Paul had great concerns regarding the Galatian Christians departing from the faith by submitting to the Law of Moses (Galatians 1:1-5:15). Yet Paul also wished to exhort them regarding dispositions and behaviors which Christians were to embody (the fruit of the Spirit), and dispositions and behaviors which they must avoid (the works of the flesh). These works of the flesh are listed 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.
“Fornication,” perhaps better understood as sexually deviant behavior, represented a pervasive temptation and form of transgression in the ancient world. Paul continued with “uncleanness,” translated in other versions as “impurity”; in Greek, akatharsia, defined by Thayer as:
1b) in a moral sense: the impurity of lustful, luxurious, profligate living
1b1) of impure motives
While most humans generally appreciate it when their fellow humans keep their bodies free of dirt, Paul is not attempting to condemn those who have not taken a bath in awhile. For an Israelite like Paul, being “unclean,” first and foremost, relates to matters of ritual purity and impurity. The Law of Moses made provisions regarding clean and unclean animals and the types of conditions and situations in which a person would be deemed ritually unclean, and the means by which, if any, they could become ritually clean again (Leviticus 11:1-15:33). Concern regarding ritual impurity undergirds Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27: He compared their inner spirituality to the inside of a tomb, full of dead men’s bones and thus unclean things, a stinging rebuke to a group of people who sought to abide by ritual purity guidelines fastidiously.
Is Paul therefore imposing all sorts of ritual purity requirements on Christians? Jesus declared the end of ritual purity guidelines in Mark 7:18-23, focusing instead on people’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions as the source of defilement, not foods or unwashed hands. Jesus would go on to demonstrate the cleansing of both foods and people in His vision to Peter in Acts 10:9-16, 28; Paul himself declared nothing is unclean of itself in Romans 14:14, no doubt based on these messages from the Lord.
So if no thing is unclean of itself, why does Paul consider “uncleanness” a work of the flesh in Galatians 5:19? Paul’s concerns in Romans 14:1-23 focused primarily on concerns that certain kinds of foods were unclean, and there he was not discussing dispositions or behaviors. Paul’s use of “uncleanness” in Galatians 5:19 is akin to Jesus’ exhortation in Mark 7:18-23: people are defiled by their evil thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, not by the things they eat or drink.
To this end any thoughts, feelings, or behaviors contrary to God’s purposes are “unclean”: as Paul would declare in 1 Thessalonians 4:7, God did not call us to be unclean, but to be made holy, or sanctified, in Him. From these verses we understand the powerful imagery of sin as defiling, making unclean or impure, since we gave ourselves over to uncleanness (Romans 6:19); thus, to be saved, we required cleansing from God through Jesus, and to this end we are immersed in water in baptism for the remission of our sins (Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7, Titus 3:3-8, 1 Peter 3:21). Part of repentance is turning away from what caused us distress and grief; therefore, to wallow in defilement by persisting in sin remains contrary to the spirit of repentance and God’s purposes for us in Jesus (Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22). Those who persist in sin without repentance will not inherit the Kingdom of God in Christ!
While “uncleanness” can theoretically refer to any kind of impure thought, feeling, or behavior, Paul here sandwiches akatharsia, “uncleanness,” between porneia, “sexually deviant behavior,” and aselgeia, “lasciviousness” or “sensuality,” strongly suggesting a concern about sexual uncleanness. Most of the time Paul speaks of “uncleanness” it is in such a sexual context (Romans 1:24, 2 Corinthians 12:21, Ephesians 4:19, 5:3, Colossians 3:5). The pagans gave themselves over to uncleanness in their lusts and sexually deviant behavior; some Christians in Corinth were still participating in such things!
Sexual transgression is frequently discussed in terms of causing defilement: the conclusion to the list of all the forms of inappropriate sexual contact in Leviticus 18:1-23 is a warning for Israel to not defile themselves in such things as the nations of the land had done (Leviticus 18:24-25). To this day coarse sexual terminology or behavior is deemed “dirty,” that is, things which would cause uncleanness. Thus, while any sin can defile, we understand how sexual sins are especially associated with defilement and uncleanness. In 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 Paul directly contrasts sanctification with sexually deviant behavior, leading to the declaration we have previously seen in 1 Thessalonians 4:7. What the pagans thought of as natural and normal was in fact contrary to God’s purposes and impure, and Paul did not hesitate to use the language of purity and impurity to warn pagan converts to Christianity away from sexual transgressions.
Thus, while any sin can render a person “unclean,” Paul emphasizes how inappropriate sexual thoughts and behaviors are “unclean.” We also do well to warn people regarding the uncleanness of sexual transgression. Nevertheless, we must be careful in going beyond what is written and causing grief not imposed by the Lord in regards to these matters. Sexual transgressions may render a person “unclean,” but all can find cleansing, wholeness, and integrity through faith in Christ Jesus (Titus 3:3-8). Christians have no right or justification to brand a person as “tainted goods” or “defiled” because of sexual transgression if they have come to the Lord Jesus in contrition, repentance, and faith. In truth we have all been defiled by corruption in the world; we all have been unclean because of our sins; we have all required cleansing from Jesus for redemption (Titus 3:3-8). Purity is not something we have obtained through our own efforts; the Scriptures continually insist that we have been cleansed by the blood of Christ (Revelation 7:14).
God has called us to sanctification in Jesus, not to uncleanness in the ways of the world and its sexual desires. Purity and impurity remains a potent metaphor even in the Western world in the twenty-first century, yet we must exercise it with caution. We must insist to the world how sexually deviant behavior and misdirected lustful desire is dirty, unclean, and impure. And yet proper sexual desire and sexuality in the context of two people whom God has joined together in marriage is right, holy, and pure (Matthew 19:4-6, Hebrews 13:4). We cannot escape defilement on our own; we all can find cleansing of our moral filth in the blood of Christ through baptism. Impurity need not be a life sentence, and we should not impose it as such on those who have found cleansing in Jesus. May we seek sanctification in Christ, avoid the defilements of the world, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry