Works of the Flesh vs. Fruit of the Spirit Word Study

The apostle Paul sharply contrasted the things we naturally do (works of the flesh) with the things the Holy Spirit helps produce in faithful Christians (fruit of the Spirit). What can we learn from the key words in Galatians 5:19-23?

One of the greatest gifts God gives to Christians is His Holy Spirit upon repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). Without having and being led by the Spirit, we will display the “works of the flesh” and “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19, 21). But with God’s Spirit guiding us, we become “sons of God” and “heirs of God” (Romans 8:14-17). “He who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (Galatians 6:8).

Paul powerfully contrasted the natural works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. How can we avoid the first and grow in the second?

One tool for deeper understanding of the works of the flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit is a study of the original Greek words. Following the detailed study below, you will also find links to more general-purpose studies of these important passages.

The works of the flesh: Galatians 5:19

“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness …”

Works of the flesh: Literally, works of flesh, implying the actions the flesh produces, not the ultimate outcome of those actions. As the list progresses, some of these matters are clearly not a matter of fleshly desire but are actions produced by our human nature.

Flesh (sarx): The flesh denotes mere human nature, the earthly nature of man apart from divine influence. Kosmos (the world; see 1 John 2:15) is all that goes into making the world as we know it, apart from God’s influence. Sarx is the same concept on an individual level.

Evident: Manifest, easily seen.

In a sense, Paul is saying, “You don’t have to wonder whether you are being led by God’s Spirit or your own fleshly desires. Each produces clearly visible works.”

We might also note that God’s Spirit does not simply lead us to rote obedience to law—it is much broader than that. God’s Spirit helps us change our minds and hearts, not simply leading us into a new level of legalism.

Which are: This is intended to be an illustrative list, not a complete list of every possible sin motivated by human desire apart from God’s guidance.

Each of the words in these verses is worthy of study. Each one helps give us new insights into what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.Each of the words in these verses is worthy of study. Each one helps give us new insights into what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and not simply a legalist wanting to prove himself by adherence to a written code. God never intended His law to be limited to a narrow list of dos and don’ts, but a broad guide for how to live.

Why would He want to do away with that? Why would anyone—led by the Holy Spirit—want to do away with that guidance?

Adultery (moicheía):

There is some textual question about whether this word should be included, especially since it is included in the next word porneía.

Fornication (porneía):

Includes all forms of sexual immorality.

Uncleanness (akatharsía):

Immorality (NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament); the impurity of lustful, luxurious, profligate living.

“Impurity; the word that Paul uses (akatharsia) is interesting. It can be used for the pus of an unclean wound, for a tree that has never been pruned, for material which has never been sifted. In its positive form (katharos, an adjective meaning pure) it is commonly used in housing contracts to describe a house that is left clean and in good condition. But its most suggestive use is that katharos is used of that ceremonial cleanness which entitles a man to approach his gods. Impurity, then, is that which makes a man unfit to come before God, the soiling of life with the things which separate us from him” (William Barclay).

Lewdness (asélgeia):

Licentiousness (NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament), unbridled lust or excess, wantonness, outrageousness, shamelessness, insolence toward accepted moral standards, debauchery, an open and reckless contempt for propriety (Expositor’s Bible Commentary); a person who is ready for any pleasure and doesn’t care what people think.

The works of the flesh: Galatians 5:20

“… Idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies …”

Idolatry (eidololatreía):

Putting other things in the place of God.

“It is the sin in which material things have taken the place of God” (William Barclay).

Sorcery (pharmakeía):

Can refer to drugs (not medicines) used to induce hallucinations or other mental states; magical arts; sorcery.

Idolatry involves moving God aside and serving physical things; sorcery is the next step in which a person begins to serve and deal with other supernatural powers.

Hatred (èchthrai):

The word is actually plural, showing that this characteristic can manifest itself in several ways; hatreds, enmities, the attitude of one “who is characteristically hostile to his fellow men” (William Barclay).

Contentions (èreis):

Strife, wrangling, contention, discord.

Four of the six times Paul uses this word it refers to discord within the Church (Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

“Originally this word had mainly to do with the rivalry for prizes. … More commonly it means the rivalry which has found its outcome in quarrellings and wrangling” (William Barclay).

Jealousies (zèloi):

“The desire to have what someone else has, wrong desire for what is not for us” (William Barclay).

