The distinction between flesh and spirit/Spirit in Scripture is wide-ranging (see e.g. Gen. 6:17; Isa. 31:3). While in Romans 7 Paul distinguishes between flesh and law, in Romans 8 he points up the difference between flesh and spirit or Spirit. It is well known that certain modern translations like the NIV and the NLT frequently translate the word ‘flesh’ (Gk. sarx) as ‘sinful nature’ (see e.g. Rom. 7:18 and 8:5). To say the least, this is tendentious and appears to be based on Augustinian theology which regards human beings as born in sin (original sin) and the flesh as sinful (see e.g. Art. 9 of the C of E, cf. Augustine in N.R.Needham, The Triumph of Grace, p.59). There are good reasons for thinking that this view of things is dangerously misleading even when it is not actually false.
First, we need to recognize that the flesh, deriving as it does from the earth (Gen. 2:7), is part of the material creation over which man made in the image of God is called to exercise dominion (Gen. 1:26,28). In Genesis 2:17 we read that Adam’s commitment to dominion is put to the test. While given the freedom to eat the fruit against which there is no law (cf. Gal. 5:23), he is warned against partaking of that which is forbidden. In Genesis 3:1-6, first Eve, who is seduced by the devil, then Adam give way to their fleshly desires (cf. James 1:14f.). Thus their dominion of creation is flawed almost from the start. This pattern is followed by all their posterity (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 143:2; John 7:19; Rom. 3:20, etc.) with the single exception of Jesus who alone masters the sin that crouches at his door (Gen. 4:7 ESV, Heb. 4:15). We may infer from this that the flesh, being by its very nature susceptible to desire, is subjected to testing by the law (Ex. 15:25b-26; 16:4; Dt. 8:2,16, etc.), which the devil exploits as temptation (Gen. 3:1-5, cf. 1 Pet. 5:8). The question is: Is this scenario borne out by the rest of Scripture?
The sinfulness of Adam’s immediate posterity is a byword with all those who read their Bibles. What is obvious is that mankind’s moral corruption, reflecting failure to control their fleshly desires, leads inevitably to physical corruption (Gen. 6:11-13) (1* According to the Bible, the earth was created by the hand of God (Ps. 102:25) and hence subject to corruption (v.26, cf. Rom. 8:21). Without inhabitants it is a desolation and hence useless (Ex. 23:29; Isa. 1:7; 6:11, etc.). It is noticeable that once it has ceased to nurture children of God and brings forth little but thorns and thistles (i.e. worthless people, 2 Sam. 23:6f., etc.), it is profitless and fit only to be burned (Heb. 6:7f.; 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.). Like Adam, as sinners they all die (see espec. ch. 5; Rom. 5:12). But for the grace of God shown in covenant to Noah and the fruitfulness of his posterity (Gen. 8:17; 9:1,7), the race would have died out.
On the individual level, we can point to the role of fleshly weakness in temptation and sin throughout the OT. Characters like Esau, Shechem (Gen. 34:2), Judah (38:15-18), Potiphar’s wife, David and Ahab are proverbial in this respect, and there is no need to elaborate on them here. They all teach us that giving licence to the bodily appetites against the law is fraught with danger. And reliance of any kind on the flesh is anathema (Jer. 17:5, cf. Isa. 31:1-3).
