B. Live in the Spirit, not in the flesh (5:13-26)

i. Liberty is not licence (5:13-15)

13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. 14 For all the law is ful­filled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.

13–15. The passionate detour completed, Paul re­turns to the main road of his argument. There was no doubt about the freedom the Galatians now enjoyed, if they could only shake off the entanglements of legalism: but they must use that freedom wisely. To use it “for an occasion to the flesh” would be to return to their former bondage. They might be better informed theologically, but spiritually and morally they would continue to be the slaves of sin, the unforgiving master.

So Paul seizes the moment, and begins to instruct them in life in the Spirit. The Israelites, leaving Egypt by a great salvation, and rejoicing in their newfound freedom, were given a law. They were commanded to love God and to love their neighbour. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” the Lord himself observed (Matt 22:34–40). There is no doubt about the importance of other virtues, such as truth. Love does not compete with these, or exclude them. But whenever the Lord set forth the attitude that makes us truly God’s children, truly perfect (Matt 5:43–48); or was questioned about what was neces­sary in order to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25–28 cp 18:18–23 with Matt 19:19); or was asked about the law’s greatest commandment (Mark 12:28–34) – this was the answer he gave, consistently. His ethic is an ethic of love, issuing in acts of kindness and service. This is the commandment from the beginning which is also the new commandment. This is the measure by which he will judge men in the day of his glory. Those who grasp this, and believe it, and act upon it, have truly understood him.

Paul affirms the same great truth (cp also Rom 13:8–10; 1 Tim 1:5; Jas 2:8); and goes on to warn them that if, instead of feeding one another, and building up the ecclesia by cooperating in love, they bite and devour one another, they will destroy one another. The ferocious metaphor should bring us up short. It is a picture of a snarling, snapping, biting pack of wild dogs fighting among themselves. That is what doctrinal controversy can descend into. We must ever be on our guard against the spirit of the flesh invading the domain of the Spirit; and on that subject Paul has more to say.

ii. Walk in the Spirit (5:16-18)

16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. 18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

16–18. How can this self-destroying conflict be prevented? There have been two principles abroad in the world since the beginning, and they are dia­metrically opposed to one another. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man,” said God, grieved by the corruption and violence that was destroying human society in the days of Noah, “for that he also is flesh” (Gen 6:3). This is the first place in which these two terms appear together; and from that moment they are set over against each other as polar opposites: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other.”

Human beings are naturally governed by the flesh principle, working out “the will of the flesh,” obeying its impulses, and fulfilling its desires. But God has not abandoned His creation. By His Spirit He works to sanctify men and women so that they strongly desire to “walk in the Spirit,” obeying His impulses, and working out His will.

Yet we do not move from flesh to Spirit in a mo­ment. The old man or woman refuses to die quickly and easily. So long as we are imperfectly converted, so long as we cling to vestiges of our fleshly past, we will experi­ence the tension Paul speaks of here: “Ye cannot do the things that ye would.” We find ourselves treacherously subverting our godly desires. We frustrate our holy purposes. We defeat our attempts to live righteously. In his later letter to the Romans, Paul devotes most of a chapter (7:7–25) to this dreadful conflict, which he experienced as a conscientious law-keeper, and which, I am sure, all of us have experienced from time to time. This personal struggle spills over into our relationships, our home lives, our workplaces, our ecclesias.

The solution is to yield ourselves wholly to the law of God, to observe His signposts, to walk His way, to follow His lead, or as it is put beautifully in the book of Revelation, to “follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth” (Rev 14:4). Those who do so are not lawless: in the next chapter Paul will speak of “the law of Christ,” which is the law of love. But they are not “under the law,” that is, the law given by Moses.

The Tree and its Fruit

The kind of tree, and the health of that tree, are evi­denced by its fruit. A tree will yield fruit according to its kind, and no other. And a diseased tree will yield corrupt fruit, while a healthy tree will yield good fruit. “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them,” said the Lord Jesus, laying down a rule for all disciples to heed (Matt 7:15–20). And so Paul, as a faithful shepherd, spells out the implications of his doctrinal understanding for daily life.

The distinction between flesh and spirit is clear, but we should also note the distinction Paul makes in this place between “works” and “fruit.” “Works” are things that we will to do. It is terribly true that we can be so practised in the way of these works, so much in the habit of them, that we do them without much thought. But they are, nevertheless, things that come up and out of our hearts into the world. “From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts,” said the Lord Jesus (Mark 7:21), and he continues by listing many things that are not thoughts at all, but evil works.

