The Flesh

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (vv. 7–8)            

- Romans 8:1–8

Theologians usually identify three major obstacles to spiritual growth when they discuss the Christian life. The first of these is the world, whose sinful customs hold great sway over us both consciously and unconsciously. If we are to overcome them, we must work to conform our minds to Christ (Rom. 12:2).

The flesh constitutes the second leading hurdle to spiritual maturity. Today’s passage is but one of many texts in the New Testament where we are exhorted not to set our minds on the flesh but to walk by the Spirit.

First, let us address a common misunderstanding about the flesh in the church. Throughout history, people have thought that Paul is talking about the physical when he refers to the flesh, leading to the assumption that our spirits are good and our bodies are evil. This idea, however, reflects Greek philosophical teachings that deny the goodness of the physical, created world, which is not the biblical worldview. Scripture asserts the original goodness of the physical world (Gen. 1:31). Yes, the whole created order was cursed and corrupted in the fall (3:17–19), but it is not inherently evil. God is redeeming all of creation (Rom. 8:18–25), and the physical world is no less important than the spiritual realm.

According to the Bible, the war between flesh and spirit is not a war between body and soul. Instead, it is a struggle within ourselves — a war between the new life granted to us by the Holy Spirit and our sin nature, which will remain until our glorification (Rom. 7:7–25; 1 John 3:2–3).

We are freed from our bondage to sin when we trust Jesus alone and are enabled to follow His will by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:2; Gal. 5:16). Yet as we have said, our fallenness is not eradicated upon conversion. Sin rules us no longer, but at times it raises its head to stand in the way of the Spirit so that we do not obey Jesus, the life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45), each and every time.

Until we see Christ in glory, the remnant of sin within us, otherwise called the “flesh” in the New Testament, will seek to take charge of us once more. Thus we are ordered to fight against the flesh, putting it to death in order that we would keep in step with the Spirit (Col. 3:1–17).  

Coram Deo

Learning to love the things God loves is essential to the mortification of our flesh. Aside from studying Scripture by ourselves, small-group Bible studies and accountability relationships between members of the same sex are powerful weapons in our spiritual warfare. Do you have a close Christian friend to whom you can safely confess your struggles and temptations? Find someone who can encourage you to live in holiness in word and in deed.

Passages for Further Study

2 Chron. 33:1–20
Psalm 112
Matthew 26:41
Romans 7

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343