Paul warns us not to waste our freedom in Christ to serve ourselves. “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal 5:13) The Lord calls us to use our freedom to serve each other in love under the power of His Holy Spirit within us. “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal 5:16–18)
Paul identifies some of the sins we are inclined to take part in when we refuse to walk by the power of God’s Spirit, which don’t correspond to living free in Christ, through the power of God’s Spirit. “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19-21)
When Paul recounted the deeds of the flesh: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idiolatry, and sorcery known as the “filthy five”, the Galations probably high-fived him. They weren’t, however, ready to hear was the rest of the list, because the behavior hit a bit too close to home. Paul grouped them together as from the same source to impress upon them that these deeds are also acting in the flesh: “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these”.
These sins primarily express themselves in how we treat others. God cares about our sexual and moral purity, and He cares about the purity of our religion and worship. But He also passionately cares about how we treat one another. The fact that Paul uses more words to describe these interpersonal sins shows how important our treatment of each other is to God. In fact Jesus was clear, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
All of these “natural” feelings and actions flow from us like water from a spring, and all of them will destroy our relationships with others. Underlying each of these deadly acts is a preoccupation with self. I will care for others as long as I get what I want. I will be kind, act civil, and have a winsome attitude about me as long as I am happy and nobody disturbs my happiness or the happiness of those I love. Oh, but be the one who rocks the boat and disturbs these folks happiness, and you would be better off attacking a momma bear with cubs! As we look at these sins, ask yourself how often they show up in your life.
Whenever you see these sins in your life, you can know that you are not walking by the Spirit, and no one will be able to tell that you are a disciple of Jesus.
Enmities is from the Greek word echthra, which is hatred – an attitude of heart, and it somehow expresses itself in actions such as contentions, outbursts of wrath, or many other works of the flesh. But hatred is the inner motivation for the ill treatment of others. Just as love is the inner motivation for the kind and good treatment of others, hatred is an inner motivation. Laws can be passed to punish the evil men do against each other; but no law can answer the problem of hatred, which motivates those acts. “If someone says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn 4:20).
Strife is the Greek word eris, which conveys the idea of quarreling. We can see much of this taking place in the congregations and the world today. People quarrel over things that should not be issues, and the bickering continues because of pride. “The mindset of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it is unable to do so.” (Rom 8:7)
Jealousies uses a Greek word (zelos) that is sometimes used in a positive sense – as for being zealous for something good. But here, clearly, the connotation is wrong. Jealousy refers to “someone who wants what other people have”. It was this spirit that characterized Joseph’s brothers so that they sold him into slavery. Timothy George expressed its meaning well: “At the root of all sentiments of jealousy is the basic posture of ingratitude to God, a failure to accept one’s life as a gift from God. To envy what someone else has is to fling one’s own gifts before God in unthankful rebellion and spite.” “A tranquil heart is life to the body, but jealousy is rottenness to the bones.” (Prov 14:30)
Outbursts of anger translates a Greek word (thumos), which speaks of a sudden flash of anger, not a settled state of anger. It means to lose your temper, being unable to control your anger. When you are driving, are you driving in the flesh or by the Spirit? “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19b-20)
Disputes is the Greek word eritheia, and the word has an interesting history. It started out as a perfectly respectable word meaning: “to work for pay”. Over time, it ended up meaning: “selfish ambition”, meaning the ambition which has no conception of service, and whose only aims are for profit and power. This word describes the heart of a person who first questions “What’s in it for me?” “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3)
Dissensions/Divisions uses the Greek word dichostasia, and it literally means “standing apart.” Few of us are fortunate to be able to say that we don’t have a divisive person in their family or church. It’s the person that you either have to be willing to walk on eggshells in order to be around them, listen to their long-winded ugly rant about others (even you), or stay away from them, which never feels like it’s loving. It’s precarious at best to have a relationship with this type of person. “Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who create divisions and obstacles contrary to the teaching that you learned. Avoid them” (Rom 16:17).
Factions/Heresies translates a Greek word hairesis, which originally simply meant: “to choose.” Over time, it came to mean someone who divisively expressed their “choices” or opinions. We think today of heresies in terms of wrong ideas and teachings; but the emphasis in the word is actually the wrongful dividing over opinions. Heresies can be thought of as hardened dissensions. There is all the difference in the world between believing that we are right and believing that everyone is wrong. “Finally, all of you be like-minded and sympathetic, love one another, and be compassionate and humble” (1 Pet 3:8).
Envy is the Greek word phthonos. One doesn’t so much want what someone else has (as in jealousies), but one is bitter just because someone else has something and we don’t. The ancient Stoics called this “grief as someone else’s good,” and the ancient philosopher Euripides said it was: “the greatest of all diseases among men.” This is what the flesh produces. “Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many.” (Heb 12:15)
Drunkenness and carousing can both be thought of as social sins, sins that are often committed in the company of other people. Drunkenness is clearly described as one of the works of the flesh. “And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). Paul describes drunkenness as dissipation, which means: “wastefulness.” Getting drunk is a waste; for certain, the Holy Spirit never led anyone into drunkenness! We are to be controlled by the Spirit, not by alcohol. Our culture addresses drunkenness as a problem or addiction, but God’s Word calls it a sin.
Carousing/Revelry is the Greek word komos, which doesn’t mean simply having a party or a good time. It means unrestrained partying. Barclay says, “It describes the kind of revelry which lowers a man’s self and is a nuisance to others.” “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Pet 2:11-12)
Looking back over the passage again, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19-21)
The word “practice” is from the Greek word Prassw, which is the verb for habitual practice, not poiew for occasional doing. Paul is saying: this is how the unbelievers act, don’t act like them! When Paul says, “those who practice such things,” he is referring to those apart from Christ. He is distinguishing the believers of the church with those who practice these things as a way of life. Every single person who does not have God as part of his or her life goes down this path. But as Christ followers we are to be set apart and be holy because God is holy (1 Pet 1:16).
There is only one way to overcome the flesh, only one way to live a life different from the works of the flesh that Paul has described here, and that is by walking by the Spirit, which we have as a free gift after we come to Christ as our Lord and Savior by faith. To walk by the Spirit means that we spend time in the Word of God so that we may know God’s will; in prayer because it is only in relationship with the Lord that we understand how He wants us to walk; and we look to the Holy Spirit depending upon Him to do in us what we cannot do for ourselves: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh…Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:16, 24)