‘But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God’ (Galatians 5:18-21).
What a horrid warfare rages in our souls between the flesh and the Spirit! ‘But’ – how good it is to read that word! It means the Apostle has more to tell us about this matter – namely, that if we are led by God the Holy Spirit, as children are led by the hand, and taught to live by faith in Christ, we ‘are not under the law’.
This is another way of saying what Paul teaches earlier, in verse 16: ‘Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh’. That believers are ‘not under the law’ means (among other things) that the law no longer has the ability to stir up the sinful tendencies of the natural man.
Romans 7:5 says: ‘When we were in the flesh, the motions of sins which were [aroused] by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death’. This is no longer the case for those who are ‘led by the Spirit’.
The works of the flesh
What are these ‘motions of sins’ or ‘works of the flesh’? Verses 19-21, quoted above, tell us. Indeed, we do not have to look far to see these vile ‘works’ – we find them in our own hearts. This we must confess if we are honest before God.
When Paul uses the term ‘flesh’ he does not mean the physical body, but rather the fallen nature of man. As natural men, our thoughts, our affections, our consciences, and our wills are all governed by sin.
The flesh is the ‘carnal mind’, which is enmity against God. It will not and cannot please God (Romans 8:6-7). It asserts itself in works that are clearly opposed to the Spirit of God. They are manifestly the works of the flesh – manifest before God, manifest by the law, and manifest in the consciences of men.
What Paul describes here are not things learned from bad company but evils arising from the corrupt hearts of fallen men (Mark 7:20-23).
Sins of passion and profanity
Paul first mentions sins of passion. Passion is a disease of the heart that betrays itself in constant restlessness. It is never satisfied with what it possesses. Sins of passion include (but are not limited to) what we commonly call ‘sexual sins’ – adultery, fornication, uncleanness and -lasciviousness.
Society (and often even the religious world) tolerates and even promotes these evils. But they are things in direct opposition to both the law of God and the gospel of the grace of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Next, the Apostle speaks of sins of profanity – idolatry and witchcraft. ‘Idolatry’ certainly includes covetousness (Colossians 3:5), but here it has specific reference to the worship of false gods and images. Idolatry is the substitution of anything, or any person, in place of the love, adoration and desire of the true God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. ‘Witchcraft’ is the use of magic to accomplish real or supposed superhuman acts. The carnal mind turns to the absurdities of witchcraft (fortune tellers, horoscopes, etc.) and rejects the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.
Sins of pride
Next, Paul names a long list of what might be called sins of pride. ‘Hatred’ is murderous intent. ‘Variance’ is fighting and quarrelling. ‘Emulations’ are a rising of temper because of the honour or happiness enjoyed by someone else. ‘Wrath’ is the violent passion that seeks revenge.
‘Strife’ is the disruption of peace and harmony, causing discord (James 3:14-16). Strife is always the result of pride: ‘He that is of a proud heart stirreth up strife’ (Proverbs 28:25).
‘Seditions’ are factions and divisions – whether social, domestic or religious. ‘Heresy’ is the result of that miserable pride which sets itself up as a judge of God’s Word.
‘Envyings’ are those uneasy, grieving vexations of the mind that arise because we resent the good others enjoy. Envy destroys the soul (Proverbs 14:30).
‘Murders’ destroy life to gratify hatred and wrath. ‘Drunkenness’ is intoxication of the mind and body with drugs, alcohol or other means. ‘Revellings’ are the uncontrolled riotousness of drunks.
At the end of verse 21 the Apostle tells us plainly that people who ‘do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God’. They are unregenerate people, utterly without grace and life in Christ.
Henry Mahan writes: ‘Understand that these sinful practices are characteristics of the flesh, and though we have done these things – and the potential to do them is still present in our flesh (as evidenced by Abraham, David, Lot and Peter) – yet this is not our pattern of life. This is not the practice of the believer!
‘Our tenor of life and the bent of our wills is holiness, righteousness and peace. Those who would still live by these principles and practices of the flesh are not redeemed and shall not inherit the kingdom of God’.
So then, declares Paul, ‘If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die. But if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God’ -(Romans 8:13).
‘Led by the Spirit’ implies that God has given us life in Christ, that we are born of God. A dead person cannot be led. ‘It also supposes some strength,’ wrote John Gill, ‘though a good deal of weakness. Were there no spiritual strength derived from Christ, they could not be led. And if there was no weakness, there would be no need of leading’.
All who are led of the Spirit are led out of the paths of bondage and sin, ruin and destruction – away from Sinai’s fiery mount and all trust in works and personal righteousness – to Christ.
We are led to him for shelter, safety and salvation. The Spirit of God leads us to Christ’s sin-atoning blood for pardon and cleansing, to his righteousness for justification and sanctification, and to his fulness for every supply of grace.
The Spirit guides us into all truth and causes believing sinners to walk in the paths of righteousness, looking to Christ alone as our hope before God. He leads in grace through all our pilgrimage and leads at last to glory.
Not under law
Being led by the Spirit, living by faith in Christ, we have nothing to fear from the law. Those who are born of God, who live by faith in Christ, are no longer under the law (Romans 6:14,15; 7:4; 10:4)
Read it again: ‘Ye are not under the law’. Led by the Spirit of God to Christ alone for righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, we are free from the law – both in fact and in our consciences.
Trusting Christ, we possess the comfortable knowledge and experience of freedom from the law – from all possibility of condemnation – because we are assured of our indestructible acceptance with God through the merits of our Redeemer.
Believers do not need the law to force them to the performance of legal duties and religious activity. They delight in the law of God after the inward man because it is written in their hearts and on their minds (Hebrews 8:10). Constrained by the love of Christ, they cheerfully serve their Saviour and one another.
God’s saints are not mercenaries but volunteers.
Life in the Spirit
What is Paul describing? Is it a ‘deeper’ life? Is it a ‘higher’ life? Is it a life that some believers enjoy, while others live as ‘carnal Christians’? Are there class distinctions in Christ’s kingdom?
The answer is an emphatic ‘No!’ The life Paul describes in this passage is the life of faith in Christ: ‘The just shall live by faith’. God the Holy Spirit imparts this faith to us and creates life in us by his omnipotent grace.
We do not make ourselves alive by faith. It is God’s Spirit who gives us a life of faith in Christ. Just as the natural man lives by breathing, so the children of God live by believing. Those who do not live in the Spirit but in the flesh – who are led not by the Spirit but by the lusts of the flesh – are yet dead in sin (Romans 8:1-14).
To ‘walk in the Spirit’ (v. 16) is to be ‘led of the Spirit’ (v. 18). And those who so walk bear fruit by the Spirit, having ‘crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts’ (vv. 22-25). The whole emphasis here is the work of God the Holy Spirit in us, not a work we do for God.