The New Testament
When we turn to the NT some interesting points regarding the flesh are made. First, Jesus, in contrast with his heavenly Father, is strongly tempted (James 1:13-15). The inference that we are forced to draw here is that testing and temptation arise because Jesus is truly incarnate. As a true son of Adam (Luke 3:38), he is necessarily, that is by nature, subject to fleshly passion and desire (2* This is denied by some. For example, D.McLeod (From Glory to Golgotha, p.45) writes re James 1:14: “This is the invariable rule of temptation so far as men are concerned. But it does not apply to Christ.” This prompts questions like: Was Jesus not a man? Was he docetic? McLeod’s point seems to be that while the rest of men are the victims of original sin, Jesus was not! The author of Hebrews, however, insists that Jesus was a man (Heb. 2:17) and was therefore subject to our normal fleshly temptations (4:15). In successfully resisting their illegitimate satisfaction, he did not please himself (Rom. 15:3, cf. Mt. 26:39) and consequently remained sinless (Rom. 8:3).). In Matthew 4:3f., the devil tries to exploit the most basic of all the desires of the flesh, that is, hunger. However, Jesus resists, not because eating is wrong per se (cf. Mt. 6:8,11) but because some ways of satisfying one’s hunger are off limits (cf. Gen. 2:16f.). In other words, Jesus refuses to subordinate his spiritual desire to accomplish the will of God to the satisfaction of his natural physical desire (cf. John 4:34). In any case, he recognizes that the flesh is ultimately profitless (John 6:63), except insofar as it is the vehicle of his spirit (cf. Dt. 6:4; Mark 12:30). It is to be willingly expended in death (cf. John 12:24f.; Mt. 10:37-39; Mark 8:34ff.; Luke 17:33). He is aware that even in sinful men and women the spirit can be willing but the flesh weak (Mt. 26:41). And though weak in the flesh himself, he always does what is pleasing to God (John 8:29, cf. Rom. 15:3), preferring physical death to disobedience (2 Cor. 13:4; Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:7-9). In demonstration and confirmation of this he offers his flesh as a sacrifice (cf. Heb. 10:5,10) (3* In this passage Jesus’ sacrifice and doing God’s will coincide.) for the life of the world (John 6:51; 10:11). Thus the enslavement of his flesh to his Father’s will is climaxed and perfected by his stripping it off (Col. 2:11) in crucifixion (John 17:4; 19:30), the death meted out to slaves (Lu. 22:37 NRSV). In the end, zeal for his Father’s house consumed him (John 2:17). In saving others he could not save himself (Luke 23:35).
As a true follower of Christ, Paul has a good deal to say about the flesh. Of vital importance is his recognition that the flesh, like the earth from which it is taken (Rom. 8:20), is a law to itself (Rom. 7:23,25). He thus recognizes that it has to be controlled by the law of God which is apprehended by his mind. This is in obvious contrast to animals since they do not have minds (cf. Ps. 32:9; Isa. 31:3). They obey the laws of their flesh (except when they are tamed by man who is made in the image of God, Gen. 1:26,28; Job 35:11; James 3:7.) In Romans 7, however, Paul has to admit that for all his Jewish love of the law (cf. Psalm 119: 14,16, etc), he is a failure. Despite his best efforts, like Adam and Eve before him, he lacks the power to keep that law and is consequently enslaved by his flesh (7:9-11,14,23, cf. 1 Cor. 7:5,9,37). His body (of flesh) like that of Adam is a body of death (7:24, cf. Gen. 3:19; Rom. 8:10). For him inheriting eternal life by law-keeping (cf. Mt. 19:16-21) is out of the question, and he is driven to conclude that God’s eternal plan was that no flesh should boast before him (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; 3:11) so that salvation should be his gift in Christ (cf. Isa. 45:21f.; Phil. 2:9-11).