“When zeal or anger originate from selfish motives and hurt pride, they are evil and harm others” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

Outbursts of wrath (thumoí):

“Fits of rage” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary); anger that boils up and subsides quickly.

Selfish ambitions (èritheiai):

“A selfish and self-aggrandizing approach to work” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary); electioneering or intriguing for office, a desire to put oneself forward, a partisan and fractious spirit.

Eritheia … originally meant the work of a hired labourer (erithos). So it came to mean work done for pay. It went on to mean canvassing for political or public office, and it describes the man who wants office, not from any motives of service, but for what he can get out of it” (William Barclay).

Dissensions (dichostasíai):


“Literally the word means a standing apart. After one of his great victories Nelson attributed it to the fact that he had the happiness to command a band of brothers. Dissension describes a society in which the very opposite is the case, where the members fly apart instead of coming together” (William Barclay).

Heresies (hairéseis):

Factions (NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament). The root word focuses on choice; dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims.

“This might be described as crystallized dissension. … The tragedy of life is that people who hold different views very often finish up by disliking, not each other’s views, but each other” (William Barclay).

The works of the flesh: Galatians 5:21

“… Envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Envy (phthónoi):

Envies (NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament).

“This word … is a mean word. Euripides called it ‘the greatest of all diseases among men.’ The essence of it is that it does not describe the spirit which desires, nobly or ignobly, to have what someone else has; it describes the spirit which grudges the fact that the other person has these things at all. It does not so much want the things for itself; it merely wants to take them from the other. The Stoics defined it as ‘grief at someone else’s good.’ … It is the quality, not so much of the jealous, but rather of the embittered mind” (William Barclay).

Murders (phónoi):

Beginning with the word hatred, these words have described the ways in which our selfish human desires can destroy relationships. The ultimate outcome is murder, not necessarily in a literal sense, but in character assassination and in treating others as if they were spiritually dead.

Drunkenness (méthai):

Drinking bouts (NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament), intoxication.

In the Greek world, drinking wine was very common, though it was normally watered down. This seems to refer to drinking for the purpose of becoming intoxicated, something that people do to numb the pain of a guilty conscience.

Revelries (kōmoi):

Carousing, pleasures that have degenerated into debauchery, orgies (Expositor’s Bible Commentary); “drinking parties involving unrestrained indulgence in alcoholic beverages and accompanying immoral behavior” (Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains).

And the like: There are many more specific examples that could be listed. This list merely illustrates some of the kinds of problems that can come from yielding to human desires.

Practice: The Greek is present tense, showing continuous action. It is not the person who quickly repents of a lapse in living a godly life.

The fact that Paul had preached these things to them when he was with them illustrates that his teaching was not simply an evangelistic message about “accepting Jesus.” It clearly included a message about how to live a moral life.

Will not inherit: Two important points are noted here. First, Paul saw the Kingdom of God as future, not present. It was something yet to be inherited. Second, he clearly shows that sinful living—breaking God’s laws—would exclude one from the Kingdom of God. He faithfully taught that we cannot save ourselves by physical actions, but he also showed that we can remove ourselves from the Kingdom by sin.

The fruit of the Spirit: Galatians 5:22

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness …”

A fruit (karpòs) is something produced over time. Much of what takes place is out of sight, but as we see the fruit growing and maturing, we know those other processes are working quietly. This fruit is the “natural” outgrowth of living God’s way.

The word karpòs is singular, showing a unity of these terms—like a bunch of grapes or the segments of an orange—rather than individual and separate fruits (Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

Love (agape):

Brotherly love, affection, good will, a love that is based upon a sincere recognition of the value of the one loved.

Love (agape): Brotherly love, affection, good will, a love that is based upon a sincere recognition of the value of the one loved.“This is not a word which classical Greek uses commonly. In Greek there are four words for love. (a) Eros means the love of a man for a maid; it is the love which has passion in it. It is never used in the New Testament at all. (b) Philia is the warm love which we feel for our nearest and our dearest; it is a thing of the heart. (c) Storge rather means affection and is specially used of the love of parents and children. (d) Agape, the Christian word, means unconquerable benevolence. It means that no matter what a man may do to us by way of insult or injury or humiliation we will never seek anything else but his highest good. It is therefore a feeling of the mind as much as of the heart; it concerns the will as much as the emotions. It describes the deliberate effort—which we can make only with the help of God—never to seek anything but the best even for those who seek the worst for us” (William Barclay).

