What does Scripture mean when it refers to (the) flesh as it does in both Testaments?
We may be tempted to say that the meaning of (the) flesh is obvious and that it is the physical or natural constitution of animals including humans (cf. Gen. 2:21,23). But, as we shall see, such a limited definition will soon prove inadequate to cover all that the Bible teaches on the subject. In Genesis 6:12 flesh means all humankind since only they are capable of corrupting themselves. In 6:17 (cf. 7:21), however, its meaning is more extensive and clearly embraces all animal life. It is important for us to note that in Genesis 6:3 the flesh is dependent on the Spirit of God (2:7; Job 12:10; 33:4; 34:14f.; Ps. 104:29f.) and is characterised by natural mortality in sharp contrast with the eternal God himself (Isa. 40:6-8; 2 Cor. 4:11, cf. Rom. 1:23). Wenham’s comment is therefore appropriate: “… the primary reference must be to man’s mortality and his total dependence on God’s power to survive” (p.142. Cf. e.g. Fee, p.818; Wolff, p.30; Guthrie, p.172). This, of course, was implied earlier in the creation account of Genesis 1 where food and procreation are mentioned (vv.11,29).
Weakness, Mortality and Corruptibility
As a created being (or ‘natural’ man, 1 Cor. 15:44,46) deriving physically from the earth (Gen. 2:7), far from being immortal as Augustine believed, man, like the animals and indeed all creation (Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 51:6; 1 Pet. 1:18), is naturally weak, vulnerable, mortal and corruptible (Ps. 78:39; 103:14-18; Isa. 51:8; Rom. 1:23). Like the temporal earth from which he is taken (Gen. 2:7; Job 10:9; Rom. 8:21), he has a beginning and must therefore have an end (cf. Gen. 6:3; Job 34:14f.; 104:29). Here he is in direct contrast to God himself (Dt. 32:40, cf. Rom. 1:23) and to Christ who, to the extent that he was divine, enjoyed indestructible life (Heb. 7:3,16,24f.,28). On the other hand, even Jesus in his Adamic nature or incarnate state suffered from the same weakness as his fellows (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 13:4, cf. Mt. 26:41), and was hence susceptible to aging (Luke 2:42,52; John 8:57), death and corruption (cf. Gal. 6:8. Paul is clearly referring to the flesh here and not to what the NIV misleadingly calls ‘the sinful nature’.). The context suggests that this is what is meant by Hebrews 5:7, and, while Jesus’ Gethsemane experience illustrates the author’s point, undue concentration on it is surely unwarrantable. Jesus’ active and prayerful obedience in its entirety is in view (cf. 10:5-7), underscoring the role of God as the Lord of life acting for the accomplishment of human salvation (cf. Lane, p.120). As flesh, all humankind is both dependent and weak (cf. 2 Chr. 32:8) like the rest of the animal creation (Isa. 31:3), and if God withdraws his Spirit all flesh perishes and man and animal alike return to the dust (Job 34:14f.; Ps. 104:29f., cf. 49:12,20; Eccles. 3:19f.; 12:7; Jas. 2:26). This, of course, reminds us of Genesis 3:19, and, in light of it, it is imperative to infer, contrary to Augustine and many who have followed him, that Genesis 2:17 was a promise of eternal life (which Adam manifestly did not and could not have and which in any case was incapable of realisation in this temporal world) conditioned on obedience (cf. Lev. 18:5; Mt. 19:17, etc.). Thus, when Adam and Eve broke the commandment, they forfeited all hope of evading both physical and spiritual death. Spiritually, they were clearly alienated from their Creator on account of their sin (cf. Isa. 59:2; Eph. 2:1,5), and, physically they were cast out of the Garden, separated from the tree of life, to relapse in due course into the dust from which they were taken (Gen. 3:19, cf. Eccl. 3:19f.; Ps. 104:29). We in our turn, as created in their image (Gen. 5:1-3) and under their influence (Rom. 5:12), follow in their footsteps, go astray like sheep (Ps. 14:3; Eccl. 7:29; Isa. 53:6; 56:11; Ezek. 28:15; Rom. 3:12), experience separation from God and eventual death (Rom. 7:9f.; Heb. 9:27) along with the loss and total corruption of our fleshly bodies (2 Cor. 4:16; 5:1, cf. Rom. 8:10).
Temptation and Sin
The early chapters of Genesis also make it clear that man is not only weak and mortal (cf. Isa. 40:6-8) but naturally subject to fleshly passions and desires, a point that even children illustrate (cf. Gen. 6:5; 8:21). Thus as soon as he receives the commandment or law in some form he becomes susceptible to temptation and sin (Rom. 7:9f.), which exacerbates his situation (cf. Eph. 2:3). Whereas at the time of their creation Adam and Eve appear to listen to the voice of God with equanimity, once they have transgressed the commandment, like children they hide and become afraid (3:8-10). The same holds true of their sinful descendants at a later stage in salvation history. First, we become aware that Hagar is surprised that God has spoken to her and she has lived to tell the tale (Gen. 16:13, cf. Gen. 32:30; Ex. 33:20), then later when the Israelites receive the ten commandments, in fear of death they beg Moses to act as their mediator (Ex. 20:18f.), and ask, “For who of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire, as we have, and still lived?” (Dt. 5:26 ESV, cf. Isa. 33:14).
Sin the Only Problem?
Does this mean then that sin is the only real problem in our approach to God as dogmatic theology has averred over the years? It might suggest so, and this is the usual conclusion that has been reached by Christians. But the inference to be drawn from other evidence is that man’s fleshly or creaturely nature is itself, even apart from sin, a barrier (or curtain, cf. Heb. 6:19; 10:20) that has to be overcome (Job 41:9f.; Jer. 30:21; 49:19; 50:44; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16, cf. Ex. 19:13 and Heb. 12:20; Esth. 3:11,16; 5:2; 8:4f.; John 1:18; 6:46; 2 Cor. 5:6,8). The natural inability of man to see God is virtually taken for granted in Scripture (Ex. 33:20; Ps. 104:2; John 1:18; 2 Cor. 4:18; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), not least in the Garden of Eden, which is the womb of mankind, the race. This is surely the view held by Jesus and Paul. In the famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus described in John 3 sin does not rate a mention. (This is not to suggest that the new birth has nothing to do with sin, see e.g. Tit. 3:5, rather that the flesh comes first and the fleshly or sinful nature comes second as in the case of Adam and Eve.) Nonetheless, Jesus, who clearly believed in anthropological dualism (cf. Guthrie, p.176), differentiates absolutely between flesh and spirit (cf. Mt. 26:41) and lays it down as an axiom without any reference to sin that one must be born of both water and Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. (Bultmann rightly said that man is a body. So as body and soul man is doubtless monistic but as flesh and spirit he is dualistic, cf. Luke 12:4f., etc.) Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15:50 Paul insists that flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom or the perishable the imperishable (cf. 1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Pet. 1:23). In other words, since we are by nature corruptible flesh and blood and hence unfitted for the eternal world to come, we need to undergo a second or spiritual birth in order to prepare us for it. Then at death, or at least at the consummation of all things, since our flesh has been destroyed (2 Cor. 5:1, cf. 1 Cor. 6:13), our bodies will be redeemed (Rom. 8:23). Because our corruptible flesh cannot be restored (cf. John 3:4), this can only mean we shall be given new spiritual, even glorious bodies (1 Cor. 15:44,46; Phil. 3:21) suited to our heavenly environment (2 Cor. 5:1f.).
