When it comes to understanding the person and work of the Holy Spirit, theologians often use the term mystery. Reflecting on John 3:3–8, Graham Cole writes:
Jesus said that the Spirit’s action is like that of the wind. The movements of the wind have a mystery to them. You can’t tell where the wind comes from or where it is going. Likewise the Spirit. Indeed the Spirit blows where he wills. No one is master of the Spirit.1
The same mystery extends to walking in the Spirit.
We are, of course, familiar with the idea of walking. We tend to take it for granted until it becomes difficult or impossible. Some of us even wear devices that track the number of steps taken in a day as a way to encourage a more active lifestyle. How an individual walks is so distinctive that it is even possible for software to identify people based on their gait.
It should not be surprising that the Bible uses walking as a metaphor for a person’s way of life, encompassing beliefs, attitudes, desires, and actions. This metaphor is especially prominent in wisdom contexts, which often present a contrast between two different ways of walking/living (e.g., Ps 1:1–6; Prov 4:10–19). In the genealogy of Genesis 5, what set Enoch apart was that he “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (5:24 ESV).2 God’s people are called to walk in God’s ways (Ps 119:3) rather than walk in the counsel of the wicked (Ps 1:1).
The New Testament expands on this walking metaphor. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, believers “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4), in the good works that God prepared beforehand (Eph 2:10), and in wisdom (Col 4:5). Christians are called to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord (Col 1:10; 1 Thess 2:12; 4:1) and the calling he has placed on our lives (Eph 4:1).
But perhaps the expression that stands above them all in the New Testament is the concept of walking in or by the Spirit. Look, for example, at Galatians 5:16:
Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Gal 5:16)
Paul uses a similar expression in Romans 8:4:
The righteous requirement of the law [is] fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:3–4)
Regardless of whether the New Testament speaks of walking in the Spirit, by the Spirit, or according to the Spirit, each expression contributes to the larger idea that the Spirit is the one who defines how the believer lives. So we will draw on these various expressions to describe what it means to walk in the Spirit.
What does it mean to walk in the Spirit?
In the most basic sense, to walk in the Spirit means to live a life that depends on the Spirit’s power to (1) grow in godliness, (2) obey God’s commands, and (3) experience increasing intimacy with God. While each of these three components are inseparably linked, looking at each one individually sheds further light on walking in the Spirit.
1. Grow in godliness
“Godliness” refers to a life that is single-mindedly oriented toward God and is expressed in one’s thoughts, feelings, desires, actions, and words. “Godliness” captures the essence of the great commandment to love God with our whole being (Matt 22:37; citing Deut 6:5). Walking in the Spirit means depending on God’s power to orient all the different aspects of one’s life towards God. According to Romans 8:5, “those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” The Spirit helps us direct our thoughts, emotions, inclinations, and desires in ways that please God and are consistent with his character. As we depend on the Spirit, he transforms the desires of our hearts to align with God’s heart and enables us to resist the sinful desires that we still experience as part of living in this fallen world (Gal 5:16).
Not only does the Holy Spirit make us spiritually alive, he sustains and empowers us to become more like Christ. That is why Paul says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). Whenever the verb translated “keep in step with” (stoicheō—click to open the Logos Bible Word Study to this word) occurs in the New Testament, it refers to keeping one’s behavior in line with a person.
- Abraham “walked in the footsteps of the faith” (Rom 4:12).
- Paul was advised on circumstance to “live in observance of the [Mosaic] law” (Acts 21:24).
- Paul blessed all who “walk by [the] rule” of the new creation (Gal 6:15).
- Paul urged the Philippians to “hold true” to what he had taught them (Phil 3:16).
2. Obey God’s commands
Walking in the Spirit not only means relying on the Spirit to reorient one’s entire life in a general sense, but also includes depending on the Spirit to obey specific commands of God. Indeed, this was one the central promises of the new covenant as described in Ezekiel 36:26–27:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
This promise lurks behind a number of New Testament passages, even when different language is used. A good example is Romans 8:3–4, where Paul asserts that those who walk according to the Spirit fulfill the righteous requirement of the law. Those who walk in the Spirit are empowered to obey God’s commands, especially when it comes to the command to love’s one’s neighbor as oneself (Gal 5:13–14; citing Lev 19:18).
Depending on the Spirit to obey God includes not only doing what God commands, but also not doing what God forbids. In contrast to unbelievers, whose lives are controlled and directed by the flesh, believers are empowered by the Spirit to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13). The Spirit gives believers the ability to turn away from the works of the flesh that characterized life before Christ (Gal 5:19–21) and instead produce the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22–23).
