Jeff VanVonderen in Families Where Grace In In Place says,
Paul was angry at the Galatians. His letter to them is a scathing confrontation of the fact that they had been "walking by the flesh" instead of the Spirit. But the "flesh" for the Galatians was not pornography, drunkenness, or thievery. The Galatians had begun to measure their acceptance spiritually by whether or not they performed certain religious behaviors. They let religious performance direct the way they acted, instead of allowing that Spirit to do so. Paul calls this "walking in the flesh."
I saw this statement quoted and looked it up to see if he actually said this. He actually did.
What’s interesting is what the Apostle Paul actually said to the Galatians:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
Comparing VanVonderen’s statement to Paul’s it raises a curious problem: How can VanVandoren say that the “the "flesh" for the Galatians was not pornography, drunkenness, or thievery” when Paul calls the flesh two of those three—sexual immorality and drunkenness? (Though Paul leaves out thievery, it’s doubtful he intended thievery to be understood as a work of the Spirit.)
Surely VanVonderen isn’t hanging his argument on “deeds of,” as in Paul said “deeds of the flesh” while he is just saying “flesh.”
And it raises a significant question: What possesses an author, a Christian author, to completely ignore what the Bible says in order to make his own point? Should we not have more reverence for the text than that?
This leads me to say two things.
First, the text is not our servant. It is our master. So we must say what the text says, even if it doesn’t say what we want to say. If we want to say something else, we need to find a text that says that (before we attach our own desires to it).
Second, there is a lot of much needed talk about grace today. For far too many people in Christian circles, grace gets way too little discussion, and even less use.
But in some circles, grace gets redefined in such a way—as with VanVonderen—to ignore what grace actually is. Such talk of grace completely misses the grace of the Bible and substitutes something else in its place. Then, anyone who actually names the sins in the Bible as being sins that should be avoided are accused of being legalists.
But much of the talk about grace seems like VanVonderen’s—it completely misses the Bible. The grace of the Bible does not refuse to actually read (and say) what the Bible says.
What God defines the flesh for us in Galatians 5:19-21, we do not have the liberty to define some other way, even in the pursuit of a good message, which isn’t even good if it doesn’t deal with Scripture rightly.
The grace of the Bible is the grace that teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live soberly and righteously and godly in this present age (Titus 2:11-15).
The curious thing is that I doubt VanVonderen would allow for pornography, drunkenness, or thievery as legitimate practices of a Christian life. So why say it like he did?
I have no idea. I wonder if perhaps there is a fear of appearing legalistic. Perhaps a superficial understanding of grace. Maybe an oversight or a failure to write precisely. Maybe just a bone-headed “oops.”
Yet we must take care to say everything that the Bible says about grace and flesh, about holiness and sinfulness, about life in the Spirit and true salvation.
Let us not soft-pedal the grace of the gospel by failing to say everything that the Bible says about it.