Walking in the Spirit: What Does It Mean?

The Holy Spirit indwells every Christian. He is the fulfillment of Jesus Christ’s promise to all his followers of God’s ongoing presence and guidance (John 15:26; Acts 1:8). Though salvation is exclusively an act of God (Eph. 2:8), sanctification, that is maturing in holiness and Christlikeness, is cooperative. Therefore, a Christian’s choices, like walking in the Spirit, contribute to spiritual growth.

Walking in the Spirit describes how Christians should live in the world that Paul, Moses, and others use. In the Bible, God tells believers how to conduct themselves in light of their temptations. The Holy Spirit enables Christians to live victoriously amid such enticements to sin.

What does Paul say is the opposite of walking in the Holy Spirit? What is the application for Christians today? What three insights does the metaphor of “walking” give believers? How can Christians proactively obey God in their “walk”? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also see What Does the Holy Spirit Look Like? to learn more.

Holy Spirit
What does the Greek word for “walk” mean? See below

What does Paul mean by walking in the Holy Spirit?

In the second half of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he teaches on the theological topic of justification in chapters three and four. Then, he discusses the application of justification in chapters five and six as he writes about how Christians should live in the world. In the last section of the letter, he warns them not to “indulge the flesh” (Gal. 5:13, NIV) or to satisfy their “sinful nature” (NLT).

What is the opposite of indulging the flesh? In contrast to choosing sin, Paul encourages the Galatians to live in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16, ESV). Most English Bible translations render the phrase “walk by” the Spirit (NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB), though the NLT says, “let the Holy Spirit guide your lives.”

What does the Greek word for “walk” mean? The Greek word for “walk” (pereepateho) has a literal and metaphorical meaning in the New Testament. Several passages include its literal meaning, like when Jesus heals the paralytic man (Matt. 9:4, “get up and walk”) or when the disciples mistook him for a ghost (Matt. 14:26, “the disciples saw him walking on the sea”). Yet, “walk” has another meaning, too.

The metaphorical use of “walk” in the New Testament refers to a person’s conduct, behavior, or lifestyle. When Bible translators discern that a writer like Paul is using “walk” in a non-literal way, they either retain the word exactly or render it according to its metaphorical meaning. For example, the ESV, KJV, and NKJV translate pereepateho in Colossians 4:5 as “walk in wisdom,” but other translations read:

  • “Be wise in the way you act” (NIV)
  • “Live wisely” (NLT)
  • “Conduct yourselves” (NASB)

Also see What Happens To Your Spirit When You Die? to learn more.

Holy Spirit
What does the tense of the Greek word for walk imply in Galatians 5:16? See below

How to walk in the Spirit

Paul’s description of “walk” is a suitable metaphor because of what it implies. The imagery of walking conveys Spirit-led direction, purpose, and consistency. When Christians live in this way, they mature in holiness and Christlikeness and safeguard against gratifying the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16b).

  • The Holy Spirit gives people direction: Sinful lifestyles are often morally and spiritually chaotic and ultimately directionless. They aim to satisfy a person’s sinful nature, usually expressed in instant gratification. In contrast, Spirit-led living focuses on God’s moral standards for a person’s behavior, values, beliefs, relationships, ambitions, and much more for his glory.
  • The Holy Spirit gives people purpose: A Spirit-led life isn’t a wild goose chase. Instead, the Spirit leads a person according to God’s standards and in alignment with his will and purpose for their life. God doesn’t purpose to enslave people to sin for anyone. Instead, he has good and righteous purposes for each of his children. Walking in the Spirit means yielding to God’s direction and plan.
  • The Holy Spirit helps people remain faithful: The beloved pastor Eugene Peterson called discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction.” Spirit-led people don’t decide to follow Jesus and abandon him a short time later. The present tense of “walk” in Greek likely conveys the idea of an ongoing action. Therefore, walking in the Spirit for Christians is a weekly, daily, and hourly commitment.

Exodus 18:20 contains a similar description of living for God: “And you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do” (ESV). God’s statutes and laws gave the Israelites direction and purpose. They also told them how they should behave daily. Like Paul, the metaphor Moses uses to describe living for God is walking.

Also see How To Develop the Fruit of the Spirit to learn more.

Christian church
What is the fruit of walking in the Spirit? See below

What is the opposite of walking in the Spirit?

After Paul instructs Christians to walk in the Spirit to prevent gratifying the flesh, he explains how the two lifestyles conflict. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17, ESV). Next, Paul says a Christian’s choices can assist the Spirit’s work.

How can a Christian proactively walk in the Spirit? In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. A Christian’s victory over sin isn’t merely the result of trying to resist temptation, though that is important (James 4:7), but of proactively “doing” (Gal. 5:17) the fruit of the Spirit. Christians can’t produce the fruit of the Spirit on their own, but they can encourage it.

The Works of the Flesh
Galatians 5:19-21
sexual immorality
fits of anger
The Fruit of the Spirit
Galatians 5:22-23

Galatians 5:24-25 reads, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step [pereepateho] with the Spirit” (ESV).

5 more verses that mention walking with God

  • Deuteronomy 5:33, “You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.”
  • Proverbs 2:7, “He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity”
  • Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:7, “for we walk by faith, not by sight”
  • 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Also see What Is Christmas Spirit? to learn more.

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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