Having introduced the conflict that exists between the flesh and the Spirit, Paul in Galatians 5:18–26 elaborates on the nature of this contrast by means of a list of ethical vices and virtues. The catalog of vices or virtues was a well-established literary feature present in both Jewish and Greco-Roman literature. These lists identified behavior to be avoided and virtues to be emulated. 1
Carefully examine the vice and virtue lists in the passages below. In what ways are Paul’s lists in Galatians 5:19–24 similar to yet different from these lists? Jer. 7:9; Hos. 4:2; Mark 7:21, 22; 1 Tim. 3:2, 3; 1 Pet. 4:3; Rev. 21:8.
Although Paul was well aware of vice and virtue lists, there are significant differences in the way he uses the two lists in Galatians. First, even though Paul contrasts the two lists, he does not refer to them in the same manner. He labels the vice list as the “works of the flesh” but the virtue list as the “fruit of the Spirit.” This is an important distinction. As James D. G. Dunn writes, “The flesh demands, but the Spirit produces. Where the one list breathes an air of anxious self-assertiveness and frenetic self-indulgence, the other speaks more of concern for others, serenity, resilience, reliability. The one features human manipulation, the other divine enabling or engracing, reinforcing the point that inner transformation is the source of responsible conduct.”—The Epistle to the Galatians, p. 308.
The second intriguing difference between Paul’s two lists is that the vice list is deliberately labeled as plural in number: “works of the flesh.” “Fruit of the Spirit,” however, is singular. This difference may suggest that the life lived in the flesh can promote nothing more than division, turmoil, divisiveness, and disunity. In contrast, the life lived in the realm of the Spirit produces one fruit of the Spirit, which manifests itself in nine qualities that foster unity.
In this context, some people claim that what a person believes about God does not really matter as long as he or she is sincere. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Paul’s list of vices suggests the opposite: corrupt views about God lead to distorted ideas about sexual behavior and religion, and ethics, resulting in the breakdown of human relationships. Furthermore, they can lead to the loss of eternal life, as well (Gal. 5:21).
Look through the list of “works of the flesh.” In what ways can you see each as a violation of one or more of the Ten Commandments?