In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists some examples of what he calls “the acts of the sinful nature.” It is not a comprehensive list, as that could potentially fill multiple volumes. Instead Paul mentions a dozen or so examples to illustrate how all humans have a sinful nature. In this post we’ll examine his list.
I’m going to organize his list in groups of sinful acts that are related. The first group is the sexuality group.
Paul mentions sexual immorality, which is the idea of fornication. We don’t use that word “fornication” all that much in contemporary English. Throughout Scripture, we read that God’s ideal for expression of human sexuality can be summarized like this: “sexuality is to be expressed within the marriage of one man and one woman.” Any other expression of sexuality outside of that is fornication. God’s heart is that his people will wait to have sex in marriage, and once married they will only have sex with their spouse. Everything else is the sin of sexual immorality.
Next Paul mentions the act of impurity. This is related to sexual immorality, but it is more extreme. This is not only sex before marriage and sex outside of marriage, but it also includes pornography, or other illicit acts.
Then there’s debauchery. That word describes sexual perversity of yet another level of intensity. This the person who expresses sexuality with little or no restraint. The last sin Paul mentions in the area of sexual expression is orgies, and it is just another extreme variation of immorality.
We live in a sexually indulgent culture. Our culture is actually similar to the culture the Galatian Christians lived in. When it came to expressing their sexuality, some people in the first century Roman Empire could be unrestrained, and this was behavior commonly accepted. Paul says that Christians should be different. But how about our culture?
Where our Christian culture today can fall prey to sexual sin is in the growing belief that sex before marriage is okay for two people who love each other. Or the similar belief that two people, if they have been dating a while, can move in together and have sex, because they believe they’re going to get engaged and married anyway. The biblical ethic is that the expression of sexuality is only for within marriage, and this is by far the wisest and best approach, not to mention that it flows from God’s heart for us.
Another way Christians can struggle with sexual sin is pornography. Porn is a massive industry that is addictive, mind-altering, and the women involved are often mistreated. Put it all together and Christians are to practice Jesus’ way of purity when it comes to expressing their sexuality.
But let’s keep looking at the list and next group he mentions is related to other religions. In verse 20, he mentions idolatry. What is idolatry? It is placing our faith, and giving our worship, to anything other than God. It is believing in something else to provide for us.
Money is the most obvious one in our culture. In the Bible, when money is referred to as an idol, it is called Mammon. Some view Mammon as a demonic force, which is common in idolatry. Idols are often rooted in the demonic.
In our society, one way we can idolize money is through the economic idea of capitalism. You can hear people talk about capitalism, as if the making of money is the cure-all for all the ills in the world. The problem is that you don’t read that in the Bible. If you look at the behavior of the earliest Christians, they were decidedly different. They practiced equality among themselves. If one person or family or group had wealth and another person, family or group was in need, the wealthy ones divested themselves of that wealth in order to help those in need. Mammon is an idol that says, “No, you need the extras, the comforts, the toys.” Mammon says, “You earned it. And those people could have it too if they worked as hard as you did.”
Mammon is a lying idol. Don’t believe it.
Media can be an idol. Power can be an idol. Celebrity can be an idol. There are many American idols.
Next in the other religions group, Paul mentions witchcraft. In Paul’s day, as in ours, this is the use of magic spells and potions to influence people. It is an connection to the demonic world. And something we Christians stay far away from.
Next there is Anger group: Hatred. Fits of rage. Anger is a powerful emotion. It is not evil in an of itself. Anger is a neutral emotion. Anger is like an internal warning sign, “Danger! You or someone is about to be hurt, or your will is about to be crossed.” If we can control it, it can lead to good things. Anger can right injustice. But often we can’t control anger. Often anger controls us. And it leads us to hurt others, to lash out.
Then there is Division group: Discord. Dissensions. Factions. This is a person who sometimes sneakily goes around trying to plant ideas in people’s minds, encouraging them to question and distrust and break away. This can happen in a church. That is the act of the sinful nature. If people in the church approach you with even a hint of divisiveness, quote Galatians 5:20 and tell them, “No.” There should be no backroom deals, no underhanded, divisive conversations. They are church family killers and Spirit-filled Christians have nothing to do with it.
Then there is the Desire group: Jealousy. Selfish Ambition. Envy. This person is not content. They feel an emptiness deep down inside. They look at others who seem to be successful, well-liked or wealthy, and it makes them so mad. Green with envy with call it. They start to pursue filling the emptiness.
Finally, one other outlier: drunkenness. Drunkenness is clearly condemned in Scripture. Paul writes in Ephesians 5, “Do not get drunk on wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” When we get drunk, we lose control. The alcohol in our bloodstream makes it difficult for us to function properly. All kinds of bad things happen when people are drunk. So instead, we should be under the control of the Spirit.
Just to show that his list is not exhaustive, he tags on at the end, “and the like.” Paul is just illustrating a concept, that the sinful nature is a powerful temptress.