Fruit is different. We can plant, we can water, but it is God who gives the increase. There is a life force in the thing itself that is not of us and which drinks in the rain and soaks up the sun and draws up into itself the goodness of the soil and in time there are buds, and blossoms and fruits. In another place the Lord speaks of the seed of the kingdom which grows we know not how (Mark 4:26–29). So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. Yet we must first yield ourselves to God, as those alive from the dead, before the sap of God begins to run.

iii. The Works of the Flesh (5:19-21)

19Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lascivi­ousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Sexual Sins

19.1 Paul begins his list with sexual sins. There can be no confusion about the works of the flesh. They are “obvious” (NET), to a Jew at least. But to Greeks sexual promiscuity was not obviously wrong. There were exceptions. For example, incest between a man and his mother or stepmother was scandalous (cf 1 Cor 5:1ff). But otherwise pagan society accepted most forms of sexual promiscuity as natural and allowable things.

For human beings these are perhaps the most attractive sins. They draw on the greatest and most compelling emotion, love, and twist it into some­thing selfish and dark. They turn love against the giver of love and pervert the purpose for which He has given sexual love and ignore the good and right boundaries that He has drawn around it. Perhaps that is why Paul begins with them.

There was another reason, important in its place. If there was to be peace inside the ecclesia, the Jews must have assurance that the distinctive moral code which they had received from God was going to be upheld. Hence, it was important for the Jerusalem Council, which followed within weeks or months of the writing of this letter, to plainly rule out sexual sin (Acts 15:20–21, 28–29; 21:25).

“Adultery” belongs in the list, of course, but is found only in less reliable manuscripts, and is omitted by most modern translations. “Fornication” includes any kind of sexual behaviour outside the clear boundaries put in place by God: pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, the use of prostitutes, incest, homosexual sex.

“Uncleanness” (“impurity,” NET) is a broader term covering, for example, pornography, or sexu­ally loaded and suggestive conversation, with its innuendo and humour. These too are “works of the flesh,” corrupting the mind of the one who indulges in them, and others who participate, and often lead­ing directly to the corruption of the body as well.

“Lasciviousness” (“depravity,” NET) points to the most perverse and degraded – and degrading – sexual misconduct. As man pushes the boundaries he becomes dissatisfied with the ordinary and the natural. He becomes more and more desperate for excitement and sensation. He takes greater and greater risks and pursues behaviours that are more and more extreme and weird. Such behaviours ate out the Roman Empire, they brought down the Ancien Régime, and they are subverting Western civilization today.

Sexual love is one gift of God, a powerful pleasure that is intended to strengthen the bond be­tween husband and wife for the good of the family. Anything outside this is an abuse of God’s intent.

Religious Sins

20. Paul moves on to two sins that are religious in nature. Again, it was important to rule out any con­tinued use of pagan religious practices; and again the Jerusalem Council ruled these out. “Idolatry” needs no explanation. It is still very much a chal­lenge for our fellow-believers in the developing world. But Paul extends the concept to “covetous­ness” – the search for security, and satisfaction, and significance in someone or something other than the one true God, and a relationship with Him (Col 3:5; Eph 5:5). The gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome embodied success and power and lust and revenge; and under these names they are still worshipped in the world today.

“Witchcraft” (“sorcery,” NET) is the use of the occult to discern the future or influence the cosmos in favour of one’s personal goals and plans, such as revenge on an enemy, attracting a lover or gaining wealth, power or victory. It is fascinating to observe the resurgence of paganism and occultism in the world today; and we must not be drawn into their practices or, which is much easier, their spirit.

Sins of the Spirit

The list continues with seven sins of the spirit. This is by far the longest section of the list, because it was by far the biggest problem in Galatia; and sadly, it has probably been the biggest problem in ecclesial life ever since. Many a person who would never commit adultery or worship another god thinks nothing of being consumed by anger or hatred, of acting politically or causing strife. Most of the seven sins are in the plural. Paul is not concerned only with hostile attitudes but also with destructive actions. These are the sins that can cor­rode relationships and poison fellowship. We must watch for them in ourselves and in those around us and work for peace. It is the peacemakers whom God identifies as His children; for He is Himself the great Peacemaker.

Paul continues his list with “hatred,” “enmities” or “hostilities.” The word is also used of the enmity between the fleshly man and God (Rom 8:7), and of the hostility between Jew and Greek (Eph 2:14,16). The cause for this hostility has been removed in Christ, but we can see from the New Testament how deeply rooted the hostility was, and how long it lingered. How these attitudes can fracture our fellowship! They encourage suspicion, believe the worst, search for weaknesses to criticise, refuse to acknowledge virtues or achievements, exaggerate incidents and circulate one-sided tales of untruth and injustice.

