Sermons from Lone Rock Bible Church
Stevensville, MT
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January 23, 2005

When the Flesh Runs the Show
Galatians 5:19-21

The apostle challenges believers of long ago with the question: “Do you really want to live in the flesh?” Consider the returns, even for this life, and look in vain for a good reason to give in to the old man.

  1. The works of the flesh are obvious (5:19a)
  2. The works of the flesh are harmful (5:19b-21a)
  3. The works of the flesh are eternally fatal (5:21b)

We’re coming to a really interesting passage, particularly because in these few verses in Galatians 5 we have a shopping list of sins – the works of the flesh. We’ll read Galatians 16 to 23 to set the context.

Galatians 5
16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.
17For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.
18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.
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.
22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

The apostle is dealing with these Galatians and trying to convince them that it isn’t a good idea for them to trust in their own work in order to be right with God. As we come to these verses, it’s as though he is saying, “Are you sure you want to go this way, Galatians? Have you counted the cost? Are you sure you want to entrust your relationship with God to yourself? Your works? Your capabilities? The merits of your flesh?

Beyond that, he contrasts the work of the flesh on one hand and the destination of that work and on the other with the fruit of the Spirit.

There are some passages in Proverbs that come to mind, the question being, “Are you sure you want to go there?” In Proverbs 7 there is an interesting scenario that is described for us.

Proverbs 7
6For at the window of my house
    I looked out through my lattice,
 7And I saw among the naive,
     And discerned among the youths
     A young man lacking sense,

The text goes on to describe this young man. He’s standing on the street corner; it’s obviously at night. He’s not the sharpest tool in the box at least from the standpoint of wisdom and morals. Here comes this wanton woman. She has everything set up. She is a seductress and is going to appeal to his flesh and make a pretty good pitch , a pretty convincing spiel. “Come home with me,” she says.

 21With her many persuasions she entices him;
      With her flattering lips she seduces him.
22Suddenly he follows her
      As an ox goes to the slaughter,
      Or as one in fetters to the discipline of a fool,

As we’re watching this young guy follow this wanton woman, it’s like he suddenly morphs into an ox in a yoke being led to the slaughter. Are you sure you want to go there? Be sure of your destination if you really want to go there.

23Until an arrow pierces through his liver;
      As a bird hastens to the snare,
      So he does not know that it will cost him his life.
26For many are the victims she has cast down,
      And numerous are all her slain.
27Her house is the way to Sheol,
     Descending to the chambers of death.

Are you sure you want to go there?

That’s where the apostle is with those who will listen. Do you really want to trust yourself? Do you know where that goes? The text will tell us.

One other passage in Proverbs.

Proverbs 9

13The woman of folly is boisterous,
      She is naive and knows nothing.
14She sits at the doorway of her house,
      On a seat by the high places of the city,
15Calling to those who pass by,
     Who are making their paths straight:
16"Whoever is naive, let him turn in here,"
      And to him who lacks understanding she says,
17"Stolen water is sweet;
       And bread eaten in secret is pleasant."
18But he does not know that the dead are there,
       That her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

If you go through that door, do you know where it leads? Is that where you want to go?

As we claim Christ, as we claim to be Christians, we better understand how the flesh works and where it leads. These three verses (19-21) talk about the works of the flesh for our enlightenment.

The works of the flesh are obvious (5:19a)

The New American Standard says the works are “evident.” Probably a better word is “obvious.” You can’t miss them. They’re emblazoned for all to see. There are 15 naughty things coming up, 15 areas to avoid. Some have looked at them and said these are systematically arranged and so in order to apply uniquely to the situation in southern Galatia. After all, the first five have to do with their religion, the next have to do with their social position and then the third have to do with their social custom. I don’t think so. I think what Paul has done is to pick some pretty prominent problems people certainly faced in that day and our day too. He even ends it by saying this isn’t a full list.

While we may loosely group them, please understand that these works of the flesh are for all to see in that day and in our own. They are common to the human experience and they are quite obvious.

They are not necessarily hidden by religion. These are not the sins or crimes or vices or mistakes or shortcomings of the pagan world or the irreligious. Religion sometimes is used as a cloak for covering up what’s going on in the inside. It doesn’t work very well.

The apostle Paul, in Romans 1, talks about all these terrible things in the last few verses, a bigger list than the Galatians 5 list. Then in chapter 2, we can just hear the Jews saying, “That’s not us. He can’t be talking about me.” By the way, don’t you dare do that today. These verses are not for me to think, “Who does this apply to here?” No, these are verses for me and verses for you.

Romans 2
17But if you bear the name "Jew" and rely upon the Law and boast in God,
18and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law,
19and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,
20a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth,

That’s a religious person that’s being described here, someone who obviously ascribes to a code of some sort of religion.

21you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal?
22You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
 23You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?

Paul knows. He’s of them. That’s his background. He came right out of that religion. He knows what’s going on behind the scene. Don’t let religion be a cloak for the works of the flesh. It’s easy enough to do. When we subscribe to a religion that gives us a lot of rules, a lot of times that actually works in reverse. In our fallen minds and in our self-centered natural way many times we will say, “I’ve kept these rules so therefore anything that isn’t within their parameters must be ok.”

Oftentimes, those who are the strictest with themselves in one dimension of life let it all out on the other. That’s the works of the flesh. That’s what the flesh will accomplish for us. It will set up parameters for us. Anything beyond those we feel ok in our own minds making our behavior, that which is obvious, the works of the flesh, even clearer to see.

That’s what the Pharisees did. You can read about them in the 23rd chapter of Matthew where on the outside they’re going around supposedly doing all kinds of righteous and wonderful and good things. But Jesus castigates them severely in Matthew 23 for excluding people from the kingdom along their way. They had all these rules but the rules are actually working to the detriment of the people and to their own souls.

By way of example, let’s turn to Mark 7. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees:

Mark 7

 8"Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men."
 9He was also saying to them, "You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.

What does he mean? God is real clear about certain things. They set up their own rules and figured as long as they operate within those boundaries anything else is fine.


Father and mother are pretty important to God. But you say anything of mine you might have been helped by is given to God, special and dedicated. I am no longer permitted to do anything for my father or mother. That’s invalidating the Word of God by your tradition. You’ve made yourselves rules and your own rules that make you feel better about yourself or that give you an avenue to gratify yourself are actually giving an avenue to violate the work of God. You’ve participated then in the works of the flesh and you’re wrong.

Religion, just being religious, isn’t necessarily the fix. The fix is change from inside. The Spirit of God controlling our life is what makes the difference. The works of the flesh are obvious. Before we move on from that particular point, let’s remember that the book of Galatians was written to people claiming to be Christians, yet they were confused between trusting totally in Jesus with trusting totally in Jesus and adding something to it. Paul said you don’t need to add anything to it! They wanted to have their rules. He’s saying that’s a dangerous, dangerous path to follow. Are you sure you want to go there?

The works of the flesh are eternally fatal (5:21b)

Before we get to the list I want this to be something of an explanation of where this is going, because that list is 15 problems. We need to have them in context before we get to them. The end of verse 21 says I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

This is a warning so let’s not dismiss it as anything less than that. It’s a warning that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. That is serious, serious language and it isn’t mine, I read it right out of the Bible.

Let’s explain two points to that. In the first place, the word “practice,” (New American Standard Bible) or “those who live like this,” (NIV) shall not inherit the kingdom of God. There is what grammarians call a linear force to that verb. “This is your lifestyle.” It suggests an unchecked, unremorseful, cut-loose, this is me. This is who I am. Those practicing living this way. The verb has a sense of ongoing.

That means that isolated incidents, while they are sin, don’t necessarily indicate eternal fatality. But if in fact this is my lifestyle, I have every reason to be concerned spiritually speaking. That’s what the text is saying – those who are practicing such things.

Secondly, “shall not inherit.” That isn’t a prophecy; it’s a promise. And it couldn’t be said more clearly. We may think, “the Bible is so harsh.”  Harsh? If you’re going to live eternally with a holy God there will be prerequisites. It’s just how it is. It would be unloving to lie at this point because this is important.

We’re talking eternally fatal. Let’s go to the heavenly realm. (Revelation 21). This is what heaven looks like. This is the best description we have of that eternally glorious place. Revelation 21 talks about the pearly gates and the lambs, the temple, no need of light, nations shall walk by its light, the gates will never be closed, and the glory and honor of the nations will live. It’s a glorious place. Look at verse 27:

Revelation 21
27and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.

