Galatians 5: 19 “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;”
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious” Paul begins to get specific—to individually list actions which are manifestations of the “flesh,” and to contrast these concepts with a specific list of the fruit of the Spirit immediately after, the result of “living” by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). But this is not a body vs. Spirit dichotomy. While this verse’s “vices” all have to with sexuality, we can’t fall into that trap. Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, emphasized that the body and Spirit had nothing to do with each other – it was “body, bad; human spirit,"good.” The Old Testament Jewish notion wasn’t a whole lot different. “Flesh” to them meant human finiteness, animalistic tendencies, and mortality. It meant moral weakness and susceptibility to sin. The Spirit, however, provided miraculous power to speak prophetically and to do powerful things. So, like the Greeks, the Jews saw the sinful nature, or flesh and the Spirit as having nothing in common. (See, e.g., Genesis 6:3).
While there is a kernel of truth in these presumptions, we must be careful not to let Platonic- like philosophy influence our biblical worldview. It’s not a matter of body verse spirit. Both in worldly thought and in the church, there is an obsession with the body, and sexual matters. Many Christians feel if you can just overcome sexual sin, you’ve got it made. While important, just focusing on avoiding the immoral acts listed in this verse isn’t the end – as can be seen by the other acts of the “flesh” in the rest of the list. Paul’s focus here on "flesh" verses "Spirit" changes the focus of the struggle. The believer who is truly a “son of God,” a “child of the promise,” – truly born again and in an intimate relationship with Jesus – has had his nature changed. God’s presence now indwells and lives inside the believer. This transformation (see Galatians 2:20, 6:15 and 2 Corinthians 5:17) allows believers to live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) and have a new moral ability – the ability to supernaturally reflect God’s own character in the way they live.
Paul starts the list with three sexual sins. (As an aside, is this list meant to be exhaustive in any way? Most conservative bible scholars treat the other “lists” Paul makes – including the fruit of the Spirit later in this chapter, as “all there is.”) The NIV has three sexual sins listed – “sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery.” The New American Standard and Amplified versions have the first two the same, but list “sensuality” and “indecency” respectively as the third “vice” in verse 19. The King James Version lists 4 sexual vices where the others have only three – “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lasciviousness.”
There are actually four words in the original Greek. The first of these four Greek words can really only be translated as “adultery. “ This has a very specific meaning – intercourse between a married person and someone not his/her spouse. The second Greek word, “porneia” (I wonder which English word has its roots here?) is a more inclusive but still quite specific term, covering any illicit sexual relationship of any kind – adultery, fornication (sex between unmarried people), homosexual or lesbian sex, bestiality, incest or any intercourse with a close relative, and intercourse with a divorced person. (This about covers any sexual relationship outside of marriage). The third Greek word here is “akatharsia,” which is a more general term. It means anything unclear in a moral sense – and while it is more often applied to sexual situations, it wasn’t necessarily limited to sex. This covers lust, the overly luxurious, and generally profligate living. This also covers the concepts of impure thoughts and motives. The last Greek word in verse 19, “aselgeia” appears to be an amplification of the one just before it. This implies unbridled lust, licentiousness (that is, unabashedly and unrestrained, shameless sexual behavior) and wantonness (over the top, careless, wild and unrestrained). This is sexual behavior that goes beyond the pale – outrageous, insolent, shameless behavior. Thus, the entire gamut of sexual issues beyond the sanctity of marriage is defined as “acts of the flesh,” ranging from impure thoughts to adultery and the most outrageous sexual behavior imaginable. It’s important to understand the specificity of Paul’s list here – not to lay condemnation but see that this is serious business. Most of the moral philosophers of Paul’s era simply condemned the excesses in indulging in the flesh, and even the Jews of that time recognized the difficulty in keeping the entirety of the law, and often excused it. But Paul is saying these behaviors, in their entirety, from motivation to full blown excess, are evil (and verse 21 contains a warning). But remember, Paul is not putting the body verses the Spirit. Rather, by making this list, he is bringing specificity to human nature, and contrasting this later with the fruit of the Spirit. These works of the “flesh” are merely the fruit of living life without God’s power and without the connection of a relationship with Him.