The Deeds of the Flesh

In this lesson, Mike examines the four groups of activities that Paul describes and condemns as those that will lead a Christian away from the kingdom of God.
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We are reviewing the passage in Galatians 5:16-18 where Paul is refuting and rebuking false teachers who are disturbing the church with their teachings.

Basically, they were promoting the idea that in order to maintain one's Conditional perfection before God, a person had to adhere to a combination of rules and rituals which they themselves taught, and of which circumcision was the key. Of course, what they were teaching was a salvation obtained and maintained by a system of works or law-keeping. This was in contrast to what Paul had taught the Galatians concerning the gospel: that their perfect condition before God was purchased by Christ on the cross and freely given to them based on faith.

In answer to their false notion that to remain perfect before God they had to keep the laws and rituals prescribed by these men, Paul encourages the Galatians to, "walk by the Spirit." We are saved and considered perfect in God's eyes by faith in Jesus Christ, and we maintain that condition by walking and living according to His Spirit, not by living up to man-made rules that may look holy and pious but have no real spiritual power. For those who are saved, walking by the Spirit (or pursuing Actual perfection) is the natural next step in the transformation from lost to saved, imperfect to perfect, physical to spiritual, and from children of darkness to children of light.

In order to describe what the actual experience of walking in the Spirit is like, Paul begins by exposing what the polar opposite to this resembles. Again, this is not a complete list of possible sins or worldly activities, it is a sampling of the type of things that you will find in the life of one who follows or who "walks in the flesh" (a life where the flesh rules). Paul's point here is that as a saved person these type of things no longer identify your character, your experience or your activity.

The Deeds of the Flesh — Galatians 5:19-21

Paul separates his sampling of fleshly activities that describe the worldly, unspiritual person into four groups of sins, activities and attitudes.

Group #1 - Sexual Sins

Since sexuality is a common trait that crosses every boundary of race, economic background, education, etc., it is a good indicator of a person's condition. Everyone has sexual feelings, and how they are dealt with identifies one's spirituality or lack of it. Paul says that the deeds of the flesh are easily spotted and the most evident are the ways that people handle their sexuality.

Sexual deeds are of the flesh when they produce the following:


Different Bible versions translate this word in various ways. Some say sexual immorality, others say adultery. The confusion can be cleared up when we see that in the King James Version the translators use two separate words (adultery/fornication) to translate the two Greek words that are here, and the New American Standard translates the two Greek words with a single word (immorality). Paul is referring to the practice of unfaithfulness in marriage as well as the wider variety of sexual sins that include incest, homosexuality and sexual lust. These type of activities are definitely a sign that a worldly or fleshly nature dominates the individual.


The original word was "uncleanness." It referred to things that were dirty, impure, coarse or vulgar. For example, using sex in a degrading and unclean way, usually in words, actions and attitudes.


Some Bibles use the word lasciviousness. This word is similar to unclean but with an element of aggressiveness. Another English word that helps to understand this one is to be "wanton," to have no boundaries or restraints sexually. One who is open and ready to promote any type of sexual perversion without holding back.

Paul says that this type of sexual activity, from simple infidelity to unrestrained sexual perversion, is the mark of the fleshly person.

Group #2 - Spiritual Blindness

Note that Paul does not include the false teachers here because they knew about Christ and salvation. They were wrong and causing harm, but not completely without having some things right. They were trying to please the true God but were doing it in the wrong way. Paul refers to those who are completely blind with the two sins he mentions.


Idolatry is worshipping something or someone other than the true God. In those days idolatry included the worship of nature gods (stars, mountains, rivers, etc.), the state (Emperor worship), Greek/Roman deities (Zeus, Apollos, etc.), mystical heavenly beings (Diana, Ephesus), as well as thousands of local gods and idols (Baal). Today, idolatry includes the worship of nature itself (the environment is revered), the state (relying on it for everything), money (materialism), movements, philosophies and false religions that have taken the place of God. People adore things like sports and other types of entertainment where they invest more emotional energy, time and money on these than in the service, worship and the development of a relationship with God. Idolatry is the same now as it was in Paul's day, anything or anyone that we put before God or instead of God is idolatry and a definite mark of the fleshly person.


Paul uses this one word as a catchphrase for all forms of occult practice. Sorcery, witchcraft, mediums, magic, etc. are all an attempt to manipulate the spiritual world by doing something here in the physical world. These black arts or occult practices are wrong because they are an effort to circumvent God's sovereignty and power through the use of man-made means.

Prayer is our legitimate avenue to God and our conscious effort to appeal for change, strength, wisdom and blessings. When we pray, we know that it is God who is in control. With the occult it is the person, who through some secret or dark means, attempts to obtain control and power, the spiritual power that rightfully belongs to God. Anyone who practices such things, no matter how innocently these things are marketed, is not doing it by the power of God's Spirit, and is definitely not walking by the Spirit either.

Group #3 - Divisive Spirit

The first two groups of sins are usually spotted and rejected quickly by Christians, but this next group of actions that identify the fleshly man are not usually seen as dangerous as they really are. The divisive spirit is the mark of the fleshly person just as surely as the practice of sorcery and sexual immorality are. The only difference is that we tolerate this more in the church than we do the others.


