Breaking Down Galatians 5:16-26: The Fruits of the Spirit | Part One: Works of Flesh

In my church experience, Galatians 5:16-26, better known as the “Fruits of the Spirit,” was one of the most significant and recurrent teaching points in the New Testament. The scripture offers us tangible, definitive adjectives to grasp and chart on our life paths.

The text appears in parallel structure by first listing the “works of the flesh.” In verses 22, the author retorts by listing the “Fruits of the Spirit.” In this entry, I plan to break down each listed adjective and analyze how the author uses them to illustrate a central point: living for the flesh and living for the spirit are two completely opposite pursuits.

This will be the first entry in a three-part series. The first piece will analyze the works of the flesh, the second with analyze the fruits of the spirit, and the third will analyze the verses side-by side.

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Verse 19 (HCSB) says: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.”

That’s a lot to take in. So, I’ve broken each “work of the flesh” down by its definition, and added a sentence in on how it’d strain our relationship with Jesus.

  • 1. Sexual Immorality
    • Definition: “Sexual immorality is the “selling off” of sexual purity and involves any type of sexual expression outside the boundaries of a biblically defined marriage relationship (Matthew 19:4–5 offers more context).” (gotquestions.com definition)
    • Analysis: I don’t think it’s any mistake that this is the first work of the flesh listed. Sexual urges and desires dominate our life, and often time seem to be what captivates our minds the most. Allowing this to take over our desire for Jesus is an obvious, and perhaps the most dangerous work of the flesh.
  • 2. Moral Impurity
    • “When we respond to guilt by justifying our actions, rationalizing our decisions, or trying to compensate for our sin by doing “good” things, we do not resolve the guilt. Eventually the mind and conscience will alleviate the pressure of guilt by justifying moral impurity.” (ILPB.org definition)
    • We do this every day. For every sin, there’s some kind of justification in our heads. This flimsy moral tight rope walk leads us away from the spirit is an obvious work of the flesh.
  • 3. Promiscuity
    • Google offers two definitions for the word Promiscuous; the first: having or characterized by many transient sexual relationships. The second: demonstrating or implying an undiscriminating or un-selective approach; indiscriminate or casual.
    • Though promiscuity in the traditional sense, that being the first definition, is used throughout the Bible, given the context, I believe the latter was the definition the author intended. The text doesn’t warn against sexual promiscuity exclusively; but also promiscuity of the heart. Our flesh’s desires over God are a direct path to this promiscuity.
  • 4. Sorcery, 5. Idolatry
    • I grouped these two together because they’re in a similar vane. Meriam-Webster defines sorcery in a Biblical context as the use of power gained from the assistance or control of evil spirits especially for divining. Church-goers and/or Bible-readers hear the word “idolatry” a lot; but just in case you don’t know what it means: idolatry according to Google is extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.Both of these have something in common: They’re issues that plagued the society of the author at the time of writing.
    • Obviously, sorcery and worship of physical idols is something most of us probably don’t struggle with in 2018. However, they’re important reminders for a modern reader. We must avoid sorcery by making sure we worship in ways that satisfy God. Idolatry is extremely pertinent in this life. We may not find ourself worshiping physical idols, but especially in America, many find themselves idolizing fame, money, sex or stature. That’s a blog post for another day- but it’s clear this is an obvious work of the flesh that has damaged the relationship between God and his people for thousands of years.
  • 6. Hatred, 7. Strife, 8. Jealousy/13. Envy
    • These four are also in a similar vane. At the risk of being confusing, I went out of order in the text to group these together because jealousy and envy are so similar.
    • According to Google: Hatred- intense dislike or ill will, Strife- angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues; conflict, Jealousy-feeling or showing envy of someone or their achievements and advantages.
    • You could dive into each one of these as a fundamental human corruption in each of their own right. It’s clear in The Bible that sin is a choice of man rooted from our very beginning, and each one of these is a fundamental selfish human desire. Furthermore, each one of these relates to each other in that they each are something every person deals with in this life. It’s human nature to feel these sharp emotions towards our fellow man. Rooted deep in our flesh, they drive us apart from one another, and even further from our God.
  • 9. Outbursts of anger
    • This one is fairly self-explanatory. Anger is our default when we meet conflict (or strife) in this life. It’s so much easier to give into our flesh’s desire than it is to choose the peace and understanding illustrated by Jesus.
  • 10. Selfish ambitions
    • Also self-explanatory. Alike anger is as our default human response, selfishness is similar. Jesus; even in this chapter (see: Galatians 5:14) teaches that love for others is paramount in this life. Our selfish desires of the flesh cloud this mindset and separate us from the Christ-like selflessness that Jesus outlines, and is a fundamental separation from where we need to be.
  • 11. Dissesions, 12. factions
    • I didn’t know what neither dissensions nor factions meant on my first read-through of this chapter. Google defines dissension as disagreement that leads to discord. The Google definition for factions even uses the word dissension; a small, organized, dissenting group within a larger one, especially in politics.
    • These two are related in their forceful division of both people and God. When we aid to dissension, we not only root ourselves in conflict, but we also anchor ourselves away from God. This leads to factions, which chips away at the fabric of selfless love for one another.
  •  14. Drunkenness, 15. Carousing
    • It’s important to distinguish that the word is not saying that alcohol is inherently bad. It is saying that too much alcohol is definitely a bad thing; and furthermore, too much of any substance, especially when it impairs our relationship with God, is a very bad thing. Carousing is a synonym for drunkenness, but is more applicable in a social context.
  • 16. …Or anything similar
    • This is an important qualifier. This list in Galatians 5:19-21 is not exclusive. There are more works of the flesh than are mentioned here; but this section oft the book is a great start to analyze and better ourselves.

All these have a similar point: these inward desires as a result of humanity’s choice of sin are problematic towards our relationship with Jesus. In the next verses, the author offers counteracting fruits of the spirit to embolden our pursuit of Christ and help us combat these desires of the flesh, as I’ll analyze in part two.

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