Initial Fellowship with God
What do we make then of the fact alluded to above that initially Adam and Eve talked freely with God and enjoyed his very presence (though clearly not sight of him)? It is important for us to recognise that the early chapters of Genesis, like the book of Revelation, are to some extent symbolical. So, if we assume that the Garden of Eden is the womb of the race and that God characteristically creates in the womb (e.g. Gen. 30:2; Job 31:15; Isa. 44:2, etc.), there is a sense in which all of us as God’s creatures enjoy embryonic fellowship with God when we are first created in the womb like Adam and Eve. (The traditional idea that we are at once created by God, cf. Job 31:15, etc., and are born sinful in his image, cf. Genesis 5:1-3, is not only inherently contradictory but unavoidably impugns the integrity of the Creator. Adam himself, incidentally, was created in the earth, Ps. 139:15, and transferred to Eden, Gen. 2:8,15, like sperm.) This conclusion is strengthened by Paul’s allusion to his own infancy. For he maintains that as a creature of God, like Adam in the Garden, he himself enjoyed ‘life’ (potentially eternal life) at the start (cf. Ezek. 28:15). It was not until as a child he broke the commandment, which promised eternal life, that he earned his wages in death just as Adam did (Rom. 7:9f.)(1*). This scenario would appear to be supported by the attitude of Jesus for, like God at creation (Gen. 1:28), he blessed little children (Mark 10:16, cf. Ps. 22:9f.; 71:6) and assumed that such child-like human beings were potential members of the kingdom (Mark 10:14). Of course, this line of thinking proceeds on the assumption that original sin is an Augustinian misunderstanding and quite alien to Scripture. What is more, it raises questions regarding the idea that the word ‘flesh’ is usually, if not always, ethical in meaning and is to be regarded as sinful (cf. Wright, 296 n.71).
Flesh in John
With respect to John, in contrast to many older commentators, more modern ones seem to recognise that the word ‘flesh’ refers to man’s nature as derived naturally or physically from his parents (John 1:13) and ultimately from the earth (see e.g. Ridderbos, p.128). Thus it is virtually necessary to conclude that the contrast that appears in John 3:6, for example, differentiates between earth and heaven (cf. 6:63). According to Morris, John makes it clear that the flesh is “… of the earth, earthy. It cannot give rise to anything other than what is earthy (p.219 and nn.37,38). Westcott claims that, “The words (flesh and spirit) describe the characteristic principles of two orders. They are not related to one another as evil to good; but as two spheres of being with which man is connected. By the ‘spirit’ our complex nature is united to heaven, by the ‘flesh’, to earth“ (p.50). Westcott further maintains that the word ‘flesh’ does not include the idea of sinfulness but rather describes human personality on the side which tends to sin and on which we have all actually sinned. Though Westcott does not explicitly make them, there are two inferences to be drawn from this: first, that the flesh as the creation of God is not and cannot be evil, and, second, that as flesh we inevitably follow the pattern of conduct established by our original progenitors and portrayed in Genesis 3:1ff. Repetition or imitation pervades the entire Bible. In other words, while Augustine was unquestionably right to emphasise our need of grace, contrary to Article 9 of the Church of England Pelagius was also right to maintain that we sin because we imitate, or rather repeat, the sin of Adam and Eve in whose image we are made (Gen. 5:1-3, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-49). (Augustine’s dismissal of this idea seems to be based in part on his failure to understand Pelagius’ point. See Needham, pp.49-51. As has just been indicated, there is in any case pervasive biblical evidence for both imitation and repetition of sin, cf. 3 John 11, etc.) But another point must be made: the flesh as such is used somewhat pejoratively by John not because it is sinful but because of its natural limitations and earthly character (John 1:12f., cf. 3:31). For example, in 6:63 Jesus, having referred to his ascension, immediately adds that the flesh is ultimately profitless (cf. Luke 8:19-21; 11:27f.). It requires no great leap of fancy to conclude that the point being made is basically the same as that in John 3:6 and 1 Corinthians 15:50 (cf. vv. 45-49; Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8).
Flesh in Paul
While John’s use of ‘flesh’, at least in the gospel, is fairly straightforward, the same cannot always be said of Paul’s even though he is quite capable of using it in the normal way (cf. Rom. 8:3; 1 Cor. 15:50; Gal. 6:7f.; Eph. 5:29; Phil. 1:22), that is, as referring to our mortal (‘natural’) human nature as created by the hand of God (cf. Ps. 78:39; 119:73; 103:14; Rom. 6:12; 8:11) in contrast with spiritual rebirth. On the other hand, Paul can extend its ordinary meaning to include his natural relationships and associations as in Philippians 3:2ff. and even ethicise the word to mean, arguably at least, “human nature as controlled and directed by sin” (Murray, p.244. Cf. Fee who tells us that most often in Paul ‘flesh’ designates the whole person as oriented away from God and ‘spirit’ as the whole person as oriented towards God, p. 212.). Thus the NIV in particular frequently abandons the word ‘flesh’ and quite misleadingly substitutes ‘sinful nature’ as we saw above. This is a dangerous procedure (pace Moo, Encountering, pp.127f. in contrast with Romans, p.418 n.51) for at least four reasons: (1) Paul’s use of the word is by no means uniform and various meanings have been assigned to it (see e.g. Hafemann, pp.241f.n.10; Thiselton, pp.1266ff.); (2) it pre-empts careful exegesis; (3) it makes exegesis vulnerable to control by a possibly false theology; and (4) it weakens our understanding of the link between the word’s basic meaning, i.e. man’s earthly nature as created by God, and ethics. It is precisely failure to recognise these dangers, especially the last, that has led to so much misunderstanding. And when writers tell us that the flesh is ‘unqualifiedly evil’, ‘wholly sinful’ (Murray, Romans, pp.245,263) or ‘radically evil’ (Barrett, p.148) there is a real danger of distortion (cf. Dunn, pp.363f., 391). In the event, there can be little doubt that the dogma of original sin, falsely quarried from Romans 5:12ff., has impeded perception of Paul’s argument in Romans in general and of the ‘flesh’ in particular. This is especially plain with regard to Romans 7, which, though admittedly difficult in certain respects, has traditionally fallen prey to a false interpretation of Romans 5. Once we illegitimately assign a sinful connotation to the word ‘flesh’ we are in danger of distorting our understanding of the gospel.
