Flesh versus Spirit 2

Returning to the ‘two natures’ discussion a couple of posts back and zoning in on Galatians:

A problem here has been the translation of sarx (flesh) as ‘sinful nature’ (e.g., in the NIV, although more nuanced in more recent editions). This is a loaded translation which distorts the text.

Flesh versus Spirit needs to be understood eschatologically rather than individually as some sort of internal war between two natures.

Paul has some very negative things to say about the ‘world’. Take Galatians 1:4 and his description of how Jesus’ death for our sins rescues us from ‘this present evil age’.

Things associated with pre-Christian identity are being a slave under the ‘basic principles of the world’. The whole world is a prisoner of sin (3:22). The Law (Torah) cannot release people from this slavery. The theme of curse in Galatians is significant: those who rely on the law are under a curse for the law could never justify (3:10-11).

George Grey Barnard, ”The struggle of two natures in man” (1892)

Those in Christ, who have been justified by faith, belong to a new age; they are ‘new creations’ who belong to God’s redemptive purposes for this fallen world. They are set free (5:1) in Christ.

This new creation has invaded the present evil age (Gal 6:14-16). Since the coming of Christ and the Spirit, believers are living in the overlap of the ages. The world in its present form is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31)

Those in Christ are dead to the old age (flesh); it is crucified. The Christian life is therefore all about a community of faith who are drawn by God’s grace, into his redemptive purposes for the world.

The problem in Galatians was their utter foolishness to go back to something that enslaves and cannot give life. The flesh equals the old age that has decisively been defeated at the cross and resurrection. Its days are numbered. To go there is to go back under the curse.

Paul, their concerned father, has strong words for those who would lead the Galatians astray (1:8-9 – under God’s curse and wishes for a bit of painful self-mutilation with a knife in 5:12).

In contrast, Christians now belong to the new age of the Spirit. The Spirit brings life, grace, justification, freedom, transformation and hope. This is part of the promised blessing to Abraham (Gal 3:14) – for both Jew and for Gentile.

Those who walk by the Spirit will demonstrate practically and ethically what God’s good purposes for humanity looks like. They will live lives that are attractive and loving – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.

Individual Christian lives and communities are to be visible, beautiful and joyful witnesses to the new age of the Spirit; a foretaste in the present age of the ultimate age to come. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6)

It is only the power of the Spirit who can change lives; who can bring someone new life; who can overcome the powerful ‘passions’ or ‘desires’ of the (age of) the flesh.

So, rather than end up with a sort of schizophrenic Christian identity of two internal warring ‘natures’ in each individual Christian, the flesh versus Spirit conflict is much bigger than the sphere of the individual.

The real challenge of Galatians is a calling to live by the grace and new identity that has already been given to believers through faith in Christ and the vivifying gift of the Spirit.

For Paul’s warning to the Galatians is not just theoretical – they were in danger of going back under the flesh and turning their back on the gospel. And, at the same time, were denying the radical boundary-breaking implications of justification by faith alone for anyone – Jew or Gentile / male or female / slave or free (3:28).

Do you think that many Christians see themselves as living their lives within a larger cosmic conflict of flesh versus Spirit? If not, why not? Has the church lost touch with Paul’s thoroughly eschatological perspective on the Christian life?

If the Christian life is all about life in the Spirit from beginning to end: walking by the Spirit; sowing to the Spirit; keeping in step with the Spirit; what does this actually look like in practice? In your experience and understanding, how does it work? How do you sow to the Spirit and not to the flesh? Where does the community of the Spirit (the church) come in?

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4 thoughts on “Flesh versus Spirit 2

  1. I understand that Luther’s perspective of an internal crisis may not be an accurate interpretation of Paul’s writings, but is there a radical difference between the two views when it comes down to our everyday Christian lives? In both cases we choose to walk by the spirit, so does it really matter if we see this choice as a result of an internal or cosmic struggle? But in saying that I do see the necessity of looking beyond ourselves and recognising that as Christians our ‘struggle’ isn’t merely an individual one but one that is part of a greater picture.

    • “is there a radical difference between the two views when it comes down to our everyday Christian lives?”

      Hi Joanna. A very good question. Maybe not a radical difference, but there is, I think, an important distinction. The ‘internal’ view tended to be too individualistic and introspective, and associated with this focus, could easily lead to doubt, uncertainty, fear and worry over one’s spiritual status. In other words, ‘my spiritual status depends on me’ and the ‘flesh’ was seen as equal or almost equal to the Spirit. I think this marginalised the central and empowering place of the Spirit in Paul’s theology of the Christian life. It also tended to miss the radical new status of the Christian as already in a new creation. One result I think was a rather limited or low expectation of moral growth, transformation and change via the Spirit.

  2. Hello Patrick, me again, I still think what I said in my previous comments is the best news the world will ever hear. If Jesus Christ has power on earth to change heredity, and He does, then the war is over with the flesh. When we come into union with Him there is a new authority within which reigns over every part of our being, mind, body and spirit. In other words a new creation is born where Jesus Christ triumphs every time!

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