VIII.20. Does Galatians 5:17 Say Christians Can’t Help But Sin?

Question:  My question concerns Galatians 5:17.

“For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” (i.e., by the old nature.)

When it says that “ye CANNOT do the things that ye would;” does this mean, as a Christian, that I cannot sin?

Answer:  The Greek word for cannot is “me”, pronounced “may.” It is a prime particle of qualified negation, not an absolute. Therefore, the correct translation would be “should not,” instead of “can not.”

Let us see an example of how the word “cannot” is used in the absolute sense. Notice Galatians 3:17,

“And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, CANNOT disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.”

The English “cannot” is from a different Greek word, “ouch,” which is in the absolute sense. Another example is found in 1 Corinthians 15:50,

“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood CANNOT inherit the kingdom of God…”

Here again the Greek word for “cannot” is “ouch” in the absolute sense. In other words, “cannot” (Greek “ouch”) in Galatians 3:17 and 1 Corinthians 15:50 is absolute; which means there are no alternatives or exceptions to what is stated in these verses.

As the different Greek words, “me” in Galatians 5:17 and “ouch” in Galatians 3:17, and 1 Corinthians 15:50, were translated by the same English word, “cannot”; this is what has caused the confusion.

Christians can always prevent themselves from fulfilling the desires of the flesh. They can seek to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, which indwells us at the moment of salvation (Ephesians 1:13,14) or by “walking in the Spirit” as it is explained in Galatians 5:16.

“This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”

I hope this clarifies your question. You may check this out for yourself in a Strong’s Concordance or Vine’s Expository Words in the Greek New Testament.

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