In various places, Paul develops a strong contrast between the Spirit and the flesh (sarx) – see Galatians 5 and elsewhere (Rom.8:3-17, Phil. 3:3).
May I humbly suggest that most Christian interpretation of what Paul means here is just flat out mistaken.
And may I also suggest that such a view has damaging pastoral and theological implications (of which more below).
I was taught, and maybe you have been too, that this refers to an internal spiritual conflict within the Christian between our ‘sinful nature’ (literally sarx = ‘flesh) which is warring against our new ‘spiritual nature’. In effect, in this view, Christians have two natures – the old and the new, which exist alongside each other within us for as long as we live.
We have constantly to choose to live to our higher ‘spiritual nature’ over our lower ‘fleshly nature’.
This is what Luther taught: ‘there be two contrary captains in you, the Spirit and the flesh’ – and innumerable commentators have followed his lead ever since.
For some this leads to a pretty pessimistic and limited view of the Christian life as a virtually equal struggle between two natures; flesh and Spirit.
Usually this is tied to an interpretation of Romans 7 as Paul describing the ongoing battle of the Christian life in these terms:
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!
Now, you can easily see how this link can be made. Romans 7 does describe in graphic terms an inner angst of two competing inclinations. But I’m with Gordon Fee and many others, in finding this completely at odds with Paul’s theology of the Christian life.
There are various interpretations of Rom 7:14-24: one asks whether Paul is speaking in the third person as a faithful Jew under the law – yet the law does not have the power to overcome sin? But however you cut it, the idea that Christians have a ‘flesh’ nature and a ‘spiritual’ nature co-existing and giving shape to their life ‘in Christ’ is profoundly wrong-headed.
What is being described in Romans 7 is a conflict that Christ delivers believers from – not one that faith in Jesus leads believers into! So verse 24b-25
Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
In Romans (and Galatians), Paul is not thinking in narrow introspective categories of some sort of existential inner crisis that remains unresolved for the believer. This completely misses how he talks about the acts of the ‘flesh’ in wholly negative terms:
Life according to the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21 describes a life in total opposition to life in the Spirit. Such life will NOT inherit the kingdom of God and leads to destruction (Gal.6:8, cf Rom.8:13).
So, sorry brother Martin, that’s pretty hard to square with ‘flesh’ life being a normal expected part of a Christian’s identity!
Take Romans 8:5-8 and Paul’s discussion of life kata sarxa (according to the flesh) and life kata pneuma (according to the Spirit). Rather than this somehow talking about two inner natures in every Christian, Paul is contrasting two utterly incompatible ways of life. Life according to the flesh cannot please God (Rom.8:8) and is a life hostile to God (8:6).
Far from continuing to have an inner ‘flesh nature’, for the believer, the flesh has been crucified. It is dead (Gal 6:14).
To understand the Christian life as an endless inner (and virtually equal) duel between Spirit and Flesh drastically undermines Paul’s confidence and expectation of the transforming power and presence of the Spirit in a Christian’s life.
It also, wrongly, portrays Christian identity in almost schizophrenic terms.
If you’ve got this far, some questions :
How have you interpreted and understood flesh versus Spirit in your own life? What have you been taught in church?
And if flesh does not equal an ‘inner nature’ within believers, does this somehow suggest that the Christian life should be without struggle and difficulty? In other words, does rejecting Luther’s view lead us into some sort of unreal hyper-spirituality that is doomed to drive us to guilt and failure when we continue to sin? (For sin we will).
And just maybe you are asking if Luther was wrong, what then was Paul talking about in his flesh / Spirit contrast? Come back for the next post! [Don’t you love these cliffhangers?]