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"The Works of the Flesh."


(note, due to technical difficulties, no audio file was created this weeek - sorry)

          This week, we return to our series of messages from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Because it’s been a few weeks since we looked at this letter, we want to spend some time remembering the context of the verses we will be looking at this morning.  You’ll recall that these churches had been under the influence of false teachers who deceived the Galatians to believe that the way to be acceptable to God was to believe in Christ AND keep the law of God.  Because they had been living with that kind of legalistic, performance mentality instead of the freedom that comes from the gospel of grace, destructive sin had entered their churches.  These people were not getting along with one another because their relationships were not shaped by the gospel.  In 5:15 we read, “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.  Paul assures these quarreling Galatians that their “desires of the flesh” seen in their destructive relationships could be overcome.  He says in verse 16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”    

          Paul goes on to speak of the internal conflict that exists within each believer between the Holy Spirit and His desires and the fallen flesh and its desires.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”  The reason why walking by the Spirit will keep us from gratifying the desires of the flesh is because the Spirit excludes the flesh and is opposed to our sinful flesh.  Paul’s says that if you are walking by the heavenly, eternal, Holy Spirit, you will not possibly gratify the earthly, fallen, sinful flesh.  They are in different spiritual realms.  It would be like saying, “Live in the Amazon jungle and you will not gratify your desire for television” because for the most part modern technology is excluded from the Amazon jungle. 

          As we continue in chapter five, to further draw the contrast between these two spiritual realms, Paul gives two contrasting lists—one represents the behaviors and attitudes of the flesh and the other represents the behaviors and attitudes of the Holy Spirit.  These lists represent two radically different ways to live--by the flesh and by the Spirit. As we look at the works of the flesh this week, we want to examine three elements of Paul’s treatment.  First, we will spend most of our time examining what Paul calls “the works of the flesh.”  Second, we will see the consequences of living in the flesh and finally, we will introduce our hope through the gospel for triumphing over the sins of the flesh.

          Paul lists these works of the flesh in verses 19 through the first half of verse 21.  He writes, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these…”  Before we examine at these individually, here are four lenses through which to look to help us get maximum benefit from what Paul is saying here.  First, this list is not exhaustive.  At the end of the list he says, “and things like these…”  Paul is giving a representative list of 15 vices, not unlike other so called “vice lists” he gives in several of his letters.  Because over half of them speak to interpersonal sins, he is probably not simply randomly choosing sins, but is zeroing in on sins that were plaguing the Galatians.  There are many sins that do not make the list that are obviously sinful.  Lying is not on the list, nor is stealing or gossip or slander or many other things that God hates.

          Second, Paul introduces his list with, “now the works of the flesh are evident” or obvious.  In light of how obvious these sins are, it’s worth asking, “then why list them at all?”  If these are so clearly works of the flesh then why does Paul go to the trouble of listing them?  The reason is the same here as it is in other places where Paul lists particular sins.  That is—the Holy Spirit uses these lists to expose the sin in our own hearts as we peer into the mirror of God’s word.  There are so many varied expressions of sin and most of us only regularly confess a handful.  For instance, you may not be very sensitized to the sin of “impurity” until you actually spend some time thinking about it.  It’s when it’s brought to our attention through the word of God that the Holy Spirit can then awaken us to our sin.  Whenever we read one of these “vice lists” in the New Testament we should ask the Holy Spirit to illumine our hearts to any sin it exposes in us.

          Third, notice there are sins that we tend to think of as more scandalous like “sexual immorality” and “sorcery” listed alongside sins we may seldom confess as sin, but of which we are often guilty.  These works of the flesh like “jealousy,” “envy,” and “strife” must never segregated sins into a lower class of sin as if they were less reprehensible to God than others.  God is holy and hates all sin.  Finally, this list divides into four basic sections.  One section speaks to sexual sins, the second section to sins involving false religion, the third and longest section lists sins that ruin interpersonal relationships and a fourth set of sins relate to a lack of self control.

The first three works of the flesh Paul lists are sexual sins—“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality.”   The work of the flesh Paul calls “sexual immorality” is a translation of the word porneia, which is a broadly defined word the New Testament uses to describe any sexual deviation from the Biblical norm.  This would include premarital sex, incest and any other sexual sin.  It’s no accident that Paul lists this one first.  Here are two reasons.  First, because this sin was so rampant in the Roman world with its pagan and highly sexualized religious practices, not only was all shame removed from sexual sin, this culture had perversely sanctified it.  Sexual sin was part of the prevailing pagan religions and therefore there was little, if any cultural stigma attached to it. Second, Paul probably lists this one first because it is a distinctively destructive sin.  Paul says in First Corinthians 6:18-19, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.  19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,” Although all the works of the flesh are evil and it is a trap to say that some sins aren’t as serious as others to a holy God, Paul does say sexual immorality occupies a unique place in that it alone is a sin against our own bodies which are temples of the Holy Spirit.

