Galatians 5:16-26

Paul Harvey tells of being on a ranch in the west and witnessing a riveting story of a cowboy who had a beautiful stallion that he had raised from a colt after he captured him from a wild herd of horses. The horse would follow the cowboy around wherever he went, so much so that the other ranch hands would poke fun at him. One day, the stallion stepped in a gopher hole and injured his ankle, so the cowboy put him a pasture by himself so he could recover at his own pace. One night a herd of wild horses broke into that pasture and when they left the cowboy’s horse followed the wild herd.

The cowboy was miserable . . . for two days he grieved the loss of his horse. On the second evening, another ranch hand told the cowboy he has seen his horse in a certain canyon and sure enough was still hanging out with the wild bunch. The cowboy decided to get a good night’s sleep before heading out in the morning.

Before dawn, he and Paul Harvey rode out to the opening of that canyon and hid behind a rock from which they could watch the herd. They were grazing quietly, so the cowboy decided to play Indian and sneak up close enough so that he could speak to his horse. When he got within earshot, he slowly stood up; all the horses heads jerked up, ears alert, ready to bolt. While the cowboy began talking to his horse for all he was worth, the other horses took off and ran further down into the canyon. The cowboy’s horse stood still, muscles twitching, not sure what to do. He looked toward the wild herd, took several steps in their direction; then he stopped and turned towards the cowboy as he continued talking. He began to prance around in a circle not knowing which way to turn as he looked first at the wild bunch of hoses, and then towards His master.

Paul Harvey said, ‘You could see and feel the tension in that horse; there was his master whom he loved and there was the wild herd which he did enjoy running with; which way to go?’ For a moment it looked as though the cowboy had lost as his stallion ran about 20 yards to follow after the herd. But then he stopped dead in his tracks, turned around and with head up pranced back to the cowboy. The cowboy placed a rope around his neck, the horse nuzzled him the chest and finally, the cowboy led his horse out of the canyon.

Paul Harvey later wrote, “I laid my head down on my arms and prayed, ‘Dear Lord, if I am ever tempted to run with the wild herd, let me listen to your voice when You call.’”

That story illustrates exactly what Paul is discussing with us in Galatians 5:17:

The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions.

There is a tug of war that goes on in our hearts; in yours and in mine. I call it the war within; where on the one hand we desire to serve and follow the Master whom we love, and on the other, our sin nature encourages us to follow self.

Paul not only writes about it in Galatians, he admits in his letter to the Romans that he too fights this battle:

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? (Romans 7:21-24)

Jesus was expressing the same truth when He told His disciples: “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

Those who preach, “Come to Jesus and your life will be problem-free” are just blowing smoke. In a way, my problems didn’t begin until I came to Christ. Prior to becoming a Christian, I simply lived life my way. I was comfortable living in sin because there was no god to offend. To be sure, I sometimes felt guilty, but I viewed my guilt as my weakness and over time just learned to ignore it. But after coming to faith in Christ, I became conscious of God’s desire for me to live another way . . . and that’s when the first shots of the war within were fired.

I came across a written personal testimony of someone who was struggling:

I can’t believe I said that! An unkind word, a boisterous boast; in a moment of anger, a curse word. A tidbit of gossip, a flirtatious quip. I can’t believe I actually did that. Went to a bar, got drunk, used drugs. Was unfaithful to my spouse, ratted out a friend, told a lie. Took the promotion a fellow worker deserved; called in sick when I wasn’t. I can’t believe I thought that. So filled with anger I wished him dead. So filled with un-forgiveness, I wished her harm. So filled with lust, I wanted someone who belonged to another.” 1

Although I am hopeful that your character isn’t as bad as his . . . or hers as the case may be, it is true that all of us struggle with the things we say, do and think. All of us were engaged in the struggle as I read the vices and virtues in Galatians.

To win the war Paul brackets today’s text with the same admonition:

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves (Galatians 5:16).

Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives (Galatians 5:25).

The literal verb used is ‘walk’ in the spirit; which can also mean ‘guide,’ ‘control,’ or even be filled with the Spirit.

Today, I want to say two things about walking in the Spirit that will help us in our struggle to all that God desires for us.

First, ‘walking’ in the Spirit is a cooperative effort between you and the Spirit.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Spirit would automatically give us a shot every morning to enable us to tackle the day and be just like Jesus? But the Spirit does not work that way; He needs our cooperation.

That’s because the Holy Spirit uses what the church has called for centuries ‘the means of grace’ methods through which God works to convey His grace for the purpose of making us holy.

And what are the ‘means of grace’? Worship is a means of grace. When Christians come
together to praise God, to pray to God, to encounter God, the Spirit gives us grace to become more Christ-like. Similarly, the church has said that baptism, communion, fasting, fellowship, meditation and serving others are ‘means of grace.’

