Walk by the Spirit

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 31, 2020.

But 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 (Galatians 5:16–17).[1]

The work of the Holy Spirit is evident from the beginning verses of Scripture, as “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2) of the primordial pre-creation. In union with the Father and the Son, he is the agent of creation, through whom heaven and earth were created. As the Spirit of counsel and might (Isa. 11:2), he enabled Moses to lead and David to rule. As the Spirit of wisdom and understanding (Isa. 11:2), he enabled Bezalel the son of Uri to “devise artistic designs” for the tabernacle (Ex. 31:4) and Solomon to discern in wise judgment. As the Spirit of knowledge and fear (Isa. 11:2), he carried along the prophets of the Word of God. So extraordinary is the power of the Holy Spirit that Moses wished “all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29).

Yet, we see the full expression of the Holy Spirit’s work in the person of Jesus Christ. The angel Gabriel told the virgin Mary that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, overshadowing her, and she would conceive and bear a son, Jesus (Luke 1:26, 35). As a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, he would always be about his Father’s business (Luke 2:49); as an adult he was commissioned with the sign of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove (Luke 3:22), to accomplish his Father’s purpose. It was the Holy Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted and tried by the devil (Matt. 4:1), and through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus obeyed the will of God, serving as the Savior of his people.

The evidence of the Holy Spirit was powerful in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which leads some to wonder: What is the ministry of the Holy Spirit after Christ’s ascension? What is the work of the Holy Spirit today?

Jesus was not silent on this. In what is referred to as his Upper Room Discourse (in John 14-17), Jesus advocated the importance of his ongoing earthly presence, not physically but spiritually. He explained to his disciples that he would not forsake them but would send a “helper.” The helper would indwell and unite every believer, Jesus promised, and they would know with absolute certainty that Jesus Christ is within them (John 14:20). In fact, Jesus promises the unthinkable: through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son are indivisibly present (John 14:23) through faith.

Fifty days after Passover, what Jesus promised his disciples in the Upper Room was fulfilled at the festival of Pentecost. With the sound of a mighty rushing wind and the appearance like a divided tongue of fire, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ disciples. From that moment onward, the ministry of Jesus would continue, not limited to one man in space and time but multiplied in fullness to all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, the reality of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence, power, and purpose is lost on many Christians. Some have sought to address this with a zeal to revive the miraculous gifts of the apostolic era. Others have sought to address it through a heightened spirituality of letting go and letting God or mystic experience. Many modern Christians have perceived the Holy Spirit’s work as an emotional roller coaster rather than the empowerment of mere Christianity.

In the end, many Christians are left practically wondering: Is the Holy Spirit really present in my life? If so, where do I witness his work? And if he is at work in me what is his purpose? To address these questions, I want us to consider our two verses in Galatians, beginning with the presence of the Holy Spirit.


The apostle’s command that we “walk by the Spirit” implies the Spirit’s continual indwelling presence. In fact, his presence is validation of authentic conversion, as Paul explains in Romans, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9). We are saved and receive the Holy Spirit by God’s grace through faith (Gal. 3:2). As evidence of our salvation, God has “put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:22), a pledge of our final redemption. We need not wait for the Holy Spirit to come, because he is already present in the heart of all who believe.

You may ask, “How do I know that he is present within me?” We may describe knowledge of his presence as conviction. He convicts us of our sin, whether omission or commission, and enables us to confess and repent of our sin, enjoying the forgiveness that only a child of God may know. To put it another way, the Holy Spirit helps us to obey God, described as walking “by the Spirit.” In Scripture, walking is often used as a metaphor for conduct. By conducting our lives according to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, we are walking by the Spirit, evidencing his indwelling presence.

The Holy Spirit is also present within the church collectively. While often quoted in the context of corporate prayer, it was in the subject of church unity that Jesus promised, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). As Christ is spiritually present in his body, the church, we are integrally united one with another in him: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). As the hymn sings, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.”[2]

Within the church we witness Christ’s presence not through the extraordinary means of the apostolic era, with signs and wonders, but through the ordinary means of grace, of Word, prayer, and sacrament. Just as the prophets and apostles were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), delivering to us the inscripturated Word of God, so also the Holy Spirit is present in the Word read, sung, and preached. Even as this sermon is preached, the Holy Spirit illumines God’s Word that we may see, know, and obey. When we lift our prayers to heaven, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).

Likewise, the Holy Spirit is present in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism as a sign of inauguration of our union with Christ, serves as a seal of God’s covenant faithfulness to us. Sinclair Ferguson explains, “Thus in baptism, just as in and through Scripture, the Spirit bears witness to Christ, takes from what belongs to him and shows him to his people…[baptism], in keeping with our response to the ministry of the Spirit in displaying the grace of Christ, either transforms in grace or hardens under judgment.”[3] Apart from the Spirit’s presence baptism is merely an empty (wet) ritual.