But Paul has more. To hatred he adds “vari­ance,” “discord” or “strife” or “rivalry.” He uses it in a number of other places of competition and conflict within the ecclesia through outbreaks of party spirit, when human leaders and their slogans push Christ and the gospel into the background (1 Cor 1:11; 3:3; 2 Cor 12:20; Phil 1:15).

Third in the list comes “emulations.” The Gk zelos, often translated “zeal,” can refer to the posi­tive virtue that channels energy to a worthy cause, a flame for God and a passion for righteousness. So long as this energy remains focused and purposeful, it is a good thing. But the same word does duty both for the virtue of godly ambition and also for the corrosive vice of irritation and frustration at the noble character and great deeds of others. So easily we look around. What are others doing? How are they respected and appreciated? We begin to grudge them the fact that they are recognised and praised; and zeal overbalances into something nasty. When Peter asked, “Lord, and what shall this man do?” Jesus immediately answered, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me” (John 21:21–22). He moved swiftly to protect Peter against just such an error, which could have come between himself and John. And his answer to Peter is his answer to us.

Fourth comes “wrath” or “outbursts of anger” (NET), those uncontrolled moments when brooding dislike and simmering discontent and frustrated passion boils up and spills over in heated words and immoderate actions. Like fire, anger is a good servant, but an aweful master, necessary and useful in its place, terribly destructive when discipline breaks down and it rages uncontrolled.

Then comes “strife” or “selfish ambition” (NIV) or “selfish rivalries” (NET), when the agendas and objectives of one person or one party exclude the spiritual needs and preferences of others. It is a natural tendency of human nature. Paul would later lament that “all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Phil 2:21), would praise Timothy as the one man available to him who would “naturally care” for others (v20), and would urge the Philippians to esteem others, and prioritise their needs (v1–3).

The next two sins of the spirit remind us where these attitudes and actions will take us. “Seditions” or “dissensions” rear their many heads. These are the tensions that pull in many different directions, the words and the actions that disturb and disrupt and distract. They drive the body toward “heresies” or “factions,” definite divisions and splits.

In the lead-up to this terrible list Paul had warned the Galatians, “If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (v15). Here is the terrible outcome of that process – a body which has ripped itself apart. Such are the horrible consequences of hostility between brothers and sisters, with all the evils that follow. Let us be sure to give that dark detour a wide berth and “walk in the light, as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7).

21. The last of these sins is perhaps the ugliest of all: “envy,” the meanness that can see, and believe, and say nothing good about another, nor wish them any good, but only ill. If we allow these sins to invade and corrupt our hearts, this is what we shall become – a terrible inversion of a true disciple.

Paul concludes his list with two sins that high­lighted the worst of the angry and undisciplined pagan world around him – and around us today: “drunkenness” and “revellings” or “carousing;” the mindless party culture that is such a feature of our Western society, with its dead soul and drifting purpose. “And such like:” no list of sins can ever be exhaustive. The mind of the flesh is endlessly inventive.

A Warning: We must Examine our Hearts

“I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not in­herit the kingdom of God.” Any man or woman, in a moment of weakness, can commit a terrible crime; still more easily, a foolish sin. We must never minimise sin. We must understand that each and every sin is a failure to love God and each other as we ought. Nevertheless, “where sin abounds, grace abounds much more” (cp Rom 5:20). God is eager to forgive those who truly love Him so that they might get back up on their feet and begin again to walk with Him, in the footsteps of His Son. But those who accommodate and justify sin, allowing it to define who they are and what they do, “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” If we reflect honestly on the pattern of our lives and find that, in fact, a sin has taken root in our hearts, we must seek God’s forgiveness and strength to excise it.

Scripture tells us that God will forgive practi­cally anything: apostasy, promiscuity, adultery, murder, treason, pride, a criminal life – all of these have been put in front of him, and all of these He has graciously forgiven. He responded generously even to the limited repentance of Ahab and the limited obedience of Jehu. But He will not look twice at the insincere and the disingenuous.

Let us examine our hearts. Can we honestly say that there is nothing more important to us than to love God and to love each other? If we feel that we cannot honestly make that declaration, we must repent today, cease to do “the works of the flesh,” and live in the Spirit.


  1. Anyone looking for a more detailed discussion of these vices, and the virtues that follow, is directed to William Barclay’s Flesh and Spirit, a powerful and insightful discussion that brings together his profound grasp of Graeco-Roman culture, his detailed knowledge of the Greek words used by Paul, and a searching pastoral commentary.