…something that exists only in a Christian’s mind that is an illusion, a figment of the imagination. It is the boogeyman we call the flesh – that part of us we think is continually at war with the Spirit. At worst it is inherently evil and at best it is the home of indwelling sin. It is the Christian bugbear – at least in most of North American Christianity.
As a believer, is our flesh our enemy? Is that really the message of the scriptures, even sometimes? We live in an era that exalts the concept of the individual over that of community. It was not always so nor is it always so in all cultures of the world today. Historically our emphasis on the individual is a relatively new concept having its roots in the early days of the republic we know as the United States. Of course, Canada mirrors the emphasis on individualism even if to a lesser extent. So it is important to remember and be aware of the fact that in times past and even in other parts of the world today, the individual was and is not recognized by their individuality as much as by the family, tribe, religion or country in which they live. For those, identity is found within their group and not within themselves. We are we and not me!
We here in the west, and not just me, naturally default to thinking of ourselves as individuals, first and foremost being concerned with our personal identity, rights and freedoms. Even when we read statements intended for groups our first instinct is to look for what they mean to us personally. A perfect example of this would be when Paul writes in Galatians:
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (Galatians 5:17 NASB)
Thinking from an individualistic perspective, it is no wonder that as far back as I can remember I have assumed that this verse was referring to an internal struggle within “me”! In the last few years this understanding has been challenged because it simply is not consistent with the entire theme and purpose of the letter to the Galatians. In fact, reading that verse the way we do as an internal duality does not really make any sense. From an upcoming article on this verse, I wrote:
“Even before looking at Galatians 5:17 within its context in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, viewing the verse as an internal struggle seems odd because it is basically saying that because of this struggle between the Spirit and flesh, the believer may not do the things that they please! What things does the believer please to do? If the believer’s desires are to do good, then this verse is saying that for some reason the flesh is winning out over the Spirit. If on the other hand, the believer’s desires are to do are evil, then it is the Spirit who is winning out over the flesh. Good heavens, even the wretched man of Romans 7 desired to do good!”
However, if this verse is read within the context of Paul’s entire letter to the Galatians, it is not that difficult to see that he is thinking in terms of groups of people – those of the Spirit and those of the flesh. Nevertheless due to years of being taught that this verse is referring to the internal struggle of the believer, it is difficult at times not to see the Christian bugbear – my nasty old flesh. Experientially to side with a truth that is being revealed can involve a time of discomfort as deep-seated strongholds are being rooted out and fully replaced with the revelation experience of the Spirit of Truth (cf. Romans 12:2).
No longer do I believe that Paul or any other New Testament writer, when referring to the Spirit/flesh conflict, are ever referring to an internal struggle within the believer. Before the objection is made that I am either denying the reality of sin or promoting some doctrine of sinless perfection, I want to make it clear that I do believe that believers can sin. I just do not believe that it is necessary for a believer to sin and I do not believe that the reason a believer can or does sin is the result of the Spirit being defeated by the flesh. Ironically if we believe our flesh can defeat the working of the Spirit in our walk with Christ, that belief alone can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”” (Genesis 6:3 NASB)
Here is the first time that the Spirit is spoken of as being in conflict with the flesh, that is, mankind. Of this mankind “of the flesh” it is written:
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” (Genesis 6:5-6 NASB)
What if “flesh” is not an existential internal reality, but rather a mode of existence? What if those “in the flesh” are those in their human frailty under the dominion of sin WITHOUT God’s Spirit. What if they are those who, despite knowing the right thing to do, are unable to do it due to their slavery to sin?
Perhaps you have noticed that often when the flesh is talked about in opposition to the Spirit, the law is involved, whether it be the Mosaic Law given to Israel or the conscience given to the Gentile cf. Romans 2:12-16. Why is that? It is because:
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law;” (1 Corinthians 15:56 NASB)
Those of the flesh are powerfully enslaved to sin by trying to live under law or by some ethical performance. The experience is like a Chinese finger puzzle – the harder you try to live under the law the more tightly bound in sin you become. Those of the flesh are those who attempt to obtain righteousness through the works of law (performance). They are those attempting to find acceptance with God through performance (works of law).
