Walking by the Spirit
What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? Paul used the expression twice in Galatians 5:16,25. Steeped as he was in the Hebrew Scriptures, he certainly had in mind the many Old Testament passages that liken the conduct of a person to a walk.
Old Testament Background
The parallel thoughts of “way” (derekh) and “walk” (halakh) are common Old Testament metaphors for one’s conduct. A few examples are given to lay the foundation for what Paul said about the expected walk of the Christian.
Jethro’s counsel to Moses was for him to teach the people “the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk, and the work they are to do” (Exodus 18:20).1 David prayed, “Teach me Thy way, O Lord; I will walk in Thy truth” (Psalm 86:11). Other relevant passages include Exodus 16:4; Leviticus 18:4; Deuteronomy 13:4,5; Isaiah 33:15; Jeremiah 44:23; Ezekiel 5:6,7.
To the best of my knowledge, however, the Old Testament does not link this concept of the way or the walk with the Holy Spirit, except for the prophecy of the New Covenant found in Ezekiel 36:27, “And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” The language of the context shows this to be the new birth (see John 3:5).
The verse reads, “But I say, walk (peripateo) by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” The verb peripateo was an everyday Greek word — the word most commonly used for the activity of the legs and feet in getting one from one place to another. As with the Hebrew word halakh, however, it is used figuratively in the New Testament in the sense of conducting or behaving oneself. For instance, in Romans 6:4 Paul wrote about walking “in newness of life.” In Ephesians 4:1 he entreated Christians “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”
The phrase “by the Spirit” is one word in the Greek — pneumati. It may be translated either “by the Spirit,” indicating the means of the walk, or “in the Spirit,” indicating the sphere of the walk. The Greek case allows for both.
When one walks by/in the Spirit, he “will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Walking by/in the Spirit is the antithesis of carrying out the desire of the flesh. Two points of grammar are especially important in understanding this verse: (1) The imperative “walk” is in the Greek present tense, which conveys the idea of “keep on walking.” (2) The negative in the second clause (ou me) is very emphatic; its meaning is something like “certainly not,” “in no way.” It is a promise to those who “keep on walking by/in the Spirit.” But the promise is conditional. The sentence can be recast without violating the meaning by rendering it, “If you keep on walking by/in the Spirit, you will by no means carry out the desire of the flesh.”
“But if you are led (ago) by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” Being led by the Spirit is a concept analogous to that of walking by the Spirit. The word for “are led” is in the present tense and is better understood as “are being led.” A parallel passage: “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). The Spirit-led individual has the law of God written on his heart, so it is an internal force for righteous living rather than external decrees (Jeremiah 31:33,34; Ezekiel 36:26,27).
It is important to note that freedom from desires of the flesh and from legalistic domination is possible only as one continues to walk and to be led by the Spirit.
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk (stoicheo) by the Spirit.” The verb stoicheo is more specialized than the verb peripateo. It has a number of meanings, but the general idea is “to agree with” or “to follow.” Using this verb, the New Testament refers to walking in an orderly fashion (Acts 21:24), following in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham (Romans 4:23), walking by or following a rule (Galatians 6:16), and “following in line by that same standard to which we have attained” (Philippians 3:16, margin). These meanings of the verb stoicheo help us realize what Paul meant by “walk by the Spirit”: keep in step with the Spirit, follow Him, agree with Him.
The clause, “If we live (zao) by the Spirit,” merits attention. In this context, Living by/in the Spirit does not have the meaning often attached to it. It is not referring to a life controlled by the Spirit; that concept is captured by the ideas of walking by the Spirit (whether peripateo or stoicheo is used) and being led by the Spirit. Living in the Spirit refers to one’s having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and no longer living in sin or in the flesh. In other words, every true Christian is living in the Spirit, because he has been quickened from spiritual death (Ephesians 2:1).
The relationship between the two clauses in this verse is important. The conditional clause, “If we live by the Spirit,” assumes the statement to be true. It could be translated, “Since we live by the Spirit” — in other words, since we have been born again by the Spirit. Since Paul was writing to Christians, he stated as a fact that they live by/in the Spirit. This living entails a responsibility, however; the person must conduct himself accordingly. He must line himself up with the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:25 means, “Become what God says you are. You have received new life by the Spirit of God; now allow that new life to manifest itself as you keep in step with the Holy Spirit.”
Paul’s mention of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23) is bracketed by our key passages — verses 16 and 18 on the one hand and verse 25 on the other. The fruit of the Spirit are the evidence that one is indeed walking by/in the Spirit and is being led by the Spirit.
Anthony D. Palma, Th.D., is a longtime Assemblies of God educator who lives in Springfield, Missouri.
1. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard BibleÂ®, Copyright Â© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).