When my wife and I first married, we would often take walks around a beautiful water reservoir near our apartment in Louisville, KY. When we’d begin walking we wouldn’t always be in step with each other, so I’d do a little foot shuffle until my steps mimicked hers so we could walk hand in hand. If I didn’t do this, either I’d eventually outpace her or she would me and it would lead to some awkward walking.
In the Christian life, it is imperative that we strive to keep in step with the Spirit of God, so that we are not running up ahead in self-righteous independence or falling behind in selfish laziness. But what exactly does it look like to, “keep in step with the Spirit” and how does one go about doing this? For this we turn to Galatians 5:16-26.
The Problem with Legalism and How to Combat it
The church at Galatia had a problem running up ahead of the Spirit, so Paul wrote a letter to both warn and remind them. They had begun well and gave evidence that the Spirit was working in their midst, but eventually they veered off track. False teachers, possibly a group known as the Judaizers, came in and informed these believers that they must also keep in step with Jewish rituals and ceremonial laws to be true Christians. By adding requirements to the gospel of grace, Paul told this church they were in effect, “turning to a different gospel.” He warned them that such false teachers aimed to, “distort the gospel of Christ.”
Paul could have combated this legalistic false teaching by giving the church at Galatia a list of Christian virtues to perform, but this would have just been another form of legalism. Instead, Paul explained to them that the Spirit within them would produce such characteristics in line with God’s law and that they need only to yield to His leading. He didn’t say, “Come on guys! Salvation doesn’t come keeping Jewish rituals, but through maintaining love, joy, peace, patience in your life. Stop trying to earn your salvation by works and start being good people for goodness’ sake.” Rather, Paul taught them to, “keep in step with the Spirit.” This is why Paul referred to, “the fruit of the Spirit” and said these things were simply evidences of a heart saved by grace.
Since these Galatians were believers, they needed to be reminded that righteousness isn’t really ours to produce. Whatever we could produce that would look like righteousness isn’t really righteous. Righteousness comes by the indwelling and empowering of the Spirit in our lives. Paul David Tripp shares the analogy of an apple tree planted in his yard that won’t produce good apples. He says to imagine what his neighbors would think if they saw him taking delicious store-bought apples and stapling them onto his bad apple tree. Good fruit doesn’t come by our own self-effort at being good, but flows out of us as we submit to the Spirit in our lives.
Shortly after conversion, I worked for a summer as a youth pastor’s intern. In one conversation, I referred to the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit and this youth pastor corrected me, saying it was the actually the fruit of the Spirit, singular. At the time, I thought this was a needless correction and it didn’t make any difference, but this reveals how I misunderstood this doctrine. The ESV Gospel Transformation Bible clarifies the importance of this distinction in language: “Notice that Paul speaks of “fruit,” not “fruits,” of the Spirit—the fruit of the Spirit is not a checklist to work through but the unified blossoming of a heart liberated by the gospel of grace.”
Therefore, the antidote to running up ahead of the Spirit in self-wrought ritual-keeping is not another self-wrought formula of character development, but rather yielding of oneself to God’s Spirit.
Yielding to the Spirit
In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul teaches us that there are two very different ways to live. Either we can be empowered by the flesh or empowered by God’s Spirit. Those who follow the lead of their flesh and fall behind produce the rotten fruit of sin. Those who follow the lead of the Spirit and keep in step with Him produce the beautiful, abundant, and delicious fruit of righteousness. When the world tastes this fruit from a Christian’s life, they know it didn’t grow from man’s planting but was put there by God. But the way we keep the tree of our lives from producing so much rotten fruit is through yielding to the Spirit.
When you approach a yield sign on the highway and notice another vehicle coming, there are consequences for failing to yield. Accidents that could lead to tickets, fines, insurance problems, or even death. In the same way, the Spirit of God is directly opposed to your flesh and when He is calling you to obey and your flesh is saying to ignore him, there are dire consequences for failing to yield to Him. Such as: being deceived by sin, then hardened by it, then ultimately proving to have never been converted in the first place. Paul warns that those whose lives are marked by the rotten fruit of jealousy, envy, immorality, and all other manner of sin, will not inherit the kingdom of God. We cannot forget that he is writing to regenerate church members. If we wish to inherit the kingdom of God, we must live lives marked by submission to the Spirit, not resistance to Him.
How we go about this is through the means of grace: reading, meditating on, praying through the Word of God, quick confession of sin, continual prayerful dependence on God, submitting to one another in the body of Christ, killing sin by the Spirit. We must remember that there is a war within our hearts and that we will not win this war in our own self-effort, but only as we depend on and lean upon the Spirit for strength. Only the yielded heart is capable of producing a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees and that fulfills the whole law. May we endeavor to remove from our lives any barriers or hindrances to the Spirit’s way and strive to die to self in the power of the Spirit until we see Jesus.
Are you in step with the Spirit today?