Gal. 5:24–25, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”
Galatians 5:19 to 21 describe the fruitless existence of the flesh, or the sinful nature. The verses that follow describe the fruitful and productive work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.
The contrast is as absolute as the difference between life and death. The apostle Paul has already explained that the flesh and the Spirit are mortal enemies, locked in deadly combat. The passions of the sinful nature are at war with the desires of the regenerate nature (Gal. 5:17). This warfare takes place within the heart, mind, soul, and body of the believer. In this conflict the Christian is ordered to live by the Spirit rather than to indulge the flesh.
The Works of the Flesh
To follow these orders, the Christian needs to know the difference between flesh and Spirit, between the sinful nature and the regenerate nature. Fortunately, the difference is not hard to tell: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19–21).
Catalogues of vices were common in the ancient world, and the Galatians would have encountered lists like this before. There are other examples in the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 1:29–31; 2 Tim. 3:2–5), and also in the writings of many classical authors. No two lists are the same, either in the Bible or in pagan literature.
The sins in this list are so familiar that they require little by way of explanation. The catalogue begins with “sexual immorality,” which is sometimes called “fornication.” This general term was used to refer to any kind of sexual sin, but especially to sexual intercourse between persons who are not married to one another. Sexual sin was common in the pagan world, as was “impurity,” which refers not only to sexual sin, but also to any kind of uncleanness. “Sensuality” is indecency, a lack of respect for what is right and good. It involves not only engaging in wanton behavior, but flaunting it in public.
“Idolatry,” of course, means the worship of other gods. It is the quest to find our identity and security in anything or anyone besides the one true God. “Witchcraft,” or sorcery, is the worship of what is evil. This would obviously include contemporary forms of the occult, such as black magic and Satan worship. However, the Greek word that is used here for “witchcraft” (pharmakeia) provides the origin for the English word “pharmacy.” This is a reminder that in the ancient world witches often prepared and administered lethal poisons. Thus the postmodern parallels to ancient witchcraft would include abortion and euthanasia—forms of killing that in our culture are usually performed by doctors. According to the Bible, these activities are among the self-evidently wicked deeds of the flesh.
Many of the other vices on Paul’s list relate to the breakdown of Christian community. Thus they confirm what we have already grown to suspect, namely, that divisiveness was a major problem for the Galatian church. The Greek word for “enmity” (echthra) is closely related to the Greek word for “enemy” (echthros). This form of hatred includes any kind of political, racial, or religious hostility, whether public or private. “Strife” is rivalry or discord, which comes from a quarrelsome spirit. “Jealousy” is the wrong kind of zeal, such as Paul had before he became a Christian (cf. Phil. 3:6). It often leads to “fits of anger,” the rage-filled outbursts that come from having a bad temper. Aristotle compared this term to dogs that “bark if there is but a knock at the door, before looking to see if it is a friend.”
The list goes on, for the sinful nature produces a seemingly endless variety of sins. Some people want to get ahead at the expense of others, so they are guilty of “rivalries.” Others take sides, causing “dissensions” and “divisions.” The English word for “heresy” comes from the Greek term for “divisions” (haireseis), and indeed, theological error always divides the church, as a clear separation must be made between true and false doctrine.
What are some other works of the flesh? People tend to be unhappy when others succeed, and the proper term for such a grudging spirit is “envy.” “The envious,” said Socrates, “are pained by their friends’ successes.” To give a more contemporary example, envy is the vice depicted in the cartoon that features a dog sitting at a bar and saying, “It’s not just that dogs have to win, but cats have to lose.” Whenever we rejoice at the misfortunes of others, including our friends, we are guilty of envy.
Finally, there are two more sins of the body, drinking to excess and eating to excess: “drunkenness” and “orgies.” The Bible does not prohibit alcohol, any more than it prohibits food, but it always condemns getting drunk. The term used here refers to drinking bouts—what people today would call “getting wasted.” The orgies to which Paul refers were not simply sexual, but involved wild partying of all kinds, including revels held at pagan temples.
Later in the chapter the apostle adds several more sins to his list: “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:26). This verse is about spiritual pride, the work of the flesh that destroys fellowship. If the proud think they are superior, they provoke others by putting them down. Those who feel inferior, on the other hand, envy others and resent their success. Either way, they destroy relationships.
