The final clause in Gal. 5:17 is notoriously difficult. Paul exhorts his readers in vv. 16-17:
And I say walk by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, for these are in opposition to one another in order that you may not do the things that you wish (hina mē a ean thelēte tauta poiēte).
Paul’s statement has baffled commentators. The best suggestion I’ve seen is from John Barclay in his Obeying the Truth. From what I recall he argues that Paul is saying that the flesh and the Spirit are set in opposition to one another “so that you can’t just do whatever you please.”
I’ve been re-reading Galatians lately, however, and am wondering if perhaps Paul is elucidating something along the following lines. I may be reading some church experience back into the letter, but there are some contextual factors that point in this direction.
There are competing factions in the Galatian churches arguing about how these communities ought to embody their discipleship to Jesus. They have been taught by Paul that they are followers of the one true God by their faithfulness to Jesus. But some are endorsing their conversion to Judaism, which has caused no small disturbance.
There are competing visions over how to be the church, and that’s an essential part of the problem. In the heat of debate and sharp disagreement over theological articulation and ecclesial practice, positions have hardened and highly-charged accusations are flying back and forth. The fighting has grown intense because everyone perceives that much is at stake.
Each side is convinced that if their vision carries the day, God’s eschatological blessing will reside on these fledgling communities.
According to Paul, they’re both wrong.
The larger context of vv. 16-17 is all about fostering communities of unity by the power of the Spirit. No matter their position, anyone agitating forcefully and divisively for one vision and against another is advancing the cause of the flesh. The flesh is in opposition to the Spirit, so it is impossible to bring about Spirit-oriented ends through fleshly means.
I think that’s the force of Paul’s words: These two realms and these powers are at odds, so if you try to foster eschatological blessing through the means of the flesh (power-grabbing, factional competition, division and judgment of others, etc.), “you’ll never bring about the ends that you’re desiring” (v. 17b). You’ll never acheive the sort of church you want through factionalism and the promotion of this side over that side. Using those means only promotes the cause of “the flesh,” which is discouragement, division, and a broken-down community.
They all need to get in step with the Spirit, who is present among them and is empowering them to foster love, peace, unity, reconciliation, forgiveness, deference.
How to get the perfect church? Give up the quest for it, stop fighting, warmly receive one another as God’s good gifts, and pursue faithfulness working itself out in love.