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.
The main difference, however, is the function of these clauses in their respective contexts, i.e., in the line of thought. In Rom 7,13-25 Paul depicts the inner split in the "I". This "I" knows what is good, wants to do what is right and in its inmost self delights in the law of God. But evil lies close at hand; the "I" does the very thing it hates. The "I" does not understand its own actions. In utter powerlessness and despair Paul exclaims: "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death"? (v. 24). In Romans 7 he most probably depicts the pre-Christian situation, the unredeemed state of the Jew and perhaps anyones condition without Christ 4. In Gal 5,136,10, on the other hand, Paul addresses his Christians in Galatia; he exhorts them. In 5,17d he does not explicitly say whether it is good or evil or both that they are unable to do; at any rate, they appear to be incapable of performing a desired act. The opposition between flesh and Spirit seems to aim at this: (literally) "in order that whatever you want (to do), these things you do not do" 5.
Up to this point our findings are rather disturbing. In the context of Romans 7, where a preconversion situation is described, Paul admits that the inmost self of the human person wants to do what is right (vv. 18-23) and that his mind agrees that the law is good (v. 25), although this person is sold under sin (v. 14) and as a matter of fact serves "the law of sin" (v. 25). In Galatians 56, in a context of parenesis meant for the Christians in Galatia, the reader quite unexpectedly comes across 5,17 in which verse, if the above interpretation is accepted, Paul points to a hopeless blind alley, a dead-end. Within the Christian there is, according to v. 17, a fierce opposition put up by the lusting flesh and a Spirit which is just as insistent; there appears to be no way out. The reader asks: does the Spirit, after all, not prevail?
2. Several Proposals
In Gal 5,17c ("for these are opposed to each other") tau=ta resumes the desiring of the flesh and that of the Spirit (see v. 17ab). Flesh and Spirit, or more concretely, their desires, are in conflict with each other. The aim of that conflict, or its result, is that "you Galatians" cannot do whatever you wish to do (v. 17d). In recent exegesis four main lines of interpretation can be distinguished 6.