If this is true, then we can infer that the war between the flesh and the Spirit to which he alludes in Galatians 5:17 is inevitable. If it affected Jesus (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 2:17; 4:15; pace Art. 9 of the C of E), it also affects the rest of us. Apart from this war, we should all be ruled entirely by the flesh like animals (cf. 2 Pet. 2:12; Jude 10). Thus Paul is at pains to indicate that he himself as an apostle of Christ pommels (RSV) and enslaves his perishable body of flesh (1 Cor. 9:27) in order to gain an imperishable crown (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50). Since he has to control his own body, Paul is far from loath to urge his disciples to enslave theirs, not least because it is headed for destruction anyway (1 Cor. 6:13, cf. Rom. 16:18; Phil. 3:19). In consequence, he constantly warns them against giving rein to the passions and desires of the flesh by which they have formerly been enslaved (Eph. 2:1-3; Tit. 3:3, etc.). The latter situation is in direct contrast to the divine intention, as Paul explains in Romans 6 where he highlights the reversal that has taken place in those who have committed themselves to Christ. While in their early lives under (the) law they have usually been the willing slaves of the flesh, now they have become obedient to the teaching of the gospel and become the slaves of righteousness (vv.16-19). Though submission to the impurities of the flesh spells inevitable death, conversely slavery to God leads to sanctification and eternal life (v.22). Little wonder he goes so far as urge his readers to glorify God in their bodies (1 Cor. 6:13,20; Rom. 6:13) and to present them as living sacrifices in spiritual worship (12:1, cf. Dan. 3:28) like Jesus (Eph. 5:2). After all, as believers they have already in principle been crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24). It is now a question of acting out their new nature (Col. 3:10) by focusing their attention on heaven and not on earthly things (cf. Phil. 3:19-21) which, being subject to corruption (cf. Gal. 6:7f.), need constantly to be put to death (Col. 3:1-5). As for Paul himself, he glories in the fact that in the cross both his flesh and the world in which he lives have been crucified (Gal. 5:24; 6:14). Christ has overcome both (John 16:33; Rom. 8:3) along with the devil (John 14:30). And since this is so, he is confident that God will save him for his heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18).
Paul has another graphic way of highlighting the slavish character and the expendability of the flesh. In positing anachronistically a covenant with Sarah and Hagar, he underlines the spiritual character of the birth of Isaac, the child of promise (Rom. 4:19-21), and the normal birth of Ishmael who was born in the ordinary course of nature. In Galatians 4:29f., Paul, perhaps echoing the teaching of Jesus (John 8:35), depicts the flesh as a persecutor, which often clamours for illegitimate satisfaction, and tells his readers that the son of the fleshly woman will not inherit along with the son of the spiritual woman. Needless to say, Jesus had implied the same in John 3:1-7 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50). Ultimately, the flesh as an earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7) will be destroyed (1 Cor. 6:13; 15:37,50ff.; 2 Cor. 5:1) along with all who, like Adam, are enslaved by it and deliberately pursue its unlawful pleasures (1 Cor. 6:9f.; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).
James is well aware of the teaching of Genesis 1:26,28 regarding man’s call to exercise dominion over the physical creation. Having warned his readers of the need to control their fleshly desires (1:14f.), he goes on in 3:2f. to suggest that the man who is capable of controlling his tongue is able to bridle his whole body like a horse. But in saying this he pinpoints man’s basic problem: while he is often able to impose his will on parts of creation (3:7) he is less successful in ruling himself (3:8-12). He is far from being the perfect man (James 3:2). It is the story of Adam and Eve all over again.
In chapter 2, James, like Jesus before him (John 8:34), points out that breaking the law constitutes the perpetrator a transgressor and makes him or her its slave (vv.9-11). In contrast, he goes on to imply that the one who exercises faith is empowered by the Spirit to perform works to the glory of God (18-26) and even make an impact on creation through prayer like Elijah (5:16-18). Though his mode of expression differs considerably from that of Paul, James is well aware that flesh and spirit/Spirit are at loggerheads (4:1-4). Furthermore, like the prophets before him (Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 51:6,8, etc.), he sees the connection between a futile creation (Rom. 8:20) and the flesh (5:2f.) both of which require dominion by the spirit (Gen. 1:26,28)
Paul and James are not alone it propounding this message. Peter is equally clear in his turn. He points out the need for redemption through the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18f.) from the futility of a former life-style inherited from the past. In 4:2f., he highlights the contrast between the role of the fleshly passions and the will of God. Few people were more aware than Peter of the ephemeral nature of this world and of the flesh. Like his Master, on the one hand he points the way to a heavenly inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading (1:3f., cf. Mt. 6:19f.), and on the other, he pinpoints the antithesis between the perishable flesh and the abiding word of God (1:23-25, cf. Mt. 24:35). Little wonder that Peter has little faith in fading beauty (3:4) and his own fleshly body which he has implicitly enslaved in service of his Lord (2 Pet. 1:5-7,14). Along with his fellow apostle Paul (Rom. 6:16), he is fully cognizant of the war between flesh and spirit (1 Pet. 2:11) and the inherent danger of being led captive by the flesh (2 Pet. 2:19).
