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Galatians 5:19-21

October 3, 1999

Text Comment

v.21     The vices mentioned fall into four distinct groups. The first three terms refer to sexual immorality; the next two to sins associated with false gods; the next eight refer to the various sins of rivalry; and the last two to drunkenness. Each term has a history and a set of uses, of course, and it may be that the readers of Paul’s letter would have detected fine nuances between them, but, by and large, it is a list of vices in which comprehensiveness is achieved by stringing together terms with similar meanings, or that refer to various aspects of a single vice.

“and the like” indicates that the list was not intended to be exhaustive. It is rather representative.

It is interesting and important that this list is quite similar to other such lists of vices found in the NT. E.g. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; etc. But, especially noteworthy is the similarity of this list in Galatians 5:19-21 to the list in 2 Corinthians 12:20-21. “I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder … and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.” Six of the words in each list are the same, and four of them occur in the same order, consecutively in both lists (beginning with “hatred”). This similarity and the generally similar character of the several lists of vices in the NT have led biblical scholars to wonder if there were already existing lists circulating in Jewish and Christian ethical teaching and that those lists were taken over and adapted for use by Paul in his letters.

“those who live like this will not inherit …” certainly gives the lie to the charge that the judaizers apparently were making, that Paul’s doctrine was an encouragement to license, that he taught, as Paul said in Romans that his enemies were saying he did, “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). “I warn you, as I did before” indicates that Paul’s demand that Christians live holy lives was a part of his teaching in Galatia from the beginning.

Now, obviously, the sins that Paul mentioned here, he mentioned because they were problems for the Galatian Christians. That seems obvious on the face of it. The Apostle clearly is not talking about theoretical problems and temptations. What is more, the sins mentioned, especially the sexual sins, the idolatry, and the drunkenness, were sins that the Roman culture of that period had long tolerated and had become so common that they were not thought to be reprehensible, unless carried to real excess. But, we have the proof of this in the striking fact that by far the largest number of terms concern sins of rivalry and dissension of one kind or another. Eight terms in the list fall into that category of vice, as opposed to three for sexual sin, and two each for forms of false worship and inebriation. But we have learned just above, in vv. 14 and 15 that dissension and acrimony were definite problems in the Galatian church as Paul wrote his letter to the Christians there. If in the one case Paul is responding to the facts of life in the Galatian church, it seems fair to assume he is doing so in the other cases as well.

But, brothers and sisters, surely there are lessons to be learned from the fact that Christians and a Christian church should have to be warned against sins such as these, that Christians should be struggling with vices such as these.

First there is a warning in the way in which the church is tempted by its culture and its vices (and virtues) often far too shaped by that culture rather than by the pure Word of God.

It is certainly a fact that a church concentrates on certain virtues often precisely because they are regarded as particularly praiseworthy in the culture. Christians would not think that they were taking their marching orders from the world, but, in fact, they often do. For example, patriotism was given a place in the pantheon of Christian virtues in the years of my upbringing that it does not have in the Bible. In that respect, we were shaped too much by our culture and too little by the Bible in what we viewed to be virtuous behavior. The influence of a culture is not always bad, of course. The church can have drifted so far from the biblical standards of right and wrong that God must use the world to judge and correct those standards. The American civil rights movement, which was not, alas, in the main, a movement started and led by evangelical Christians, is a case in point.

Also, every culture poses certain temptations to the church and to Christians by making certain vices less odious. In days past, some of the genuinely disgusting features – the cruelty, the patronizing of other human beings — of British imperialism were simply invisible to Victorian evangelicals, they were so British. In America, slavery, even the forcible oppression of huge numbers of people who had originally been kidnapped in their homeland, was defended with passion as a Christian act by people who had simply been blinded and deafened by their culture to the law and the spirit of the gospel. So in South Africa during the time of “apartheid.” In our day, sexual sins, promiscuity and adultery, have become much less scandalous than once they were, in large part because they are so pandemic in the culture. Materialism in many forms is virtually unrecognized in our culture, in large part because we live in a profoundly materialist culture and have come to terms with that, indeed, come to terms so much that many Christians, who ought to know better, continue to equate material prosperity with God’s blessing. A large number of evangelical Christians, for example, see no problem with playing the lottery in hopes of winning the big one, the Lord’s warning about the perils of riches notwithstanding.

For the same reason, in our society, democratic, egalitarian to the bone, the authority of the church falls on hard times, Christians spend vast amounts of time and money on entertainment, sports are invested with far greater significance than they deserve, as is the pursuit of personal happiness and self-fulfillment in many different ways. All of these are particular temptations for Christians in America today because they are the values and the excitements and the interests of the culture in which we live. Similarly, in a scientific, naturalist culture such as ours, we find it very difficult to attach much significance to the Devil and his evil spirits. Korean Christians are, as a rule, more biblical than we are at this point, because their culture in many ways opens them up to the presence of unseen spirits.

