In Galatians 5, Paul tells us that “the works of the flesh are manifest.” In other words, the works of the flesh will become obvious over time. The works of the flesh are contrasted directly with the fruit of the Spirit. Just as the Spirit bears fruit, the flesh bears fruit—or, produces works. The apples of the apple tree are manifest. You know a tree is an apple tree because it bears apples. And amazingly, this sort of blatant manifestation is also true of orange trees. You know a tree by its fruit. Seems simple enough.
Just so, we can know what is of the flesh because it will produce the works of the flesh. And the works that the flesh will produce is a rather wicked collection of evil works. The flesh will produce adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, hatred, wrath, strife, sedition, heresies, and so on and so forth. That is quite a list. No doubt.
But here is where it gets interesting. When we think of the flesh and its works, we immediately think of unrighteousness of every type. And we do so because of the aforementioned list of distastefuls. But Paul tells us that these works are the result of seeking righteousness in the flesh, not unrighteousness. In other words, when Paul warns the Galatian believers about the risk of producing adultery and fornication, he is pointing to their desire to be righteous in the flesh.
Think about it. Paul is in full battle array against the Judaizers, a bunch of first-century Jewish-Christians that demanded circumcision and law-keeping of Paul’s fledgling Gentile congregations. The Judaizers have almost persuaded the Galatians that they cannot attain righteousness before God apart from circumcision and law-keeping. Paul sees this as seeking righteousness “in the flesh.” And Paul insists that this sort of self-righteousness will produce exactly the opposite of what the Judaizers promise. They promise love, joy and peace, but they will produce adultery and fornication.
Of course, the Judaizers were not trying to produce adultery and fornication. They were trying to produce holiness. Problem was, they were teaching the Galatians that they could not really be holy unless they were circumcised and kept the law. Both Paul and the Judaizers were working toward the same goal: both wanted the Gentiles to be holy. But Paul insists that true holiness cannot come from the flesh. It must come from the Spirit.
Paul asks, “Having begun in the Spirit are you now made perfect in the flesh?” He understands by revelation what the Judaizers have missed: to seek righteousness in the flesh is to guarantee unrighteousness. When we set out to be holy in the flesh, we invariably end up with the very behavior we are trying to avoid. Seeking righteousness in the flesh will always produce the works of the flesh. That is a profound irony.
This goes all the way back to our original sin in the Garden. Satan did not tempt Adam and Eve to commit adultery (though that may have been difficult right at first, anyway). He tempted them to discern good from evil, to become like God, to seek God-likeness—or, godliness. Did we get that? The devil tempted Eve to godliness. However, their attempt at godliness produced ungodliness. Why? Because they sought godliness apart from God.
When Paul speaks of “the flesh” in Romans and elsewhere, he is speaking of the righteousness of the flesh, the attempt of the flesh to do right apart from faith in God. When we read references to “the flesh” in Paul’s writings we automatically think of adultery, fornication and other forms of human mischief. But when Paul speaks of “the flesh,” he is thinking of prayer, giving, worship, church attendance, and other forms of human mischief—at least, it becomes mischief when these good things are done in the flesh apart from the life of the Spirit.
In other words, Paul understands that the attempt to serve the Lord in the power of human effort rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit is serving God “in the flesh,” and it will always lead to the very ungodliness we are trying to avoid. The works of the flesh are manifest.