I have already referred to aspects of the teaching of John’s gospel. In his epistles, like Paul (1 Cor. 7:31), he emphasises the transience of this world and its associated passions (1 John 2:15-17). Total commitment to doing the will of God (3:9) is for him pre-eminent, for he who does right is righteous (3:7) and hence, in accordance with the promise of God (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5), is born again (2:29). Unsurprisingly, John lays stress on overcoming (4:4; 5:4), and affirms that those who overcome the world do so through Christ (5:5; Rev. 12:11) who himself overcame (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9; Rev. 3:21; 5:5). The difference between Paul and John at this point is purely verbal (cf. Rom. 8:31ff.).
Jude, along with Peter especially in 2 Peter 2, is so committed to the view that the flesh must be subjected to control that he can urge his readers to hate even the garment stained by it (23). Those who wantonly give way to ungodly passions in licentiousness he likens to irrational animals which are ruled not by mind or Spirit (cf. 19) but by their fleshly instincts (10, cf. 2 Pet. 2:12). In this situation, he counsels commitment to the faith once delivered to the saints, prayer, love and the mercy of God which leads to eternal life (3,20f.). For him, as for Peter (2 Pet. 2:19f.), enslavement to the flesh is in diametrical opposition to the will of God. Its end is inevitable destruction (13) in tandem with that of creation itself (2 Pet. 3:7,10-12).
Denying The Flesh
Paul tells us in Romans 15:3 that Jesus did not please himself (cf. Mt. 26:39). In this he is supported by Jesus himself who informs us that he always pleased his Father (8:29, cf. 4:34) whose will he came into the world specifically to do (John 10:18; 14:31; 17:4; Heb. 10:7,9, cf. Mark 10:45). Since the flesh has its own desires which war against the spirit/Spirit, the denial of his fleshly desires was unavoidable. And it was precisely in the flesh that Jesus, and Jesus alone, overcame (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 4:15) in patent contrast with the rest of us who have all to some degree made the flesh our strength and to that extent have been cursed (Jer. 17:5; 2 Chr. 32:8, cf. Rom. 6:16). So, while he warns his followers that they too must deny themselves (Mark 8:34f.) even to the point of death (Mt. 10:39; Rev. 2:10) (4* Jim Elliot, martyred missionary to the Auca Indians was surely right when he said: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” In similar vein Mark Dever, in a timely essay on substitution in Christianity Today (May 2006), quotes C.T.Studd as follows: “If Jesus Christ be God, and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.” To this Dever adds an affirmation by C.H.Spurgeon: “It is our duty and privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed.” In a word, we are to wear out, not rust out.), he himself, having achieved perfection through what he suffered (Heb. 5:7), remains our only Saviour. Since he alone overcame the world (Gen. 1, cf. John 16:33; Rom. 8:35ff.), the flesh (Gen. 2:17, cf. 3:6) and the devil (Gen. 3:1-5; John 12:31; 14:30; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8), he was able to pave the way to heaven for all his brethren (John 14:6; Heb. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:18). It was he who uniquely achieved (Rom. 8:3) what the first Adam, who epitomised the flesh (1 Cor. 15:45-49), failed to achieve. Instead of establishing the pattern of death for man (Rom. 5:12), Jesus abolished it (cf. Heb. 2:14f.) and brought life and immortality (incorruption) to light (2 Tim. 1:10) through the gospel.
Well might the rest of us, frail children of dusty Adam that we are (cf. Ps. 78:39; 103:14), cry out like Shakespeare’s Hamlet (cf. Rom. 7:24): “Give me that man who is not passion’s slave”.
That man’s name is Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 7:25), the Righteous One who having enslaved his flesh in serving his Father finally gave it in death for his unrighteous fellows (cf. Mark 10:45) in order to bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18; Heb. 2:10).