All in all, it is quite a list. It includes social sins and sexual sins, sins of both the body and the soul, sins common among Christians as well as pagans. Paul ends his catalogue with “things like these” to show that he could keep going. But his point has less to do with any particular sin than it does with the entire lifestyle that these acts of the flesh represent. The only thing the sinful nature can produce is an unchaste, unholy, uncharitable, and undisciplined life. This is plain for all to see. The sinfulness of the sinful nature is so obvious as to be self-evident, partly because we have committed so many of these deadly deeds ourselves. The Puritan William Perkins said this list of vices is a mirror to reveal the corruption of our own hearts.
What Paul says next is most alarming. Having listed the deeds of the flesh, he goes on to warn where they naturally lead (or rather, where they do not lead): “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21). This sounds like an echo from the teaching of Jesus, who had a great deal to say about the coming of God’s kingdom. What Paul means by “kingdom” is God’s final kingdom—the place of his eternal rule, namely, heaven. To inherit God’s kingdom is to come into its rightful possession by receiving the free gift of eternal life.
Apparently, Paul had warned the Galatians about this before. He had told them that while good works cannot get someone into heaven, evil deeds can certainly keep someone out of it! People who perform the acts of the sinful nature will not inherit eternal life. It is perhaps significant that he refers to the deeds of the sinful nature as “works of the flesh.” This is a reminder that works cannot save. Whether they are works of the law, works of the flesh, or any other kind of works, they do not lead to heaven.
Does this mean that anyone who is guilty of any of the vices that Paul describes in Galatians 5:19–21 is going to hell? Certainly anyone who commits these sins deserves to go there, and for this reason we should not think lightly of these or any other sins. But remember that the Christian, even the “Spirit-filled Christian,” still has a sinful nature. From time to time, therefore, even believers commit these very sins. With this in mind, it is important to know that when Paul refers to “those who do such things” (Gal. 5:21), the Greek verb (prassontes) indicates habitual action, not an occasional lapse. Paul is not talking about Christians who from time to time commit one of these sins against their better judgment, all the while knowing that they are grieving the Holy Spirit and wishing that they could stop. Rather, he is talking about people whose lives are dominated by sin, who are committed heart and soul to immorality, idolatry, sorcery, and envy.
This is not the kind of life that leads to heaven. Quite the opposite. Why would someone who loves to break God’s rules even want to go to the place where God’s rules are always kept? People who make a regular practice of vice need to repent of their sins and leave their old lifestyle behind, lest they fall into eternal judgment.
But what about Christians who feel—perhaps with some justification—that they are dominated by an addictive sin such as pornography or anorexia? They should heed Paul’s warning that people who live this way will not inherit the kingdom of God. But they should not despair. The very fact that they are concerned about their spiritual condition shows that the Spirit is at work, and that he will enable them to live a life that is more and more pleasing to God.
The Fruit of the Spirit
There is a reason why the flesh produces such bad behavior. It is simply “doing what comes naturally.” Jesus said, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matt. 12:33). The sinful nature produces sin because it was a bad tree to start with. The Spirit, by contrast, is a good tree producing lush and abundant virtue: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).
The greatest of these is “love” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13), which is the highest of all virtues and the foundation for all godliness: “Love is not one virtue among a list of virtues, but the sum and substance of what it means to be a Christian.” The Greek word used here for “love”—agapē—seems to have been patented by the writers of the New Testament. It is the kind of selfless, sacrificial affection that enables us to serve one another in love (Gal. 5:22). Love is also what we return to God, who first loved us through the sufferings and death of his Son, and then poured his love “into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5).
Then comes “joy,” which is not so much happiness as contentment. Joy is the ability to take good cheer from the gospel. It is not, therefore, a spontaneous response to some temporary pleasure. It does not depend on circumstance at all. It is based rather on rejoicing in one’s eternal identity in Jesus Christ. With joy comes “peace,” a sense of wholeness and well-being. John MacArthur writes, “If joy speaks of the exhilaration of the heart that comes from being right with God, then peace refers to the tranquility of mind that comes from saving relationships.” Such tranquility may be enjoyed both with God and with others. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1), and since we have peace with God, we are able to make peace with others.
Like peace, the next several virtues bring harmony to human relationships. “Patience” is long-suffering in the face of hardship—the ability to endure through adversity. A patient person has a slow fuse. He or she is steadfast and persistent, willing to suffer aggravation or even persecution without complaint. “Kindness” is more than a random act of consideration. It is a constant readiness to help, the extension of God’s grace to the people around us through practical actions of caring. Closely related to it is “goodness,” which was a common general term for virtue among the pagans. It connotes complete moral excellence. Here it is sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and indicates a willingness to be generous.
