In Romans, Paul memorably speaks of many things. One of which is his comparison of the flesh and the Spirit. What is this exactly? What is the flesh and what is the Spirit that Paul speaks of? How is this integral to his arguments in Romans? To answer these questions and understand what is meant here is to, I believe, understand what the Christian life is about.
Though this is true, how does one not live according to the flesh but the Spirit? All people are of flesh and live in the flesh. Though this is true, it could be that Paul has a deeper point to be made than just the humanity that all people share. For this argument from Romans 8:13, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (ESV), to make sense, there must be a deeper meaning to flesh than just the physical body.
The word “flesh” appears seventeen, out of twenty-three times in Romans, in thirteen verses between chapters seven and eight. The word Spirit appears twenty-four, out of thirty times in Romans, in sixteen verses between chapters five and eight. It, therefore, seems logical to look at the main points between chapters five through eight to gain an understanding of what is meant by “flesh” and “Spirit” by Paul.
MAIN POINTS OF ROMANS 5-8
Since most of the uses of “flesh” and “Spirit” are found in this section of Romans, it is probably a good place to investigate what they mean. In chapter five Paul is speaking about how Christ came and died for all mankind even while still sinners (5:1-11). Of how all are in sin and condemned to death through Adam, but how life, righteousness, and justification are through Jesus (5:12-21). It would seem that the main point of this chapter is that of, hope and glory the benefits of righteousness through God.
Chapter six speaks to those who have accepted this free gift of righteousness and how they are to no longer live and continue in sin (6:1-4). That all who have been cleansed, united, to Christ are made alive and will live forever in glory. That because of this unification, sin has no control over the individual who has believed (6:5-14). It then flows that those who are living under this amazing grace are to be obedient to Christ as they were to sin before (6:15-19). That this righteousness has given them life and not death that sin brings with it (6:20-23). The main point is that all who believe are no longer bound by sin but by life.
Chapter seven is a chapter that speaks of the defeat that living in the “flesh” brings. Paul continues the lesson of six into the first part by speaking of what freedom is. How one is not bound by something if they have died to it (7:1-6). The remainder of the chapter is a demonstration of what sin does to one. How it is a powerful enemy, though conquered it is still a strong enemy (7:7-25). It simply shows that one is defeated by the flesh if they are fighting alone without Christ.
Chapter eight from the first verse to the last is all about how life in the Spirit is how one overcomes it all. That this blessing is given by Christ. That living fully in Christ will give one the strength to overcome. He has redeemed all who have believed and there is future glory through Him by the power of the Spirit and not the flesh. This chapter is about how the believer overcomes all the sinful things of the world and the flesh by the power of the Spirit. According to Moo, the main intention through these chapters is “to show that sarx [flesh] brings death while the Spirit brings life” (“Romans.” The NIV Application Commentary, 250).
DEFINITIONS, ARGUMENT OF 5-8, WALKING BY THE SPIRIT
The word flesh brings to mind thoughts of the body, the physical body of people and animals. Although, this may be an accurate definition of flesh, is this what Paul meant by the flesh? In this section of Romans, it seems this description is not quite accurate. Paul does utilize this definition of flesh in Romans, (e.g. 1:3;4:1) but it just does not seem to fit in this section on sin, salvation, and eternal glory. Moo writes that the NIV renders the Greek word “sarx (flesh)” as “sinful nature” (250). This is a good definition of the word. Moo also states that it is, “the narrowly human outlook that leads to sin” and that it is “a condition, natural to people, in which God and the spiritual realm are left out of account” (251,254). Spirit, on the other hand, is “new life” the “gift of the Holy Spirit” and where a person (believer) is “under his domination and control” (Moo 251,252).
Since, as Moo stated it, flesh “brings death while the Spirit brings life”, one sees a theme throughout these chapters (250). From chapter five to chapter eight Paul is demonstrating how the flesh, sinful nature, is so destructive and how life in the Spirit is a new life, a redeemed life, a life under new headship. Robert Pyne wrote, “Paul had argued in Romans 5 that the actions of the head of a race are applied to the members of that race” (“Dependence and Duty: The Spiritual Life in Galatians 5 and Romans 6.” Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands: Biblical and Leadership Studies in Honor of Donald K. Campbell, 149). In the same chapter, Paul showed where Christ came and made a way for all to come under a new headship. Paul is not, through these chapters, teaching “on how to obey God and avoid sinning, but on why we should obey God” (Pyne 149). This is the main focus of chapter six, but this is a major concept of what walking in the Spirit and not the flesh is.
This teaching lends credence to Paul’s grander argument because “sin should no longer be master over them…Since they were no longer in bondage to sin, they were to stop allowing it to control their lives” (Pyne 150). Paul is using the metaphor of flesh and Spirit to demonstrate that the one in Christ is in the Spirit and not of the flesh anymore. Chapter seven demonstrates that the flesh is still a major problem for all who are alive, but chapter eight gives clarity and strength to those in this battle. Paul desires all believers to walk according to the Spirit. This action can be, and is, different for different people.
For some people walking according to the Spirit can simply mean avoiding certain areas that may cause them to fall. It can mean not hanging around certain people anymore because of their sinful lifestyles. For others, it can mean a complete and total lifestyle change. If one is in the adult film industry as a means of work, then walking by the Spirit could mean losing everything they have because they can no longer do that work. Walking by the Spirit is giving over your life to God and avoiding sinful lifestyle choices and actions. It is not that one will never sin again, but it is a willful surrendering of those old ways to God and walking in a brand-new way. Living in a manner that is pleasing to God rather than a manner that is pleasing to oneself.
HOW I HAVE BEEN PERSUADED TO WALK IN THE SPIRIT
Now, I will speak more personally on how I have been persuaded to walk in the Spirit.
I have been persuaded to walk in the Spirit because of Romans 5:8. This tells us that while in my sins, before I ever had even sinned, Jesus died for me. He took the punishment that was meant for me. I see this verse and cannot help but think of this amazing gift that Christ has given me. I know that I can never repay this action, nor would I try to do so as that would be a works salvation, and reducing the free gift to a level of barter and trade, therefore nullifying the gift. No, I do it out of my thankfulness to Him for this gift so walking in His Spirit is a must. As Pyne wrote, “regeneration constitutes a decisive break with the past…” (155). And this is what I strive to live out because of Jesus.
I know that I am a slave to something in this world, and I know that it is better to follow the ways of the Spirit rather than the flesh. I followed the flesh for quite some time, and it is not a good way. Paul is correct that one is a slave of it and a slave in the worst kind of way. Not to mention, that chapter seven speaks a solid truth “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). I know that I cannot please God on my own. I know that the only way that this will happen is to walk according to the Spirit. I know I fail from time to time, but in that, I trust in God’s grace to carry me when I fail. And I pray that you will trust and rest in His grace too.