Revelation 22
15Outside (outside the eternal city) are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.

Do you get the point? The picture is that certain people won’t be there. You can count on not being there if your life is characterized by the work of the flesh. To say anything less than that would be unloving. That’s why Jesus died. Do you see it? You don’t get to heaven by your merits. You get to heaven by putting your trust in Him. Every heinous sin  mentioned in the Bible, whether it’s in Galatians 5 or anywhere else, every crime, sin, shortcoming, everything in the Bible, everything in life, all of it, is under the blood, if only we put all our trust in Him to save us.

This doesn’t negate the cross. It highlights the cross and how badly we need to put all our trust in Him. The issues are eternal and they’re serious and that’s why He died. Don’t forget that.

The works of the flesh are harmful (5:19b-21a)

Let’s move to the list in Galatians 5. I really thought there was a way this could be handled creatively, kind of in an uplifting fashion, but I don’t know what that way is, so what we’re going to do is just wade through it.

I have these in four groups. They roughly fit this: the first three have to do with physical sensuality; that is, the misuse of God’s temple physically – our bodies. The next two have to do with pagan religious practices, having to do with sorcery and adultery. Then there are eight having to do with people getting along with one another.  Then finally there are two that I entitle reckless living, drunkenness and carousing and so forth.

The first we’ll talk about is physical sensuality or a misuse of God’s temple.

19Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality,

Immorality. The NIV focuses on sexual immorality. It has to do with human sexual immorality. It’s also translated in the Bible as fornication, a general term that means sexual sin, sexual misbehavior outside the bounds of marriage.

This was an extremely common problem in the first century and hasn’t changed much. It was such a common problem in the first century that once people became Christians and organized churches it continued to be a problem. If you don’t realize that, read chapter 5 and 6 of I Corinthians. People seemed to think nothing of trafficking in fornication even as part of the church. The apostle is saying no, God has created sexuality and given it boundaries and sanctified it as a beautiful thing. Anything outside of marital bounds is fornication.

The word was specifically used in the sense of temple prostitution. Much of pagan religion had to do with fertility rites and so forth. Temples had the dubious privilege of employing prostitutes so the people could pay their religious dues in creative ways. Unsanctified sexual activity is what is meant. This will hurt you. I Corinthians chapter 3 says that fornication, this very word, is a sin against your own body as well as a sin against God. It will bear poor fruit.

Impurity. He moves from fornication to impurity. That’s the word from both NIV and NAS. It’s a general term for any unsanctified sexual behavior. We really can’t wiggle out here. Some will say they really don’t have a problem with that, but maybe there’s an issue having to do with pornography that troubles me. Pornography and pornea, the words work together, that’s where the word comes from.

Any unsanctified sexual activity comes under uncleanness. In Ephesians chapter 5 the apostle uses these words in conjunction.

Ephesians 5
3But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints;

It isn’t just an issue of a physically adulterous act. He’s saying any impurity is a work of the flesh. He’s already said earlier in Galatians 5 that the flesh is in love with the flesh. Any way of gratifying self is going to be a strong pull on the part of the flesh. It needs to be identified for what it is. It is a work of the flesh and a lifestyle that’s characterized thereby is a lifestyle that is eternally fatal.

Sensuality. The third word is sensuality or debauchery. It’s an interesting word, we don’t hear or use it a lot. It’s unrestrained wantonness. We might say the passionate pursuit of perversion. The works of the flesh are obvious. They are manifest. They are evident.

In Ephesians 4 he uses the expression again. He talks about the former way of life that many experience. In verse 18, “darkened in understanding,” “excluded from the life of God because of ignorance and hardness of heart,” and verse 19:

Ephesians 4
19and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.

Greediness, wantonness. It’s like an abandonment of all restraint. It’s self gratification at any price and it becomes an obsession. It’s obvious as a work of the flesh.

Moving from the physical misuse of God’s temple to the next two:

Idolatry. Clearly this is something that from a religious standpoint was much more common in the first century world than in our world today. Idolatry, worship of a false god or its image. In those days they actually built them out of wood or stone or metallic elements. Sometimes they made them out of wood and then covered them with precious metal foils and then bowed down to worship them. Of course the prophets and apostles were down on that.

