relationship is sustained by the Spirit and no longer through animal sacrifices or law observance such as Sabbath-keeping, food laws, or circumcision. Prior to their new life in Christ, New Testament believers had not experienced the continual indwelling of the Spirit. It was at Pentecost that the Spirit came upon the first believers and the church was born (Acts 2). At this early stage in the history of Christianity, it is vital for believers to understand that the work of the Spirit in the life of born-again New Testament Christians is commensurate with the righteousness that is and has always been demanded by God. Thus life in Christ is to be lived according to the Spirit, not by observing mere external stipulations.

Sanctification as Set Apart and Growing in Christ

Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger

In this addition to the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, Marny Köstenberger explores the topic of sanctification—being set apart by God for holiness—which is the impetus for a believer’s God-given mission. 

Continue in the Spirit

Against the backdrop of the Judaizing threat, Paul encourages the Galatian believers to continue in the Spirit. In support, he cites his own example: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul no longer lives by his own strength but by faith in Jesus, the Son of God, who loved him and gave his life for him. This constitutes a powerful refutation of all moral self-effort in favor of the grateful reception of God’s gracious redemption effected in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. In this context, Paul challenges those Galatian believers who are tempted to return to the old practices of the law in the strongest possible terms: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’”? (Gal. 3:3–6).

Paul’s logic here is compelling. The apostle reminds the Galatians that they were saved by grace, not moral self-effort, or “works of the law.” If salvation is by grace, sanctification must be by grace as well. They had received the Spirit by faith, not works. But if they began their new life in Christ by the Spirit, they must continue the way they started—by the Spirit. Perfection can never come “by the flesh”—that is, human self-effort consisting in religious works aimed at pleasing God. Paul adds three related points. First, if we can please God simply by performing certain religious rituals, why suffer (as apparently those young believers had already done)? Such suffering was the result of believers’ association with the crucified Christ (cf. Gal. 2:20). Second, God had supplied his Spirit and worked miracles among them because they had heard the gospel and responded in faith, not in response to their moral self-effort. Third, Paul adduces a biblical example, Abraham the patriarch, who, as Scripture makes clear, was considered righteous by God on the basis of faith, not works (cf. Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:1–3, 22–25).

Paul’s emphasis on the indispensable work of the Spirit in sanctification anticipates his even fuller treatment in Galatians 5, where Paul instructs the Galatians how to live in light of their newfound freedom in the Spirit—not to seek justification by law-abiding righteousness but to serve one another in love, in fulfillment of God’s purposes through the Spirit: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:13–15). If they lovingly serve one another in the freedom of the Spirit, these believers will fulfill “the whole law”!

Love One Another

But how are these believers to follow this instruction to use their freedom to love one another? Paul goes on to tell them to walk by the Spirit. They know—as we do—that they have the indwelling Spirit. To “walk by the Spirit” indicates a movement concurrent with and according to the influence and guidance of the Spirit. The Spirit should be leading our steps, inspiring our movement, and infusing our relationship with God in Christ. We may not know ahead of time which way we should go, but at each step we can be aware of the Spirit’s guidance and then move in the direction he leads. This starts with a listening posture, a general openness to God’s leading, and a preparedness to obey God’s revealed will in Scripture, especially in the moral arena. Paul writes, “I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:16–17).

In this way, as believers focus on the Spirit, they resolutely avoid the potential impact of the sinful nature that still dwells within them. Not that there are no other negative influences in their lives that will challenge them. The fallen world system revolves around self rather than Christ; evil supernatural forces will attack when believers least expect it. But as they learn to walk according to the Spirit, or to “keep in step with the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:13–25), they will grow in their ability to live in such a way that they glorify God amid the various afflictions they face. It is not that the flesh is obliterated; it is still present in their inner being and raises its ugly head. Thus they need to continually walk in the Spirit and crucify their old, sinful nature. This requires a deliberate focus on God’s work and the Spirit’s leading. It also involves presenting their lives to God, listening to his voice, and engaging in continual prayer for help and guidance. Regular and ongoing nurture from God’s word is vital for sanctification and part of the process of being conformed to Christ. This growth into maturity takes place as a result of the Spirit’s work as believers choose to walk by the Spirit.

The Fruit of the Spirit

Conversely, Paul states that those who walk according to the flesh will not inherit God’s kingdom (Gal. 5:21; cf. 1 Cor. 6:9). This implies that those who do not take seriously the necessity of walking by the Spirit and instead allow the flesh to express itself as a regular pattern of deliberate and unconfessed sin are likely not even saved and thus not indwelt by the Spirit. True believers should not allow their fleshly impulses to lead and control them so that they engage consistently and habitually in sin. A sinful pattern of living and a fleshly identity stand in stark contrast to a spiritual character expressed in the ninefold fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–24). Believers are spiritual because they have trusted in Christ by the Spirit and characteristically respond to the Spirit’s promptings within them.

The questions to ask ourselves, then, are these: Which dynamic characterizes our lives? As an overall expression of who we are, are we marked by our sinful nature or the Spirit? The presence of Christ’s transforming work in our lives through the Spirit will be evident both to ourselves and others. Genuine believers should display clear and abundant evidence of the Spirit’s work in their lives. As Paul explains:

If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will 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 things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal. 5:18–25)

Regular and ongoing nurture from God’s word is vital for sanctification and part of the process of being conformed to Christ.

We will know that we are walking in the Spirit when we see the fruit of the Spirit exhibited in our lives and the deeds of the flesh begin to wane. Paul’s words here show that the activity of the Spirit in believers’ lives is instrumental in producing spiritual fruit. The Spirit’s role consists in crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires and engaging in an inner battle against the flesh. As Douglas Moo points out, Galatians 3:3 (“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”) and Galatians 5:5 (“Through the Spirit, by faith, we . . . eagerly await for the hope of righteousness”) serve as “rhetorical bookends to Paul’s theological argument and appeal to the Galatians.”1 In order to experience the new life, walking in the Spirit is a vital necessity:

Paul’s purpose is both to warn and to assure believers. He warns them that Christians find themselves in the midst of a continuing battle between these two powers (see esp. Gal. 5:17, 21). But, more importantly, he assures believers that, because we are in Christ (Gal. 5:24), the Spirit is now the dominant power and provides the believer with victory over the flesh (Gal. 5:16, 24) and release from any threat that the law may pose (Gal. 5:18, 23b).2

Moo elaborates, “The Spirit whom Paul now celebrates as the power of the new life is nothing other than that Spirit whom the prophets predicted would take possession of God’s people in the eschatological age, providing for that wholehearted obedience to the Lord that the law could not secure (‘the promise of the Spirit’ in Gal. 3:14; see, e.g., Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:24–28; Joel 2:28–32).”3

Walking in the Spirit, then, is connected to obedience in the Christian life and no longer associated with obedience to the law of Moses. Obedience to the “law of Christ”—the life of Christian freedom fueled by grace and love—is the new and better way by which believers “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Obedience and walking in the Spirit are vital for growing in godliness: “Obedience is not the basis for eternal life but the necessary means by which our new life, based on Christ and faith and mediated by the Spirit, will be confirmed and sealed on the last day.”4 Life in the Spirit, according to Galatians, is a life that is justified by faith in Christ and characteristically exhibits the supernatural fruit of righteousness.


  1. Douglas J. Moo, Galatians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 35.
  2. Moo, Galatians, 35.
  3. Moo, Galatians, 35.
  4. Moo, Galatians, 36 (emphasis added).

This article is adapted from Sanctification as Set Apart and Growing in Christ by Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger.

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