Students of the Bible will note its use of many lists. These lists include the days of creation (Ge. 1), the ones in Ephesians chapter 4, the fruit of the Spirit (Ga. 5), and the works of the flesh—which is the topic of this article. Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia addresses several of their struggles. These Galatian Christians questioned Paul’s validity and authority; they also questioned the role of the New Covenant. They seemed to be in the process of returning back to the Law of Moses and risked forfeiture of the freedom they had gained in Christ.
Paul’s solution to these and many other spiritual ailments was for these Christians to stand fast in the faith and continue being led by the Spirit’s teachings. A key component to this prescription is to avoid the works of the flesh which are listed in Galatians 5:19-21. This list breaks down into three basic groups: Treatment of Self, Treatment of God, and Treatment of Others.
Treatment of Self. Though unpopular to accept, it is a fact that fornication and adultery are harmful to one’s own body. What the world portrays as harmless and fun the infinite wisdom of God’s Word describes much more differently. Paul states that fornication is a sin against one’s own body (1 Co. 6:18). Relatedly, a CNN Money story from May 2015 reported that the popularity of “hookup” apps correlate with a rise in sexually transmitted diseases. The harm is not just being done among the young as some may falsely conclude. The New York Times has recently reported that some STDs have doubled among Americans over the age of 65, showing that the problem is multi-generational.
The harmful effects of promiscuity are seen in the homosexual community where multiple partners and casual sex are very common. The disease rate and associated risks are so high that the data shows many in the homosexual community will die much sooner than heterosexual, monogamous individuals. Solomon was well aware of sins of the flesh and recalls the wounds and dishonor usually associated with unchastity (Pr. 6:32-33). Hosea’s portrayal of wayward Israel is notable because of the sins listed along with adultery: lying, killing, and stealing (Ho. 4:2). It doesn’t take a genius to see that fornication and adultery are ingredients to an unwholesome mixture that will rob someone of health, happiness, and heaven.
With his words uncleanness and lasciviousness Paul is alerting us to the dangers of a climate of impurity and wantonness. These lay the foundation that sexual immorality is usually built on. What’s euphemistically branded as “children growing up too fast” and “sex sells” hide society’s darker side. An acceptance of immodest dress and the sexualization of everything accelerates a departure from God. Those laboring to take the perfect selfie are likely to get the attention of various immoral gawkers only interested in their own desires. Beauty is idolized and fetishized, and there are numerous studies linking pornography to gross objectification and desensitization teeming in our society.
Christians must be vigilant in this area. Some moms and dads may also have to wake up to this new reality. Paul is describing sins that ruin a society, but they also harm the individual participants. There is no innocent fun to be had here. The results of loose morals are always bad. Take a look at Sodom and Gomorrah to see just how bad things can become if discipline isn’t exercised.
Treatment of God. Shortly after their exodus, Israel chose idolatry because of their fear, stress, and weakness. Exodus 32 reveals that Moses was with God receiving the 10 Commandments. The people, however, feared that he would not return; they cried for Aaron to make a god (a request that should seem very contradictory). Aaron seemed too ready to capitulate and return to this idolatrous comfort zone. Egypt was filled with idols. Israel likely learned this form there; however, the true God of heaven had conquered those idols and delivered Israel from that land. He stood prepared to be their God—the only God they would ever need. However, they were not willing to break their connection to idols.
In their early establishment as a nation, Israel desired to be like everyone else around them. They felt different, odd, and unaccepted. The same God that delivered them from Egypt and delivered them into the promised land still wanted to be their Leader and Provider. Israel’s faith, however, had not grown. They were not willing to fully accept God; they wanted something tangible. They got their king like the nations around them (1 Sa. 8:5, 20), but they cast God from them. John records that many turned away from God’s Son simply because they did not like Jesus. The masses loved the food that Jesus gave, but they did not have equal love for His message, and many deserted Him (Jn. 6:66). These people simply wanted a better deal, and they seemed fine to shop around for a “better” god.
While these above cases can be read and understood on some level, the mind is still boggled. It’s very difficult to imagine why one would want any god other than the real God. It’s at this point, though, that we have to be diligent in noting that anything someone places ahead of God is an idol. A long time ago, God’s people put wooden images, golden calves, and kings in place of Him. Now the idols of money, acceptance, and technology are preferred.
Paul also condemns sorcery as another insufficient substitute for God. Whether it’s an infatuation with mother nature, astronomy, virtual reality, or something else, man’s quest for something beyond himself seems insatiable and incurable. The term translated sorcery (or witchcraft) is pharmakeia and has a connection to medicine and pharmaceutics. This is an interesting coincidence given that top executives from Google and other giant tech companies are seeking to increase longevity with the end goal being to escape death altogether. Some researchers in this field posit that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old may have already been born.
Whether man is able to virtually change his environment into something we can’t yet imagine, terraform some part of space, or prolong his life by gigantic sums, no one will ever be able to replace the need for God. Everyone will appear before His throne (2 Co. 5:10), so accept no substitute.
Treatment of Others. Allow the remaining 11 items on this list (from hatred through reveling) to be speak to man’s treatment of others. Make of it what you will that the bulk of these works of the flesh touch the topic of our treatment of others. Jesus taught that the way we treat the least of His brethren is indicative of our treatment of Himself (Mt. 25:40-45). The apostle John further points out the gross disconnect between one who mistreats his fellow man while claiming a love for God (1 Jn. 4:20).
Hatred, variance, and strife describe the quarrelsome mentality that reeks havoc upon the Lord’s body. Contending for the faith is completely within the bounds of our Christian calling. However, to contend for our own way over the wishes of others makes us no better than the Pharisees who killed Jesus. It’s worth noting that the Pharisees began their plot to kill Jesus after He broke their tradition about the Sabbath. Compare the following in Matthew 12:10-14, Mark 3:1-6, and Luke 6:6-11 for the full account of this. Emulations comes from a word meaning “heat” and is understood to be a zeal for doing something bad. Together with wrath these two words describe the twisted psychology of ones who delight in the wrong they do. Proverbs 6:18 talks about feet that are swift in running to mischief. Those kind of feet belong to people who practice these works of the flesh.
Seditions and heresies label the factious nature of those aligned against God. They seek to divide and conquer the Lord not realizing the vanity of their efforts. Once the whole world united against God (Genesis 11) and the outcome was no different than if only one or two would have stood against Him. God is greater than any one of us or all of us, so creating or breaking up alliances doesn’t do anything to impact our standing with Him.
Envy and murder share a relationship as do drunkenness and revellings. Cain’s envy of Abel had a murderous end (Ge. 4:3-8) just as the decision to drink alcohol in any amount can be the precursor to drinking parties. God is very comprehensive in His condemnation of these evils. It would be hard to imagine a worse duo than abortion and social drinking. Since the passage of Roe v Wade in 1972, nearly 58 million abortions have occurred. God will demand justice for these crimes. The US Department of Justice estimates that alcohol plays a role in the majority of all crimes (and an even bigger majority of violent crimes) each year.
While we would like to imagine a world void of all of these works of the flesh, just imagine a world without alcohol and murder. Wouldn’t that be a much happier world to wake up to! The truth is we cannot eliminate these works of the flesh (or any related activity described in Paul’s “such like” clause) from the world. We cannot eliminate these works of the flesh from a single person other than ourselves. It will take courage, but we need to be courageous. It will take work, but we need to work. The world is not going to get any better on its own. If the works of the flesh are going to end, we are going to have to put them to an end in our lives. God is on our side in this battle. He can give us the victory. Find a faithful member of the Lord’s church and get started.