The apostle Paul is writing to these Christians in the Galatian region to inform them of the freedom they have received in Christ. By obeying the works of the law and allowing themselves to be circumcised, however, they are enslaving themselves and Christ is of no benefit to them. Paul is so concerned that these false teachers will turn these Christians away from the gospel that we wishes that since they teach circumcision they would use the knife on themselves. Your free from your sins in Christ. There is nothing else that is to be added to receive justification. By relying on oneself for justification you have cut yourself off from Christ and have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:4). How freeing it is to know that we do not have depend upon our righteousness to be saved! As Paul said in Galatians 5:5 it is by faith that we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
But when we speak about the freedom that exists in Christ, the apostle realizes that there is a danger in speaking this way. People have a tendency hear about freedom in Christ and take an extreme position that since we are in grace, we can live our lives how ever we like. In this section the apostle Paul is going to defeat this kind of thinking.
Through Love Serve (5:13-15)
You are free but your freedom does not mean that you are to serve yourself. Your freedom does not mean you get to obey your fleshly desires and lusts. Your freedom is not for self but to serve through love. Consider the shocking paradox: use for freedom to be a servant to others. You were set free to serve. But think about what the apostle Paul taught in Galatians 4:8 that by obeying your desires and listening to yourself you had enslaved yourself to sin. So it does not make sense to see freedom as an opportunity for your flesh because that is how you lost your freedom and put you back into slavery. This is the same idea as a prisoner being set free only to go break the law again and be arrested again because he was free. You are free but not to break the laws of God or do whatever you please!
Here is God’s requirement since you have been set free: love your neighbor as yourself. Stop paying attention to yourself and pay attention to others. The essence of the whole law is that you do not pay attention to yourself but rather love and serve others. This message is really important today. Please notice that Paul does not say that you must learn to love yourself first before you can love others. You know what it looks like to love your neighbor. Paul does not say that first you need to love yourself. Then, once you are doing really well at loving yourself, love others like you love yourself. In verse 13 Paul just taught that freedom is not about loving yourself and doing what you want to do. Rather through love serve others.
Verse 15 pictures the opposite. If we are biting and devouring one another then we are not serving one another through love. Strife and conflict are the results of loving self and giving opportunity to our flesh. We are not thinking about others where there is division and strife. We are not serving others through love when we are causing problems and difficulties.
Walk By The Spirit (5:16-18)
In verse 16 Paul teaches something really important for us in our walk with God and fight against the flesh. Notice that Paul does not say to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh, which is a true statement. Rather, when you walk by the Spirit there is a result that will occur: “you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” We cannot win the battle against sin by ourselves. Walking by the Spirit is how to fight against the desires of the flesh. We see that God promised this through his prophet Ezekiel.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25–27 ESV)
It is important to recognize that there is not something mystically happening by the Spirit so that we will not gratify the desires of the flesh and will cause us to walk in God’s statutes. Notice that this is not a passive experience. There is an active command to us: walk by the Spirit. I think it is important to point out that we cannot be exchanging one set of commands for another. The apostle Paul cannot be arguing that it is not possible to be justified by the works of the law because no one can keep all the law, then turn around and give us the law of Christ and tell us that walking in the Spirit means doing all the law. To say this another way, Paul is not saying that you could not obey the regulations under Moses’ covenant but now you must obey all the regulations under Christ’s covenant. So what does it mean to walk in the Spirit? Consider how Paul described it to the Christians in Rome.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Romans 8:5 ESV)
Walking in the Spirit happens by setting our minds on spiritual things. This is not passive. This is not the Spirit taking over your life. Your mind must be away from the flesh and set on spiritual things. We must press into God to turn away from those desires. Isaiah 55 pictures that we are thirsty souls in need of the soul-satisfying living water. But we are choosing to look for satisfaction by drinking sand in the desert rather than drinking the living water God is offering from Christ. Set your mind on spiritual things and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Verse 17 gives an explanation of this promise in verse 16. The desires of the flesh are in conflict with the desires of the Spirit. They are in opposition to each other. You cannot fulfill the desires of the flesh and be right with God. Paul expresses that there is a battle within the heart of the Christian. The desires of the flesh will keep you from doing what you want spiritually. Also, the desires of the Spirit will keep your flesh from doing what it wants to do. They are in opposition to each other and do not work together. We cannot be sinning and think we are walking in the Spirit. Verse 18 returns to the problem that these Gentile Christians are dealing with. If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. This cannot mean that there is no law of what is right and wrong. We were just commanded to walk in the Spirit (5:16). The point is that if you are led by the Spirit then you are not under the Law of Moses and its obligations. Being part of the Spirit and receiving the blessings and promises of the Spirit (as described in Galatians 3:14) means you cannot be part of the old covenant.