Flesh and the Glory of God
It is useful at this point to paint in some necessary background for the purpose of clarification. For example, when Paul tells us that before God no flesh will be justified (Rom. 3:20; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16, cf. 3:11), he is drawing attention not to our sinfulness by birth (which would surely be absurd) but to our fleshly or earthly nature and its propensity to sin before the law (cf. Job 4:17-19; 15:14f.; 25:4-6; Ps. 78:39; 103:14; Jer. 13:23; 17:5ff.; Rom. 7:7ff.; 8:8, etc.). In other words, our failure arises from our natural inadequacy and weakness (Mt. 26:41) which, coupled with our failure to control our passions and physical appetites (Gen. 3:6; Num. 15:39; Eph. 4:22; 1 Thes. 4:4; 2 Pet. 1:4, etc., cf. Dunn, p.370), renders us incapable of keeping the law and so of justifying ourselves (cf. Rom. 8:3). (Though in one sense Moo is correct to say that “the power of sin made it impossible for any human being to fulfil the law”, p.439, he misses the point. Paul says that the power of sin is the law, 1 Cor. 15:56. Like many Reformed writers Moo appears to be asserting that we sin because we are (born) sinners. However, as with Adam and Eve, cf. Dt. 1:39, etc., in the first instance, it is the weakness of the flesh leading to our failure to keep the (parental) commandment and later the whole law that renders us incapable of justifying ourselves. In blunt terms, those who are in the flesh, Jesus apart, Mt. 3:17; Rom. 8:3, cannot keep the law and please God, Rom. 8:8, cf. 7:18,14. Murray is clearly going too far when he asserts that sin’s origin is in the spirit of man and not in his fleshly, material nature, Redemption, p.180) This, of course, was part of God’s eternal purpose which involved consigning us all to sin (Rom. 11:32; Gal. 3:22) to prevent our boasting (1 Cor. 1:29), to exercise his mercy (Rom. 11:32), to demonstrate the riches of his grace (Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:4-6), to be our one and only Saviour in Christ (Isa. 45:22; Phil. 2:10f.), and thus to promote his own glory (Phil. 2:11; Rom. 11:36; Rev. 4:11, cf. Isa. 2:11,17; 12:1-6; 42:8; 48:11; Jer. 9:23f.; 17:5,7, etc.). To express the issue somewhat differently, in Paul as in John, earth and heaven are in strong contrast. This is further emphasised by Paul himself when he tells us not simply to “make no provision for the flesh” (Rom. 6:12; 13:14; 8:4; Gal. 5:16,24f.) but to put to death what is earthly in us (Col. 3:5, contrast Rom. 16:18; Phil. 3:19, cf. v.2; Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24). For our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20; Col. 3:1) to which we have been called in Christ (3:14; 1 Cor. 1:9; 1 Thes. 2:12, cf. Heb. 3:1; 1 Pet. 5:10).
The War between Flesh and Spirit
This brings us to the war between flesh and spirit, or Spirit (Gal. 5:16ff.; James 4:1; 1 Pet. 2:11). It has been held by Christians in the Western world under the influence of Augustine of Hippo that this arises from our native sinfulness (see espec. Article 9 of the C of E). This, however, cannot be true, for the same war clearly afflicted, first, innocent Adam and Eve, at least in principle, and, secondly, Jesus, the last Adam, himself (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 2:17; 4:15, cf. Jas. 1:13-15). So, it needs to be firmly laid down, first, that the notion of our being born sinful is necessarily foreign to Scripture (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.; Ezek. 18, etc.); second, that since we sin from the time we first disobey our parents’ commands (cf. Gen. 8:21) and fail to master our temptations (Gen. 4:7), we do indeed have a sinful nature (Jer. 13:23; Rom. 6:16; Eph. 2:3; Jas. 2:9-11; 2 Pet. 2:19, cf. John 8:34). So, like Adam and the Israelites in general (Jer. 3:25, etc.), not to mention the Gentiles whose sins are characteristically fleshly (Rom. 1:18ff.; Eph. 4:17ff., etc.) like that of Eve, we have all sinned from our youth and come short of the glory of God (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Ps. 25:7; Rom. 3:23; 5:12; Eph. 2:3; 2 Tim. 2:22; Tit. 3:3, cf. Jer. 3:23; Ezek. 23:8,18f.,21,27, etc.).
The Pejorative Nature of the Flesh
In light of this, the suggestion that the depreciatory or pejorative character of the flesh stems solely from its sinfulness, as our sin-obsessed forebears in particular seemed to think, is deeply suspect (see, for example, Murray, CW 2, p.185). To insist that it does is to ignore a great deal of biblical teaching. For a start, in the Bible whatever is “made by hand” (i.e. the material creation in general including man, see e.g. Job 10:8; Isaiah 45:11f.; Ps. 119:73; Mark 14:58 and Hebrews 1:10-12) is in direct contrast with what is “not made by hand” (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:1; Heb. 9:11,24). Then, it should be noted that the need to lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven arises from the inherently transient nature of all earthly things, as Jesus in particular stressed (Mt. 6:19f.; 24:35; Luke 12:13ff.). But Peter (1:1:3f.,7,23-25), Paul (1 Cor. 7:31; 15:42-58; 2 Cor. 3:11; 4:16-5:4), James (1:9-12; 5:2f.), the author of Hebrews (1:10-12; 8:13; 10:34; 11:16; 12:27f.; 13:14) and John (1:2:17) all harp on the same theme. It was not so much sin as such, that is, transgression of the law, that brought about the demise of pre-Mosaic characters like Esau and Lot’s wife (contrast Ruth 1:16) but their deliberate choice of and commitment to the essentially ephemeral (cf. Luke 12:13ff.; 2 Tim. 4:10; 1 John 2:15-17) and their blatant rejection of the promised eternal inheritance (Heb. 12:15-17). These two, far from seeing themselves as aliens and exiles in this temporal world (1 Pet. 2:11), typified the Israelites who refused to head for the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses (note Heb. 11:25) and in their hearts returned to Egypt (Num. 11:4f.,18-20; Acts 7:39, contrast Ruth 1:15). They were what the book of Revelation terms “those who dwell on the earth” (6:10, etc.) and whose portion is in this life (Ps. 17:14, etc.). So even for us today, the danger of bartering our eternal heavenly inheritance for a transient earthly bowl of soup is immense, and it arises directly from our fleshly covetousness, desires and appetites (Rom. 8:13; 16:18; Gal. 6:8; Phil 3:19), as Adam and Eve’s paradigmatic sin and experience make manifest (Gen. 3:6, cf. Jas. 1:14f.).
The Moral Neutrality of the Flesh and the Passions
Is this to suggest that the passions of the flesh, including sex, are sinful? Not at all! (pace Murray, p.245). Such a notion stems, as I have already suggested, from Augustinian theology and its dogma of original sin (cf. Thiselton, pp.733f.). Our passions are God-given and are hence natural (see e.g. Cranfield, p.337, Fung, p.274). Being a law to themselves (Rom. 7:23) they are amoral. In other words, the “motions” (KJV) or impulses of the flesh operate unaffected by moral considerations, as the earthly temptations of Jesus make clear (cf. James 1:13f.). Their insidiousness arises from the fact that in certain circumstances they are constituted sinful by the law apprehended by the mind (Gen. 2:17; Ex. 20:17; Rom. 7). Thus, when they are not controlled according to (the) law, they lead to deception, transgression and death (Rom. 7:5 ( 2*); Eph. 4:22; James 1:14f.; 2 Pet. 1:4, cf. Rom. 16:18; Heb. 3:13; 11:25). So, though it is plain that the relationship between the flesh and sin is very close (see espec. Gen. 3:6; Rom 6:6; 7:14, 23-25; 8:3), it does not involve identity. The supreme wonder of the life of Jesus is that, despite being flesh and subject to the whole gamut of fleshly temptation, he finished his course sinless (Luke 13:32; John 19:30) and gained victory over the world, the flesh and the devil (Mt. 4:1-11; John 16:33, etc.) precisely in the flesh (Heb. 2), which Paul daringly, but with good reason, refers to as ‘sinful flesh’ (Rom. 8:3). So it was not his putative avoidance of original sin by means of the Virgin Birth that made Jesus unique, but the subjection of his body of flesh to keep of the law (Mt. 3:17; John 8:46; 15:10; contrast 7:19) and so to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15, cf. Heb. 10:7) despite, indeed in the face of, strong temptation (Mt. 4:1-11). In this way he accomplished his Father’s will (John 4:34; 5:30; Heb. 10:5-7, etc.). It was this that set him apart from all his fellows, for he alone achieved perfection (cf. Mt. 5:48; 19:21; James 3:2) by putting all things, including his own flesh, under his feet and proving worthy to be crowned with glory and honour (Ps. 8:4-6; Heb. 2:8-10,14-18; 4:14-16; Rev. 5:5) in violent contrast to the rest of us.