          One of the most vivid differences between how the early church and the pagan culture lived was in the area of sexual purity.  There was a stark difference between the church and the world in this area.  How different from today where teens and young adults who claim to be evangelicals practice sexual sin at the same rate as the world and where the rate of marital infidelity among believers is little different from the world.  Unlike today, the early church was used to transform a debauched sexual culture.  One commentator writes, “In nothing did early Christianity so thoroughly revolutionize the ethical standards of the pagan world as in regard to sexual relationships.”[1]  The church helped change the prevailing sexual culture as people were converted and repented of sexual sin, living chaste lives for Christ.  So much for the lie, “You can’t turn back the clock.”  Sure you can—if you want to—the early church did that for the pagan culture.  But in order for it to happen, the church must embrace holiness and chastity in sexual matters—something we have not been willing to do.

          Next, Paul lists “impurity” as a work of the flesh.  Again, Paul uses another very inclusive word.  This word is often seen in Paul next to “fornication” which refers to the sin of sexual activity before marriage but, it does not only include that.  It also includes impurity in speech and attitude.  It is possible for married couples where the marriage bed is undefiled to be impure by doing things like importing the language of the street into the bedroom.  Impurity in this sexual sense is taking what God has intended to be sacred and set apart between a man and a woman within the marriage covenant and treating it like any pagan would—as a purely recreational activity.  That’s part of what Paul is getting at here.     Finally in this list of three sexual works of the flesh is “sensuality.  This is also translated “indecency” and refers to making public what God intends to be kept private.  This can happen through illicit public confessions about things that should be kept private.  More brazenly, its manifest in what we would call “publicly indecent acts.”  By extension, it would also include immodesty where clothes are worn that publicly expose or suggest what only your spouse should see.  This is a work of the flesh and in a church that is so compromised in this area; we must allow the word of God to carefully search our hearts. 

The next section includes works of the flesh involving false religion.  The first is “idolatry.”  This may be expressed through the actual bowing down to a wooden idol, but is more a matter of the heart.  Colossians 3:5 speaks of “covetousness which is idolatry.”  This is treasuring or craving anything more than you crave or treasure God.  Our first and strongest passion must be for Christ and his kingdom.  Whatever we own or aspire to own or any other relationship with human or animal that either eclipses Christ from his place of supremacy--whatever drains away our passion for Christ is an idol.  It is a work of the flesh.

          Second is “sorcery.”  This is perhaps the most sensational of the sins listed.  The Greek word for this is “pharmakeia.  Originally, it meant using drugs to poison someone and that meaning tragically remains applicable in contemporary society.  If a pregnant woman takes a so called “morning after” pill and kills her unborn child, that’s sorcery as expressed by this word.  She’s taken a death potion targeted at her child.  The meaning of sorcery goes beyond that narrow understanding however.  Tom Schreiner describes sorcery as “a desire to be in touch with the spiritual realm through humanly invented means.”[2]  That means this work of the flesh includes so many things in our New Age-influenced culture.  These attempts to tap into the spiritual realm are the works of the flesh—sorcery.  Rhonda Byrnes’ bestselling and Oprah-recommended book “The Secret” is drenched with this form of sorcery.  She writes, “Nothing [good or bad] can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thought” (p.28) and “Your thoughts are the primary cause of everything” she is teaching that you can tap into and control the spiritual realm through your positive or negative thoughts.  That’s sorcery—a work of the flesh as Paul lists it and the church must not be taken in by it.[3]

          The next section is the longest and includes eight works of the flesh, all of which in some ways are destructive to human relationships.  Enmity” is first in this section and this means either internal or outward hostility toward someone.  This is not interpersonal conflict.  We can be in conflict with each other and even strongly disagree with one another without being at enmity with each other.  Enmity goes well beyond conflict to contempt.  When we are in conflict with one another, we differ about an issue.  With enmity, it’s personal.  This is disdain or disgust or hatred or other similar disposition that boils with visceral emotion.  When we harbor these feelings, we are not under the Spirit’s control, we are in the flesh.  Strife” is a work of the flesh seen in people whose first course of action in a conflict is not to pray or get the log out of their own eye or clarify the other person’s position.  Their first response is to fight.  Strife is opposed to the Spirit’s response which is to often “overlook the offense” [Proverbs 19:11] or “let love cover a multitude of sins.”  [1 Pet. 4:8]  There’s no safety mechanism on the trigger of the tongue, or the pen, or the heart of a person under the influence of strife.  They tend to come out with gun’s blazing.  This is not redemptive or discerning, it’s being contentious and God hates it.