But the two most important ‘means of grace’ that will enable us to walk in the Spirit are prayer and God’s word; God’s word and prayer. God has spoken to us in His word . . . we speak to God in prayer. In prayer we will hear God speak back to us through His word.

One of the kids at VBS asked the question, “Why don’t I hear God answer my prayers?” I told him that people seldom hear the actual voice of God speaking but He has spoken and still speaks to us through His word, the Bible. “Well, I’ve been praying for a cell phone and my parents said I can’t have one;” the implication being that God should be able to overrule Mom and Dad. Again I told him, God speaks His truth to us through the Bible. And the more we know the Bible the better equipped we are to hear. So when you were asking God for a cell phone against your parents’ wishes you would hear God say, “Honor thy father and mother’ … battle won.

I was talking to Larry Wilson the other day. As most of you know his 45-year-old son, Eric, is trying to recover from a rare medical condition that has left him partially paralyzed. Larry said he was struggling with his faith . . . and while he was praying about it one word popped into his mind . . . ‘Job.’ Because Larry has spent time in the Bible . . . God answered his prayer in a word. And that one word . . .‘Job’ brought Larry peace . . . battle won!

This activity of listening to God’s word and yielding to it in prayer makes us holy.

Second, it is important to note that the verb is a progressive present tense command, a literal translation of which is “keep on continually walking.’

Or as the Amplified Bible which seeks to render the literal Greek has it:

But I say, walk habitually in the [Holy] Spirit [seek Him and be responsive to His guidance], and then you will certainly not carry out the desire of the sinful nature [which responds impulsively without regard for God and His precepts] (Galatians 5:16).

To become holy we must develop holy habits of feeding on God’s word and prayer.

As we create and nurture the right habits, what once seemed difficult becomes easier and easier until it becomes an ingrained part of life . . . a habit. To develop a habit, we must set aside a predetermined time each day. Don’t just say that you will get around to it sometime today for people who leave it to chance seldom develop the habit.

Christians who develop holy habits gain the victory over sin and self because holy habits enable us to walk in the Spirit. This stuff is not rocket science.

Pastor and author, Warren Wiersbe, quotes the poem of an unknown author to encapsulate what Paul is driving at in Galatians:

“Two natures beat within this breast,
One is cursed, the other blessed.
One I love, one I hate,
The one I feed will dominate.” 2

So where do we begin if we have not developed these holy habits? A daily devotional like Our Daily Bread or The Upper Room work great. You get either the printed version or sign-up to receive them through e-mail. The YouVersion Bible App is a wonderful tool available on your computer, tablet, or smartphones.

If you feel led to pick up your Bible and dive in, I wouldn’t recommend starting in Genesis with the intention of reading through the entire Bible. You know how many people I’ve met who started and completed that goal?

I would recommend beginning with a gospel: Luke is the gospel that highlights the grace of Jesus of Nazareth, or John the gospel that highlights the majesty and deity of the Christ. From there I would move on to the Book of Acts which records some of the history of the first-century church. Only then would I read one of Paul’s letters; I would point you toward Philippians. It’ short, only 4 chapters, and its key word is ‘joy.’ And for those brave and adventurous souls who would dive right into Revelation, I can save you the trouble (and you will have trouble), by giving you a two-word synopsis of the entire book . . . ‘God Wins!’

For those of you who want some help, I highly recommend Disciple Bible Study.

The war within.

The more we feed our spirit nature by all the ‘means of grace’ but especially through the ‘word’ and ‘prayer’ the more we will walk in the Spirit and thereby be enabled to win the ‘war within.’

Or perhaps it is possible that you are, as I once was, not even engaged in the battle because you only have one nature beating within your breast . . . the sin nature. Perhaps you have never thought about this before, but now that you are, you realize that you do have a natural inclination to sin to live your life your way without a thought about how God feels about that.

I can tell you how God feels about it. On the authority of His word, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). Someone has to die for sin. The amazing news of the Bible is that although we don’t deserve it, God has given us a choice about who is going to be punished for our sin. We can take the hit for ourselves or we can ask God’s son to take it for us.

“Oh, what a miserable person I am!” Paul agonized. Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25).

He will not only forgive us; He will also empower us through His Spirit to lead a victorious over sin, righteous, that is holy, Christian life.

He loves us as the cowboy loved his horse and He calls us and calls us, and calls to come to Him. Which way will we go? Will we continue to follow the path marked by sin and self or will we come to the One who loves us?

When Michelangelo looked at a particular piece of marble, he saw what ended up being his sculpture Angel Holding a Candelabra. Asked about how he created such beautiful artwork out of a simple marble slab, he said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” 3

When God looks at our lives, He doesn’t just see what we are; He also sees what we can be. We are angels in the making . . . “His masterpiece,” writes Paul in Ephesians, “Created in Christ Jesus to walk in the good ways He planned long ago” (2:10).


2 Wiersebe, Warren. Be Free. [Elgin, Illinois: David C. Cook Publishing, © 1975]