So far Paul has talked in general terms about life in the Spirit. He has assured his readers that the Spirit will enable them to resist the desires of their sinful nature. What the law cannot do for them, God will do by the work of his Spirit in them. But he realizes that the Galatians are attracted to the law because it gives them specific moral guidelines that they can apply to their practical problems. After all, the Jewish law teachers were renowned for their ability to develop applications of the law for every conceivable situation. There seems to be a sense of moral security in such well-defined codes of conduct. In comparison, Paul's command to "live by the Spirit" seems to leave everything up in the air. How can they know they are not gratifying the desires of their sinful nature if the behavior of the sinful nature is not defined? How can they know what life in the Spirit is like if it is not defined?
There seems to be a common tendency to develop a "computer manual" approach to the Christian life. People want a very specific list of steps to follow. "Let's be practical," they say. "Tell me exactly what to do and what not to do, and then I will feel safe; I'll know how to act." But this approach to the Christian life is in danger of repeating the Galatian error. It is an attempt to live under law rather than under the direction of the Spirit.
But is there any objective basis for evaluating when we are following the direction of the Spirit and when we are gratifying the desires of the flesh? Paul obviously thinks so. Having described in general terms the Spirit's victory over the sinful nature, he does define their specific characteristics in a list of the acts of the sinful nature (vv. 19-21) and a list of the fruit of the Spirit (vv. 22-23). These specific lists of vices and virtues are not offered as a new set of specific codes to replace the law codes. Rather, they provide an objective basis for evaluation, so we can determine whether we are living to gratify the desires of the sinful nature or living by the Spirit.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious, Paul says (v. 19). His point may be that while the "desires of the sinful nature" (vv. 16-17) are hidden, the acts produced by those desires are public, plain for all to see. So an evaluation of our outward behavior makes it easy to see if we are gratifying the hidden desires of our sinful nature. But since some of the acts listed also refer to inward attitudes of the heart (for example, hatred, selfish ambition and envy), the word obvious is probably not drawing a contrast between hidden attitudes and public acts. Instead Paul seems to be emphasizing that the Galatians do not need the Mosaic law to define the nature of evil. Since he has just told them that they are not under the supervision of the law (v. 18), it would be strange if he now turned to the law for moral instruction. In fact, he does not do that; he does not describe the acts of the sinful nature as transgressions of law. His list of vices is similar to many lists in the ethical teaching of the Greeks and Romans of his day. Pagan philosophers often published lists of vices and virtues. So when Paul says that the acts of the sinful nature are obvious, he means that all of us already know what is evil when we see it.
His list gives a representative sampling of commonly recognized vices. At the end of the list he says and the like to indicate that his list is not meant to be comprehensive; it is merely typical of the things that were widely viewed to be contrary to high moral standards. The huge difference between Paul and his contemporary pagan philosophers is not the content of the list of vices but the context: Paul gives the list in a context that offers the way to freedom from these vices; the pagan moralists were not able to offer any such solution to the rampant immorality of their day.
Although the list of acts of the sinful nature can be systematized under several headings, there is little discernible order in the list. In fact, "the seemingly chaotic arrangement of these terms is reflective of the chaotic nature of evil" (Betz 1979:283). The chaos caused by theses vices is contrasted to the wholeness and unity of the fruit of the Spirit. We must be careful, however, not to think that the contrast between acts and fruit is a contrast between active and passive, our effort and supernaturally produced growth. We have already seen that life in the Spirit is both active (walking) and passive (being led). And though love and goodness are fruit of the Spirit, Paul urges the believers to work at loving and doing good (5:6, 13-14; 6:4-5, 9-10).
Paul's use of the word acts (literally "works") connects this list to his frequent reference in this letter to the "works of the law." They are not one and the same, of course. But the tragic irony of the situation is that while the Galatian believers are trying so hard to do the "works of the law," they are actually producing "works of the flesh" (NIV: acts of the sinful nature). This is another way of saying again that the law has no power (as the Spirit does) to overcome the destructive influence of the sinful nature.
Paul's list of fifteen acts of the sinful nature can be divided into four categories: (1) illicit sex, (2) religious heresy, (3) social conflict and (4) drunkenness.
1. Illicit sex. Paul mentions three kinds of illicit sex: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery. The first is a general term that encompasses all kinds of immoral sexual relationships. The next two terms refer to sexual perversions. The art and literature of Paul's day provide ample evidence for the widespread practice of sexual immorality. When we read that "the sexual life of the Graeco-Roman world in NT times was a lawless chaos" (Barclay 1962:24), we only need to observe the chaos in our own world to understand the conditions in Paul's day. In fact, a good case could be made that in the two millennia since the Roman Empire, our generation comes closer than any previous one to the blatant prevalence of sexual perversions that was characteristic then. And a study of the fall of the Roman Empire suggests that any society that tolerates the unchecked promotion of such perversions will inevitably fall apart from the rottenness within.