Next comes “faithfulness,” the trustworthiness that comes from trusting in the God of the Bible. The faithful person is reliable for important tasks, loyal to friends, and dependable in emergencies. With faithfulness goes “gentleness,” an inward grace that is sometimes called “meekness” and is often described as “power under control.” The gentle person has a sweet temper of spirit toward God, others, and the daily frustrations of life. He or she is not prone to anger, but humble, sweet, and mild.
Finally, there is “self-control,” which means temperance or moderation, especially in sensual matters like eating, drinking, and sex. This sober virtue prevents liberty from becoming license in the Christian life. A person with self-control has the restraint and self-discipline not to be ruled by passion, and therefore is able to resist temptation.
This catalogue of spiritual virtues is not exhaustive. Paul hints at this when he refers to the fruit of the Spirit as “such things” (Gal. 5:23). Some graces that are not on this list—such as hope, for example, or godliness—appear elsewhere in the New Testament. Once again, the point is not so much the specific character traits as it is the entire lifestyle they represent.
All the graces of the Spirit belong together, which perhaps explains why the word “fruit” occurs in the singular. The fruit of the Spirit is one whole spiritual life that is rooted in the Spirit of God. To change the image for a moment, these virtues are not nine different gems, but nine different facets of the same dazzling jewel. Spiritual fruit is different from spiritual gifts in this respect, since most Christians have only a handful of gifts. But one does not pick and choose among spiritual fruit the way one sorts through fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. There is only one fruit, which every Christian produces, albeit in varying quantities and with different degrees of sweetness.
The contrast between the special produce of the Spirit and the bitter fruit of the sinful nature could hardly be sharper. The fruit of the Spirit is the very opposite of the works of the flesh. When it comes to godliness, the Spirit really produces! He brings forth good fruit from a good tree, the product of a whole new spiritual nature in Christ.
One helpful way to study this passage is to contrast the fruit of the Spirit with what might be called “the weeds of the devil.” Each fruit has its opposite, a weed that tries to choke it out. In fact, many of these weeds grow in Paul’s list of vices (Gal. 5:19–21). The weed that tries to choke out love is enmity. Dissension stunts the growth of peace. Patience is crowded out by anger. The weed that grows around self-control is sensuality; and so forth.
Another way to study the fruit of the Spirit is to compare it to the character of God. Love, peace, goodness, faithfulness—these are all divine attributes. We see them displayed in the work of God the Son, who was patient in suffering, faithful to his disciples, gentle with children, and loving in his kindness to sinners. James Dunn rightly calls Galatians 5:22–23 a “character-sketch” of Christ. Since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, it is only natural for him to reproduce the virtues of Christ in the life of the Christian. Jesus is the vine; we are the branches (John 15:5). The Holy Spirit connects us to the vine, and thereby produces in us the fruit of Christ himself.
We do not grow this fruit on our own. This is why it is called the fruit of the Spirit rather than the works of the Spirit. S. H. Hooke comments: “A vine does not produce grapes by Act of Parliament; they are the fruit of the vine’s own life; so the conduct which conforms to the standard of the Kingdom is not produced by any demand, not even God’s, but it is the fruit of that divine nature which God gives as the result of what he has done in and by Christ.” The fruit of the Spirit is the natural produce of his gracious inward influence, the spontaneous and inevitable result of his uniting us to Jesus Christ. It will take time to grow, but grow it must, for God will make it grow. What we are to do in the meantime is cultivate this spiritual fruit.
Notice that this is a catalogue of virtues rather than a list of rules. Perhaps this is why Paul ends by saying, “Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:23). This is a deliberate understatement. The reason there is no law against these virtues is that they are positively lawful, and thus people who practice them fulfill the law.
This does not mean that the Spirit issues a command for every situation. Indeed, if we think of this list as a how-to guide for the Christian life, we are in danger of slipping back into works-righteousness. Remember, we are not under the law. Nevertheless, the Spirit is not lawless. His liberty does not lead to license. Instead, he works into us those dispositions that lead to godliness. His fruit is habits of the heart that produce a rich harvest of loving obedience. And paradoxically, the life that the Spirit produces in us conforms to the very law that cannot justify us. To repeat a quote from Donald Hagner:
We are set free from the law in order to produce a righteousness that corresponds to the righteousness that the law demanded.… The content of the law has not fundamentally changed. It is only the dynamic—the means by which we can arrive at righteousness—that differs dramatically. Living out the righteousness of the law does not result in a right relationship with God; rather, being in a right relationship with God through faith in Christ results in living out the righteousness of the law.
