|Pieter Claesz, A Vanitas Still Life, 1645|
This passage does not mention homosexuals specifically. But it does mention a wide variety of sins, some of which are sexual in nature. What makes the passage especially interesting is that it probes the inner psychology of sin.
In this passage the apostle Paul is primarily addressing Christian believers, urging them to live the Christian life. At the heart of his discussion is a contrast between “the works of the flesh” (vv. 19-21) and “the fruit of the Spirit” (vv. 22,23).
When Paul uses the word “flesh” here it is apparent that he is not talking about just physical appetites. Some of the things he describes do involve a craving for sex or alcohol, but others do not. Contentions, jealousies, dissensions and heresies are also on the list. Rather, Paul is using the term “flesh” in a specialized sense to refer to man’s sinful , fallen nature – our inner propensity to do evil. The New International Version translates the phrase “the acts of the sinful nature.” Paul explains that “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another; so that you do not do the things that you wish” (v. 17; NKJV). In other words, there exist in the heart of a believer two opposing principles. One is the “flesh,” the human nature with which we are born, and the other is the Holy Spirit, Who takes up His residence in the heart of the believer at the point of conversion. The two opposing forces are constantly at work in the heart of the believer, pulling him into opposite directions.
Paul then goes on to enumerate these “works of the flesh.” The first four, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lewdness (v. 19) clearly involve sex. (The word translated “lewdness” might better be rendered “licentiousness,” “wantonness,” or “excess.”) What this suggests is that there is a difference between love and lust, and that lust is morally wrong. The difference is that with love we genuinely care about the other person and want to please him/her, whereas in lust we are primarily thinking of our own physical pleasure. When we exploit others for our own selfish desires, or are unfaithful to our spouses, or make our bodies available for commercial gain, we are desecrating something that God created for a pure and noble purpose. It is not that sex itself is bad; it is the underlying motive that is evil. Sex should be an expression of genuine love and devotion to a member of the opposite sex, a most intimate of all relationships not to be shared with anyone else. And if the love and devotion are genuine, they will express themselves in a lifetime commitment in the bond of matrimony. And make no mistake about it, marriage really is a “bond” – a binding obligation that requires that requires self-sacrifice for the sake of the other. If we are not willing to make the commitment, we are simply being self-centered louts.
Idolatry and sorcery (v. 20) mainly involve pagan practices more common in the ancient world than in modern Western society, although we are seeing a revival of it in Wicca. Why does magic have a fascination for people? Isn’t it because it is a way of controlling others for our own advantage? And it involves misplacing our loyalty on something other than the God Who created us.
Then we come to “hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions,” and “heresies” (v. 20). These, sadly, reflect problems that often occur in churches. We trust that most respectable Christians will not be found in either the brothel or the saloon. But unfortunately all too many of them are involved in church fights. Why? Because the same fallen human nature that leads the lecher to his porn and the drunkard to his bottle is also at work in the Christian as well. It is simply that the professing Christian has more refined tastes. He professes to be fighting for a worthy cause, a worthy purpose. He is doing it for the benefit of others. Or is he? What is often at work is a determination to have his own way, to win the esteem of others, even if it means disrupting the peace and unity of the fellowship. At the bottom of it is pure self-centeredness.
These behaviors, these “works,” are bad enough in themselves. But what makes them especially pernicious is that they spring from a heart bent on evil and unwilling to submit to God’s law. It is the rotten fruit of a diseased tree.
These things are so contrary to the character of God that He frankly cannot tolerate them. This is why the text states, “I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21). Or as Paul put it in Ephesians 5, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6).
It is not just homosexuals who are under God’s judgment. All of human society is essentially corrupt because we all have the same principle of evil working within us. The world is filled with violence, exploitation and fraud. And it will all come to an end when Christ returns to judge the earth. The message Jesus proclaimed was not, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).