Some friends recently told me about the lion- watching they had done while visiting a wildlife sanctuary. It was amazing, they said, to notice big cats’ low crouches, the waves of their tails, the stealthy movements-and to realize these same actions were exactly like those of their own house cats. It’s well known that the two creatures belong to the same feline family, but to actually observe that relationship through the animals’ conduct was more than my friends expected. Whether it was a big cat or a little cat, the behaviors were strikingly similar. That’s how it is with the scripture calls “the flesh.” Whether you’re looking at big display or a little display of the flesh, whether you’re examining flesh that’s obviously evil or flesh which seems rather charming, it’s still the flesh. It’s still that element of human nature which always desires its own way and always rejects God’s ways. “The flesh profits nothing,” said the Lord Himself (Jn.6:63). The Bible provides somewhat of a timeline of how the flesh affect our lives, starting from birth. Let’s trace that line and see where it takes us.
The Flesh at Birth
When a baby is born, we want to know if it’s a boy or a girl, what color the eyes and hair are, and whose nose it has. But we never have to ask if the baby is a sinner, because every human is born that way. The first versus of Ephesians 2 describe all of us: dead in sins, acting the way Satan likes, and living “in the lust of our flesh, indulging in the desires of flesh and mind” (v. 3). Those desires produce the deeds of flesh, such as those listed in Galatians 5:19-21 and Romans 1: 24-32. It’s clear that, without God, we would hopelessly drown in a sea of filth and corruption of our own making.
But God doesn’t intend that we drown. Ephesians 2:5 continues past the dreary picture to declare, “Even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ.” He offers salvation! Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, we can be saved, and many other wonderful truths are connected with this. At salvation, the need to deal with the flesh is not ignored. The key point is this: God has already dealt with the flesh by the death of Christ. As Christians, we are connected with the “circumcision of Christ” (His death), which removes “the body of flesh” (Col.2:11). “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal.5:24).
This is important. We don’t need to expend a bit of energy in attempting to eliminate the flesh or its power over us. God has already done it for us. All we have to do is recognize how God has dealt with the flesh, and we will see our new life in Christ. Putting away the flesh has nothing to do with the finished work of Christ. God says of every believer, “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (Rom.8:9).
The New Life
Since all these wonderful things are true, since God has done it all, why do we still struggle with the desires that displease God? Romans 8 just told us that we’re not in the flesh, didn’t it?
The problems is addressed just a couple of verses later, in Romans 8:12-13. Although we’re not in the flesh, we still hear the suggestions it makes, inviting us to live according to the flesh, to commit fleshly acts as we did before. The flesh has no claim to force us to live that way, but we may choose to live that way anyhow. The apostle Paul himself described this personal struggle, the experience of each Christian, in Romans 7:15-25. However we are not left without a resource. The power to overcome in this struggle is given to us in the person of the Holy Spirit. We’ve been told that we are in the Spirit (8:9); now we are instructed to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit (8:13). Although we have nothing to do by putting away with the flesh, we are responsible from preventing it from showing itself in our new lives as believers; and this is done as we allow the Spirit of God to guide our choices. “Walk in the Spirit and you shall fulfill the lust of flesh” Gal.5:16.
The Holy Spirit will always enable and empower us to live in a way that pleases God. But the fact is, it’s quite possible for a Christian to ignore the Spirit and instead act in a fleshly (carnal) way. This is a serious matter, because it sustains the testimony of God’s people. What might a fleshy Christian look like?
Some obvious sins of flesh may jump into our mind: sexual immorality, drunkenness, drug addiction, materialism. Christians do fall into these traps, we must help each other to recognize these errors, to call them what they are: sins of the flesh, a formidable attack on our spiritual well-being.
If a strong man is pounding on our door, we must keep the door closed at all times. If we open the door even just a crack, he will force his way in and overpower us. This is how it is with the flesh. It is so strong a foe that merely to dabble in its desires is immediately to open ourselves up to deep spiritual loss. Consider these versus:
• “Abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul” (1 Pt.2:11).
• Those who want to be rich and love money “have erred from faith, pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim.6:9-10).
• “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but immoral man sins against his own body” (1 Cor.6:18).
We are told that we can even resist the devil (1 Pt.5:8-9; Jas.4:7), but we can only flee when we are confronted by the flesh (1 Tim.2:22).
Sadly enough, these sins don’t lure God’s people. Yet we may overlook some areas of fleshly behavior that do not seem so wicked. Here care two examples.
1. The Christians at Corinth were told by Paul that they were acting in a fleshy way because they had jealousy and strife among themselves. They were arguing with each other and dividing into separate factions behind different leaders, each proud of one man and against others (1 Cor.3:1-4; 4:6-7). If we follow men instead of God, if we argue with each other about greatness or privilege, if we can’t get along with other believers, then we are fleshly Christians. “If you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another” (Gal.5:15).
2. Abraham, an Old Testament believer is used often in the New Testament as an example of living by faith. But in Genesis 16 he also failed. When God’s promise of son seemed unattainable because his wife Sarah was too old. Abraham took matters into his own hands. He had a son through his servant Hagar; and this was an act of flesh (Gal.4:22-23, 29). If we try to accomplish God’s work in our own way, if we cannot wait for God to act, if we don’t like His timetable, then we are fleshly Christians.
A Closing Illustration
A good picture that helps explain all we considered is found in the book of Joshua. Before the Israelites could enter the land of Canaan, they were told in chapter 5 to make sharp knives and circumcise males, because no one had been circumcised during their wanderings in the wilderness. The place where they camped at the time was called Gilgal. On several occasions later in Joshua and in 1 Samuel, the people returned together to Gilgal, not to be circumcised but to “renew their kingdom” (1 Sam.11:14). This is how is with us. The death of Christ has dealt with the flesh once for all, and we are identified with His victory when we are saved. We need not attempt to put the flesh down, and we cannot do it anyway; it’s too strong for us. But it’s good for us to spend lots of time at Gilgal, so to speak. This means we keep reminding ourselves that the flesh is indeed useless before God, that the power of Holy Spirit is our only resource. Then we can say with Paul, “We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and the glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil.3:3).