In time, it becomes almost natural to live in the Spirit, except that it is really super-natural. J. I. Packer writes, “Holiness is the naturalness of the spiritually risen man, just as sin is the naturalness of the spiritually dead man, and in pursuing holiness by obeying God the Christian actually follows the deepest urge of his own renewed being.” We do not have to live like legalists to fulfill the law. What we need is the Holy Spirit.
Mortify the Flesh
The Holy Spirit does not produce fruit in the Christian life without our cooperation. There are two things every Christian must do to remain fruitful. The first is to mortify the flesh: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Mortification is one of the most neglected doctrines of the Christian faith, but also one of the most important. Indeed, spiritual growth is hardly possible without it. Mortification is what Paul was talking about when he told the Romans, “Consider yourselves dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11). It simply means putting sin to death, what the Puritan William Ames (1576–1633) called “the wasting away of sin.”
As we have seen, the Spirit is engaged in mortal combat with the flesh. The desires of the regenerate nature wage war against the passions of the sinful nature. In this war there will be no truce. The spiritual nature cannot enter into peace negotiations with the sinful nature. Nor can it surrender. The Spirit must battle sin to the death. Therefore, when the Spirit captures the flesh, he does not simply hold it as a prisoner; he commits the ultimate act of war. The Spirit puts the sinful nature to death. And not just any death. The means of execution is crucifixion. This is how John Stott explains it: “To ‘take up the cross’ was our Lord’s vivid figure of speech for self-denial. Every follower of Christ is to behave like a condemned criminal and carry his cross to the place of execution. Now Paul takes the metaphor to its logical conclusion. We must not only take up our cross and walk with it, but actually see that the execution takes place. We are actually to take the flesh, our wilful and wayward self, and nail it to the cross.”
Consider how appropriate it is for the sinful nature to be crucified. Crucifixion was a shameful way to die. It was reserved for hardened criminals, for traitors and murderers, the scum of society. But what is more shameful than the sinful nature, which rebels against God and murders the human soul?
Crucifixion was a painful way to die, as painful a means of execution as human beings have ever devised. It was excruciating, in the full and proper sense of the word. Likewise, the mortification of sin is painful. It is not painful to the body (as if we had to abuse ourselves in order to please God), but to the soul. The reason sanctification is such a painful process is that there is always something excruciating about putting our sins to death. Our sinful nature loves them so much that we secretly hope that they will live.
Crucifixion was a gradual way to die, with its victims often lingering on the cross for days before they drew their last breath. John Brown wrote, “Crucifixion was a punishment appropriated to the worst crimes of the basest sort of criminals, and produced death, not suddenly, but gradually.” Similarly, “True Christians … do not succeed in completely destroying [the flesh] while here below; but they have fixed it to the Cross, and they are determined to keep it there till it expire.” When it comes to eliminating sin, there are no shortcuts, only a long, slow, painful death.
The last thing to be said about crucifixion is that it was always final. Those who were crucified may have died slowly, but they always died eventually, because soldiers ensured that the victims were not taken down from their crosses until they were really and truly dead. The same is true in the Spirit’s war against the flesh. God is not fighting a losing battle. The sinful nature has already received its mortal blow, and the Spirit will see to it that it remains on the cross until it expires. The question is not if it will die, but only when.
Sin received this death blow on the cross of Christ. We find the death of our own sinful nature in the death of Christ, through what J. I. Packer calls “cocrucifixion with Jesus Christ.” There is a connection between Galatians 5:24 and Galatians 2:20 (“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). But notice one very important difference. In chapter 2, we are crucified; in chapter 5, we do the crucifying: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh” (Gal. 5:24). This verse describes a crucifixion carried out by those who are literally “of Christ.” In other words, God’s own people are the executioners. Since the verb is expressed in the past tense, we know that this event has already taken place. But when? We first crucified the sinful nature at our conversion, when we came to faith in Jesus Christ. At that time we went to Calvary, where Christ was crucified. There we were united to him in his death. When we put our trust in him, it was not only to die for our sins, but also to put our sins to death. The cross of Christ means death to our flesh.
The trouble is that our sinful nature has a way of trying to climb back down from that cross. When it does, it is able to make a remarkably speedy recovery, partly because we have a way of helping it. We are sometimes tempted to remove the nails, help our old sinful nature down from the cross, and nurse it back to health. This is why we struggle with so-called besetting sins—sins that we commit so often that they become bad habits.