In our day, as I’m sure you’re aware, we’re not as much into blatant worship of idols. We are into a more subtle form of idolatry, putting anything created ahead of the God, the creator. Sometimes those are things we can see, like guns and boats and animals and people. Other times there are things we can’t see, like reputation or status or prestige. Anything created that comes before God falls into the realm of idolatry.

Sorcery. The next is sorcery, in the NIV, witchcraft. The word is pharmakao, which is the word from which we get pharmacology, the pharmacist, the pharmacy, having to do with drugs. The reason is so often in the early world when people were into sorcery, necromancy, these types of things, forms of witchcraft and occult practices, much of it was and is drug induced.

There’s a passage in Isaiah 47 that touches on this. It shines a little bit of light on it. In Isaiah 47 the Babylonians are being chided for their use of witchcraft, their sorceries, and how it is that they used chemicals to help enhance that experience. Beginning in verse 8 is where this discussion happens. In verse 10 its gets a little more specific.

Isaiah 47
 10"You felt secure in your wickedness and said,
      'No one sees me,'
      Your wisdom and your knowledge, they have deluded you;
      For you have said in your heart,
      'I am, and there is no one besides me.'
 11"But evil will come on you
      Which you will not know how to charm away;
      And disaster will fall on you
      For which you cannot atone;
      And destruction about which you do not know
      Will come on you suddenly.  
 12"Stand fast now in your spells
      And in your many sorceries
      With which you have labored from your youth;
      Perhaps you will be able to profit,
      Perhaps you may cause trembling.
    13"You are wearied with your many counsels;
       Let now the astrologers,
       Those who prophesy by the stars,
       Those who predict by the new moons,
       Stand up and save you from what will come upon you.

The prophet is making the connection between their false, hollow trust in what they could conjure chemically and spiritually as opposed to what is true and what the God of history has said clearly He will do and then He does.

Do not dabble in anything of this nature. Be wary of any chemical that would alter the mind or that would cause the mind to be open. There have been many Christian people who have found themselves in the grip of spiritual evil because, perhaps with good intentions, they’ve emptied their minds and have been plagued spiritually. Don’t ever submit to that. Meditation for a Christian is not emptying one’s mind. Meditation for a Christian is filling one’s mind with God’s truth and chewing on it, not in an Eastern sense of trying to contemplate one hand clapping or some exercise that would be mind emptying.

When that happens we make ourselves vulnerable spiritually. Be wary of that. It’s real. The reason that the Bible warns us away from witchcraft, astrology, sorcery, and such, is not because it doesn’t work. It’s because there is a spiritual underworld. It does work. It amounts to a distraction and an entrapment from what is true. Avoid it at all costs.

If we’re feeling pretty good about our moral and spiritual lives up to this point, stand by, because the next eight items tend to be more common to our human experience in many cases.

Enmities. Is your life is characterized by enmities? (NIV talks about hatred). Linguists many years ago said this amounts to the opposite of what we know as agape love or self-sacrificial love -- love that puts the object first. It’s an antagonistic feeling between two groups of people, sometimes identified ethnically.

Remember Luke 23 where Herod was in town at Jesus’ trial? Because Pilate didn’t really have this all figured out, he invited Herod to come and talk to Jesus. Jesus, of course, wouldn’t talk to him. The text says in Luke 23:12 that after that, Pilate and Herod were pretty good buds. Up to that point, they had been enemies, at enmity with one another. Why wouldn’t they be? Pilate is a Roman pagan, an interloper and an assignee from the capital city. He had no care nor concern for matters Jewish nor really for matters local. Herod, to the north, well, Pilate has his brother’s spot. There’s a natural antagonism between Herod, the Jewish politician in the north, and Pilate in the south. They were natural enemies. They hated each other until they agreed to hate Jesus together.

Strife. The book of Ephesians talks about the historical natural animosity between Jew and Gentile as being an expression of this very enmity. It’s interesting how with these, one leads to another because we move from enmity to strife. We move from hatred to discord. You go long enough hating somebody, eventually there will be strife. There will be a falling out. There will be discord. This is the very word used of the believers in I Corinthians 3 about the different groups in the church. “I am of Paul.” “I am of Apollos” “I am of Cephas.” They had discord among themselves. They had already been identified in their groups, had already concluded that our group doesn’t like their group. So that enmity between groups erupted eventually into discord in Corinth.