          Jealousy” is another work of the flesh.  Jealousy and envy—(which comes later), are often equated, but they are not the same. Jealousy is “an intolerance of rivalry” and can be a good thing.  When appropriately expressed, it’s good for a husband to be intolerant of rivals for his wife’s affection.  It’s good for God to be intolerant of rivals to our affection for him—he is a Jealous God who will never tolerate a rival for his place of priority in our life.  Jealousy is a sinful work of the flesh for me when it degenerates into a petty fear that someone will become equal to, or better than me.[4]  Perhaps the classic Biblical example is King Saul’s jealousy of David.  Rather than delight in David’s military prowess and in what it could do to advance God’s plan for the nation of Israel, instead Saul burned with jealousy.  Perhaps there is someone in your life who is better than you at something and rather than rejoice at God’s grace to them, you resent them.  They get the solo—they get the recognition—they get the position.  That’s a work of the flesh, not of the Spirit. 

Fits of anger” is self-explanatory.  This is seen in people whose temper causes others around them to feel like they have to walk on eggshells for fear of lighting their very short fuse.  You never know when this work of the flesh will manifest and this person will go off.  It is sinful and condemned by God.  Paul says “rivalries” is another work of the flesh.  This is the evil in people that causes them to selfishly work to get their way in a church or other group by rallying other people to support their selfish agenda.  Rather than seeking after God to see if their ideas or goals are his will for the group or church, and then prayerfully trying to compel others through truth in love to move in a given direction, this work of the flesh covertly seeks to build a base of support from which to overwhelm those who disagree with them.  This is the kind of faction-building Absalom did in preparation for the coup he pulled on his father, King David.  This is manipulative, power politics.  It can and does happen in the church and it is the flesh.    

Dissensions” and “divisions” are very similar to each other.  Again, we see this when a person’s ultimate goal is in accomplishing their own selfish agenda.  Divide and conquer” is the tactic utilized by those controlled by these works of the flesh to get what they want.  Rather than try to lovingly compel those who disagree with them, they will try to divide the opposition in some way in order to push through their agenda.  This work of the flesh values building personal kingdoms more than the kingdom of God or what’s best for the organization.  People who practice this work of the flesh can split a church.  Incidentally, “rivalries,” “dissensions” and “divisions” can be highly effective ways of accomplishing your goals.  These things work and people who claim to be Christians practice them in business and politics and even church all the time for their personal advantage or the advantage of their corporation.  But they are wicked and as will see, can send you to hell forever.

          Finally in this group is “envy.”  Envy is resenting someone else for something they have, but you would like to have.  Jerry Bridges, in his book “Respectable Sins” is helps us understand envy.  He writes, “Usually there are two conditions that tempt us to envy.  First, we tend to envy those with whom we most closely identify. Second, we tend to envy in them the areas we value most.”[5]  For instance, if you hear that the governor, who you do not know, buys a new boat or sports car or goes on a Caribbean vacation, you probably won’t envy him because you don’t know him.  However, when your friend in church or co-worker, with whom you closely identify, is blessed in one of those ways, the green monster of envy can show up.  Likewise, you may not envy someone who can brilliantly play a violin concerto if you are not a violinist, but if you know someone who shares one of your domestic talent or athletic ability or professional skill or spiritual gifts that is getting recognition that you are not, that may trigger the temptation to envy.  Both jealousy and envy are sins that we are more likely to commit in relation to our friends and acquaintances, not our enemies.  The response of the Spirit-controlled life to another person’s blessing is to “rejoice with those who rejoice.”  Becoming resentful or embittered because someone else is getting something we want is a sinful work of the flesh that belongs to this fallen world.  The final section of works of the flesh include “drunkenness” and “orgies.”  These are both issues of self-control, the first with excesses connected to alcohol and the second with partying and sexual carousing.