Why the War?
It might well be asked at this point why there is a war at all between the two sides of our God-given nature, personified, for example, in Galatians 4:29 and implicitly in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49. The answer is doubtless to be found in the very first chapter of the Bible where God is portrayed as creating man in his own image with a view to his exercising dominion over the earth (vv.26,28, cf. Ps. 8:5f.) and testing him accordingly (e.g. Ex. 16:4; Dt. 8:2,16, etc.). Here the point which usually seems to be missed is that man on his physical or fleshly side is created from the earth (Gen. 2:7), and this being so, his body of flesh is meant to be subject to the dominion of his spirit too, as a horse is to its rider (cf. Isa. 31:3; Ps. 32:9; 1 Thes. 4:4; James 3:3). From the start, the divine intention for us was to glorify him in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). To put the issue another way, it was precisely our first parents’ failure, at the insidious suggestion of the devil, to control their fleshly or earthly appetites according to law that led them into sin (Gen. 3:6, cf. Rom. 16:18-20). And it has done the same with all (solidarity, cf. Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 6:16-19) but One (separation) of their descendants ever since. The truth of this is brought out especially in Hebrews 2 where we learn that Jesus as man, the second Adam, alone succeeded in putting everything, especially his own body (cf. Rom. 8:3; James 3:2), under his feet and so was crowned (v.9) in preparation for dominion in the world to come (Heb. 1:6; 2:5, cf. Rev. 3:21). On the other hand, when Fee (GEP, p.819 n.39), for example, insists that of the fifteen works of the flesh alluded to in Galatians 5:19-21 very few of them can be located in the physical body, we cannot but agree. For all that, however, he seems to miss the point, since all of these sins stem from or find their ultimate origin or stimulus in our autonomous, recalcitrant, even persecuting (Gal. 4:29) earthly flesh (Rom. 1:24ff.; 13:13f., 16:17f., cf. Jas. 3:14f.), which by extension becomes ‘the flesh’ or the character or heart (Jer. 17:5-10; Mark 7:20-23) or mind (Col. 2:18) fashioned by the flesh (2 Pet. 2:14, cf. Rom. 12:2) and which, like the earth, is a law to itself (Rom. 7:5,23; 8:13, cf. Gal. 5:16f.) and meant to be mastered (cf. Gen. 4:7) in accordance with Genesis 1:26,28. (Fung, p.168 n.3, pp. 251f., points out that the Spirit-flesh antithesis in Gal. 5:16f. becomes opposition between the Spirit and the law in v. 18. What is composed of flesh, sarkinos, becomes characterised by flesh, sarkikos, unless it is ruled by the spirit/Spirit. The old self fashioned by the flesh and the world must be crucified through faith in Christ and replaced by the new self ruled by the Spirit, Gal. 2:20; 5:24; 6:14, etc.). These sinful (= against the law) works stand in stark contrast with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-24) against which there is no law. While the former are at bottom earthly or physical (cf. James 3:14-16; 1 John 2:17) and must be put to death (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5, cf. Gal. 4:29f.), the latter are heavenly (cf. James 3:17). The basic contrast then is between earth and heaven, the physical man of dust and the spiritual man of heaven, flesh and Spirit.
At this point, it might usefully be added that Mark 7:20-23, where Jesus refers to the human heart, and 2 Timothy 3:2-5, for example, are but variations of Galatians 5:19-21 (cf. Rom. 1:18-32; Eph. 4:17-24). As flesh we are naturally lovers of ourselves, naturally covetous and naturally nurture our own flesh in the interests of survival like all animals (2 Tim. 3:2-5, cf. Eph. 5:28f.). But as those who are made in the image of God we are called on to obey the law for our own good (Dt. 4:40; 5:33, etc.), to love God first, to deny ourselves (Mark 8:34), even, if necessary, to the point of sacrificing our fleshly existence (8:35f., cf. Mt. 4:4), to avoid pleasing ourselves in certain circumstances (cf. Heb. 11:25), to love our neighbours as ourselves (Rom. 15:1-3) and not to love the world (1 John 2:15-17). Only Jesus, who did not please himself (Rom. 15:3) but put his heavenly Father first (John 6:38; 8:29) to the point of giving his flesh for us, has ever fully succeeded in doing this (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18).
Why, it might be asked, was it ever necessary for God to institute the law to highlight (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:19) or to set a guard against (1 Tim. 1:8-11), the impulses of the flesh? It might be said first that the intention was to differentiate man made in the image of God from the animals. Then it should be noted that the OT makes it clear that the law was for the good of the people. It was intended to bring length of life and prosperity in the Promised Land (Dt. 5:33, etc.) and ultimately in heaven (Dt. 5:29). However, since the flesh by its very nature, like the earth from which it is taken, is not only autonomous, recalcitrant, undisciplined, volatile and impermanent (Rom.8:20), unreserved commitment to it signalled inevitable death as it does in the animal world (cf. Gal.6:8). (It is not without significance that in passages strongly reprobating spiritual whoredom animal imagery is freely used in both Testaments: Jer. 2:23f.; 5:8;31:18; Ezek. 23:20; Hos. 4:16; 7:11; 2 Pet. 2 and Jude. The message it sends to man made in the image of God ought to be clear.)
For mortal man made in God’s image, the law promised real or heavenly life. The only problem was that Adamic or fleshly man proved incapable of keeping the law (cf. Rom. 7:14) and in the interests of the flesh even rebelled against it (Gen. 3:6). In this situation, the law’s ministry was one of death not life (Rom. 7:10, cf. 2 Cor. 3). Relapse into the dust indicated sinful failure to meet the condition of the promise, which was obedience (cf. Ezek. 7:13 ESV).
Is the Flesh purely Physical?