Discord happens when enmity is unchecked. If strife and discord characterize us, we are exhibiting the works of the flesh. We are not trusting in the work of the Spirit at all.

Jealousy. Let’s not confuse envy with jealousy. They are not the same thing. This is a deliberate use of the word. It’s used by the Sanhedrin. In Acts 5 they were so mad at the apostles, they were filled with jealousy. So they had the apostles imprisoned. Jealousy means “I want to keep what’s mine.” Envy means “I want what’s yours.” There’s a difference.

The Sanhedrin had power, prestige, clout, social status. They saw the apostles as a threat to that and so were filled with jealousy, with a strong desire to keep what was theirs. In order to do that, they had them thrown in prison.

It’s important to identify what’s ours. It’s not ours, it’s His. We aren’t owners, we’re managers of what God has entrusted to us. That should help with the issue of jealousy. It’s an intense feeling and it’s a work of the flesh.

Outbursts of anger. Jealousy is followed by outbursts of anger, fits of rage. Isn’t it interesting how one of these can lead to the next. Outbursts of anger or fits of rage – this is what happened with Jesus when He went to Nazareth in the 4th chapter of Luke and declared himself to be Messiah. They asked Him to do a few miracles. He said I don’t see why I should. As a matter of fact, God doesn’t only favor Jews. It says those people of Nazareth were so filled with rage that they wanted to throw Him off a cliff.

The same thing happened in the 19th chapter of Acts, the riot of the silversmiths. They clamored for hours in the streets of Ephesus. Ephesus was the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire. When the silversmiths saw their trade was being threatened by people becoming Christians, they pitched a fit. It became known as a riot. The silversmiths were just nuts over the fact that they were losing business to these Christians. They were filled with rage.

Disputes. You might say that a dispute is a mild form of being filled with rage. The NIV term is “selfish ambition.” It’s a general term, simply playing to the flesh. The flesh is always self-seeking, always marked by selfishness.

Dissentions. Splits. It literally means taking two stands. That’s what happens when people do not get along.

Factions. That word was used of the Christians in Acts 24. It’s a faction in an unpleasant way. We look down on that other group because they’re them and we’re us. That business of looking down on them as them means we have created a faction. It’s a negative connotation.

Envying. Envy is similar to jealousy except with jealousy I want to keep what’s mine. With envy, I want what’s yours. Pilate knew that out of envy the Sanhedrin had delivered Him up They wished they had what Jesus had. They didn’t and so they acted out of envy and delivered Him up to be crucified.

Those are conflicts with others, much more common, I would hope, to our human experience that perhaps a lot of the rest of the list, but well worth our consideration. Fixed, if we would only remember whose we are and what He has done for us. If only we know our Bibles and are committed to following them then disputes between people and particularly people in God’s family, are fixable if everybody agrees to follow God’s word.

Drunkenness and carousing. The fourth category and only these two, reckless living. It’s evident in things you read in the newspaper. Drunkenness, in the NIV, it’s orgies, but more accurately probably, carousing. It’s being out there partying it up continually as a way of life with drunkenness and carousing and carrying on.

That’s the list. And Paul says, not an exhaustive list. Any time the flesh is running the show, we can count on self-centered, self-absorbed behavior. Probably on the most serious note, it’s fatal. A person who lives this way, whose life is characterized  thusly, can count on eternal condemnation. It’s fatal. “Shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

I’m going to close with good news from I Corinthians 6

I Corinthians
9Or 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 effeminate, nor homosexuals,
10nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

A different list in many regards, same idea. It says don’t be deceived. Don’t kid yourself or fool yourself on this point.  But please read verse 11:

11Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

That is so wonderful! Otherwise, we’d be left with just us. We might behave, but it still wouldn’t work. We need Him to save us and that’s what He does. He saves us and then, normally, bit by bit, he changes us. And “such were some of you,” but you were washed, sanctified, made right with God in the name of the Lord Jesus and in the Spirit of our God.

"Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®,
Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995
by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Jim Carlson 2004, Lone Rock Bible Church, Stevensville Montana, USA