Jan Lambrecht, «The Right Things You Want to Do. A Note on Galatians 5,17d», Vol. 79 (1998) 515-524
We can assume that the Spirit-filled Christians in Galatia want to do the right things. To be sure, they are in need of admonition and exhortation. In a realistic way Paul reminds them of their somewhat fragile condition. He points to the eschatological tension between the "already" and the "not yet", between the indicative and the imperative. They are still in the body, yet they live in this world. Some of these Gentile Christians are attracted to the "works of the law". But, as Paul has been arguing at great length in this letter, that is not a solution. On the contrary, the Spirit alone constitutes the really "empowering presence". Therefore, "if we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit" (v. 25). It would seem that Gal 5,17, properly understood, fits very well into this context of admonition.
Gal 5,136,10 is usually taken as the parenetic section of the letter. Verses 13-24 can be considered as its first unit. In v. 13a ("For you were called to freedom") Paul more or less repeats what he has already said in v. 1a: "For freedom Christ has set us free". In v. 1 he had continued: "Stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery", i.e, do not become subject to the law (cf. 4,21). The continuation in v. 13, however, is different, although the freedoms opposite, the theme of "slavery", is likewise repeated: "only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love become slaves to one another". The term "flesh" appears, and mutual service, love of neighbor is seen as a curb on any kind of wrongly-understood freedom. In vv. 14-15, then, this love of neighbor is further inculcated. In vv. 16-24 Paul calls for a life by the Spirit; he radically opposes "flesh" and "Spirit" (cf. 4,29 and, more especially, 3,3b: "Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?").
As is well known, within Gal 5,16-18 verse 17 defies any easy interpretation. This is the literal translation of the passage:
16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
17 For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, but the Spirit against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing whatever you would.
18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
According to v. 17 flesh and Spirit are at war; their desires are opposed to each other. This situation seems to cause a stalemate "so that you cannot do whatever you want". Yet in v. 16 Paul is definitely urging the Galatians; he visibly takes for granted the possibility of the Christians choice for a life guided by the Spirit: you certainly will not (ou0 mh/ strong negation) yield to the covetousness of the flesh. The same applies to v. 18. How then must v. 17 be understood within its immediate context? Not so long ago John M.G. Barclay wrote: "In fact this clause is generally acknowledged to be one of the most difficult in the whole letter" 1.