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What is the “Flesh” in Galatians 5:19-23?

What is the “Flesh” in Galatians 5:19-23?

There is no such thing as a “sin nature.” The Bible never refers to the “sin nature.” It is a myth of modern theology. However, the Bible DOES teach a lot about the “flesh.” This study looks at Galatians 5:19-23 to learn what the flesh actually is, and what we are to live in the Spirit rather than in the flesh.

Note that this study is an excerpt from my Gospel Dictionary online course. This course considers 52 key words of the Gospel and thousands of biblical texts. The course contains over 100 hours Bible teaching. You can take the course by joining my online discipleship group.

So let us see what we can learn about the flesh from Galatians 5:19-23.

The Fruit of the Flesh in Galatians 5:19-23; 6:8

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life (Galatians 6:8).

The church in Galatia was divided over the issue of circumcision. Some argued that circumcision was required by God, while others said that it was not. Paul wrote to the Galatians to weigh in on this matter.

The term flesh often refers to the tendency of humans to focus primarily on fleshly, material matters for decision making, and when it comes to religion, to focus only on external behaviors and actions as a way of deciding who was in the right with God and who was not.

The Circumcision of the Flesh

The issue of circumcision is a perfect example of how religious zeal for an external behavior causes some to judge, condemn, and divide from others people. Some were even accusing, cursing, and condemning others over the issue of circumcision (see Accursed).

The letter to the Galatians is one of the places where Paul exhibits some profound humor and wit. Since the word flesh can euphemistically refer to the male sex organ, and since the Galatians were giving in to their fleshly desire to separate from one another over the external religious behavior of circumcision, Paul uses the term flesh to refer to both the male sex organ and the religious issue of circumcision.

So, for example, in once place Paul writes that if cutting a bit of skin away from one’s “member” makes them more spiritual than others, maybe they could become super spiritual by cutting everything away and emasculating themselves (Galatians 5:12).

This is theological humor at its finest! Paul makes a dick joke to reveal the infertility of fleshly thinking. Cutting some flesh from the male sex organ does nothing to make a person morally or spiritually superior to others. Neither the flesh nor the cutting of it produces the righteousness of God.

The Fruit of the Flesh

There is something, however, that the flesh does produce. Paul lists the “fruit” (or offspring) of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21. And while many of the behaviors listed in these verses are sexual sins (adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness), most of the behaviors listed are those that come from a sense of moral and religious superiority over others (hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders).

Paul’s point is that cutting a bit of skin from one’s body does nothing to make one more righteous and holy before God, but in fact, can lead to the exact opposite. What matters, therefore, is cutting away the behaviors and attitudes from one’s life that are damaging and destructive toward others.

This is why Paul encourages the Galatians to not be led by their “flesh,” but by the Spirit, which will result in character and behaviors like that of Jesus Christ.

To put it crassly, Paul is saying, “Don’t be led by a dick; be led by the Spirit.” To truly accomplish God’s will in our lives, we must follow the example of Jesus and the spirit of the law by practicing love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Such things are the true signs of a godly person.

This is the point Paul makes in the concluding remarks of the main body of his letter. In Galatians 6:8 he writes that sowing with the flesh results only in corruption, while sowing with the Spirit leads to everlasting life. The image of sowing seed with the flesh is another euphemism.

While the flesh is not evil, it cannot produce the righteous life that God wants and desires for His children. Christians cannot accomplish what God really desires for us in life by focusing on external and physical religious rituals such as circumcising the male sexual organ. Only a life led by the Spirit can produce what the Spirit of God wants in our lives.

At the end of the Galatians 6:8, Paul says that sowing in the Spirit allows us to reap everlasting life. This does not mean that living by the Spirit allows a person to gain or earn eternal life for themselves. Instead, Paul’s terminology is parallel to the terminology in Galatians 5:23 where he writes about inheriting the kingdom of God.

Since inheriting the kingdom of God means experiencing the rule and reign of God in our lives now, reaping eternal life also refers to experiencing some aspects of eternal life here and now.

Eternal life begins the moment we believe in Jesus for it, and while the full experience of eternal life awaits glorification in our resurrected bodies, we can begin to experience eternal life now by how we live as followers of Jesus. Just as we will live in light of spiritual realities for eternity, we can experience eternity now by living in light of these spiritual realities now.

What do you think of this explanation of the fruit of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-23? Let me know in the comments below!

The Gospel DictionaryUnderstanding the Gospel requires us to properly understand the key words and terms of the Gospel. Take my course, “The Gospel Dictionary” to learn about the 52 key words of the Gospel, and hundreds of Bible passages that use these words.

This course costs $297, but when you join the Discipleship group, you can to take the entire course for free.

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