Alfred E. Bouter
In God's Word, the expression 'the flesh' has several meanings. In this overview we will limit ourselves to the meaning this term has, for example, in Romans 7:18, where we read: 'I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell.' Ever since Adam's and Eve's fall (Gen. 3), the condition of the human race before God - in this body of flesh and blood - is characterized by sin, permeated and controlled by it, falling short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). In this sense, the word 'flesh' is nearly identical with the sin-nature we inherited from Adam. The flesh is subject to sin, its master; the sinner's entire human being (body, soul and spirit) has become the instrument of sin, enslaved to a hard master (Rom. 6). In our flesh, we notice the manifestation of sin in its various forms. Sin expresses itself in our flesh, using our body.
God's thoughts concerning the flesh in us
What does God think about this? I encourage you to read and study Romans 6 to 8 and Galatians 5:16-24. If it is relatively easy to read God's Word, it is harder to understand its context, and much more difficult to realize in actual practice what it teaches! If one speaks of men in general, saying that all are sinners, this will be accepted more easily than saying, 'I am sinner,' and acknowledging it before God and man. But it is only then, in true repentance and confession before God, that one realises his sin-nature and sees himself in God's light. It is this way I experience personally what God's Word tells me and submit to its authority.
There are five specific lessons to learn regarding 'the flesh' and our responsibility before God.
First Step - Accept God's Word
It is difficult, but absolutely necessary to understand and accept what God says about sin, and to learn to appreciate His thoughts concerning the flesh. I need to accept God's Word and submit to it. The Lord made a simple yet profound statement when he said, 'The flesh profits nothing' (John 6:63). The tree (of the sin-nature) will produce the fruit of sins. Even more solemn is what the Lord said to Nicodemus: 'what is born of the flesh is flesh' (John 3:6). The 'old nature' the sin-nature in the believer, cannot be improved or made acceptable to God.
Second Step - Apply God's Word
God condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; 6:6). I need to realize in my heart that the flesh cannot produce anything acceptable before God, since He dealt with it in Christ at the cross and put it aside (Gal. 2:20; John 3:14). When I 'walk' (behaviour, attitude, habits, actions) according to this truth, then I walk according to the Spirit. When, on the other hand, I try to produce something good in and from myself, I walk after the flesh. Let us therefore apply God's Word, which shows that God condemned sin in the flesh, because nothing good can come from it. God exercised this judgment at the cross in His own Son, who took our place! Do I walk according to this truth that I have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20)? Or, do I want to try to produce something good in and from myself?
Third Step - Practice God's Word
Paul teaches that the Christian has a new position before God: 'We are the circumcision', meaning that flesh in the Christian has been set aside, in actual practice. Then he continues, 'who have no confidence in the flesh' (Phil. 3:3). 'They that are of the Christ have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts' (Gal. 5:24). So the Christian accepts God's judgment of the flesh and learns to grasp the implications. In his heart and in his actual life, he considers himself dead to sin (Rom. 6:11). When I do not give the flesh the opportunity to become manifest in my life or my thoughts, then I am putting God's Word into practice. Is this not beautifully summarised by Paul in Galatians 2:20? 'I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me' (NKJV).
Fourth Step - To live and walk according to the Spirit
Why failure and defeat? Why painful and humiliating experiences instead of a victorious life? It is because we are unable to put God's teachings about the flesh into practice, by using our own strength (see Rom. 7:15-8:8). However, the Holy Spirit who came to dwell in us when we were saved is able to give us the strength we need. We must learn that even the new nature in the believer has no strength or power, in or of itself. Sadly, a believer may live and think according to the flesh, but the flesh does not submit itself to God for it is in enmity against Him. Unfortunately, one cannot see a difference between a Christian in the condition just described - walking according to the flesh and unbelievers - those who are still in the flesh (8:8).
God, however, desires that I can be recognized as Christian in my life, walk and actions! How? It is by the strength of the Spirit who dwells in me, if, indeed, I submit to Him, His authority and His direction (8:13-14). In other words, if I live according to the Spirit, there will be the victorious life of Romans 8 and Galatians 5:16, 18, 22-25! A victorious Christian lives and walks according to the Spirit, in His power. Thus, the fourth step we need to learn in connection with the flesh is to live and walk according to the Spirit. The Lord Jesus, although He is God blessed over all, is also a Man, without sin, who has lived on this earth according to these standards. He is our Model and He desires to give us strength through His Spirit, to follow His example.
Fifth Step - the Fruit of the Spirit
Finally, still one more lesson needs to be learned and practiced. Suppose we have learned our lessons and are following our Lord's example. However, if in spite of that, the flesh is permitted to yet again have influence - either through lack of vigilance or disobedience - what then? If somehow I allow again the flesh to produce its bad fruits, even after having learned those four preceding steps, then it is vital to immediately judge such action of the flesh, without delay or hesitation. If we have failed, we need to acknowledge in our hearts and confess before God that these bad fruits deserve to be condemned. Christ suffered for these things, even for these fruits of the flesh produced in and by the believer! Thus, I need to deal with them according to what they really are: deeds of the body, controlled by the sin-nature (Rom. 8:13). Those fruits are called 'your members' and they are the results of the activity of the flesh, whether it is impatience, self-will, or lust. They spring from the sinful condition of the flesh (see the first point) and must therefore be considered as linked with their source. 'Put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry' (Col. 3:5 NKJV). Paul exhorts us to mortify those 'members' which give expression, in whatever way, to the flesh.
How do we do that? In true self-judgment (cf. Psalm 32:5; 51:1-12, 17; 139:23-24) and in the power of the Holy Spirit. These 'members' must be put where they belong, at the foot of the cross, under God's judgment. Compare this with what the Lord taught His disciples, especially in Matthew 18:8-9. Thorough, drastic action is needed with respect to things produced by the flesh. This is the negative aspect. Someone has said: 'I cannot prevent birds from flying over my head, but I can stop them from building a nest in my hair.' But God also looks for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) instead of these carnal members or bad fruits. This is the positive side: Christ displayed in our lives, Christ manifested in us. It is the work of the Spirit of God.
'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control' (Gal. 5:22 NASB).