A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 5:19-21. The works of the flesh.
*Now the works of the flesh*, Paul says, *are plain*. They are obvious to all. The flesh itself, our old nature, is secret and invisible, but its works, the words and deeds in which it erupts, are public and evident. What are they?
Before looking at his list of ‘the works of the flesh’, something further needs to be said about the expression ‘the lust of the flesh’ (verse 16 AV). It is unfortunate that this has come to have a connotation in English which its Greek equivalent did not have. Nowadays ‘lust’ means ‘unrestrained sexual desire’ and ‘flesh’ means ‘body’, so that ‘the lust of the flesh’ and ‘the sins of the flesh’ are (in common parlance) those connected with the bodily appetites. But Paul’s meaning is much wider than this. For him ‘the lusts of the flesh’ are all the sinful desires of our fallen nature. His ugly catalogue of ‘the works of the flesh’ puts this beyond question.
This is not to say that his list is exhaustive, for he ends it by saying ‘and the like’ (verse 21). But those he includes seem to belong to at least four realms – sex, religion, society and drink.
First, the realm of sex: *immorality, impurity, licentiousness* (verse 19). The word for ‘immorality’ is normally translated ‘fornication’ (so AV, NEB), meaning sexual intercourse between unmarried people, but may refer to any kind of unlawful sexual behaviour. Perhaps ‘impurity’ should be rendered by ‘unnatural vice’ and ‘licentiousness by ‘indecency’ (NEB), alluding to ‘an open and reckless contempt of propriety’. These three words are sufficient to show that all sexual offences, whether public or private, whether between the married or the unmarried, whether ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’, are to be classed as works of the flesh.
Secondly, the realm of religion: (idolatry, sorcery* (verse 20). It is important to see that idolatry is as much a work of the flesh as immorality, and that thus the works of the flesh include offences against God as well as against our neighbour or ourselves. If ‘idolatry’ is the brazen worship of other gods, ‘sorcery’ is ‘the secret tampering with the powers of evil’.
Thirdly the realm of society. Paul now gives us eight examples of the breakdown of personal relationships, which the New English Bible translates ‘quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions (or ‘temper tantrums’ and ‘canvassing for office’). dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies’( verses 20, 21).
Fourthly, the realm of drink: *drunkenness, carousing* (or NEB ‘drinking bouts orgies’, verse 21).
To this list of the works of the flesh in the realms of sex, religion, society and drink, Paul now adds a solemn warning: *I warn you*, he writes, *as I warned you before* (when he was with them in Galatia), *that those who do such things (the verb *prassontes* referring to habitual practice rather than an isolated lapse) *shall not inherit the kingdom of God* (verse 21). Since God’s kingdom is a kingdom of godliness, righteousness and self-control, those who indulge in the works of the flesh will be excluded from it. For such works give evidence that they are not in Christ. And if they are not in Christ, then they are not Abraham’s seed, nor ‘heirs according to the promise’ (3:29). For other references to our inheritance in Christ, expected or forfeited, see Galatians 4:7, 30.
Tomorrow: Galatians 5:22,23. The fruit of the Spirit.