Does Walking in the Spirit Eliminate the Need to Keep Rules?

The Theory: Walking in the Spirit Eliminates the Need to Keep Rules

Scripture seems to support this conclusion. In Galatians 5:16 Paul teaches, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” That passage is viewed by contemporary evangelicals as saying that if we live moment by moment in fellowship with the Holy Spirit we will spontaneously live a godly life.

Consequently, keeping rules should play no part in the life of the New Testament believer. An emphasis on doing so constitutes legalism and undermines genuine spiritual living.

Problem #1: The Existence of Rules

In my previous post I noted that virtually every New Testament author and leader called believers to live according to a set of rules or standards.

If a godly lifestyle were a spontaneous product of walking in the Spirit what would be the purpose of these lists, and why are many of them presented in the imperative mood? Their presence, especially as commands, indicates that conscious, intentional, rule keeping constitutes an essential part of the Christian life not superseded by walking in the Spirit.

Problem #2: The Call to Fight

Many passages in the New Testament indicate that the Christian life is a battle. A major part of that battle occurs within us. In 1Corintians 9:27 Paul speaks of his own need to fight the battle with his body, to bring it under subjection to God’s rules: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” He calls us to engage in the same struggle in passages such as 2Corinthians 7:1: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”

We can’t win that battle using our own resources. The Holy Spirit provides us with the resources. Nonetheless, using that power we are called to do the fighting. It is like a division commander in the Army providing his brigade commanders with the battle plan and the weapons necessary to win the fight. However, winning requires that they do the fighting.

When the Holy Spirit Does Most of the Fighting

When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, their first objective was Jericho. Following God’s instructions they marched around the city numerous times, and finally the wall fell down, apparently on top of the inhabitants of Jericho, leaving the army of Israel little to do other than mop up the situation. However, as time went on God assigned them an increasingly larger role in the battle.

This is also the case with the Christian life. I have heard people talk about how God delivered them from drugs or alcohol or other sinful behaviors without their engaging in any struggle. It is wonderful when God assigns us this Jericho type of battle. I find that He frequently does this for young Christians, just as He did for Israel before they were combat hardened.

However, it is a mistake to assume that God will always work this way, that walking in the Spirit assigns us a passive role. Usually He does not. As with the army of Israel, most of the time God calls us to get dirty and bloodied in the war against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Christians who have experienced the type of deliverances mentioned above sometimes mistake this for the norm, assuming that the Christian life does not involve a fight, but rather as we walk in the Spirit we will always experience such painless deliverance. Many teachings and stories in the New Testament indicate otherwise, as does our own experience.

Teaching that Christians don’t need to engage in the fight against sinful behaviors that are contrary to God’s rules, is resulting in many believers being seriously wounded and taken prisoner in spiritual warfare.

Reconciling Rules with Walking in the Spirit

How, then, are we to reconcile these rules and the need to engage in battle to follow them with the passage above indicating that if we walk in the Spirit we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh?

The answer resides in a clear understanding of what walking in the Spirit entails.

Walking in the Spirit does not entail deactivating our minds and wills, which would be dehumanizing, reducing us to less than full humanity. Rather, it consists of just the opposite, of the Holy Spirit enlightening our minds and empowering our wills so that these faculties can be fully and successfully engaged in maintaining God’s instructions regarding the Christian lifestyle and in fighting the battles related to doing so.

Consequently, rather than enhancing the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the position that Christianity does not entail biblical rules for living undermines it, discouraging people from engaging with Him in what He is seeking to achieve in  their lives. This is resulting in sinful lifestyles and a powerless church.

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