Galatians 5:19-21


galatians-mclellanCommentary on the Epistle to the Galatians

This is the last post in this series of studies in Galatians by pastor Murray McClellan. It is our prayer that you are blessed through his labors in God’s Word.


Galatians 5:19-21

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

As believers, we make progress in holiness as we, enabled by the Spirit of God, yield our minds and hearts more and more to the transforming influence of divine truth. Walking according to the flesh or walking according to the spirit becomes evident in one’s life. The heart is made manifest in what it “discharges” – in works. Jesus had this to say about the natural heart of man.

“What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”

Obviously then, a man with such a heart will never be right with a holy God through the law. Law will not enable one with this kind of corrupt heart to do good. One who lives according to the flesh will manifest this sinful direction in his works. These things show that man’s basic problem is not his environment but that which is within him. It is man who pollutes the environment and not the environment that pollutes him. That’s why a better education, occupation, income, or government etc. can do nothing to solve man’s basic problem – which is sin inside him (Rom. 7:18).

The fleshly walk is described for us by Christ in the passage above and by Paul in verses 19-21. Not every person manifests all the sins listed here. Nor does every person manifest them to the same degree. However, every person possesses the flesh which is sinful and will manifest some form of sinful behavior like these kind of things. As we examine the works of the flesh, we’ll see just how ugly and repulsive they are, in contrast to the fruit of the Spirit. It is against these sins that we must fight, as they are not fitting for one who is a son of God.

“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are:

adultery (moicheia) –

This has to do with sex outside of marriage or having sexual relations with a person who is married to another.

fornication (porneia) –

This comes from the word from which we get the word “pornography”. It is a general word that can refer to all illicit sexual activity. It is clear from Jesus’ statement in Matt. 5:28 that this begins in the heart and is manifest in various lusts. Though the world may use the word “love” in relation to these sexual sins, this is the very opposite of love which is a part of the fruit of the Spirit.

uncleanness (akatharsia) –

This is a word that means “unclean” and was used medically to refer to an infected oozing wound. Spiritually, it speaks of moral uncleaness (see it used by Jesus in Matt. 23:27). In Scripture it is used of any impurity that prevents a person from approaching God.

lewdness (aselgeia) –

This refers to a lack of restraint – often in the area of sexual indulgence. It describes a person ready for all pleasure with no restraints – one who has no shame. (See Rom. 13:13 and 1 Peter 4:3-5). A person can be so lewd as to no longer care about his actions or the consequences. Even as Jeremiah describes: “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? No! They were not at all ashamed; nor did they know how to blush.” (Jer. 6:15a)

idolatry (eidololatreia) –

This is a compound word meaning idol worship or idol service. Idolatry always begins in the heart when someone imagines God to be something other than He is in truth. (Ezek. 14:3-8; Col. 3:5; Ps. 24:4; Jer. 2:13)

sorcery (pharmakeia) –

This is the word from which we get “pharmacy” and “pharmaceutical”. It has to do with medicines, drugs, and/or magical use of herbs for producing various results and desires in life. It is translated sorcery or witchcraft because drug and potion use was big in occultic practices. So this potion and drug use became synonymous with witchcraft and black magic. The sorcerers would concoct potions to put their adherents into altered states of consciousness, as well as drugs and herbs and potions to bring about various results (i.e. contact the spirit world, euphoric feelings, healing, love potions, death [poisons], affect behavior, control people and events etc.).

hatred (echthra) –

This refers to enmity or opposition. It is a hateful attitude (against God and men). See Rom. 8:7 and John 15:18-19.

contentions (eris) –

This refers to strife – being quick to debate and contend against another. Fleshly men are not content. They are quickly offended and their ego sets them to arguing against everything they disagree with. Being contentious is having a fondness of quarreling and debate.

jealousies (zelos) –

The root of this word means to seethe or bubble over with heat. In the evil sense in which it is used here, it means to be eaten up with a bitter envy. It speaks of not being satisfied and having a hateful, angry resentment of another or of what belongs to another. (See Acts 5:17 and James 3:14)

outbursts of wrath (thumos) –

This is pretty self-explanatory. It is a fierce or violent anger – an unbridled temper. The fleshly man can manifest sudden and unrestrained hostility even when there is little or no provocation or justification. (See Luke 4:28 and Acts 19:28)

selfish ambitions (eritheia) –

The root of this word is the word translated “contentions”. This is a self-promoting, self-serving, and self-seeking manifestation. How opposite this is from our Lord (Phil. 2:3-8)!