As already indicated, the danger remains of tying the word ‘flesh’ to our physical nature to the extent that we virtually identify the two (cf. the RSV’s translation of psychikos in 1 Cor. 15:44,46). In reaction, however, some writers under the influence of the Augustinian dogma of original sin come close to denying the physical altogether. While they rightly indicate that the flesh has its ‘spiritual’ side as is evident in the list of sins in Galatians 5:19-21 (cf. James 3:13-17), they fail to see that these sins are an extension of the physical, the flesh in action so to speak, as I intimated above. In Romans 8:5ff. and Colossians 2:18, for example, Paul talks of ‘the mind of the flesh’. What does he mean? Surely that our natural minds are at least in part ruled by and hence characterised by our fleshly appetites in contravention of the law (cf. Rom. 7 where Paul’s well-intentioned mind fails to control his fleshly body, and note especially Rom. 12:2; 1 Pet. 1:14; 4:2; 1 John 2:15). It is only by the Spirit that we can hope to conquer (Rom. 8). In other words, as 8:5 indicates, our mind-set is wrong (Rom. 8:6-9, cf. Phil 3:19f.; Col. 3:1-5). At the very least it is limited as John the Baptist indicated (John 3:31). Thus, to focus attention largely or exclusively on this world, and on the satisfaction or gratification of the flesh in particular (1 Cor. 6:9f.; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5, etc.), is to court final disaster, for there is no ultimate future for either except eventual corruption (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8, cf. 1 John 2:17). So Paul is only saying in other words what is taught throughout the Bible about the natural corruptibility of the material creation, as noted earlier. In line with John 1:13; 3:6 and 6:63 and 1 Peter 1:3f., for example, Paul views the flesh pejoratively (cf. Phil. 3:4) not because it is intrinsically evil but because it is by nature inferior to the spirit which alone can undergo regeneration and survive into eternity (cf. Luke 12:4f.). Thus the idea, common in the early church, and still held with tenacity in some quarters today, that the flesh was capable of resurrection like the physical body of Jesus is clearly erroneous. This Paul makes abundantly clear in 1 Corinthians 15 (note espec. 15:37). Regrettably this passage has been frequently misunderstood as a consequence of failure to eradicate previously held misconceptions like the one just mentioned.
Flesh and Body
It is imperative then to appreciate the distinction between the words ‘body’ and ‘flesh’. While it is true that on occasion Paul can identify the two as, for example, in Romans 6:12 and 7:24f., elsewhere he clearly distinguishes between the perishable body of flesh (2 Cor. 4:10f.; Col. 1:22; 2:11) and the spiritual or glorious body that will be ours in the world to come (1 Cor. 15:35ff.; 2 Cor. 5:1, cf. 1 Pet. 1:23-25; 1 John 3:9). Apart from temporary physical resurrections like that of Lazarus, resurrection in the NT always leads to transformation. Paul tells us that our physical or fleshly bodies will first be subject to wasting (aging), death, decay and destruction like the corruptible creation from which they are taken (Heb. 1:10-12; 12:26-29), and only then be raised transformed (2 Cor. 4:16-5:1) in concert with the bodies of the saints who are still alive at the coming of Christ (1 Thes, 4:16f.; 1 Cor. 15:51ff.). The body that is sown is NOT the body that is raised (1 Cor. 15:37). Restorationism, which is a conspicuous feature of the OT (1 K. 13:6; 2 K. 8:1; Ezr. 6:5; Dan. 4:36, etc.), is ruled out of court. The idea that we shall be restored to what we were at the beginning (cf. e.g. 1 K. 13:6, contrast Job 16:22; John 3:4) as though original sin and its curse were the only problem is a fundamental misapprehension of the plan of salvation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5).
Jesus’ Resurrection Body
This, however, raises questions with regard to Jesus himself, for there is widespread agreement that his resurrection, which required his physical restoration, inevitably involved his transformation. This, however, is virtually a contradiction in terms and is clearly at odds with what the Bible teaches. In any case, the evidence for his transformation is speculative at best and is plainly falsified by such passages as Luke 24:36-42 and John 20:17,20,26-29. There are at least four points involving patent contradictions to be made here: first, the physical resurrection or restoration of Jesus is unmistakably asserted; second, if Jesus has already been glorified he is no longer flesh and bones for as such he cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50, cf. John 3:5f.); third, he is no longer visible (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18; Rom. 8:24f.) and has hence already ascended (Acts 1:9); and, fourth, immediately after the resurrection his physical body was strangely lacking in the splendour and glory that Jesus, Paul and John attribute to the heavenly or spiritual body (Mt. 13:43; John 17:5,24; 1 Cor. 15:35ff.; Phil 3:21; 1 John 3:2). The truth is that Jesus, as he himself intimated (John 20:17), was not transformed and glorified until he ascended (John 7:39; Rev. 3:21. etc.). For the essence of the ascension is not physical upward mobility but transformation (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-57). And it needs to be strongly asserted that when he returns it will not be in the form of a physically nondescript Galilean peasant but in the glory of his Father (Mt. 16:27, etc.), as Paul’s vision, Revelation 1:12ff.;2:18;19:12-16 and other references suggest (e.g. 2 Thes. 1:7).
Jesus and Corruption
While Jesus certainly died in the corruptible flesh he inherited from Adam (1 Pet. 3:18, etc.) and was raised, he did not see corruption. Why? The answer clearly lies in the fact that he did not sin, that is, give way to the flesh on his own account as Adam did. While the latter returned to the earth (dust) as a sinner (Gen. 3:19) having failed to meet the condition of life (Gen. 2:17), Jesus fulfilled the law and inherited the life it promised (Mt. 3:17). Thus, after his death and resurrection on our behalf, he ascended and was changed as the forerunner of those who at the end of the age will be redeemed apart from death and corruption (1 Cor. 15:51ff.).
Man’s Two Basic Problems
While a great deal more could be written particularly on the exegetical level, I have deliberately concentrated in this article on areas of basic misunderstanding. So what can be said by way of conclusion? First, mankind is beset by two fundamental problems: first, his earthly condition which by its very nature excludes him from heaven (1 Cor. 15:50, cf. John 3:1-7; 2 Cor. 5:6,8; Gal. 4:29f.), and, second, his sin which prevents the fulfilment of the initial promise of Genesis 2:17 (cf. 1 John 2:17). Strangely enough this was recognised as far back as the book of Job. Both Job himself (14:1f., cf. 5:7) and his comforter Eliphaz (4:17-19; 15:14) are acutely aware of the fact that those who are born of woman, that is, flesh (cf. Gal. 4:4) are inherently weak in a naturally recalcitrant world. But Eliphaz, despite his misunderstandings with regard to Job, also appears to recognise that sin exacerbates an inherently problematic situation when he points out that if God puts no trust in created things (cf. Rom. 1:20; Heb. 12:27), how much less in blatant sinners (15:16). At a much later date Paul too harps on the unprofitability and weakness of the flesh and all earthly things which are intrinsically subject to corruption (Rom. 7:18; 8:13,20f.; 1 Cor. 15:45-50; Gal. 6:8, cf. Col. 2:22; Eccl. 3:19f.; Ps. 49:12,20; 106:20). And in Romans 7 in particular, having drawn attention to the connection between the weakness of the flesh and sin, he pinpoints it in verse 14 (cf. 23-25). Why then the traditional almost exclusive emphasis on sin?
The answer lies in the fallacious analysis of the situation by Augustine. His most basic problem was that he misunderstood Genesis 1 and assumed that creation, including man (Adam) whom he idealised, was not simply ‘good’ in a moral sense but perfect at the outset (cf. Gk. kalos, that is, ideally suited to its purpose of producing and supporting biological life, especially man, cf. Isa. 45:12,18, etc.). He thus put the donkey before the carrot. And as a consequence of this, he failed to appreciate fully the fundamentally teleological character of creation and to realise that perfection was the goal, not the beginning. This the author of Hebrews in particular emphasised (1:10-12; 9:11; 12:22-29, etc.), and was supported by Paul who indicated uncompromisingly that the flesh or the natural precedes the spiritual in man who is creation in miniature (1 Cor. 15:46, cf. v.23; 1 Cor. 13:10; Gal. 3:3). For Augustine, however, and countless others who have followed in his steps, the axiom of original righteousness and holiness, an exegetical, logical and theological absurdity, was self-evident, and it was assumed that that ‘high estate’ was succeeded by the Fall, original sin and universal curse. Needless to say, if the Bible is our court of appeal, none of this can withstand serious scrutiny.