This has to stop. Do not administer first aid to your flesh. Instead, treat it the way Jesus was treated at Calvary. Mortify your sinful nature. Put it to death! From time to time, whenever it shows signs of life, say, “Oh no you don’t! Don’t try to climb down from there. Get back up on that cross where you belong!” Then pound the nails in a little deeper. If you belong to Christ, you have crucified your sinful nature, with all its selfish desire. Do not resuscitate it. Do not give it CPR. Do not keep it on life support. Just leave it on the cross and let it die.
Keep in Step with the Spirit
There are two sides to sanctification in the Christian life. One is mortification, the putting to death of the sinful nature. The other is vivification, the coming to life of the regenerate nature. At the same time that we are putting our flesh to death, we are being revived by the Holy Spirit. These two aspects of sanctification—mortification and vivification—go together. As Calvin put it, “The death of the flesh is the life of the Spirit.”
This brings us to the second thing that the Christian must do to remain fruitful, which is to walk with the Spirit: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). The New English Bible offers a helpful paraphrase: “If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct our course.”
In this verse, as he so often does, the apostle Paul follows an indicative with an imperative; he tells us to become what we are. It is a fact: Those who belong to Jesus live in the Spirit. At regeneration, the Holy Spirit enters the heart of every Christian. Yet we must keep on living in the Spirit, which is precisely what the Galatians were failing to do. Paul had already asked them, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).
By starting and then stopping in this way, the Galatians had fallen out of step with God’s Spirit. The way the New International Version translates this verse accurately captures the metaphor: “let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). When the apostle speaks of “keeping in step,” he is really talking about following orders. The Greek term for “keeping in step” (stoichōmen) comes from the military. It means to stay in formation. First, soldiers would line up in ranks and files. Then, in order to maintain good military discipline, they would stay in line as they marched.
Soldiers not only march in formation, but also run in formation. When they do, there is only one thing they have to worry about, which is keeping in step. They do not need to worry about where they are going, or how they will get there. They do not need to guess how much farther they have to go. Their commanding officer will give them their orders as necessary. The only thing soldiers need to know how to do is step in time. It is the same way in the Christian life. The Holy Spirit is God’s drill sergeant. It is his job to keep us in line. As he barks out the cadence, all we have to do is keep our place in the formation, running in step with his commands.
This analogy shows us where we ought to be in relation to other Christians. We do not run alone. Our brothers and sisters are right beside us. Ideally, we are matching them stride for stride. As long as we maintain good discipline, there will not be any pushing and shoving in the ranks, the kind of “provoking” and “envying” that Paul warns about in Galatians 5:26. Instead, by staying in formation, we will maintain our unity in the Spirit. A good unit never lets one of its men fall behind. If a soldier stops running because of injury, discouragement, or fatigue, his buddies will circle around and gather him back into his unit. So also in the church we are called to maintain unity by going back to help those who have fallen.
Keeping in step takes discipline, and so does spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit rarely works in extraordinary ways. Instead, he uses the ordinary means of grace to bring spiritual growth: the reading and preaching of God’s Word, the sacraments of baptism and communion, and the life of prayer. Contrary to what so many Christians seem to believe, true spiritual growth does not come from some special experience of the Holy Spirit. Instead, it comes from walking with the Spirit every day until, finally, keeping in step with him becomes a holy habit.
J.I. Packer’s explanation of how the Spirit works is worth quoting at length:
The Spirit works through means—through the objective means of grace, namely, biblical truth, prayer, fellowship, worship, and the Lord’s Supper, and with them through the subjective means of grace whereby we open ourselves to change, namely, thinking, listening, questioning oneself, examining oneself, admonishing oneself, sharing what is in one’s heart with others, and weighing any response they make. The Spirit shows his power in us, not by constantly interrupting our use of these means with visions, impressions, or prophecies … (such communications come only rarely, and to some believers not at all), but rather by making these regular means effective to change us for the better and for the wiser as we go along.… Habit forming is the Spirit’s ordinary way of leading us on in holiness.… Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control are all of them habitual … ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
Packer goes on to stress that “Holiness by habit forming is not self-sanctification by self-effort, but is simply a matter of understanding the Spirit’s method and then keeping in step with him.” This is how God grows good spiritual fruit. The more we keep in step with the Holy Spirit through the Word, sacraments, and prayer, the more fruitful we become.