Paul spends all of Galatians 5 talking about the difference between trying to be justified by the Law and being justified by faith in Jesus. He tries to get them to realize that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”(Galatians 5:6).
But if they aren’t following the Law, how to they avoid a life full of sin?
Paul’s answer is the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law”(Galatians 5:16-18). He concludes with, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”(Galatians 5:25).
And Paul tries to paint a picture of the difference between walking/living by the Spirit (keeping in step with the Spirit) and living by the flesh. He believes the difference between what the flesh does and what the Spirit does in our life is so drastically different that they cannot be confused.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.Galatians 5:19-21
Paul just spent the chapter condemning works-righteousness. Is Paul really saying that if you do these things you won’t go to heaven? I think many people have that view who think the Kingdom of God is only something that we will experience in eternity. But Jesus brought the Kingdom of God into our here and now. And He commissioned the Church to continue His mission of bringing the Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
So what is Paul warning us about when it says that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God?”
Paul is not saying if you do these things you are disqualified from heaven. Instead, he is reminding us that by being justified by faith in Jesus and through living by the Spirit we begin to experience our Kingdom inheritance right now. However, if we continue to live by the flesh, we will not experience that inheritance.
Another way of saying it is that by keeping in step with the Spirit we inherit the stuff of the Kingdom of God, the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”(Galatians 5:22-23). But when we live by the flesh, instead of inheriting the Kingdom of God, we inherit the kingdom of darkness and all the pain, suffering, and torment that accompany it.
Paul was inviting them to make a choice as to what their inheritance would be in this life and which kingdom their life would reflect to the world. This wasn’t about choosing eternal life in heaven; this was about choosing eternal life right now. Their true identity is a people who have been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and who now are empowered to live as people of the Kingdom of God.
The way Paul wrote it to the Colossians was like this:
“…giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”(Colossians 1:12-14).