Elon, North Carolina
Last time I led the group, I shared six steps to repentance. If you need to repent of a sin, you need to do six things. The topic for this week in Steve Gallagher’s book The Walk of Repentance is entitled “Overcoming the Flesh”. Before we talk about overcoming the flesh, we have to define what the flesh is. Gallagher never defines the term. What is the flesh? What does that word “flesh” (σάρξ) mean in the Bible? The word is used in three ways.
Three Uses of the Word “Flesh” in the NT
First, it is used of the soft part of the body (muscle, fat, skin, soft tissue) in contrast to the hard part of the body (bones). For example, see Luke 24:39.
Second, it is used of the whole body. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh”. I John 4:2 says, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God”. II John 7 says, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world”. What does the word flesh mean in those passages?
It means that Jesus because a real man and took on a real body. What did Paul mean when he spoke of having “a thorn in the flesh” (II Corinthians 12:7). It means that he had some type of physical problem in his body. We don’t know exactly what the problem was. What did Paul mean when he said, “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh” (Philippians 3:2)?
Paul is talking about the Judaizers who said that you have to be circumcised to be a Christian and he calls them mutilators of the flesh who just want to mutilate the body. There was nothing wrong with circumcision perse but these Judaizers had abused the rite.
Paul says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Ephesians 5:31), which is a quotation from the Book of Genesis. One flesh is clearly physical. In fact, it is a reference to the sex act in marriage.
If there was any doubt about that, Paul made it clear in I Corinthians 6:16, “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” That verse specifically equates flesh with the body.
Other times, the word “flesh” does not mean simply body. It has a deeper meaning. The third meaning of flesh is the sin nature. We see this in Galatians 5:16-24 (ESV)
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.
I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
What does flesh mean here? It cannot mean body. Paul is not saying if you walk in the Spirit, you will not fulfill the natural urgings of the body when it is hungry and thirsty. Notice the works of the flesh. Paul lists fifteen of works of the flesh, just as he lists nine virtues that make up the fruit of the Spirit. These fifteen works of the flesh are not an exhaustive list (cf. 5:21).
Notice also that they are not all sensual sins or sexual sins. The first four are but he also includes religious sins (e.g., idolatry). Worshipping the wrong God is also a sin of the flesh. Religion can be just as much a work of the flesh as sex. That’s an interesting concept. False religions (Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism) are works of the flesh. We live in a time when everyone wants to be politically correct.
We have freedom of religion but God says that false religion is sin. It is completely counter-cultural. There are also some mental sins (hatred, jealousy, envy, selfish ambition). They are sins of the thoughts or mind. Your body may not do anything. God created the body. Your body is not evil. Flesh in this sense is the sin nature, as the NIV renders the term.
This brings us to the topic of the two natures of the believer. I have the greatest respect for John MacArthur as a Bible teacher. He is a great expositor of Scripture but one area I disagree with him is on the two natures of the believer. He believes that Christians have only one nature.
He has attacked the idea of two natures in the believer. That creates big problem. If the believer no longer has a fallen nature but has only one nature, and that nature is “divine,” and cannot sin then how do we account for the believer’s sinning?
The Bible teaches that Christians have two natures (Romans 7:21-23). All of us have a sin nature. We do not just choose to sin, we have a sinful nature and we got it from birth. We inherited that nature from Adam (cf. Mark 7:20-23). Where do these things come from? Jesus says from the heart.
As someone said, “It is not the environment that messes man up; man messes up the environment”. When we become a Christian, we received a new nature. Paul said in II Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” and we received a new nature. Jesus said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).
A non-Christian has only one nature (sin nature) and are controlled by it (Ephesians 2:1-3; Titus 3:3). We have two natures and Paul says that we are not controlled by our sin nature, like the unsaved are.
How are we to deal with the sin nature? How do we overcome the flesh?
Steps to Overcome the Flesh
That it is a daily struggle. It is a battle. He called it a war. That is not what some teach. Some teach if you live a victorious Christian life, you will not struggle with sin. Paul seemed to struggle with it. All you have to do is to read Romans 7. If you don’t know you are in a battle, you will always lose. You will never get to the point where the sin nature is gone until you are in heaven. And there is no second blessing or spiritual experience that makes a struggle with sin impossible.
There is a true story about a pastor who was given a letter by a young man. He graduated from one of the finest Christian schools in the Chicago area. During his days on that campus, he was known and respected as a godly man. Recently he wrote an open letter to his friends in which he declared that he has lost his faith and was writing to announce that he is coming “out of the closet” as an active homosexual.
As this pastor read his letter, he was struck by one word that appears six times in various forms in his letter. The word is “struggle.” The young man spoke of his “struggle” with sexual temptation, his “struggles” with his feelings, his “struggles” to live the Christian life, and in the end, his “struggle” with life itself. Finally he decided that the struggle was not worth the effort so he decided to stop struggling and to give in. So now he is “in the lifestyle” with all that that phrase implies.
Here was a man who had a struggle, the struggle was hard. His solution to the problem was simply to give in to the temptation. Instead we are to resist the sin nature (Titus 2:11-12; I Peter 2:11).
Paul says, “live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Galatians 5:16). So if the way you overcome the flesh is to walk in the Spirit, what does it mean to walk in the Spirit? How do we walk in the Spirit? What does that look like?
To “walk in the Spirit” (KJV) means to “live by the Spirit” (NIV). How do you live by the Spirit? I think it means two things.
1) Walking in the Spirit means doing what the Holy Spirit tells you to do.
How do we know what the Holy Spirit wants us to do? God has written a book and that book is inspired by the Holy Spirit (II Peter 1:21). It is called “the sword of the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). This is something that we are to do every day. The word “walk” or “live” is in the present tense in Greek. It means continually. We have to be in the Word daily to walk in the Spirit – reading, memorizing, meditating, applying, obeying.
2) Walking in the Spirit also means relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It means being open and sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may lead you do things. You may not have a verse of Scripture. Galatians 5:16 talks about walking in the Spirit. Galatians 5:18 talks about being led by the Spirit just two verses later.
How do we know if we are walking in the Spirit? If we are walking in the Spirit, we will display the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). That’s the context. Paul said, “live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” If we are gratifying the desires of the flesh or sinful nature, we are not living by the Spirit.
If our life is characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, we are walking in the Spirit. If it is characterized by the works of the flesh, we are not. In fact, we may not even be saved. Paul said, “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21; Romans 8:5-7, 12-13).