Original Sin Redundant
If my emphasis on the natural corruptibility of the flesh apart from sin is correct, then we can, even disregarding exegetical considerations, dismiss the traditional dogma of original sin as redundant. The primary reason why we sin is not because we have inherited the sin or a ‘twist’ from our forebears, though their impact is undeniable (see below), rather it is the same as the reason why Adam and Eve sinned, as surely that much neglected verse Genesis 3:6 (cf. Num. 15:39; Job 31:7; Eph. 4:22; James 1:14f.; 2 Pet. 1:4) makes clear. Initially, we all surrender to the flesh, our fleshly appetites or earthly nature which, as those made in the image of God, we were intended to rule over (cf. Eph. 2:3). Admittedly, apart from the work of the devil, there is another important factor. Since we are created in their fleshly image (Gen. 5:1-3), we not only follow naturally enough in the steps of our original progenitors as all children tend to do, but, as Paul like the OT prophets well recognised, we are, contrary to the teaching of Pelagius, conditioned by their example and the effects of their sin. (Note the a fortiori argument of Dt. 31:27, cf. Rom. 5:12ff.) While these certainly help to determine our conduct (Jer. 11:10; 14:20; 16:10-13; 32:18f.; Rom. 5:12ff., cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Num. 14:18), they cannot be regarded as being finally deterministic as the traditional dogmas of the imputation and transmission of Adam’s sin would lead us to believe. This is proved beyond reasonable doubt by Jesus who, though a true child of Adam (Luke 3:38), born of a sinful woman (Gal. 4:4, cf. Ps. 51:5 ESV; Luke 2:47, cf. 11:13) and hence subject to the entire gamut of human temptation, did not personally commit sin (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22). Had this not been the case, he would have been in no position to surrender his flesh on behalf of his people (Heb. 2:9-18; 5:7-10; 10:19f.; Col. 1:21f.;1 Pet. 3:18).
It is one of the tragedies of modern evangelicalism, conditioned as it is by Augustine’s erroneous thinking, that its theology is almost exclusively sin-centred. This has serious repercussions in polemics, apologetics, evangelism (cf. Ezek. 18:30-32) and in general living; for so long as we preach original sin many of our hearers are bound to assume that we can do nothing to remedy the situation. (Cf. homosexuals desperately seeking a native gene which exonerates them of all responsibility since they were born that way.) On the other hand, if, with the NT especially, we lay a foundation in atonement for sins personally committed (Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 1:21; 2:13, etc.) and in the promise of the Holy Spirit for reformation of life and self-control (1 Thes. 4:3-7, etc.), we have a much more rationally coherent and convincing case to make.
The Dominant Role of the Flesh in Man
As indicated above, man was originally created in the image of God to exercise dominion over the earth. On the more personal level this meant that he was intended to reign over his own earth-derived flesh (cf. Dt. 6:4). As the first few verses of Genesis 3 make clear, once they had been placed on probation under the commandment both Adam and Eve failed their first real test, like Israel at a later date (see Ex. 32; 1 Cor. 10:6ff.), by succumbing to fleshly desire (cf. James 1:14f.; 2 Pet. 2:18). This has been the pattern of sin ever since (3*), though its manifestation sometimes takes on a more sophisticated hue. And what needs to be underscored at this juncture is the perennial tendency of man to give way to his fleshly desires, and to be fashioned (1 Pet. 1:14; 4:2) and dominated by them (cf. Rom. 6:16-23;; 2 Pet. 2; Jude, etc.). As Paul demonstrated in Romans 7 (cf. 3:9-20), man under the law, which he acknowledges even with approval in his mind, is a lamentable failure. The law with its ministry of death (2 Cor. 3) simply cannot give life (Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3, cf. Heb. 7:18f.); only the Spirit can do that (John 6:63). This highlights the fallacy that education or secular philosophy is the pandemic remedy for sin, crime and antisocial behaviour. Education or law can play its necessary part but, until it is complemented or supplemented by a change of heart, it will always prove inadequate as the entire Bible, universal history and personal experience testify. All the devotees of legalistic theologies both in the church and in the world religions need to recognise their need of grace through faith in Christ. But having said this, it is vital to recognise also that ‘the flesh’, or our nature as determined and characterised by the flesh, will always radically affect our outlook and conduct even when we are born again. And this is the reason why Christians in the NT are constantly exhorted to be subject to the leading of the Spirit and not the flesh, to put the earthly side of their nature to death (which in principle they have already crucified, Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24), to avoid the illegitimate gratification of fleshly desires, to exercise self-control (see e.g. Rom. 6:12-19; 8:13; 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:14; 2:11; 4:2f.; Col. 3:1-5; Tit. 2:6,12; 3:3-7), to avoid conformity to the world (cf. Gal. 6:14) and to be transformed by adopting the mind of Christ (Rom. 12:2; Phil. 2:5; Tit. 2:12, etc.). Romans 7, which has been understandably but wrongly regarded as being exclusively descriptive of the Christian life, indicates that the battle is life-long, that is, so long as we are in the flesh, as Paul in particular was painfully aware, for he first struggled unsuccessfully like Adam and Eve under the commandment (Rom. 7:7-13, see 2* again) and then under the law like Israel in general (Rom. 7:14-25). It was only under Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21), when led by the Spirit, that he achieved some measure of success (Romans 8, cf. Phil. 3:12), but even then he had to severely discipline his body and subdue (enslave) it (1 Cor. 9:27, cf. James 3:2f.). (Our battle with the flesh is paralleled, of course, by our life-long battle with the earth which constantly requires man to till or cultivate it, Gen. 2:5,15, to prevent its reversal to chaotic wilderness and desolation, Isa. 6:11, etc., cf. Prov. 24:30-34. An untended or “untilled” body, that is not fed, watered, washed, shaved, manicured, etc. becomes a “desolation” like an uninhabited land, Jer. 44:22, etc., completely so in death when the spirit has departed, Jas. 2:26. Note also Paul’s battles with his environment on his missionary journeys, e.g. 2 Cor. 6:4f.; 11:23ff.). Sin in the regenerate ought not to occur (note again Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24) but, as John was well aware, it does (1 John 1:9f., cf. 3:9). Since the flesh, like the earth from which it derives, is autonomous or a law to itself (Rom. 7:23, cf. 8:13,20) as in the animal world, fleshly desires and attitudes are ever with us and have to be corrected, controlled and conquered as we are led by the Spirit of God within us. If not, they run riot (cf. Gen. 6:5ff.) and reduce us to mere creatures of instinct (2 Pet. 2; Jude, cf. Eccl. 3:18). The word ‘conquer’, like the word ‘tame’ in James 3, is significant in this regard, and it is used of Jesus whose active perfect obedience paved the way to his atonement for sin (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9; 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:5). It is also used of us (Rom. 8:37; 1 John 5:4; Rev. 3:21) and refers to the conquering of our own actual sins in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 6:12-14; 8:13; 1 Pet. 1:14,18f.; 2:1,11; 4:2f., etc.).