As in baptism once administered, so with the continual observance of the Lord’s Supper. Through the symbols of bread and wine for the broken body and shed blood of Christ, we enjoy communion with Christ and his body. This is a reality only through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ is not literally in the bread and wine nor is he absent from the meal completely. His presence is a spiritual reality through the elements of bread and wine only by the Holy Spirit.

If the Holy Spirit is present within the heart of every believer and within Christ’s church, how do we then “walk by the Spirit”? We walk by his power.


The power of the Holy Spirit enables us to do the will of God, to obey him in thought, word, and deed, to glorify him in body and soul. Such enabling power is given to us as we “walk by the Spirit,” an empowering progression in faithful obedience. This is not to say that we are uninvolved but that our obedience is dependent upon the Spirit’s enabling power.

In our passage, Paul describes two powers in conflict within us: the Holy Spirit and our sinful flesh. We have inherited our flesh from Adam, and it manifests itself in sin, such as “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21), a vile list of debauchery indeed. In contrast, we receive the Spirit from God through faith, and it manifests itself in fruits such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

The Spirit and the flesh are in opposition to one another within us, but that does not mean we are a helpless battleground. Sadly, some Christians have adopted a victim mentality, whether acknowledged or not, embracing the cultural lie that certain sins are innate and therefore inescapable. I was born this way, they might say. In their reasoning, they justify sin as surrendering the battle to the flesh with no hope of victory by the Spirit. This is self-deception at its finest. Though all are born in sin, none are redeemed to sin.

The truth is that every Christian is born again, not to sin but to life in Christ. And, it is the Spirit of Christ who empowers us to live for him. What the deceiver of this world doesn’t want you to know is that when you yield to the flesh, it enslaves you. But what the gospel reveals is when you obey the Spirit, you are freed. This is why obedience to the conviction of the Holy Spirit is so important in the Christian life. Obedience is freedom.

What are means that the Holy Spirit uses to empower us? He uses the ordinary means of grace of Word, prayer, and sacrament. Rightly does the psalmist confess, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11 NIV). God appropriates power through his Word. We pray in the Spirit, bringing our prayers and supplications to God (Eph. 6:18). God appropriates power through the prayers of his children.

Likewise, we are empowered as we look back to our baptism, the reality of the sign and seal of God’s covenant with us. Martin Luther strengthened himself in the Spirit by frequently preaching to himself, “I am a baptized man.”[4] And, as we partake of the elements of bread and wine, seeing the gospel visibly preached, and nourished in Christ’s spiritual presence, the Holy Spirit empowers us to “walk by the Spirit.”

Paul says that our sinful flesh wars against the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence within us to keep us from doing the things we want to do. This is a curious statement and contrary to the world’s concept of sin and obeying God. Does the Christian really want to obey God? Does he really want to crucify the flesh? Does she really want to mortify sin? In short, because of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence, by his grace we really do want to walk by the Spirit in obedience to God. We really do desire to grow in Christlikeness and glorify God. And in this, we see the purpose of the Holy Spirit’s work within us.


The purpose of the Holy Spirit for us is to conform us to the image of Christ to the glory of God. For this reason, Paul confidently encourages us that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28), a purpose that includes being “conformed to the image of his Son”(Rom. 8:29). Let that sink in… God’s goodness to you includes his empowering presence to make you more like Jesus. That is indeed the good that every Christian wants, walking by the Spirit.

Furthermore, if our ultimate purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (WSC Q.1), then this is the Holy Spirit’s purpose within us. As we are conformed more and more to the image of Christ by walking in the Spirit, God is glorified. As God is glorified through the empowering work of the Holy Spirit within us, we delight in him. Yes, the Christian who walks by the Spirit rather than the flesh really does want to glorify God, finding our pleasure in him.

            Did not the Lord our Saviour die,

            And triumph o’er the grave?

            Did not our Lord ascend on high,

            And prove His pow’r to save?

            Doth not the sacred Spirit come,

            And dwell in all the saints?

            And should the temples of His grace

            Resound with long complaints?

            The Spirit rais’d my Saviour up,

            When He had bled for me;

            And spite of death and hell shall raise

            Thy pious friends and thee.

            Awake, ye saints, that dwell in dust,

            Your hymns of vict’ry sing;

            And let His dying servants trust

            Their ever-living King.[5]

May you and I walk by the Spirit of our ever-living King. Amen.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Peter Scholtes, “They’ll Know We Are Christians,” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/text/


[3] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 199.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Philip Doddridge, “Christians Quickened and Raised by the Spirit,” in The Hymns of Philip Doddridge, ed. Graham C. Ashworth (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 107.

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