On the other hand, we don’t worry overmuch about worshipping idols, bowing down to images, large and small or praying to or keeping shrines to our ancestors because those things are so alien to American life that we find them alien to our own ways of thinking. We want to believe that we take that aversion to idols from the Bible, but the evidence suggests that were idols a large part of our cultural life, we would struggle with them too more than we do.

The significance of all of this is to warn us to be more self-aware, to be resolutely biblical in the judgment of ourselves. When we see this list of vices in Galatians 5:19-21 and are tempted to say – my goodness, what was wrong with these people that they needed to be told not to dally in witchcraft and not to be drunks – have the good sense to realize that people would say the same thing about us, just in different ways: good grief, those people live for their creature comforts; those people are complaining all the time about their taxes as if they were oppressed when they live like kings compared to most of the world; and they live as if there were no unseen world, no spirits, no devil, and on and on.

Every culture is dangerous for the influence it exerts on the church. It was in Galatia in Paul’s day, it is in Tacoma in ours.

Second, and related to the first, is the way in which different Christians must be addressed about different sins.


It is striking, for example, how different the vices of pagan Galatians were from the vices of Judean Jews. The Lord does not tell his audiences not to engage in drunken revelries or to practice witchcraft. He deals with another set of sins altogether, those most common in a morally strict, religiously serious culture such as first century Judaism. You remember what sort of things he says, especially in the Sermon on the Mount: he warns them against hypocrisy in religious duties and exercises, against a legalistic corruption of the gospel, against a tendency to major on minors while neglecting the weightier matters of the law, and, especially, against a spirit of self-congratulation and spiritual pride.

What difference does it make, really, which road one takes to hell? And, is it not the Bible’s teaching that the greatest sinner will always be found in a church rather than in a prison. To whom much is given, much is required.

I remember Chuck Colson, when speaking to groups of inmates, used to distinguish them from those who had come from the outside, by saying that the difference was that the inmates had been caught, while the other hadn’t. Well, to be sure, it is not an unimportant distinction between a man who kills another man and a man who simply hates another man. Society requires as does the Bible, of course, that we respect that difference. Still, at bottom, one can go to everlasting doom as well for the one as for the other. In the ultimate sense, Colson was right. We are all guilty of capital crimes, and it is small comfort if we consider ours to be “white collar.” “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will in no wise inherit the kingdom of heaven.” The Scribes and Pharisees were nothing if they were not strictly moral, upright, religious people.

We would do well to remember that the Bible is concerned to root out whatever sins we are most inclined to commit, because it is sin itself – coarse and crude or polite and sophisticated, it is all the same – it is sin itself that kills the soul forever. And, what is more, it ill becomes hypocrites and Pharisees to look down on prostitutes and tax collectors. Especially if they are Christians!

Third, we have here to face as well the fact, however unwelcome, of the enormity of sin in the Christian Church.


This is probably what struck us about Paul’s list of vices when we first heard it. Can we have a church that has to be told not to be so sexually immoral as to practice debauchery? The terms seems to suggest wantonness, no regard for public restraint. Good grief, can there be Christians who need to be told that?  And to be told not to practice sorcery and not to participate in drunken orgies?

Oh, yes. In the very same way that we have to tell Christians, supposedly people who have embraced the gospel of love with all their hearts, not to look down on people, and not to think too highly of themselves, and not to be so regularly unwilling to make sacrifices on behalf of others.

No one can read the Bible without accepting that there always has been and always will be ghastly evil in the church and in the lives of Christian people. Our sins have been forgiven, they have not yet been eradicated. And not just the polite sins that are accepted on all sides as common defects. David committed adultery and murder. The man in Corinth was engaged in incest. And so it has continued.

Listen, in the course of my years as a minister, I have seen even ministers and known of ministers who are today members in good standing in the Christian church but who, at one time, had affairs with women in their church, or even with girls in their church, who were caught drunk, or stealing, or lying or beating their wives or children. And what is true of ministers is true of church members by the thousands.

We maintain so glibly this veneer of polite respectability, but bad things are being done all the time by people in the church of God. And, there is a great deal of the other kind of sin as well – the hypocrisy and the judgmentalism and the cruelty and the indifference toward the needs of others and the practice of self-love. And certainly there is division and jealousy and friction.

I do not deny, of course, that the grace of God makes a change in people. It does, and we have that point yet to make. There is and must be a difference, an observable difference between the followers of Christ and unbelievers. But, that fact does not diminish the fact that there is a great deal of positive evil in the church, always has been and always will be. There is a great deal more of that evil in this church than anyone knows. You know and I know that were all the facts known, we would think differently about one another.

That fact should make us all humble, much more tender toward one another, much readier to forgive, much more interested in building up and strengthening the brethren, much more watchful of ourselves and our children, and much more constantly preoccupied with the forgiveness of God, much more delighted in it and amazed by it.

