Galatians 5:16-18 tells us the what and why of walking by the Spirit. Now Galatians 5:19-25 tells us the result of walking by the Spirit and what would be the alternative result if we don’t. So my aim in this section is to first show what are the works of the flesh and what are the fruit of the Spirit and how do they differ. Second is to argue that genuine believers are no longer under the sway of the vice list in verses 19-21 but instead we are bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit in verses 22-23.
The sinful nature of man will always find ways to use that which is good and turn it into evil. Our sinfulness would take the lists in verses 19-24 and say; “See, we are still under the law. Paul just gave us a list of do’s and dont’s. Therefore we must obey them with all our might. Avoid that which is work of the flesh and commit to do that which is fruit of the Spirit.” And you might be wondering “What’s wrong with that? That sounds right with me.” That’s correct, it sounds right, but it is not right. The main point of the text is not to subject us again to slavery under the law, but to tell us who we are in Christ. Therefore the motivation for obedience is not the law, but the reality that we have already crucified the desires of the flesh by our union with Christ in his death through faith(Galatians 2:20-21). So before we deal with these two contrasting list in verses 19-24, we must understand and remember that these are not meant as a checklist of do’s and dont’s.
One of the reasons I think that the vices in verses 19-21 are not to be used as a checklist of what we ought not to do is because we don’t need one. The works of the flesh are obvious according to verse 19. In fact he even said in verse 21 that this is not the full list. He says, “and things like these.” In other words Paul doesn’t need to spell it out. We already know the works of the flesh. It is evident. The Gentiles who doesn’t have the written law know it quite well(Romans 2:15). So what’s the point of the list? It’s meant to show us that these passions and desires were crucified along with our flesh(Galatians 5:24). So when you use this list of vices as mere things to be avoided, then you’re misusing the text. Don’t get me wrong, as believers, we need to avoid such things, but not because we just ought to, but because we have a new desire that flows from the Spirit.
So what are the works of the flesh? The vices are divided in at least three groups; sexual sins(vv. 19, sexual immortality, impurity and sensuality), direct sins against God(vv. 20, idolatry and sorcery), social sins(vv. 20-21). Why is it works and not fruit? Clearly you don’t have to work out with much effort in order to produce such desires. We are born with it. In fact, with the nature that we have, the list of virtues, it seems, would require a lot of work, right? I think the point of saying it this way is to show that there’s a reversal of desires within us when the Holy Spirit takes residence in us. The things that flows naturally from the flesh, gradually have become a burden for us that it feels like a work, and the things of God which we formerly hate, flows from us like a fruit and not work. Another reason is to show that the root where legalism is coming from is the same for all the vices listed here. They are works of the flesh. Even though it is true that in one sense these works of the flesh are fruits of the flesh, Paul used the language of “works” in order for us not to treat this list the way the Judaizers treat the law. We already saw from verse 18 that if you are led by the Spirit you are not under law.
Now I want you to take note of the warning in the last part of verse 21. Paul already warned them about these things and he is again repeating the same warning. Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Again we must not take lightly this warning. If we are still under the sway of the flesh, the assurance of inheriting the kingdom of God is not for us. The greek word for “practice” means not only to occasionally do it, but to fare good in doing such things. It is a continuing practice of the desires of the flesh. Meaning there’s no war, but instead a hearty embrace of sin. So Paul said, those who do that, will not inherit, have no part of or will not enter the kingdom of God. Being led by the Spirit and not being under the law doesn’t mean we are to live in licentiousness.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The reason I placed a colon after the word love is because there’s only one fruit, and that is love. According to NET study bible notes: “Another way to punctuate this is “love” followed by a colon (love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). It is thus possible to read the eight characteristics following “love” as defining love.” Meaning, if you are loving, your joy will be the joy of others. You will not resort to violence when wronged, but respond with peace and patience. If you are loving, you will be kind and good towards others. You will be faithful and not lie. Instead of being controlled by your anger, you will be gentle and have self-control. All of which flows forth from love.
All genuine believers are marked by a life of love (cf. 1 Cor 13). And this love for others is rooted in the love of God poured out in their hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). Any genuine love flows from the Spirit (Rom 15:30; Col 1:8), though such love can also be traced to the Father (Rom 8:39; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 1:4; 2:4) or the Son (Rom 8:35; 2 Cor 5:14; 13:14), showing the Trinitarian character of God’s love. Love is the heart and soul of the Pauline ethic, for it is love that fulfills the law (Rom 13:8 – 10; Gal 5:14).
Then Paul said against such things there is no law. Others have interpreted this last sentence as there is no law that forbids such things, but that is a truism. Of course there’s no law against such. What Paul is saying here is that, these things has nothing to do with the law, that’s why there is no law against it. This is a fruit of the Spirit and not works of the law. Paul said this in order to safeguard these beautiful virtues from legalism.
But here’s the good news, those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Saving faith unites us to Christ along with our old sinful flesh. That old ego who wants nothing but the things of this world died. Just as Thomas Schreiner said, “Believers do not need the law to restrain their behavior. Since they belong to “Christ Jesus” (Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ is a genitive of possession), they have put to death the desires of the flesh.” I want you to notice the voice of the verb. It is in the active voice. Meaning, they have put to death the flesh. But when did they slay the flesh with its desires? Given the context of the whole epistle, Paul is not suggesting that the Galatians crucified the flesh on their own. Such a notion flies in the face of the main point of the book. Those who are in Adam and in the flesh do not have the ability to crucify it. Now the verb “crucified” functions as the clue for interpreting this verse. It points the reader back to Galatians 2:20, where believers are said to be crucified with Christ. The crucifixion of the flesh, then, occurred at conversion, when believers died with Christ. So why the active voice? The active form of the verb “crucified” is used to indicate that believers still have the responsibility to choose to be aligned with Christ at conversion, that they said no to their life in Adam and in the flesh when they put their faith in Christ. Our wills were awaken by the inner workings of the Spirit at conversion.
Now God gave us an objective criterion to see whether we are walking by the Spirit or not. We don’t have to guess. Being led by the Spirit is not just a mere subjective reality. Yes there’s an inner subjective element, but it is more than that. We can know if we are walking by the Spirit by the objective word of God that is outside of us. Where there is love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, there we know that we are walking by the Spirit. But where sexual sins, idolatry, and social sins hold sway, you’ll know that you are practicing the works of the flesh, and not being led by the Spirit. But we must be very careful here, lest we turn this into a mere list of do’s and don’ts. For even self help gurus can easily give the same vice and virtue list. Remember that we are not called upon to work at becoming more nicer people. We are called to walk in the Spirit and to be led by the Spirit. Living in such a way that pleases God is the fruit of the Spirit’s supernatural work, not the result of self-effort, though human beings are called upon to walk in the Spirit and yield to the Spirit.