Christian freedom cannot be understood without distinguishing it from modern ideas of liberty. Many people define freedom as the ability to do whatever we desire without fear of consequences. But this is false liberty, for the more we indulge our sinful desires, the more binding our evil inclinations become (Rom. 1:18–32). Biblical freedom, however, is liberty from our fleshly nature and the ability to follow the Spirit into holiness (Gal. 5:13–18).
Withdrawal from the world into a life defined by the Mosaic law, not our union with Christ, is not the answer to evil. Old covenant Israel’s failure to keep Torah and glad embrace of pagan ways reveals that submission to grace and the pursuit of God’s Spirit is the only way to defeat sin (Isa. 32:14–17; Rom. 9:30–10:4), since life in the Holy Spirit is incompatible with the works of the flesh.
Paul lists such works in Galatians 5:19–21 as he continues to exposit Christian freedom, demonstrating that real liberty is not licentiousness. His list is not exhaustive, and he only gives a representative sample of wicked deeds (v. 21). Also, the works of the flesh are condemned in the so-called moral portions of the Law as well (see Ex. 20:1–17); thus, even though we are not related to the Torah in the same way as were old covenant believers, we are still to live according to its ethical emphases. Some works of the flesh, like jealousy, tend to be inward in nature and invisible to others. This warns us to examine our hearts daily that we might kill the flesh both inwardly and outwardly. Moreover, dissensions and rivalries are often nurtured within the church itself. Let us not call holy a divisive spirit that invites us to break fellowship over trivial matters.
The works of the flesh are contrary to life in the Spirit (Gal. 5:21), and all who do them habitually and unrepentantly prove they never received the Spirit and never had real faith. Those led by the Holy Spirit prove it not by never doing such works, but in repenting of them and striving against them (1 John 1:5–10). Martin Luther writes, “It is one thing to be provoked by the flesh, and another thing to assent to the flesh, and without fear or remorse to perform and fulfill the works thereof, and to continue therein, and yet to counterfeit holiness.”