Galatians 5:19–21 speaks of the works of the flesh, saying they are "evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these."
Paul then warns “that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” The works of the flesh are the things human beings naturally tend toward that are contrary to God’s design for us (Romans 1:28–29). Those who pursue lifestyles characterized by immorality, anger, divisiveness, drunkenness, etc., are giving evidence that they are not saved (see Matthew 7:20).
When the Bible speaks of the “flesh,” it is often referring to our natural sin tendencies. We are all born with a sin nature (Romans 5:12). Our natural predilection is to please ourselves any way we see fit. We can be trained to behave in more socially acceptable ways and even find enjoyment in being kind to others. However, without the power of God, we remain self-centered. We do what we do, even good things, because we receive some selfish payoff. Anything not done from faith or love for God—any deed not empowered by the Holy Spirit—is a “work of the flesh” (Romans 8:8; 14:23).
At salvation, the Holy Spirit moves into the repentant heart, making it possible for us to make choices that are of the Spirit, rather than the flesh (Galatians 5:16; Ezekiel 36:27; Romans 8:4; Colossians 3:5–8). We are to consider ourselves “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20) and our old sin nature dead (Romans 6:2, 11), but the flesh does not die easily. A battle still rages within even the most dedicated follower of Christ. The apostle Paul wrote eloquently of this battle in Romans 7. Verses 21–23 say, “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”
Works of the flesh are not always as obvious as the ones listed above. They can even be found within Christian ministry, as people try to gain popularity or self-worth under the guise of serving Christ. Diotrephes was rebuked for this in 3 John 1:9. Trying to please God from selfish motivation leads to unhealthy competition, slander, bitterness, and eventual burnout (Galatians 1:10).
The works of the flesh are in total contrast with the fruit of the Spirit, detailed in Galatians 5:22–23. What pleases the Lord in our lives is not a “work” but a “fruit” that the Spirit alone can produce. We can avoid works of the flesh by staying continually submitted to the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to direct every aspect of our lives (Ephesians 5:18; Galatians 5:25).