Walking in the Spirit
Believers today must walk in the Spirit. It is the essence of the stewardship of our dispensation and the criteria by which God will evaluate us. No one in the Old Testament had ever commanded, “Walk in the Spirit.” It was new with the apostle Paul. Jesus had hinted at it (Jn. 20:22) and laid the groundwork for it (Acts 1:8). But Paul made walking in the Spirit the central element of the believer’s responsibility. So, what does it mean to walk in the Spirit; and how do we accomplish it?
Stewardship for Living
Paul was the first to use the term dispensation (Greek, oikonomia) to refer to the administration of the segments of God’s program for mankind (Eph. 1:10; 3:9). As he revealed the specifics of our current administration, which was established by Jesus’ New Covenant work for His people Israel, he taught that the primary feature of this dispensation’s stewardship is walking in the Spirit.
While Abraham was required to glorify God by living by faith in God’s promises, and Old Covenant saints were expected to glorify God by living in conformity to the Mosaic Law, God’s children today are required to glorify Him by walking in the Spirit. None of these stewardships is a means of salvation. Rather, they are the means by which saved individuals glorify God in their respective dispensations.
Paul taught that the Holy Spirit lives within every born-again believer in this dispensation of grace. But not every believer lives in submission to the Spirit. In the days of the early church, Ananias and Sapphira illustrated that believers sometimes allow their hearts to be “filled” by Satan (Acts 5:3). Possessing the Holy Spirit is not sufficient. Believers must allow the Spirit to possess them.
The word walk is a New Testament metaphor (it is used 95 times) for “live,” as illustrated in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” To walk in the Spirit means to live in complete submission to the control of the indwelling Spirit of God:
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Rom. 6:12–13).
The opposite of walking in the Spirit is walking in the flesh. Paul contrasted the results of these two “walks” in Galatians 5:19–23. The Holy Spirit gains control when we are “filled with the Spirit,” which Scripture contrasts with being “drunk with wine” (Eph. 5:18). Believers should live under the control of the Spirit:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:2–4).
Walking in the Spirit accomplishes the following:
- It prevents walking in the flesh, which is our default mode (Rom. 6:12–23; Gal. 5:16).
- It proclaims God’s glory because we submit to His stewardship for this dispensation (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
- It produces spiritual maturity, whereas carnality produces and perpetuates immaturity (1 Cor. 2:14—3:3; Gal. 3:2–3).
- It preserves the grace principle, which we forfeit if we default to the flesh (Gal. 5:4).
- It prevents death, the natural result of anything accomplished in the flesh (Rom. 6:23; 7:5, 24; 8:2–7).
How We Do It
How, then, are believers filled with the Spirit? How do we walk by the Spirit? As with being born again—another foundational truth of our Christian experience—walking in the Spirit is both simple and profound. Being born again is so simple a child can experience it. Yet the new birth is so profound that theologians cannot figure it all out. Dr. Bill Bright, the late founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, clarified it best when he said three things are necessary for walking in the Spirit: desire, confession, and yielding.
Desire. Walking in the Spirit begins with desire because walking in the flesh is easier; it is our default mode. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Mt. 5:6). Although He was speaking about a different type of filling, the principle is the same. To live in the new nature rather than in the old (default), believers must pursue life in the Spirit. This is the reason for Paul’s imperatives: “walk in the Spirit,” “be filled with the Spirit,” “put off the old man,” “put on the new man,” etc.
If we respond to life as it comes, without a determination to walk in the Spirit, we usually lapse into the carnal responses and ungodly behavior of the old nature.
Confession. Walking in the Spirit requires confession of sins. This should be distinguished from the confession of sin necessary for salvation. Confessing one’s sinful nature and condition (agreeing with God about them) paves the way for placing faith in Jesus’ finished work on the cross for salvation. Once born again, however, a believer must confess his or her sins (plural) to maintain the family relationship.
Sin is an act of disobedience and rebellion. It interrupts fellowship with the heavenly Father and fellow believers. This broken relationship requires confession—agreeing with God about the rebellion and disobedience—in order to be forgiven: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
God requires confession, not asking for forgiveness, which He has already promised to provide. He requires that we say the same thing about our sin that He says, acknowledging the nature of what we have done and how offensive it is to Him, much the same as parents require of their children.
The indwelling Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. Confession produces hearty forgiveness and full cleansing by our Father. Confessing all known sin (we can ask the Spirit, if we are unsure) removes “self” from the controlling position but does not yet place the Spirit in control.
Yielding. Walking in the Spirit requires yielding control of one’s life to the Holy Spirit. Gentleman that He is, the Spirit does not assume control without being asked: “I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness” (Rom. 6:19). Ephesians 5:18 adds, “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.”
Presenting, or yielding, oneself to the Spirit is similar to what the father of a bride does at a wedding when he transfers his daughter from his authority to that of her new husband. When believers who have confessed all disobedience and rebellion present themselves to the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Spirit assumes control.
Then the Spirit directs where those believers go, what they do, and what they experience. He teaches what is needed for life. He provides the experiences He wants us to have. He starts, or continues, us down the road to maturity, service, etc. This control remains until the believers reexercise their own control, thereby rescinding the authority delegated to the Spirit.
Cruise control on a vehicle illustrates this principle. Once a driver activates it, he removes his foot from the gas pedal. The cruise control governs the vehicle’s speed until the driver steps on the brake or accelerator to override it. To restore the Spirit’s con-trol, a believer must “remove his foot” (confess) and resubmit (yield) to the Spirit’s control. In contrast to an inanimate cruise control, the third Person of the triune God exercises personal, loving, and omniscient direction of our lives.
Achieving spiritual maturity requires a consistent walk under the control of the Spirit. Carnality maintains or reintroduces (Heb. 5:11–14) spiritual immaturity (1 Cor. 3:1–3). Spirituality requires regular maintenance. Dr. Bright called the process “spiritual breathing.”
Our bodies require us to exhale impurities from the lungs and inhale oxygen that is carried throughout to maintain physical life. Similarly, spiritual life requires us to confess (exhale) that which produces death and to yield (inhale) to the Spirit who produces life. This spiritual breathing is required as often as we permit an impurity to enter our spiritual lives.
One must walk before he runs. The book of Hebrews exhorts Christians to run:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1–2).
The walk that precedes the run is the walk in the Spirit.