Some Bibles say hatred. The dictionary defines hatred as extreme dislike, opposition to or hostility. The question here is, "What has happened to allow you to actually get to this point?" Enmity/hatred/fierce opposition is of the world because it is the final result of a feeling or attitude that should have been dealt with long before, but has been allowed to grow. Certainly not a quality of the spiritual person.


Some Bibles have the term "variance," the only time this word is used in the Bible. It means to quarrel, to be at odds, to wrangle and wrestle over things. The fleshly person is quarrelsome, ready and willing to argue at variance with others.


Jealousy is a feeling of anger and disappointment at someone else's success or good fortune. Fleshly people do not want anyone else to get ahead or acquire what they have or more than what they have. Jealousy is based in fear, insecurity and lack of trust. Jealous people tend to forget that God can provide and He does. They see themselves as the source and provider of their own needs, so when they or what they have is threatened or surpassed they feel the sick anger of jealousy. Jealousy is dangerous because its goal is to tear down, to destroy and to bring self up at any expense.

Outbursts of Anger

This term is self-explanatory. The real danger here is that people are not honest or open with those who are like this for fear of an outburst. People with hot tempers create anxiety, stress and depression in others because of the constant anticipation of some ugly and hurtful scene.

In many instances this trait is consciously used to manipulate others to surrender their will ("Do it my way or I will get ugly"). This is definitely not in the image and conduct of the One who suffered the indignities of the cross without complaint or angry words.


Some Bibles use the word "strife" here, but there is a subtle difference between the previous word "strife" and this word "dispute." The word strife refers to the one who is quarrelsome and always ready to fight. The word "dispute" refers to the one who actually provokes the strife, division and quarrels. Some do this through gossip or an unkind word. Others do it because of their pride, foolishness or lack of sensitivity. "Disputes" refers to that person who causes the division with their words or actions.


Again, some Bibles use the word "sedition." This word refers to an uprising against the government or causing division by resisting authority. Some people provoke arguments, others promote the resistance and denouncing of leadership. In totalitarian governments led by cruel and godless people, this may be an acceptable way to change the status quo. In the Lord's church overseen by godly elders, it is not.


In the Galatian churches there were "parties" forming where each sided with one or the other. The Bible teaches that the church is one body (Ephesians 4:4), to cause people to split into different camps in order to argue over various issues is wrong. The polarization of groups so they can be in opposition to one another is a trait of the fleshly man, not the spiritual one. We are called to unity, not party spirit. This may work in politics but it is not a feature of the kingdom of God.


The King James Version uses the word "heresies." We normally understand the word heresies to mean false doctrines, but the Greek word has another sense here which is "to choose." The feeling that one is better than another and a choice must be made. The promotion of one thing over another thus causing envy in some who do not have, or do not belong to the right or better thing or group. Envy of position or possessions is very much a worldly phenomenon. In the church we all share Christ and His promises equally. There is no reason or room, therefore, for envy or separateness from the others. We are all the same. The natural outcome of all these attitudes is violence/murder, which is mentioned in the King James Version but not in the New American Standard.

One of God's primary goals in sending Jesus to earth was to create a unity among all, something Paul talks about in Galatians 3:26-28.

26For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
- Galatians 3:26-28

A divisive spirit expressed in these varied ways was a sure sign that the individual was still very much in the flesh and in the world, regardless of what he or she said about their spirituality.

Group #4 - Insobriety

Paul mentions two last marks in his sampling of activities and traits that identify the worldly person. These two refer to a person's clear mindedness and self-control.


This is a pretty straight forward word meaning an addiction to alcohol. It is not mangling Scripture to apply it today as not being addicted to anything. The key is not the alcohol, the key is the addiction. Addictions begin by destroying our credibility and finish by destroying us. One who loves a self-damaging substance more than loving himself does not love God or others as well. Addictions are a sign of worldliness, not spirituality.


The other Bibles say "revelings." The original word refers to a letting loose. In context with drunkenness, Paul refers to drunken parties and rioting. These type of gatherings often serve to practice and let loose immoral tendencies. Such declines in sobriety, self-control and personal behavior are signs that one identifies with the world. There are any number of situations that encourage and applaud this type of activity in the world, but not in the spiritual kingdom of God.

The Warning

After having given a description of the four types of activities that define the person devoid of the Spirit (various forms of sexual sins, spiritual blindness, divisive nature, lack of sobriety), Paul will issue a clear decisive warning.

19Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
- Galatians 5:19-21

Note his reference to the list as a sampling because he adds, "... and things like these." Similar activities and attitudes that reflect worldliness rather than spirituality.

His warning is twofold:

  1. These type of activities and attitudes in your lives reveal worldliness in you, a walk after the flesh. No matter what you say, if these are the type of things that are in your life, you are of the world and you walk in the flesh. You may consider this an Apostolic "reality check."
  2. If this is what you practice (a normal part of your life rather than what you revert to when tempted or weak) then you are not in, nor will you enter into the kingdom of God. Inheriting the kingdom simply means going to heaven. For the purpose of this book we could say that a person pursuing these kinds of things is not pursuing Actual perfection.

In the next verse Paul will describe the characteristics of a person who is pursuing Actual perfection (or as Paul says, "walking by the Spirit"). The results, we will see, are very different.

Discussion Questions

  1. How are we saved and considered perfect before God?
  2. Using Paul's words from Galatians 5:19-21, outline the works of the flesh and what Paul states they lead to. Also discuss how Christians deal with overcoming these in our world today.
  3. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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