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.
be asked again: does this approach take into account the outright opposition present in v. 17?
d. A Structureless Existence
In his valuable monograph Obeying the Truth John M.G. Barclay proposes to understand a4 e0a\n qe/lhte as "(doing) whatever you want". By this expression Paul means a "structureless existence" 15. However, since the Christians "are caught up into a warfare which determines their moral choices" such an existence is no longer possible. The Galatians cannot go from the flesh to the Spirit and back from the Spirit to the flesh. They must take sides. Or better, "they are already committed to some forms of activity (the Spirit) and against others (the flesh)" 16. More than the written context it is Christian life itself that shows the way out. This interpretation brings us back to the comprehensive understanding of "whatever you would" in v. 17d: "structureless" means good or evil, right or wrong.
3. What You Want to Do
In Gal 5,16b the ou0 mh/ construction is almost certainly not the equivalent of an imperative 17. With this emphatic negative the construction expresses the result if the imperative of v. 16a is obeyed: walk by the Spirit, and thus you will in no way yield to the desires of the flesh. Verse 17 contains two ga/r clauses. The first one ("for the flesh desires against the Spirit", v. 17a) grounds the whole of v. 16; more specifically, by pointing to the "desiring" activity of the flesh, it provides the reason why the Galatians must "walk by the Spirit" 18. Verse 17b adds the antithetic remark introduced with de/: "but the Spirit against the flesh". The second ga/r clause 19 further explains v. 17ab: for these (i.e., flesh and Spirit) oppose each other lest you do whatever you wish. (v. 17cd) 20. It