Paul’s Gospel solution to this problem:
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:12-14 NASB)
“For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” (Romans 7:5 NASB)
Here is the thing – apart from the Spirit, the man of flesh is left to his own devices to find his way in this world whether that means finding acceptance with God, or even finding acceptance with oneself for those who have decided that they do not need acceptance with God i.e. the new atheists. In either case, collectively these are the race the flesh. They are those bound up in this present evil age. They are those dead in their trespasses and sins, walking according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the sons of disobedience, living and indulging in the lusts of their flesh and mind – by nature children of wrath (cf. Ephesians 2:1-3).
Of those in the flesh or Spirit Paul writes:
“For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:5-8 NASB)
And to make it clear that Paul is writing of two modes of existence or races of men, he writes:
“However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” (Romans 8:9 NASB)
Those of the Spirit are no longer in the flesh! We have been rescued from this present evil age!
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.” (Galatians 1:3-5 NASB)
Now there are many places in the New Testament that speak to our new humanity in Christ. To list a few:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4-7 NASB)
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22 NASB)
“But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.” (1 Peter 2:9-10 NASB)
And my favorite:
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NASB)
“The old things have passed away!” Yet we want to qualify the above passages and many more by following them with “ah, but the flesh!” As a friend used to say many times: “We live in what comes after the “but”. In other words, as we strive to embrace the Truth of our salvation, the Truth of who we are in Christ, we at the same time negate it all with “but the flesh!” Why is this?
Watchman Nee once put out a little booklet called: “Fact, Faith, Experience”. The gist of it was simple: we start with the fact of what God says, then side with that truth and watch for our experience to come on board. Instead it seems that many of us reverse the order, starting with faith in our experience followed by a contortion of God’s truth to fit our experience. Faith in itself is really nothing. What counts is the object of our faith and for too many of us that object is not God’s Truth but our experience! Unfortunately if our faith is built on our experience, we will never be lifted out of the experience of this kingdom of darkness into the marvellous Light of God’s truth (cf. Colossians 1:13).
Is it really important how we understand the Spirit/flesh antithesis in the New Testament? I think so. Let me tell you about Maxwell Maltz. Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon who wrote a book in 1960 entitled Psycho-Cybernetics. The premise of the book was that you could change someone’s personality, behavior and even talents or abilities by changing their self-image. Dr. Maltz had noticed through his years of practicing plastic surgery that in changing a person’s appearance you were likely to change the person’s self-image. He also observed that in some cases a person’s self-image did not change. And in some of those cases the patient not only experienced no change in their self-image but could not even see the change in their physical appearance!
The last observation is most interesting as it describes a class of individuals who, despite having plastic surgery to correct what they deemed to be a defect in their appearance, were so strongly locked into a self-image that they were not even able to see the desired improvement in their appearance – an improvement that was noticeable to everyone around them except themselves. They continued to act just as if they had never had the plastic surgery! In other words, these individuals were unable to see anything that was inconsistent with the self-image they already held.
In the same way, we who have experienced the miracle of God’s salvation in the work of Jesus Christ either come into a new self-image in accordance with the truth, simply remain stuck in our old self-image through lack of revelation or worst of all, cannot even begin to comprehend anything other than what our immediate experience tells us irrespective of the Truth of what the Scriptures say about us.
Too often we find it unimaginable to think that we could possibly be anything other than what we once were. We dare not set the bar too high lest we fail (performance thinking). So we content ourselves with pithy sayings like “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” or “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” or “I am a work in progress, God is not done with me yet!” While there is an element of truth to each of those statements, what stands out most is the self-consciousness of believers who hope in Christ while at the same time adding a caveat to explain their perceived failings. This illustrates two things: first an unhealthy focus on self and second, an unbelief in what God says is true of them leading to a corresponding free expression of Christ to others (as opposed to self) who are in need.
Jacque Ellul said that faith without doubt is not true faith. So while I can confidently assert that I do not have a flesh that is inherently evil or a flesh in which sin indwells, I confess at the same time that sometimes I am hounded by the thought of that Christian bugbear! In future articles I hope to address why it is that we sometimes struggle with sin, why Galatians 5:17 taken in context is not saying what we are tempted to think it is and other passages which we erroneously read through the filter of an internal Spirit/flesh struggle.
To end with the words of Jesus:
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6 NASB)