2. Religious heresy. From Paul's teaching on idolatry in his other letters we learn that idolatry is not merely worshiping the image of a god but also participating in the temple feasts (1 Cor 10:7, 14) and even being greedy for possessions (Col 3:5). Witchcraft is a translation of a Greek word from which our English word pharmacy is derived. The Greek word could have the positive meaning of dispensing drugs, but its more common meaning was the use of drugs in sorcery and witchcraft and to poison people.
False religion is the worship of other gods (whether images in temples or in shopping malls) and dependence on other powers (whether the power of drugs or of occult practices). The forms of false religion in Paul's day differ from the forms of our day, but we can still see its pervasive influence today.
3. Social conflict. Paul's major emphasis in this list is on those acts of the sinful nature which cause social conflict. He lists eight such acts: hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy. Since the NIV translation provides a clear and accurate rendering of each term, there is little need for expanded discussion of their meanings. Some terms are roughly synonymous, such as jealousy and envy. It seems that Paul added more terms under this category of social conflict because this was the area of greatest need in the Galatian churches. The attitudes and actions that destroy personal relationships were the most evident manifestation of the sinful nature in those churches. We can see reflections of this problem of social conflicts in verses 15 and 26 as well: Christians were "biting and devouring each other" and "provoking and envying each other." The Galatian churches were divided into bitterly antagonistic factions. The rest of the letter indicates that these conflicts were caused by the false teachers' campaign to enforce the observance of the law in the churches. The curse on "all who rely upon observing the law" (3:10) was already being experienced in the tragic breakdown of relationships between Christians. While they concentrated on performing "works of the law," their lives were characterized by the "works of the flesh," especially these eight in the area of social conflict.
Often the "desires of the sinful nature" and the acts of the sinful nature are equated only with sexual immorality. Paul's list starts with that category. And that was undoubtedly a real problem in the Galatian churches. All churches seem to be plagued to some degree with sexual immorality. But it is likely that Paul began there because he knew that most of the church would quickly condemn those who were guilty of sexual immorality and yet consider themselves "safe," since they had performed the "works of the law" by getting circumcised (5:2) and observing special days (4:10). Paul then turns to these "lawkeeping" Christians and gives them a long list of flagrant acts of the sinful nature which they had committed. This is something like the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). The teachers of the law were ready to stone her. But Jesus said that only those without sin could stone her. Then he began to write on the ground. What he wrote we don't know. But those teachers of the law were convicted of their own sin and left her.
When Paul confronts law teachers who are ready to stone lawbreakers, he writes out a list of acts and attitudes that are generated by the desires of their sinful nature. They can find no safety in their selective observance of the law. They too are enslaved to sin. Only Christ can set them free; only the Spirit can keep them free.
4. Drunkenness. Paul concludes his list with two terms that refer to the wild drinking parties held in honor of pagan gods, particularly the god Bacchus. Drunkenness and orgies were part of pagan culture; they still are. And the church has never been immune to these acts of the sinful nature.
Paul begins and ends his list with the most obvious expressions of the sinful nature. The list is weighted, however, in the direction of the major problem of divisions caused by ambitious, angry people. Their preoccupation with keeping the law may have blinded them to their own sinful nature. Intent on establishing a secure place for themselves in the kingdom of God, they were actually destroying the people of God. Paul gives them a very severe warning: I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (v. 21). Those who are so concerned to secure their own place that they deny any place for others will lose their own place in the end.
It may come as a shock that Paul is announcing judgment on the basis of works. But there can be no doubt that that is exactly what he is doing. Those who practice the works of the flesh are denied entrance to the kingdom of God. How can Paul, who so vehemently defends justification by faith in Christ, not by works of the law (2:16), now turn around and declare that judgment will be on the basis of works? Is this a glaring contradiction in his theology? Some have thought so. But some reflection on the flow of Paul's argument will show the consistency of his thought. The evidence that the Galatian believers had really been justified by faith was the presence of the Spirit in their lives. They had received the Spirit simply by believing the gospel, not by observing the law—just as righteousness had been reckoned to Abraham on the basis of his faith (3:1-6). Those who receive the Spirit experience a moral transformation by the directive power of the Spirit (5:16-18). If there was no evidence of moral transformation, then there was no basis for claiming the presence of the Spirit, and hence there was no basis for claiming justification by faith. And if they had not experienced justification by faith, then of course they would not inherit the kingdom of God.
To put it in traditional theological language, sanctification is not the basis of justification but the inevitable result of justification. Those whom God declares righteous on the basis of their faith in Christ's work for them, God also makes righteous by the work of his Spirit within them. Those whose lives are characterized only by the expressions of the sinful nature demonstrate that they have not been born by the power of the Spirit. Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (v. 21).
It is clear that Paul does not consider freedom in Christ to be freedom from moral obligation. On the contrary, "Christ has set us free" to "live by the Spirit." All who live by the Spirit and are led by the Spirit reap a great harvest of moral transformation: the fruit of the Spirit.