So in this highly materialistic age of pervasive hedonism when the sins of the flesh become daily more blatant, it is vital for Christians to stress along with the writers of the NT, not original sin which robs us of personal responsibility, but the universal need to control our earthly nature in accordance with the creation cultural mandate apart from which we shall not see life (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5, cf. Phil. 3:19; 1 Thes. 4:1-8; Heb. 12:14). Indeed, it is for the deeds done in the body (of flesh) that we are to be judged (Rom. 2:4-11; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 4:6, etc.). So sinful commitment to this temporal world and unbridled submission to what is earthly in us can only result in catastrophe (cf. Ps. 10:3; 17:14; 1 John 2:15-17): it involves the denial of our humanity and the very purpose of our creation which was that we should seek glory, honour, immortality (incorruption, Rom. 2:7,10) and perfection in the image of God (Mt. 5:48; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Heb. 1:3; 2:10; 5:8f.; 7:28; 12:23), who is spirit (John 4:24), and be presented blameless before him (1 Cor. 1:8; Eph. 1:4-6; Col. 1:22). We have been warned. It is precisely because we, who were created in the image of God, have, like Adam and Eve, sinned in the flesh and have forfeited the promise of life that we have an unavoidable appointment with death (cf. Rom. 8:10). And after death comes the judgement (Heb. 9:27). In the circumstances, the only way to life is through Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12, etc.).
To summarise the essence of my thesis I make the following points:
First, the flesh refers basically to our earthly physical nature inherited from Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-49). It is inherently temporary and perishable like its source. In light of this, we in the West who have been under the baneful influence of the Augustinian dogma of original sin need to be on our guard against over-ethicising the flesh, not least in the writings of Paul. In my view ‘sarx’, even in references like Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16, should always by translated ‘flesh’. Paul uses it with express purpose.
Second, the flesh is basically ‘good’, that is, useful like creation in general (1 Tim. 4:3f.), for it serves God’s purpose. Certain fleshly actions, however, are regulated by law and become sinful when it is transgressed. While the animal world is flesh and is totally subject to the (law of the) flesh (cf. Isa. 31:3), man, who is also created in the image of God, is meant to exercise dominion over it just as he is over the earth. Stubborn refusal and unmitigated failure lead to exclusion from the kingdom of heaven (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; 2 Pet. 2; Jude; Rev, 21:8; 22:15, etc.). Serving the belly rather than the spirit/Spirit (Eccl. 6:7; Rom. 16:18; Phil. 3:19) is a denial of our humanity (Jude 10) and our creation in the image of God.
Third, as flesh man is weak, vulnerable, mortal, corruptible, dependent, naturally subject to temptation and, with the unique exception of Jesus, quite incapable of justifying himself by the works of the (spiritual) law (Rom. 3:9,19f.,23; 5:12; 7:7ff.; 8:3,8; 11:32; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; 3:10-12,22, etc.). Thus, inevitably, his body of flesh, or body of humiliation (Phil. 3:21), is a body of sin and death (Rom. 6:6; 7:24) which Jesus alone conquered (Rom. 8:3, cf. John 16:33; Heb. 2:9; Rev. 3:21).
Fourth, since failure to control their fleshly appetites and desires brought about the demise of our initially innocent first parents (Gen. 3:6), how much more does it lead to that of the rest of their children (Eph. 4:22; Jas. 1:14f.; 2 Pet. 1:4) who are also unavoidably affected and conditioned by their sinful example and its effects (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12, cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.). In light of this, the traditional dogma of original sin, which implies that God creates us evil, must be considered not only blasphemous but superfluous.
Fifth, the Bible, history and personal experience all testify to the tremendous negative power that our fleshly bodies along with the world exercise over us. Since we are susceptible both to intense pleasure, which we relish, and appalling pain, which we naturally shun, it is little wonder that their impact is so great. And it is only as we are led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:16,18), that is, by a superior power above and beyond us, that we can hope to conquer and be conformed to the image of God in Christ (Rom. 8:29). It should be remembered that even Jesus in the days of his flesh relied totally on his heavenly Father to overcome (Heb. 5:7).
Sixth, salvation in the Bible is about deliverance not simply from sin but from this age and from all that is earthly (cf. Gal. 1:4; 2 Tim. 4:10; Col. 3:1-5). This includes our fleshly nature, if not our bodies. Even Jesus, who alone succeeded completely in making his flesh the vehicle of his spirit, looked for ultimate deliverance from it on his return to the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50; John 6:62f.; 8:35; Gal. 4:30). He was born flesh (of woman) and as such was subject to (the) law. Then in the service of his Father he fulfilled all righteousness and achieved perfection in the power of the Spirit. As Galatians 4:1-7 indicates, he was born a slave, became a servant and attained to sonship in his progressive (covenantal) ascent to heaven (Heb. 1:3; Rev. 3:21). We, who believe follow in his steps, recapitulate his pilgrimage and the trail he blazed (cf. Mt. 5:45; 19:17-21; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:14,19-21; 1 Pet. 2:21, etc.). As with the individual, so it is with mankind as a whole whom Jesus epitomised (cf. Eph. 1:10) as the second Adam (note Romans 1:18-3:31, which, like Romans 7:7-8:39 and 1 Corinthians 15:42-58, portrays the characteristic biblical movement from flesh to spirit).
Finally, such is the proclivity of the innately covetous flesh (4*), which is a law to itself, to temptation and hence to sin that Romans 8:3 (cf. Heb. 4:15) constitutes one of the most astonishing texts in Scripture pointing unerringly to the conclusion that Jesus was the unique Son of God and as such the only possible Saviour of men and women regardless of race, religion or status (cf. John 8:34-36).
1* Attempts to deny this (e.g. Moo, p.437f.), seem to me most unconvincing. The idea that Paul was relatively ‘alive’ until he received and transgressed the law of Moses is implicitly falsified both by Paul himself in Romans, especially chapter 1, and by Scripture as a whole (cf. Ps. 25:7; Eph. 2:3; Tit. 3:3). While Moo certainly has a better appreciation than many of salvation history (see e.g. p.389), and even of the progress of personal redemption (pp.529f.), it is doubtful whether it goes deep enough. On the one hand, an inadequate understanding of biblical covenant theology would appear to be part of his problem, and, on the other, a failure to appreciate the essential similarity between Eve’s sin and Israelite infraction of the tenth commandment. Eve’s child-like misdemeanour, which involves covetousness, is to all intents and purposes a proleptic transgression of the tenth commandment (Gen. 3:6, cf. Jas. 1:14f.). In any case, Moo’s claim that Paul was alive until he offended against the tenth commandment of the Mosaic law runs strangely counter to his unbiblical view that we are all, including Paul, dead in Adam from birth (see e.g. pp. 326,394,364,429,534).
2* The meaning of Romans 7:5 is in my view seriously distorted by modern translations, and, provided we refer to ‘passions’ or ‘impulses’ rather than ‘motions’, the KJV is to be preferred. Paul is not saying that the law ‘arouses’ or ‘stimulates’ sin (an Augustinian notion, see Needham, p.87, which admittedly contains an element of truth, as Calvin affirms in comment on Romans 5:20, p.214). How could he when he has spent so much time earlier in his letter describing the sinful passions of the heathen who were without the law? (Moo’s comment on this verse strikes me as being distinctly odd. He recognises that it is unlikely that Paul would accuse the law of ‘provoking’ sinful desires but apparently accepts that the law ‘arouses’ the sinful passions, p.420. The inconsistency here is patent. Schreiner is even less inhibited when he tells us, on pages 366 passim, that the law “exacerbates, provokes, and stimulates sin”.) In view of what he has already said and is going to say with regard to the law (NB 4:15; 5:13; 7:7-12), Paul is making it clear that while the passions, like the flesh itself, are in themselves morally neutral (i.e. ‘good’ in the sense of Gen. 1 and 1 Tim. 4:3f.), they become sinful when they involve transgression of the law (cf. Rom. 4:15). In other words, they are constituted sinful by the law which in the weakness of his flesh man cannot control.