The Works of the Flesh (5:19-21)
Verse 19 is really important to our understanding of walking by the Spirit. Friends, the works of the flesh are evident. They are clear. They are evident. Just think about this for a moment. It is not hard to realize what is against God. This does not require extraordinary discernment. They are obvious. But Paul then starts a list so that you will understand some of the obvious works of the flesh.
The first three sins are related to sexual sins. We will talk in greater detail about the problem of sexual sins in our upcoming series “The Marriage Rules” where we will look at 1 Corinthians 6-7. But I think it is important that we go through this twice because our world has gone crazy in regards to sex and teach that everything is acceptable. But we are not living a new time. The Greco-Roman world was noted for its considerable openness in sexual matters. We think we are in such a revolution of sexual freedom, but this experiment has been tried many times before in history and failed. From verse 19, sexual immorality refers to all sexual activity that is not in covenant between husband and wife. The Greek word is used for adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bestiality, prostitution, and incest. It is an all-encompassing word. The next two words try to be even more encompassing: impurity and sensuality. Impurity is referring to any sexual activity not authorized by God and sensuality is the idea of sexual indulgence. Here is the point of these words: if you are not married, its wrong. Whatever you might wonder where the line is regarding any kind of sexual touching — if you are not married, it is wrong. It belongs in the works of the flesh.
The next listing of sins are also fairly easy to grasp for the works of the flesh are obvious and clear. Idolatry is the worship of anything apart from the one true God. We have an idolatry problem today. We worship our wealth. We worship our jobs. We worship our family. We worship our hobbies. We worship our comfort. We worship everything because we give it the priority over God. Anything that receives priority over God is idolatry. We must be aware of it and admit that it is the work of the flesh.
The next word is sorcery. Sorcery was used by the ancients to supposedly come in contact with the deities. Thus, the word has a close association to black magic and witchcraft. Sorcery was the use of mind altering and mood altering drugs to accomplish this contact with the supposed deities. Some will say that taking drugs is not condemned in the scriptures. But mind and mood altering drugs are condemned. It does not matter what we legalize as a country. It does not matter if your pills come from the pharmacy or you can buy it off the shelf. Now it is important to make a disclaimer that this does not mean that all medicine and drugs are sinful. That is not the point at all. There are many medicines we take because our bodies are not right and we are using the medicine to bring our bodies back to normal. From dealing with pain to correcting chemical imbalances we are trying to correct something that is broken. These such things are not the works of the flesh. But taking something with the intention to altering the mind would be sinful. Perhaps Oxicodone is a good example. If you had surgery it would be fine for you to take these for the pain. But when you start taking them for mind and mood altering reasons, then you have crossed the line. I hope this makes sense of how we perceive our use of medications.
Enmities, strife, and jealousy are all expressions of hatred or contention against another person. You are showing hostility to another person. You are causing a contention that divides people from one another. You have a zeal against another person. These are the ideas in these three words. Rivalries is the ambition that causes discord. Divisions and dissensions call attention to divisions and create an “us versus them” spirit. It is sad to see that brethren have at times fallen into this trap while trying to defend the truth, using division, rivalries, strife, and dissension to win arguments. Fits of anger is fairly easy to understand also. This is the explosive temper, which some translations read, “outbursts of wrath.”
Envy is the desire to possess what others have and you are not satisfied with what God has given you. Drunkenness is easy to identify and understand. Orgies or carousing is not a sexual reference but a reference to partying. Mardi Gras and spring break parties are a good example. Going to clubs or events where it is a drinking party is another example. Such things are obviously the works of the flesh.
Then Paul wants to make sure that we do not read his listing in such a way so that we think we can have a loophole before God. Paul says in verse 21, “And things like these.” Understand that anything like this is also condemned. Paul warns that those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Doing anything of these things cannot be dismissed as inconsequential before God. Judgment will fall on us for practicing these things. Doing these things shows that we are not led by the Spirit. In fact, we are showing that we have gone back into slavery to sin and have not been set free in Christ.
Friends, the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit are at war with each other. You have been set free in Christ to serve one another in love, not serve yourself and your desires. If we will set our minds on the Spirit, pressing into relationship and knowledge of God, then we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. This is a great promise and hope given to us. But we cannot be passive. We must walk in the Spirit. We must draw closer to the Lord to see the life transformation that God expects.