dissensions (dichostasia) –

This refers to a division (often a fighting or dividing against authority – whether that be in a family, a church or beyond). It is to stand apart and even cause others to go with them.

heresies (hairesis) –

This is tearing oneself away from the main body. It is where there is an error in a fundamental truth and a separation from the body as a result. It is often translated “sect”. (See Acts 5:17 and 1 Cor. 11:19)

envy (phthonos) –

This is displeasure at witnessing or hearing of the advantage or prosperity of another (Matt. 27:18; 1 Tim. 6:3-5).

murders (phonos) –

This is to slay another (Heb. 11:37). As with all these works of the flesh, it begins in the heart and manifests itself in varying degrees (Matt. 5:21-22).

drunkenness (methe) –

This work of the flesh doesn’t need a lot of comment. See Eph. 5:18 and Luke 21:34.

revelries (komos) –

This comes from “Comus” the Greek god of feasting and reveling and partying. It refers to the kind of wild, boisterous, and rowdy partying that could lead to drunken brawls. It was also used of any rowdy and crude behavior. See Rom. 13:13 and 1 Peter 4:3.

What a list!

The works of the flesh have littered the human landscape with misery, and violence, and death.

“…and the like…”

By this statement (and “such things”) in verse 21, we clearly see that these are just examples, not an exhaustive list. This list is representative and Paul writes as if he could go on and on, but it disgusts him. There are so many ways for evil to manifest itself.

Paul had warned before “that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21). Notice that the word is “practice”, for who has not done such things as these? The word “practice” is a present active participle indicating ongoing action. It is the continual practice of such things that marks out a fleshly and unregenerate life – a sensual life void of the Spirit (Jude 19). A fleshly person lives for this world. He lives for what he can taste and feel and see and smell. That’s the sum total of his existence. His life is centered around himself and his own pleasure. He plans for and lives for the things of the flesh. He is ruled by his circumstances. He doesn’t live for the glory of his Creator and Law-giver and Judge. He doesn’t live in thankfulness to God. As someone once said, the fleshly person is a “self-made” man and he worships his “creator”.
The Scripture always assesses a person’s character on the basis of his common, habitual actions – not his occasional ones.

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justifed in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11)

It is clear that such things are no longer the “practice” of believers – the “heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.” (James 2:5) No man who practices the works of the flesh shall be a partaker of the blessedness of the eternal kingdom of light. Read Matt. 7:16-23. A bad tree bears bad fruit. Every good tree bears good fruit.
What a solemn warning! Eternal happiness is at stake. Those who do not inherit the kingdom must be cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Will you hear, “Come, you blessed, inherit the kingdom,” or “Depart, you cursed, into everlasting fire”? Oh consider – “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” (Rom. 8:3) “For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption.” (Gal. 6:8)

Except a man be born again, he will not abstain from the works of the flesh, which brings ruin upon his head. There is plainly something seriously wrong with human nature. “Indeed,” we can say along with the apostle Paul, “in my flesh dwells no good thing.” Natural man stands, not just in need of improvement, but a total transformation. He stands in need of spiritual life. He stands in need of having old things pass away and having all things become new. The tree must be made good that the fruit may be good. He must be born, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the Word of God which lives and abides forever.
The direction of the life of a spiritual man has changed. His hopes and goals in life are no longer in the things he touches and tastes and sees and smells. His desire is to have his life used for the glory of God his Savior. His concern is God. He may falter and fall, but he will persevere. If you throw a bottle into the Saskatchewan River at the Petrofka Bridge, it will end up in Lake Winnipeg. It will wind sometimes north and sometimes south and even back to the west, but all the time it is moving toward Lake Winnipeg. So, too, is the life of one in the Spirit. Yes, he sins, but he confesses his sin and asks God for grace and God gives him grace and continues the work that He has begun.
Notice in the next verses the contrast of “works” (man’s own efforts) with the “fruit” – the gift of God resulting from being grafted into the true and life-giving Vine!

~ Murray

Murray McLellan

Murray is the lead church planter and Bible teacher at Grace Fellowship Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife Cheryl have labored in the Gospel for many years despite the many discouragements along the way. Our brother is associated with “InDepth Studies”, the Acts 29 network of church planters, and more recently the uniquely Canadian C2C church planting network. In new covenant circles Murray is a long time contributor to new covenant thought and discussion.