Flesh v. Spirit

Throughout this section the Apostle has been talking a lot about a concept he tries to capture with the word “flesh.”

Romans 7:5 – For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.
Romans 7:14 – For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
Romans 7:18 – For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in  my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
Romans 7:25 – Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Reference to the flesh will continue in chapter 8 but chapter 8 will see a conquering of the flesh by the Spirit—the classic New Testament dichotomy—masterfully summarized in 8:3-9.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-4).

Unfortunately, from references like these and others littered across the New Testament some Christians have concluded that the body is bad and that what our greatest hope is, is to be body-less.

when Paul uses the word flesh he means much more—but not less—than the body.

There is some truth to the fact that our bodies are tainted by sin. But so are our minds and wills and emotions and spirit. But no one ever talks about getting rid of them. Even when Paul seemingly heads down this road of longing to be delivered from this body in 2 Corinthians 5—there he calls it a tent—he still longs for a body, just one that isn’t broken.

For while we are still in this tent we groan being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5.4).

Christians have never longed for body-less existence. After all, we do confess our belief in the “resurrection of the body.” Rather ours is a longing for a fixed body, one animated and dominated by the Spirit (1 Cor. 15).

So when Paul uses the word flesh he means much more—but not less—than the body. He is thinking of a realm or a way of being—one that includes the body and the mind and the will and all facets of the human existence. He is thinking about that which is set in the wrong direction, against God and his ways and purposes.

As Christians we now walk according to the Spirit—or at least that’s the goal, because the flesh (sinful realm) is still nosing about and poking its nose under the tent. Since the new age has broken through, these two realms are at odds with each other. One day the Spirit will come to dominate completely and we will be delivered from our fleshly battle. For now, we head to battle strengthened by the Spirit and with his weapons.