Author: Ron Graham

Sin and Legalism

Is the Flesh Evil?
—Are our bodies at war with our souls?

Man is a combination of two natures —flesh and spirit. Some people believe these are naturally opposed, and offer the following proof text: "The flesh sets its desire against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, for these are in opposition to one another" (Galatians 5:17).

You may recall also that Peter says, "Beloved I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul" (1Peter 2:11). Then there is Paul's lament, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? ...on one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other hand, with my flesh I am serving the law of sin" (Romans 7:18-25).

It would be easy, don't you think, to see these verses as teaching that the flesh of man is evil and is the enemy of man's spirit? But now, if you will, apply a little common sense. Just look at your hands. Any other part of your body would do, but your hands just happen to be convenient to look at. Study your hands for a moment. They are flesh and blood members of your physical body. If your flesh is evil, then your hands are evil. (Do they look evil to you?) Now imagine one hand picked up a pencil and wrote blasphemy with it. Where would the evil reside that produced this act? In the pencil? In your hand? Or in your mind? What does your common sense answer? Common sense tells you that the evil is not in the wooden pencil, or in your fleshly hand, but rather in your spiritual mind.

It may be wise for us therefore to look at what else the Bible says on this matter, to shed some light upon, and to see if there is a more sensible way to understand, the few verses we have read.

1 The Flesh is No More Evil than the Mind.

Jesus understood that the human body as such is not evil. He said, "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off..." (Mark 9:43-47). Jesus was not teaching people to butcher themselves. He was simply pointing out that blaming your flesh for your sins is not valid, because if you apply logic to that proposition you come to the crazy conclusion that you should cut bits out of your body. If your hand does something evil, can you blame your hand? If so, then you should get rid of your hand. But of course it is not your hand causing you to sin. On the contrary, it is you causing your hand to sin.

Now let's look at some things Paul says which show that the flesh is not really to blame for the sins that we commit...

Paul speaks of "indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind" (Ephesians 2:3), and "the defilement of flesh and spirit" (2Corinthians 7:1). These verses show that the spirit or mind can be equally involved in corruption and filth as the fleshly body can be. Furthermore, both spirit and flesh can be equally free of evil, because Paul tells us to "cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit "(2Corinthians 7:1).

Again, Paul says of certain wicked people, "God gave them over to uncleaness in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonour their bodies among themselves" (Romans 1:24). This seems to make the heart or mind the enemy of the body. The fleshly body is dishonoured by an evil mind. Therefore while it is true that fleshly lusts can wage war against the soul, it is also equally true that the lusts of the mind can wage war against the fleshy body.

“The flesh” in its environment

When Paul speaks of the flesh in association with sin, we notice that whilst he is certainly thinking of the human body, he is not thinking of it as isolated from its environment the world. Paul is not imagining as it were a naked body in a glass case. Rather, he is thinking of the fleshly body living and functioning in a physical, natural, social, economic, and political environment. He is thinking of what John calls "all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life" (1John 2:15-17).

You remember Paul's statement quoted at the beginning of our lesson, "The flesh sets its desire against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh" (Galatians 5:17). Paul goes on to list some of the "deeds of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19-21). Among these are "envy" and "jealousy". How can these be "works of the flesh"? If you were envious of someone, what part of your fleshly body would be envious? Your hand? Your nose? Your big toe? You might, out of envy, get angry with someone and strike them with your hand. However the envy is a worldly attitude polluting your spiritual heart. The envy is not in your body as such.

When Paul associates "the flesh" with evil, he is thinking of the human body treated as an object to be served in a power, pleasure, and profit seeking world. The fleshly body should rather be treated as an instrument with which to serve the God who made it...

2 Our Bodies can Glorify God

Paul calls upon us to change the use of our fleshly bodies. He tells us to make them "instruments of righteousness... a living and holy sacrifice pleasing to God" (Romans 6:12-13, Romans 12:1-2). He speaks of his own body as a participant in his faith. "The life that I now life in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).

The Christian considers the human body of flesh as a temporary dwelling of the spirit, "our earthly house, our tent" (2Corinthians 5:1). As such, the flesh is neither evil nor the cause of evil. But it is a different story when the flesh becomes the object of service, when a worldly attitude of mind seeks fleshly or physical gratification far beyond what is needful. This life becomes an end in itself rather than a quest for spiritual joy in eternal life. Paul compares "the mind set on the flesh" as opposed to "the mind set on the Spirit" (Romans 8:5-7, cf Colossians 3:1-10).

The Christian also considers the human body of flesh to be a dwelling of the Holy Spirit. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you... therefore glorify God in your body " (1Corinthians 6:18-20). If the flesh were evil, such a statement would make no sense.

Now a final thought for this lesson. The Son of God himself became a man and lived in a fleshly human body just like you and me. This provides us with another reason why it is wrong to regard the flesh as evil...

3 The Son of God Became Flesh

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1,14, cf 1John 4:2). If the flesh is evil, how could this be so? How could God become flesh if the nature of flesh is sinful?

"This is my body which is broken for you..." (Luke 22:19 cf Hebrews 10:10). If the flesh is evil, how could the fleshly body of Jesus and its blood become a sacrifice for sins?

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