Fourth and finally, we are forced here to reckon with the tension between continuing sin in the church, even egregious sin, and the fact that Paul concludes with, namely that these very sins, at a certain point, exclude those who commit them from salvation.

There is no other way round Paul’s words. He is telling people he regards as Christians not to commit sins that many of them have been committing and underscores his exhortation by reminding them that people who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

We are tempted to demand an explanation. If they are committing these sins then, by Paul’s statement in v. 21, they are not Christians. But if they are not Christians, then why is Paul addressing them as Christians and why does he admit in the previous few verses that there is a conflict between the Spirit and the flesh in a Christian life?

It is a tension hard to resolve, impossible really. You have it in the OT as well. In Leviticus and Numbers you read that there are certain sins for which there is no atonement. Among those sins are such things as murder and adultery. But David committed both and there was atonement for him. He says as much in Psalm 51.

Clearly there is a way in which these sins can be present as the residue of the flesh in even a genuinely Christian life, and then, there is a way in which the presence of these sins is such that all profession of faith in Christ is rendered null and void.

But, it is not always easy to know, even possible to know where that line is that separates a Christian sinner and an unsaved hypocrite. Consider, for example, the eight terms that describe the envious and quarreling behavior you often find among Christians. You remember the question the disciples put to the Lord at one point: Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? [Matthew 18:21] And you remember the Lord’s reply. “Not seven times, but seventy seven times.”

Well, what does that mean in regard to how much sinning there can be in a genuinely Christian life, even the sort of sinning Paul says here must finally exclude someone from an inheritance with the saints? You see, it is not an easy question. I knew a man, a PCA minister. My sister once sat under his ministry and appreciated it very much, especially what she took to be his insight into the grace of God and the liberation of the conscience in the gospel. That man committed suicide and afterward it was discovered that he had struggled for a long time, and not always successfully with homosexual desire. What do we make of that? Can anyone say that he was not a Christian? No. No one knows that. But, he was a man who was doing the very things that Paul warns Christians not to do here in these verses. What a mystery this is! The deepest mystery of all human life. And mystery it must remain. For the Bible does not get us off the horns of this dilemma in which we are required to believe in the real holiness of God’s people – “without holiness no one shall see the Lord” – and the real continuing sinfulness of those same people – “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?”

Sometimes it happens that the whole matter is brought to the surface by a sinful act that is scandalous and requires church discipline. Then one finds out whether a truly penitential spirit and genuine faith lie in the heart. But, often, it is not so simple. Others cannot be sure.

But, then, Paul isn’t speaking to others here. He isn’t telling others how to judge your heart. He is telling you what to make of your sins; telling you why you should be afraid of them; telling you why you should resist them with might and main; and make it the business of your life to put them to death.

The man, the woman, who is genuinely trying to do that, for the love of Christ and for the seriousness with which he or she takes the warnings of the Word of God, is the one Paul has described as living in the conflict characteristic of true Christian living. The one who is indifferent to these warnings, incautious and uncaring, who is not moved by the love of Christ to seek to live to please his or her Savior, is the one who will not inherit with the saints. But, then, he is likely to be little moved by that warning. He cannot hear it; he will not hear it. He does not see his sins for what they are.

There are passages like this all through the Bible, passages that awaken the conscience of the elect and faithful – however sinful they remain – and slip off the backs of the others in the church like water off a duck. How does it strike you?

I have seen this just this week: the eight terms in the middle about a quarreling, divisive, unloving spirit. A spirit that does not believe the best or hope for the best, a spirit that does keep a record of wrongs. Not here, God be praised. Though you and I know we are not above that, are we? But I have seen Christian people; I believe they are Christian people, leap at the false report, eager to accuse, eager to put the worst construction on what someone else has said or done, unwilling to keep their mouths shut about matters they do not fully know or understand, stirring the pot until a matter that brothers should have had no difficulty resolving has come to trouble an entire church.

I am sure; I surely hope, that these people will all, very soon, hate themselves for this stupid, ugly discord and dissension and judgmentalism. They will see it for what it is, the flesh, the principle of death, pure and simple. But, I do not say that they will necessarily repent nearly as soon or nearly as ferociously as they ought to and, if Christians, as they someday will for such behavior as does not become the followers of Christ and is no reflection of the grace that is in the gospel of Christ.

I believe v. 21 about sinners such as these not inheriting the kingdom of God. And I believe that there is a great deal of the flesh still present and at work in the hearts and lives of God’s people. Precisely how to locate the intersection of those two truths I do not know. I must believe them both and be true to them both.

And I agree with the wise man who said, “The Church is like the ark. You couldn’t stand the stench within, if it weren’t for the storm without.”

And so I want to walk humbly all my days, being merciful in my judgments of others because I know full well the extent of my own failure and continuing failure. And, at the same time, I want to be completely absorbed in the pursuit of holiness, lest, as even Paul himself did not scruple to say, “having preached to others, I myself might be disqualified for the prize!”