n recent months we have been exploring hindrances to discipleship. Our previous issue focused on “the world” and before that on “the devil.” In this issue we turn our attention to Part One of our treatment of “the flesh,” the third member of what has been called “the unholy trinity.” Although the word flesh is fairly common among believers, our understanding of it is often shallow and limited. Frequently it is used as a synonym for sexual lust instead of as the fallen human nature that controls nonbelievers and seeks to control believers. This misunderstanding is a serious problem for those who want to live for Christ; if we don’t understand the flesh rightly, we cannot rightly understand sin and how to deal with it. As J.I. Packer says so clearly, “If you have not learned about sin you cannot understand yourself, your fellow-men, the world you live in or the Christian faith.”1
By way of introduction, I note the widespread failure of preachers and teachers to address “the flesh” adequately from the pulpit; it is not a popular topic. An even greater problem is our own reluctance to face the reality of our sin or to hear it mentioned in sermons… In Four Quartets T.S. Eliot put his finger on our problem, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We like to feel good about ourselves and resist anything that might threaten that illusion. But Jesus didn’t come simply to help us feel good; he came to help us be good, for God is more concerned with our holiness than our happiness. If we ever hope to make progress as disciples of Jesus—to think as he thought, to want what he wants, to feel as he felt, to act as he acted—we must understand and deal with our flesh and the sins it produces. This means being ruthlessly honest with ourselves about ourselves in the light of God’s Word and Spirit and then putting to death the sinful works of the flesh through the power of the Holy Spirit. As we do so, we will grow in the grace and knowledge and likeness of Jesus and glorify God more and more. We will discover that a holy life is a happy life.
Defining the Problem: What Is “the Flesh”?
What then does the Bible mean by the word flesh? Answering this question will take some effort on my part and yours, but the benefits are well worth it. What follows has been life changing for many people over the centuries and can be so for you too! In this article we will look at what the Bible means by the term flesh and how the flesh operates. Part 2, in the next issue, will address how to gain victory over the flesh in daily life. (And, yes, it is possible.)
The flesh (sarx in the Greek) is a complex concept in the Bible, and the word is used with a range of meanings. Its meaning in any given instance can be determined only by the context in which it appears. In all of the Old Testament and most places in the New, flesh is not seen as inherently sinful. It can mean, for example, the material of which humans or animals are made (1 Cor. 15:39), the human body (Gal. 4:13), a person (Rom. 3:20), a family (Rom. 4:1), and similarly rooted concepts. In the New Testament, flesh is used 147 times, of which 91 are by Paul. Paul uses the word in the senses just given,
But Paul also employs sarx in a sense not found in the Old Testament, namely, “man’s being and attitude as opposed to and in contradiction to God and God’s Spirit.” The sarx has sworn its allegiance to another: “By means of the flesh I am enslaved to sin (Ro. 7.25). The sarx of every person from Adam onward, Jesus alone excepted (Ro. 8.3), has been Sin’s habitation and slave.”2
Next page »