Galatians 5:17 Breakthrough!

Galatians 5:16 Le,gw de,( pneu,mati peripatei/te kai. evpiqumi,an sarko.j ouv mh. tele,shteÅ 17 h` ga.r sa.rx evpiqumei/ kata. tou/ pneu,matoj( to. de. pneu/ma kata. th/j sarko,j( tau/ta ga.r avllh,loij avnti,keitai( i[na mh. a] eva.n qe,lhte tau/ta poih/teÅ 18 eiv de. pneu,mati a;gesqe( ouvk evste. u`po. no,monÅ (If this looks like gibberish, download the Greek font bwgrkl.tff from my left sidebar)

For years Galatians 5:17 has bothered me.

On a straightforward reading, it has always seemed to me to contradict verses 16 and 18. My way around the problem has been to say, “Whatever v. 17 means, it can’t be a denial of verses 16 and 18.” Yesterday, during the yearly Brown family Theology Fest, we had a breakthrough!

This year our family theology fest is focusing on the NT’s use of “flesh,” particularly those passages in which it is used in a morally negative sense. We started with Romans on Tuesday afternoon and we made it to Galatians 5:16-18 by yesterday afternoon.

Verse 16 is an incredible promise. An expanded translation helps give its full import. “But I say, be walking in the Spirit and you will never fulfill the desire of the flesh.”

Paul uses a double negative construction to make his negation as emphatic as possible. His point is that a Christian can and will resist fulfilling the lusts of the flesh, if he constantly submits to the Spirit’s control in his life. A life free from willful sin is every Christian’s privilege!

However, everything that verse 16 promises seems to be snatched away with verse 17. “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”

It’s that last phrase that seems so strange. For years I have read it as asserting that there is a statemate between the flesh and the Spirit and, as a result, the flesh wins by default. It almost seems to be Rom. 7:25 in different words.

Nathan voiced this observation, I concurred, and Dad flatly disagreed. He argued that v. 17 is saying the exact opposite of what we were saying. There is indeed a conflict of desires between the flesh and the Spirit, but it is not a stalemate; the Spirit wins! We were both incredulous. We had never heard this interpretation from Dad, from whom both of us have learned much of what we know.

No way! Where in the world did you come up with that? Dad seemed to think it's what he had “always” said. Nathan grabbed Grace in Galatia by Ben Witherington III for a third opinion, and Witherington shocked us by concurring with Dad.

As I sat looking at the Greek text, I began to see how that interpretation actually fits the text better than what I had previously regarded as a “straightforward” reading of the text.

1. Verse 17 starts with "for" (ga.r) indicating that verse 17 is a logical extension of verse 16. It is not contrast; it is continuation. The second "for" in v. 17 is a parenthetical explanation of why the flesh and the Spirit have opposite desires.

2. As Witherington points out, there are three possible ways to take v. 17c: (1) you cannot do the good things you (by the Spirit) want to do, (2) you cannot do the bad things you (by the flesh) want to do, or (3) you cannot do either the good or the bad. The third option is nonsense, so that leaves (1) and (2).

Since v. 17 is a logical extension of v. 16, it doesn't make sense to say, "Walk in the spirit and you won't fulfill the lusts of the flesh, for you cannot do the good things you want to do." That leaves only option (2).

3. The KJV translation "you cannot do the things you would" is, at best, misleading. The Greek text says nothing about ability. It does not use dunatai or other similar verbs that deal with capacity or ability. The two verbs in 17c are subjunctives and should be translated to reflect that mood: "...with the result that you may not be doing whatever things you may be desiring."

4. The phrase "whatever things you may be desiring," then, refers to the desires of the flesh. We can paraphrase this last part of verse 17 this way: "so that you by walking in the Spirit may not be doing whatever things your flesh may be desiring."

To recap: verse 16 identifies the solution to the problem of the flesh: walk in the Spirit. Verse 17 explains why this solution is necessary: the flesh and the Spirit are opposed to one another, and the only way to avoid fulfilling the flesh's lusts is by walking in the Spirit.

Verse 18 reinforces this conclusion from a different angle. If you are being led by the Spirit, which is another way of talking about walking in the Spirit, then you are not "under law." The Galatians were being told by Judaizers that they must be under the Mosaic convenant, through circumcision, to be saved. Paul refutes this idea by pointing out that what is begun by the Spirit cannot be completed by something done to the flesh. Being led by the Spirit is the antithesis of living according to the flesh, which places a person under the law.


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