What Does it Mean to "Walk in the Spirit?"
Christianity was first called "the Way." It is not surprising, then, that the Bible instructs believers to "walk" a certain way. Even today we hear others ask us about "our journey." Walking the journey means to live as disciples of Jesus, following Him on "the Way" that leads to abundant and eternal life. We are able to do this as we are baptized into the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit and are sanctified — increasingly formed into the life of Jesus through the power of His Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul spoke to this "walk" of faith in Galatians: "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16); and "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit" (Galatians 5:25).
To understand this passage and the meaning for our lives today, we must isolate the context, exposit the meaning, and apply the mind of God in the passage. Let's begin with the context.
The Context to the Command to Walk in the Spirit
To walk in the Spirit is to walk in new life in Jesus Christ. It is to walk away from the old life of bondage to any idea, person, system, or idea of salvation by religious ritual. As we will see, God’s signs and symbols were never meant to save, only to point to salvation by grace through God’s provision of a Messiah. The larger context for these commands involves a challenge to Christian living amongst believers in Galatia, a Roman Province populated by Gauls (dispersed peoples in Asia Minor who came from the area of modern France and Belgium).
What was the problem? It was a familiar issue in the New Testament. Consider the opening of chapter five: "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage" (Galatians 5:1). Galatian converts to Christianity came from Jewish as well as Gentile backgrounds. This was true is other provinces of the Roman Empire where Christianity was spreading. Why?
The Apostle Paul presents an obvious strategy in the Books of Acts of using local synagogues to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, both Jewish and Gentile "God-fearers" who attended the Sabbath Day services would hear the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as fully man and fully God, living the life we could never live and dying the death that should have been ours, to liberate us from the bondage of sin. This gift of forgiveness of sins and the inheritance of the Kingdom of God, including eternal life and a new heaven and a new earth to come, was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
One of those prophecies came from Jeremiah: "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33). But this promise was not only for Jewish believers. God's promise of a New Covenant extended to the Gentiles. So, we read in Isaiah, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6).
So, the Bible foretold of a worldwide covenant of God's grace. Through Abraham, God made a series of promises that make up a larger singular Covenant. In Genesis 12:2-3 we read God's promise to this father of many nation: "I will bless you . . . so that you will be a blessing . . . and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed." This is repeated: "And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice" (22:18; See, also, Genesis 18:18).
There were some called Judaizers who were "Jewish Christians who sought to induce Gentiles to observe Jewish religious customs" requiring Old Covenant signs to be followed at the risk of exclusion from the new Christian community: "Unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). We must remember that the Old Testaments signs of circumcision and Passover, along with the many Levitical laws, were not agents of salvation in themselves.
They were powerful sacraments, outer forms for interior realities, that pointed to God's salvation by grace alone. The problem of these Judaizers in Galatia was not merely returning to an old system, but holding on to a wrongheaded concept of salvation by works. God never granted salvation through man's works in religious ritual, although He gave the Ancient Church of Israel those signs. He gave them as a guide to Jesus the Messiah. So, too, the sacraments work today.
The Pauline command to "Walk in the Spirit" is given in the context of "walking in a bad idea of salvation by religious works."
5 Ways You Can Walk in the Spirit
So, Paul called believers to walk away from the old ideas about salvation that were embedded in rabbinical Judaism of the first century as well as in Gentile pagan religions. Believers must walk a new way: in the Spirit. But what does that mean?
Jesus said, "So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Luke 11:9). J.J. Packer in his classic work on the subject, Keep in Step with the Spirit, reminds us that the beginning of a walk with God through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit begins with God's first step to us in prayer. Packer tells us that of those who ask for God's Spirit "Many have been staggered at the wealth of God's answer in experience to this request."
To walk in the Spirit is to:
1. Walk away from sin. Sin is disobedience to the revealed will of God. Walk away from sin by having the sin nature cleansed by pure righteous life of Jesus. When you receive Him, He gets your sins and you get His life. Walk, therefore, to the cross and leave your sins with Christ Jesus, by faith, today.
2. Walk away from any other supposed "way" to God. The context in Galatia can be ours, too. Walk away from any idea that you can please God or satisfy God's righteous requirements and His punishment for sin by doing something yourself. You can't. It is cosmically impossible. But what God has required, God has provided through His Son, Jesus our Lord. Walk away from the bad idea of salvation by works, by ritual, or by any action or idea or person other than the Lord Jesus.
3. Walk towards the truth of God's Word. To walk in the Spirit is to walk in the Word. God the Holy Spirit breathed out the very Word of God. The Bible says that this, then, became flesh in the person of Jesus our Lord. Walk in His Word today and every day. Walk in His Word through this website and others like it that seek to keep you grounded in God's Word. Seek His Word and you will find Him. He will fill you as you breath in that sacred Word that He breathed out.
4. Walk towards the light of the love of Jesus. Jesus said that He is the light of the world. To walk in the Spirit is to be following Jesus, for the Spirit speaks of Christ Jesus. The Spirit magnifies the name of Jesus. And the light of Christ is His all-pervasive grace and love.
5. Walk in prayer and total dependence upon the Lord. Seek Christ and His life in daily prayer, in public prayer, and in meditation on God's Word. You, too, will be "staggered" by God's response to those who seek Him with all of their heart, soul, and mind.
To do these things is to walk in the Holy Spirit. The Bible says that Enoch walked with God. One day Enoch kept walking. He walked right into heave (Genesis 5:21-24).
To walk in the Spirit will be to spend and be spent in the glorious life of following the Lord Jesus Christ. This walk will ultimately pass through either the portal of death or the Second Coming. And you will step, in the Spirit, into the very presence of God.
See Walter A. Ewell. "Entry for 'Judaizers'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". 1997.https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/judaizers.html
Packer, James I. Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.
Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Judaizers'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". 1997.https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/judaizers.html
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.
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