Works of the Flesh in Galatians 5–6
The same concatenation of themes occurs in Galatians 5–6 as in 1 Corinthians 6, namely, the death and resurrection of Christ which is opposed to the fleshy or sexual nature of humans:
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like.…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (5:13–24)
In my view these verses make quite clear the connection of the “paranetic” passage in the last two chapters of Galatians to the first four chapters of the letter. I think they strongly support the point of view that this part of the letter comes to correct a possible (and very plausible) misunderstanding of Paul's views as expressed in the rest of the text. Paul has throughout the letter been presenting a ringing call to Christian freedom in the spirit, as opposed to the Jewish bondage to the norms of a Law. What could be more expectable than that some people will (mis)understand his doctrine as a libertine one—as, I would claim, the Corinthians in fact did? Paul now provides the answer to that possible misreading of his intention in quite a brilliant piece of argument. Paul's very dualism provides the irrefutable answer to this confusion. Law has been associated throughout with the flesh, and its opposite, Christian freedom, with the spirit. Therefore, freedom in the spirit cannot possibly permit libertinism, which belongs entirely to the realm of the flesh. Paul's denunciation of the Law, on the one hand, and libertinism, on the other, both issue equally logically from his promotion of the spirit over the flesh! How ironic it would be were they now to allow that very freedom to be an opportunity for sins of the flesh to abound, thus giving in to the flesh even more drastically than they would by observing, say, the law of circumcision. Paul is thus not at all contradicting the message of the first four chapters of the letter but rather confirming it. If you are truly in the spirit, then you do not need Law, the Law which belongs wholly to the realm of the flesh.
This passage, once more, presents certain striking interpretative gaps. The most obvious is the leap in verse 18 from the discourse on libertinism or licentiousness in the previous verses to being “under the Law.” On my reading, in this passage Paul is guarding against an obvious danger of misunderstanding aroused by his discourse. As I have shown in detail in the previous chapter, Galatians 3:12 amounts to a disavowal of Leviticus 18 as the guide to Christian living. Leviticus 18:5 reads “He who does them lives by them, ” which Paul understands to mean: One who does the commandments lives by them and not by faith. But Paul argues: Since we know from Habbakuk that the righteous live by faith, he who lives by them and not by faith is not righteous—is not justified. Christians, therefore, no longer live by “them.” What is crucial to remember is that Leviticus 18:5 is the introduction to the catalogue of forbidden sexual connections. One could, therefore, very easily imagine Paul at the end of the letter becoming aware of the enormous danger for (mis)interpretation that his letter could produce. If he has repudiated, as it were, Leviticus 18, does it not follow that its provisions are no longer valid and sexual license is permitted? That is precisely the conclusion that some Corinthian Christians seem to have reached, and it is what Paul seeks to counter in chapters 5 and 6 of Galatians. It is, therefore, most attractive to read the passage just quoted as carrying its obvious sense in which desires and passions of the flesh are just what would be referred to in a modern use of these terms, namely, sexual desire and passion. This interpretation affords an elegant bridge over the apparent gap between verses 17 and 18, in the light of Romans 7. We now understand precisely the connection between the “desires of the flesh,” and being “under the Law,” for it is the Law which produces the desires of the flesh and thus the works of the flesh through its insistence on the bearing of children, leading inexorably to passion and thus to licentiousness, jealousy, and the rest.
An objection has been raised to the sexual interpretation of “the desires of the flesh,” ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς, because the itemized “works of the flesh,” έργα τῆς σαρκός, are not primarily works of sexual immorality. The point is well taken, of course, but not, I think, decisive. We must distinguish between the desires of the flesh and the works of the flesh, that is, the results of those desires. The desires of the flesh are indeed what they seem to be, namely, sexual desire, but the works of the flesh are the social outcome of such desire: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like.” Lest this sound far-fetched, the following parallel from a first-century text is unambiguous: “But to the spirit of perversity belong a greedy mind and slackness of hands in serving righteousness, evil and lying, pride and a haughty heart, deceit and cruel treachery; hypocrisy in plenty, shortness of temper but full measure of folly and zeal in insolence; deeds abominable in a spirit of lust and ways of uncleanness in the service of impurity.”  This text provides an excellent parallel to Galatians 5, for here we see also how the spirit of lust leads not only to sexual immorality but to deceit, cruelty, treachery, and even shortness of temper, a list quite similar in spirit to the works of the flesh that Paul adduces. Note also that the same concatenation of themes occurs in 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul begins his discourse attacking civil strife and jealousy and seamlessly segues into a discussion of sexual immorality. In other words, those who do not crucify their flesh with its passions and desires are those who produce a society within which not only the obvious immorality, impurity, and licentiousness occur but also idolatry and sorcery—perhaps Paul means the idolatry and sorcery of love charms—as well as enmity, strife, and jealousy. Those, however, who are unmoved by eros are capable of creating a society of agape. Philo also provides an excellent parallel to this idea when he describes first a paradisal condition in which men spend their lives in contemplation before the creation of woman but then writes, “Love supervenes, brings together and fits into one the divided halves, as it were, of a single living creature, and sets up in each of them a desire for fellowship with the other with a view to the production of their like. And this desire begat likewise bodily pleasure, that pleasure which is the beginning of wrongs and violation of the law, the pleasure for the sake of which men bring on themselves the life of mortality and wretchedness in lieu of that of immortality and bliss.”  There is, therefore, no reason to discredit the obvious meaning of “gratifying desires of the flesh” as referring to sexual desire.
The theme is carried further in the continuation in chapter 6, “For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (6:8), where we find precisely the same metaphorical opposition that Paul uses in Romans 7:4–5. One who sows to the flesh by having children will reap corruption, i.e., the corruption of death, for flesh is mortal. One who sows to the spirit will, however, escape corruption in eternal life. “Sowing,” of course, as a metaphor for sexual activity is commonplace.
I think it is a strong conclusion, therefore, that the “desires of the flesh” in Galatians 5–6 are also to be understood as sexual. Christians are freed from sexuality. The final and ultimate fruit of the spirit listed in Galatians 5:23 is ἐγκράτεια, and given the interpretation that I have offered here we can give this word its full technical meaning of self-control and withdrawal from sexuality.