          After Paul’s list we see a second element of his treatment in the second half of verse 21 and here he states the consequences of a life lived under the influence of the flesh.  He says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Paul here draws the ultimate bottom line.  He says that these works of the flesh will keep you out of heaven.  That’s what he means here, but a couple of clarifying truths must be mentioned. When Paul says that “those who do such things,” he is not referring to people who have at one time or another committed these works of the flesh.  If that were the case, none of us would get to heaven.  The verb he uses means those who make a practice of doing these things.  There is an established pattern of these works in a person’s life--that is what he means.  If that is true of you and you were to die this afternoon unrepentant, Paul offers you no assurance of salvation and in fact, issues this sober warning of condemnation. 

I want to linger here for a moment to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal the weight of this.  A settled pattern of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” will land the so called believer even with the most impressive history of church attendance and ministry in eternal torment in hell. A second important truth in this section on the works of the flesh can be discovered by asking the question, “How is this section, which tells us that our behavior will play a huge role in our eternal destination, consistent with the rest of the book of Galatians where Paul says that our works will not get us into heaven?”

          First, notice the word Paul uses here.  He does not say, “Those who do such things will not earn or merit the kingdom of heaven.”  He says, “…those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  That word “inherit” is important because it is consistent with what we have seen in this letter that has so much to do with our sonship to God through Christ.  Chapter 3:26 says, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”  Think about sonship for just a moment.  Sons are heirs.  That is--they inherit things from their Father.  But sons—if they are true spiritual sons also resemble their Father. One of the tests of sonship to God is—do you resemble your Father—do you increasingly remind people of your Father?  One problem in the church today is that everyone wants to inherit from their Father, but not nearly as are impassioned about resembling their Father.  You can’t have the inheritance without the resemblance.  What Paul says here does not contradict grace at all.  He is saying by implication that if you are a true son who will inherit from your Father, you will increasingly resemble him in your attitudes and actions.  If you practice as a pattern of behavior, the works of the flesh, then you don’t resemble your Father and therefore you are not a true son.  Therefore, you will not qualify for the inheritance of God’s sons—eternal life.

          We want to conclude by introducing our hope in the gospel which we will, Lord willing, conclude next week.  If you find yourself in a pattern of one or more of the works of the flesh, this spiritual death sentence Paul pronounces is not the final word.  There is hope in the gospel—first, to be forgiven the penalty of these works of the flesh and second, to walk in triumph over their enslaving power.  God sets people free from the enslaving power of these and other sins.  The first step is to agree with him that it is sin and by his grace to experience that brokenness that comes to any child who genuinely comprehends that he has grieved his loving Father.  God knows nothing of a confession of sin that is cavalier and insincere.  David tells us in Psalm 51:17 that “The sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Paul says much the same thing a bit differently in Second Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret…”  The sorrow doesn’t earn forgiveness; it’s merely an indication that the Holy Spirit has communicated to you the severity of your sin against God’s holiness.

          Your forgiveness was purchased by Jesus Christ 2000 years ago and nothing you do can add anything to what he did for you.  The penalty you fully deserve for your sin, he paid with his blood on the cross.  If we are to find freedom from the enslaving works of the flesh, we must receive his forgiveness.  We cannot be liberated from any sin until we are first freed from its enslaving guilt and shame.  And that comes only as we look to Christ and believe the gospel of forgiveness through Jesus.  Agreeing with God about the works of the flesh of which you are guilty, allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s hatred of it, experiencing the brokenness and godly sorrow that come from that and claiming your forgiveness in the gospel put you on the road to triumph over enslaving works of the flesh.  There are two ways to live.  One is to selfishly pursue your own sinful agenda through the works of the flesh.  Another is to pursue Christ and his kingdom as we walk by the Holy Spirit and grow to increasingly resemble our heavenly Father.  Where are you this morning?  Don’t leave here without getting right with God.  Go to him and confess your sin—experience the brokenness of heart that true sons feel, receive his forgiveness as you look in faith to Jesus and the cross where your pardon was purchased.  Next week, we’ll see what else Paul says about this, but for now—may God give us the grace to have God’s hatred for sin and walk in the freedom from its enslaving power that Christ purchased for us at the cross.

[1] Fung, 256, Galatians, quoting Duncan, in his commentary on Galatians, p171ff

[2] ESV Study Bible Notes, Tom Schreiner on Galatians 5:20, p. 2254.

[4] Bridges, Jerry, Respectable Sins, 151

[5] Bridges, 149

Page last modified on 12/7/2008

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