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.
a. A Stalemate between Flesh and Spirit
According to this interpretation, the most obvious sense of v. 17d taken in itself is, it would seem, that one is unable to follow either the urging of the flesh or that of the Spirit. Flesh and Spirit frustrate each another; the consequence is a stalemate: no possibility of acting according to either one of these powers, of really and fully obeying either the flesh or the Spirit 7. Yet for a Christian such a stalemate is the admission of defeat; there can be, after all, no victory of the Spirit over the flesh.
Verse 17, however, should not be isolated; it cannot be explained without its context. So most commentators consider what Paul says in this verse as an exaggeration for the sake of warning. Paul entreats the Galatians: "Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (v. 16). The Christians, however, should not be naïve; as long as they are in the body and live on earth the struggle will prove difficult. In each Christian, flesh and Spirit are diametrically opposed and do battle with each other. Therefore, the Galatians should take into account the all too real "not yet" of the eschatological reservation. What they can be assured of, however, is the fact that if they allow themselves to be led by the Spirit, they will not be under the domination of the law (cf. v. 18) 8. Quite the contrary, through love of neighbor they will fulfil the whole law (cf. v. 14). True, according to this explanation the content of "whatever you would" in v. 17d is both good and evil; in its very wording the verse indicates a blockage. It is claimed, however, that one should not take v. 17d literally. What Paul says here is meant to emphasize the dangers of Christian moral life in this world and to add a motivating force to his exhortation, forceful as it is.
For M.-J. Lagrange pneu=ma in v. 17 is not the Spirit of God (cf. 4,6) but the renewed spirit, i.e., the human spirit transformed by the divine Spirit. The contrast between flesh and spirit is a contrast within the human being; the opposition must be situated on the same level. In Catholic theology that spirit is termed "grace". In people on earth, Christian people