Joy (chará):

“‘Joy’ … is the virtue in the Christian life corresponding to happiness in the secular world. On the surface they seem related. But happiness depends on circumstances, whereas joy does not” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

“It is not the joy that comes from earthly things, still less from triumphing over someone else in competition” (William Barclay).

Peace (eiréne):

Harmony, concord, security, safety, prosperity, felicity, the joining together of two things that had previously been ripped apart.

“In contemporary colloquial Greek this word (eirene) had two interesting usages. It was used of the serenity which a country enjoyed under the just and beneficent government of a good emperor; and it was used of the good order of a town or village. Villages had an official who was called the superintendent of the village’s eirene, the keeper of the public peace. Usually in the New Testament eirene stands for the Hebrew shalom and means not just freedom from trouble but everything that makes for a man’s highest good” (William Barclay).

Peace was not simply something felt in the mind; it was a way of living life in a proper relationship between man and God as well as man and man.

Longsuffering (makrothumía):

Patience, endurance, slowness in avenging wrongs, forbearance. It is “the quality of putting up with others, even when one is severely tried. The importance of patience is evidenced by its being most often used of the character of God” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

“Generally speaking the word is not used of patience in regard to things or events but in regard to people. Chrysostom said that it is the grace of the man who could revenge himself and does not, the man who is slow to wrath. The most illuminating thing about it is that it is commonly used in the New Testament of the attitude of God towards men. In our dealings with our fellow men we must reproduce this loving, forbearing, forgiving, patient attitude of God towards ourselves” (William Barclay).

Kindness (chrestótes):

Moral goodness, integrity.

“Kindness and goodness are closely connected words. For kindness the word is chrestotes. … The Rheims version of 2 Cor. 6:6 translates it sweetness. It is a lovely word. … Old wine is called chrestos, mellow. Christ’s yoke is called chrestos, that is, it does not chafe. The whole idea of the word is a goodness which is kind” (William Barclay).

Goodness (agathosúne):

Uprightness of heart and life; a goodness which benefits others.

“The word Paul uses for goodness (agathosune) is a peculiarly Bible word and does not occur in secular Greek (Rom. 15:14; Eph. 5:9; 2 Thess. 1:11). It is the widest word for goodness” (William Barclay).

Faithfulness (pístis):

Conviction of the truth of anything, the character of one who can be relied upon; fidelity, trustworthiness.

The fruit of the Spirit: Galatians 5:23

“… Gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”

Gentleness (praótes):

Mildness, meekness.

“Praotes is the most untranslatable of words. In the New Testament it has three main meanings.

“(a) It means being submissive to the will of God (Matt. 5:5; Matt. 11:29; Matt. 21:5).

“(b) It means being teachable, being not too proud to learn (Jas. 1:21).

“(c) Most often of all it means being considerate (1 Cor. 4:21; 2 Cor. 10:1; Eph. 4:2). Aristotle defined praotes as the mean between excessive anger and excessive angerlessness, the quality of the man who is always angry at the right time and never at the wrong time. What throws most light on its meaning is that the adjective praus is used of an animal that has been tamed and brought under control; and so the word speaks of that self-control which Christ alone can give” (William Barclay).

Self-control (engkráteia):

The virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites.

“‘Self-control’ is the quality that gives victory over fleshly desires and which is therefore closely related to chastity both in mind and conduct. …As Barclay says …, ‘Enkrateia is that great quality which … makes [a man] able to live and to walk in the world, and yet to keep his garments unspotted from the world’” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

“The word is egkrateia which Plato uses of self-mastery. It is the spirit which has mastered its desires and its love of pleasure. It is used of the athlete’s discipline of his body (1 Cor. 9:25) and of the Christian’s mastery of sex (1 Cor. 7:9). Secular Greek uses it of the virtue of an Emperor who never lets his private interests influence the government of his people. It is the virtue which makes a man so master of himself that he is fit to be the servant of others” (William Barclay).

Against such: There are laws—both human and divine—that attempt to restrain the works of the flesh, but there is no need for any law limiting the fruit of the Spirit.

For further study

See our practical blog post series on the works of the flesh starting with “Fighting the Works of the Flesh: Adultery.”

See also our article section on the fruit of the Spirit beginning with “The Fruit of the Spirit” and its related articles. We also have a new Bible study Journey that examines the “Fruit of the Spirit.”

About the Author

David Johnson

David Johnson is a minister for Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and instructor at Foundation Institute.

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