To express the issue differently, it is truer to Paul (cf. James 1:14f.) to say that the flesh (Eve/Gentiles) arouses the sin (cf. Rom. 7:14) which is constituted sinful (cf. Rom. 7:13) by the law (Adam/Jews). The fact is that the flesh, which is a law to itself and amoral (7:23; 8:13; Gal. 5:17) does not discriminate as the law does. (I have read or heard the point crudely but effectively expressed as follows: an erect penis has no conscience! It is simply governed by fleshly desire as in the animal world.) A simple illustration highlights my point. As a virile young man I may be physically attracted to a pretty girl (A) and also to an even prettier married woman (B). While it is legitimate for me to desire, woo and marry A (cf. Dt. 21:11), it is not so for me to do the same with B. Given Paul’s own illustration in 7:1-3 it might be more to the point to say that while David’s wooing of the beautiful Abigail whose husband was dead is looked on favourably in Scripture, by contrast his passion for Bathsheba whose husband’s death had to be contrived is not.
In further comment we might add that while it is good (Gen. 1:28, pace Augustine and his horror of carnal lust, see Needham, p. 59, etc.) to exercise passion with a wife (cf. 1 Cor. 7:9,28,36), it is not so with another man’s wife. In the latter case the naturally ‘good’ passion (cf. Gen. 1:28) is constituted sinful by the law. Once more we should draw the conclusion that where there is no law there is no sin (cf. Gal. 5:23; 1 Cor. 15:56). The marriage bed is good (Gen. 2:24; 1 Tim. 4:3f.), defiled it is not (Heb. 13:4).
3* I have briefly examined the pattern of sin elsewhere in another unpublished article and concluded that the sins of the primal pair were paradigmatic, as Wenham (p.90f.), Wright (p.245) and Dumbrell (p.24), for example, suggest. I am unaware of any similar study, doubtless because of the dominance of original sin. The latter has simply been taken for granted in the West, riddled though it is with insoluble problems.
4* See, for e.g., Ex. 20:17; Isa. 56:11; Jer. 6:13; 8:10; 22:17; Eccl. 6:7; Rom. 16:18; Phil. 3:19. William Barclay gives us a true reflection of the teaching of the Bible on the covetousness of the flesh when he comments on ‘pleonexia’ as follows: “The essence is the desire to have what is forbidden, the desire to take what should not be taken, the giving of rein to appetites and desires which are against the laws of God and man .… Pleonexia is the sin of the man who has allowed full play to the desire to have what he should not have, who thinks that his desires and appetites and lusts are the most important thing in the world, who sees others as things to be exploited, who has no god except himself and his desires” (pp.234f.). Thiselton also comments aptly on ‘sarx’ when he says that “The nearest that we can go towards finding a ‘general’ meaning … is to say that fleshly life is life lived in pursuit of one’s own ends, in independence of God or of the law of God, in contrast to living in accordance with the direction of the Holy spirit. This can take as many different concrete forms as being ‘selfish’ or ‘self-centred’” (NIDNTT, Vol. 1, p.681, cf. 2 Cor. 5:15). It is hard not to conclude in view of this that we all follow in the steps of our original fleshly progenitors, Adam and Eve. While we inherit them as our (evil) parents (cf. Luke 11:13), we do not inherit their sin (Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18, etc.). Rather, as those created in their fleshly image (Gen. 5:1-3), we, not surprisingly, repeat it (Jer. 3:25; 14:20; 16:10-12; Acts 7:51f., etc.) under their influence (Rom. 5:12ff. etc.).
Additional Note on the War Between Flesh and Spirit
If it is true that the fleshly body stems from the earth, then it too along with the earth and its creatures (Gen. 1:26, cf. James 3:2f.,7) is intended to be subject to the dominion of (that is, the slave of) man made in the image of God (Gen. 4:7; 1 Cor. 9:27; James 3:8). Thus from the beginning man’s task was to till the earth (Gen. 2:5,15) and to control his own flesh (2:17) with a view to being eventually crowned with glory and honour (Ps. 8:5f.). In this he proved unsuccessful, for he was overcome by the world (Gen. 1), the flesh (Gen. 2:17, cf. 3:6) and the devil (Gen. 3:1-7). His defeat led to his alienation from God and a much harsher struggle with nature (Gen. 3:16-19) beyond the bounds of the garden. (Cf. again life in the womb and that outside.)
It was into this struggle that the second Adam entered in an attempt to overcome where the first failed. Not to mention the devil (John 14:30), he too had to contend with a recalcitrant earth and the weakness and temptations to which the flesh, being also a law to itself (Rom. 7:23; Gal. 5:16f.), is universally subject apart from sin (James 1:14, cf. 5:17). But the passions, to which the rest of Adam’s posterity yielded in violation of the law (cf. Rom. 7:5 on which see above), he mastered. Since he relied on the power of God, he did not allow his fleshly desires to come to maturity/ completion (Gal. 5:16, Gk. teleo; James 1:15, Gk. apoteleo). But that he had them is made abundantly plain in Matthew 4:1-11, Hebrews 2:17, 4:15, James 4:1 and 1 Peter 2:11, to go no further (pace Calvin, p.201; Art. 9 of the C. of E.). If this is true, then it is important to recognise that our fleshly passions in one form or another remain with us throughout our earthly lives. While, like Paul (Rom. 7), we fail miserably to manage them in our pre-Christian (school)days (1 Pet. 1:14; 4:2), we do achieve some measure of success once, through faith in Christ, we are led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8, cf. 13:14, etc.). The wonder of the life of Jesus is that though truly flesh and subject to all its passions and desires, he first successfully kept the law to gain life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5) and then achieved perfection by fulfilling all righteousness in the power of the Spirit as God’s acknowledged Son (Mt. 3:15; 19:21). And while Paul tells us that he condemned sin in the flesh (8:3), the author of Hebrews informs us that the pioneer and perfecter of his people’s salvation (12:2) was himself made perfect through suffering and crowned with glory and honour (2:9f.).
So, Jesus uniquely made the flesh his slave (Rom. 6:16, cf. 1 Thes. 4:3-8, ESV; James 3:2; 2 Pet. 2:19) in spite of its ability to tempt and persecute (Gal. 4:29f.; Heb. 4:15). Thus, having conquered the world (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9) in the flesh (Rom. 8:3), he entered his Father’s house as the true spiritual Son (John 8:35 cf. Heb. 3:6) and the pioneer of his people (Heb. 2:10; 12:2). Paving their way to glory, he went ahead and prepared that spacious house for their occupation (John 14:2; Heb. 9:23). When he returns it will be as conqueror in order to complete their salvation (John 14:3; Heb. 9:28) and to present them to the Father (1 Cor. 15:23-28; Col. 1:22; 1 Pet. 3:18, etc.). (On the assumption that the above is in essence correct, it should be obvious that since Christ conquered by representatively fulfilling mankind’s cultural mandate, Genesis 1:26,28, cf. John 16:33; Heb. 2:9f., the idea that he needs to return to effect a restoration of creation in an earthly millennium is based not only on radical misunderstanding but is in fact redundant.)
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