Having established (in the previous article) that the healthy alternative to a life of slavery to sin or rules is to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-18), Paul goes on to show what this does not look like:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:19-21 NIV
I like that Paul says that these are obvious. There’s probably no need to go through these in detail in a study like this, since I think that most – if not all – of them are pretty clear (and some are fairly ugly).
In context, it’s probably good to understand what is meant here by “the flesh”. For one definition, see the footnote in the NIV translation. There are really only two sides in life: we can follow God, or we can follow “not God”. The fallen parts of our selves pull away from – and rebel against – God’s ideal for which we were created.
Our flesh (or “sinful nature”, as an older version of the NIV translated it), may be stoked by evil forces that seek our destruction, but if we fill our lives up with the bad ideas that these evil forces feed us, and make decisions based on selfish desires, we should expect results like what we see here.
Having said that, Paul does not seem to be giving more rules here. He isn’t just making a formal list of what followers of Christ should “stop doing”. This isn’t a new “law” (or a list of “thou shalt not” statements) that he is setting up in order to save us if we avoid them. Rather, he describes this list as the “acts of the flesh”. This is the result of letting our sinful nature control us.
Having said that, the warning at the end of this passage could lead us to think that if we do any of these things, we can’t get into Heaven. Living as human beings that still have a sinful nature, we may still fall short from time to time (Paul wrestled with this, as recorded in Romans 7:14-25), but if we go back to the start of verse 19, we are reminded these are the outputs of the flesh (or sinful nature).
I think of it this way: If someone has retained sin and selfishness as their lord (and even expects those things to give them the success that they seek), rather than making Jesus the Lord and Savior of their lives, then two things will happen: 1) their lives will produce the ugly stuff listed here, and 2) they shouldn’t expect to be part of the Kingdom of God. In fact, when someone lets the sinful nature control everything in their lives, they probably don’t want to be part of the Kingdom of God, having chosen a path that is opposed to Him. (Hint: we all were in that condition at one time, and since we could repent and return, so can other people! In fact, if you’re stuck there now, God’s arms are wide open to welcome you into His family, no matter what you may have done.)
So, we shouldn’t try to make this a list of things that we avoid in order to “walk by the Spirit” (although, seriously, I do suggest that you avoid these things – the Spirit will never call you to do any of them, and that is for your own good). Instead, as we follow God’s leading in our lives (including direct leading from the Holy Spirit), these behaviors simply won’t show up in our behavior.
To be clear, we’re all on a journey of becoming more like Jesus, so I’m not condemning you if you’re still working to give your life fully over to God. After all, I’m there, too. As a result, we may occasionally still give in to other desires, and find ourselves choosing fallen behaviors like those listed above. When we do, we aren’t fully walking by the Spirit, but that’s just a reminder to listen even more intently to Him, and not to give in to voices that try to pull us away from Him.
Better examples are coming in the next article, or – if you don’t want to wait – go ahead and read Galatians 5 on your own.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for August 29, 2021
- The Lookout, August 29, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Galatians & Ephesians, by Kenneth L. Boles. College Press Publishing Company, © 1993.