3. Experience increasing intimacy
Given the emphasis on the Spirit’s empowerment to grow in godliness and obey God, it can be easy to overlook how the Spirit intensifies our intimacy with God. At the heart of God’s covenant purposes was the promise “I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:12). In the old covenant, this was accomplished by the Spirit dwelling in either the tabernacle or the temple. In the new covenant, the Spirit dwells inside believers, making them his temple (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19). By living inside of us, the Spirit continually reassures us that God has adopted us as his sons and daughters, moving us to cry out “Abba, Father,” and reminding us of the eternal inheritance that awaits us (Rom 8:15–17).
As we depend on the Spirit to deepen our intimacy with God, he creates in us a growing longing for Christ’s return and the consummation of God’s promises. As Paul succinctly says in Galatians 5:5, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” The apostle expands on this thought in Romans 8:18–25. After describing how creation longs for the day when it will be set free from the effects of the Fall, Paul adds, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). As we walk in the Spirit, he intensifies our desire to be with Christ in the glorious new creation, where we will see him face to face (Rev 22:4) and the promise of God dwelling with his people will be consummated in all its fullness (Rev 21:3–4).
How do I know I’m walking in the Spirit?
Scripture points to both internal and external evidence to determine whether we are walking in the Spirit.
Internal evidence focuses on the posture of one’s heart, mind, and soul. So if your thoughts and desires are set upon things that are pleasing to God, that is evidence that you are walking in the Spirit. A good checklist to reflect on is Philippians 4:8, where Paul writes,
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
External evidence focuses on the words and actions that flow from the posture of your heart. Obedience to God’s commands rooted in a delight in who God is and what he has done for us demonstrates that one is walking in the Spirit. Does your life reflect a pattern of growing in godliness and increasing obedience to God? If so, that is a good indicator that you are walking in the Spirit. Expressing gratitude to God and joyful singing are also evidence of walking in the Spirit (Eph 5:18–20; Col 3:16).
The fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22–23 provides a helpful description of what walking in the Spirit looks like. As you see this fruit produced in both your internal attitudes and external actions, you can be confident that you are walking in the Spirit.
Practical suggestions for walking in the Spirit
Scripture does not lay out a precise formula for walking in the Spirit. But there are several means of God’s grace that help us walk in the Spirit.
A good place to begin is prayer. Specifically, asking God to guide and direct our steps. The collection of Puritan prayers known as The Valley of Vision has several beautiful prayers that can serve as a starting point. For example,
Fill me with thy Spirit,
that I may be occupied with his presence …
Replenish me by his revealing grace,
that I may realize my indissoluble union with thee,
that I may know thou has espoused me to thyself forever,
in righteousness, love, mercy, and faithfulness;
that I am one with thee …
May his comforts cheer me in my sorrows,
his strength sustain me in my trials,
his blessings revive me in my weariness,
his presence render me a fruitful tree of holiness,
his might establish me in peace and joy,
his incitements make me ceaseless in prayer,
his animation kindle in me undying devotion.4
This prayer is not a magic formula. It simply provides a helpful example of how you can acknowledge your dependence on the Spirit to walk in his ways.
A second practical suggestion for walking in the Spirit is to immerse yourself in the Word. As the one who inspired the biblical authors to write down the words of God (2 Tim 3:16–17; 2 Pet 1:19–21), the Spirit uses Scripture to keep us in step with him. Everything the Spirit leads us to do will be consistent with what God has already revealed in his Word. He still speaks to us today through the words he himself inspired, pointing us to Christ and empowering us to obey what God has said.
Finally, spend time with fellow believers. While the Spirit does work in and through us as individuals, we must never forget that he also regularly works in our lives through other believers. Indeed, sometimes, the Spirit works through the words and actions of others to reveal areas where we are not walking in the Spirit. That is one of the many reasons that we must prioritize gathering together each week with God’s people for worship.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal 5:25)
- Navigating Pneumatology: How to Study the Holy Spirit
- How Can We “Grieve the Holy Spirit”?
- What Christians Believe about the Holy Spirit: An Overview
- What Does the Holy Spirit Do? Exploring His Mighty Works
- Graham Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 41.
- All Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version (ESV).
- For the military use of this language, see Xenophon, Cyr. 6.3.34.
- The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, ed. Arthur Bennett (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 54–55.