Having warned them regarding the danger of apostasy in committing themselves to the Law of Moses (cf. Galatians 1:1-5:16), the Apostle Paul reminded the Galatian Christians regarding the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the ways of God in the Spirit, and exhorted the Galatian Christians to manifest the fruit of the Spirit and resist the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24). These “works of the flesh” are delineated in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Many of the first “works of the flesh” centered on challenges and temptations which would prove especially acute for Christians who had recently come out of the Greco-Roman pagan milieu: sexual temptations like sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness; idolatry; and sorcery. Paul then established the “works of the flesh” which prove especially pernicious in relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy, wrath, rivalries, divisions, sects, and envy. Paul concluded the list of specific “works of the flesh” with sins of excess: drunkenness and carousing.
But what about behaviors not listed here? Did Paul intend to give an exhaustive overview of all that could be deemed the “works of the flesh”? By no means! He concluded his discussion of the works of the flesh by also condemning “the things like these,” and reiterated how those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21).
Paul might well be using a common rhetorical device akin to our use of “et cetera.” Paul would mention other sinful behaviors in other passages not listed explicitly among the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:22-24. These would include murder (not found in Galatians 5:19-21 in the best manuscripts), covetousness, theft, deceit, lying, gossip, slander, and foolish talk (Romans 1:28-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Ephesians 5:3-8, Colossians 3:5-9). In condemning these behaviors Paul frequently used the same type of contrast between the ways of our holy God above from the ways of the corrupt world below; thus we should understand such things as much as “works of the flesh” as those explicitly identified in Galatians 5:19-21.
Thus Paul at least intended for the Galatian Christians to understand “things like these” to refer to other behaviors clearly identified as sinful. Yet the phrasing of the term itself also suggests Paul wished for the Galatian Christians to recognize how many behaviors might be akin to a “work of the flesh” even if not explicitly identified as such. A major such example involves sexual transgressions: in Galatians 5:19-21 Paul condemned sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness, whereas in other passages specific forms of these behaviors are condemned, like same sex sexual relations and adultery (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The Galatian Christians were expected to understand how these behaviors were “things like” sexually deviant behavior since they fit by definition. Covetousness is explicitly condemned on its own but is also equated to idolatry in Ephesians 5:3, Colossians 3:5: thus Paul would have the Galatian Christians understand how covetousness is a “thing like” idolatry.
This principle extends beyond that which is explicitly condemned in Scripture to the chagrin of many. What God has made known regarding righteousness and sin inverts man’s desires and expectations. Man would like a comprehensive list of what not to do and to assume that whatever is not condemned is approved and righteous. In truth, in Scripture God has equipped those who would follow Him with every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17); Paul confessed that whatever is not of faith is sin, not whatever is of sin is faith (Romans 14:23). The Christian’s confidence lay in God’s revelation of Himself, His character, and His righteousness in Jesus who lived, died, was raised in power, ascended, is lord, and will return soon (2 Corinthians 5:7, Hebrews 11:1); thus, we may know what is right, good, and holy, for it is seen in what God accomplished in Jesus, and we should do likewise (Romans 12:1-2).
To this end we can understand why the “fruit of the Spirit” is a fully defined list of characteristics but the “works of the flesh” are left open (Galatians 5:17-24): righteousness is fully embodied in Jesus, but the human heart is very deceitful, inventing evil, looking for ways to justify and rationalize the desires of the flesh and heart (Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 1:30, 1 John 2:15-17).
Thus, it is not enough to say, “well, God never said not to,” or, “God nowhere explicitly condemns this or that.” Paul recognized how people would be easily tempted to “repackage” some sin or another in a different guise and think it justifiable; thus, not only are the explicit things mentioned in the “works of the flesh” condemned, but also anything similar to them.
To this end Paul called upon the Galatian Christians, and Christians in general, to exercise discernment to understand whether a behavior is a “thing like” the works of the flesh or manifests the fruit of the Spirit. Such discernment must be exercised according to faith in God lest the Christian seek to rationalize their fleshly desires with a righteous veneer and entirely resist the point of Galatians 5:17-24, to crucify the flesh and its desires.
To this end we must first consider the evidence at hand. Did God speak regarding the behavior under consideration? Does it manifestly violate any specific command God has given? Does the behavior run afoul of consistent Biblical principles? If we feel the answers to these questions are ambiguous or allow for justification, we can then consider the profitability of the behavior (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:23). Will this practice commend me before God? What spiritual benefit would it provide? What fruit of the Spirit would it manifest? In short, we are wondering: is this behavior the kind of thing in which we would expect Jesus our Lord and Master to participate?
Many behaviors prevalent in modern society fall under condemnation in this way. Elective abortion may not be explicitly condemned in Scripture, but it is more a thing like murder than anything commended by God in Christ, and thus falls under the same condemnation. Pornography is a thing like uncleanness and lasciviousness. Many think of gambling as harmless fun, yet the entire premise of gambling is covetousness, a thing like idolatry. Recreational drug use would fall under the purview of pharmakeia; those who practiced sorcery also made potions, and many a recreational drug user lives as under a spell.
Paul has listed many ungodly and immoral behaviors as “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21; those who do such things without repentance will not inherit the Kingdom of God. We must never fall into the legalistic trap of assuming that only that which is explicitly condemned is wrong: Paul’s list of the “works of the flesh” is not exhaustive, nor was it designed to be; humans invent all kinds of new and innovative ways to transgress the purposes of God in Christ. Thus we must understand the “works of the flesh” as representative, and we should not only avoid those specific behaviors, but also anything which is akin to them. We must use our discernment to put all things to the test according to the faith; we ought to live by faith, trusting in the Lord, and doing all things with full conviction of their authority and righteousness based on what God has revealed in Christ according to the Scriptures. May we manifest the fruit of the Spirit, avoid the works of the flesh, and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry