Today is Good Friday, a day on which we remember what an amazing thing Christ did for us on the cross. On the day that Jesus was crucified and died for our sins, He made a way for us to be saved from sin and death. We as Christians, follow His example by crucifying our flesh. But what does that mean, exactly?
Most of us have a basic idea of what the flesh is, and that it is wrong to live by the flesh, but at the same time, I’ve seen many Christians struggle with questions like:
- If I am a new creation in Christ, how come I still have sinful desires?
- If my flesh has been crucified with Christ, why do I still struggle with sin?
- If I’m dead to sin, why must I kill it every day?
- Why did God not make us sinless in an instant?
These questions are tremendously important for every Christians to have answers to. Since they give us a foundational understanding of what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean for us.
That is why I have written this article with the help of the Holy Spirit so that it, God-willing, will provide you with the answers you are looking for.
1 What is the flesh?
Before answering any other questions about the flesh, it is helpful to first establish what we are talking about when we are talking about the flesh.
All references to the word flesh in the Old Testament, as far as I can tell, are simply a description of the flesh on the bones of people or animals.
The Greek word used to describe flesh in the New Testament is sarx. Sarx also literally refers to the flesh on one’s bones, but in the New Testament, it is often used to describe a sinful part of human beings, even Christians. In some Bible translations, this word is (probably for that reason) often translated into sin-nature or sinful nature. This is not wrong, but it can be misleading if you are inclined to associate the word “nature” with character. Because our character did change when we became a new creation in Christ, while our flesh didn’t.
I only became aware of this confusion a couple of weeks ago, when I was discussing this topic with a group of Christians. It never occurred to me, since I myself associate the word with the natural part of man; the physical, “animalesque”, carnal, biology-driven part.
So, to avoid any confusion, I will stick with using the word flesh.
Our flesh makes up a good part of the “tent” we live in, our “earth suit” if you will. But our bodies do more than give us the ability to breathe, walk, and talk. Through hormones and other physical processes, our bodies also enable us to have experiences and sensations. Bodies enable us to smell and taste, have sexual desires, feel pain, sleepiness, hunger, and so on. Because of this, the flesh can greatly influence our emotions and our thinking, if we allow it.
But it also works the other way around: Our bodies enable us to express our desires and emotions. We can burst out in laughter, tears, or rage, or we can express affection with it. And so it demonstrates what is in our hearts and minds.
2 What is sinful about the flesh?
The flesh on our bones has become subject to sin after the fall. What God created was good. When He created the animals and Adam and Eve in His image, they also had flesh (Genesis 2:23), but they had no indwelling sin before the fall.
Due to the fall, humans became spiritually dead, and physical death started to set in too. Genes became polluted, sickness emerged, and our bodies started to age and became subject to pain, defects, and tiredness. Those are the effects of sin on the flesh and that doesn’t tell us that the flesh itself is sinful. It is not a sin to be old, sick, or tired. Of course not. That just demonstrates that you are living in a world polluted by sin.
But since the flesh is sold under sin, it doesn’t obey God and doesn’t want to do what is good in God’s sight, and that is what makes it sinful (Romans 7:14-20).
And when we are born again, we change completely, except for the fact that we still live in this fleshly body, that doesn’t want to obey God.
That is why all Christians still have indwelling sin that needs to be put to death daily (Romans 7:20, 8:13). We need to make sure that with our minds and actions, we stay faithful to God, and serve Him instead of the flesh (Romans 7:25). We can only do that by the power of the Holy Spirit.
3 Why is the flesh a problem?
The flesh only starts becoming a problem, when we put our trust in it, when we love it more than God, or when we let it take the lead. That is a problem for at least three reasons:
- If we are putting a defective, fallible, restless, dying suit in the lead, where will that take us? (1 Corinthians 15:50)
- If we don’t love God with all our heart, soul, and mind because we love our flesh more, then we are not keeping what Jesus called the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38).
- The flesh does not want to do what the Spirit wants to do, so trusting it to do what is pleasing to God is foolishness (Galatians 5:17, Romans 8:6-8).
Think about it: The flesh focuses on what is earthly, and the Spirit focuses on what is Godly (Romans 8:5).
That means that if you let your flesh lead the way, you will:
- Be blind-sighted. For you will live by what you see and is transient instead of by what is unseen and eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).
- Not do anything out of sacrificial love, let alone die for someone. All the body wants to do is stay alive and be comfortable.
- Become hostile to God in your emotions and your thinking (Romans 8:7).
- Live by sinful passions (Romans 7:5).
- Labor in vain. Even if your works seem good to the human eye, they cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8, Ecclesiastes).
The flesh cannot save us. It is weak, fallible, subject to sin and death, so it will never be able to give us Godly strength, unfailing Truth, righteousness, or eternal life. Those things come from the Spirit.
The Old Testament describes many people who put their trust in the flesh. They believed that by their own strength they could keep all the commandments in God’s Law and deserve a spot in heaven. They believed that certain acts of the flesh, like circumcision, would make a person holy. And they believed that they were worthy because of their fleshly genealogy. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Even in those days, all they had to do was put their trust in God (Romans 4).
If you leave God out of the picture, good deeds and feelings are nothing more than flesh pleasing flesh, or a chasing after the wind, as the writer of Ecclesiastes describes it (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
When we stop living by our senses but start living by faith in God, and do what the Spirit desires, we will do what pleases God. And then our bodies become a means to be fruitful for His glory (Philippians 1:22-24).
4 Born as a slave to the flesh
Any human who is ruled by their flesh, and so set on pleasing their mortal bodies and the desires their bodies produce over God, is sinful and subject to death. Since the fall, that is the default state in which people are born, because of the sin they inherited from Adam and Eve (Romans 3:10-12, 23, Psalm 51:5).
Our spirit is dead upon birth and so people automatically live by the flesh when they enter this world. And a spiritually dead person cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God; he sees those as foolishness (1 Corinthians 2:14). Like newborn babies who are completely occupied by their physical sensations, grown-ups without the Spirit of God act on their physical and mental sensations without even realizing that they are controlled by it (Ephesians 2:3).
Jesus was also born in the flesh, and so He too had a body (John 1:14, Hebrews 2:14). Of course, Jesus has always been spiritually alive since He, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father are One and eternal. He came down from heaven being fully divine (Colossians 1:19, John 6:51), but to enter the world in the flesh, He was born of a virgin human (Mary) and God (the Holy Spirit). That implies that unlike us He was physically and spiritually alive from the moment of conception. Which of course is amazing beyond comprehension.
Another difference: Jesus’ flesh had the likeness of sinful flesh but it was subject to the Spirit from birth, and He never sinned (Romans 8:3, 1 Peter 2:22). As a matter of fact, His flesh was predestined by God to be broken and given for the life of the world (John 6:51). And so what He did in the flesh and with the flesh was fulfilling the Law and the promise of salvation for God’s people (Matthew 5:17, Acts 4:12).
And we should follow His example; we fulfill the righteousness of the Law by living according to the Spirit, instead of by walking by the flesh (Romans 8:4).
5 The flesh crucified
Right before Jesus died on the cross, His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, left His body (Luke 23:46, Matthew 27:46). It was His flesh, His body, that died on that cross. It died along with all of our sins.
When you turn to God and repent of your sins for the first time, while believing and declaring that Jesus is Lord and that He was raised from the dead for your sins, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
When that happens, you have been crucified with Christ and it will no longer be you who lives, but Christ who lives in you (Galatians 2:20).
This act is demonstrated in the flesh by being baptized in water (Acts 2:38). Being baptized by full immersion is the way of declaring that you surrender to God completely: body, soul, and spirit. It visualizes and proclaims your dying and being raised from the dead to a new life with Christ (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12, 1 Peter 3:21).
We start out being born of the flesh, but when we die to sin and are born again through a miracle of God, we are born of the Spirit (John 3:5-8). This means that we become a new person in Christ, although we look the same. We become like Jesus when He walked this earth – looking like any human, but physically and spiritually alive.
This means that we are not subject to the flesh anymore. Instead, we have become subject to Jesus’ Spirit. We have been set free from the bondage of sin and death and there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:6-9, 8:1-3, Hebrews 2:14-15).
Being born again causes everything in us to change. We love God and hate evil from the inside out, whereas before this was the opposite (John 3:19). Now we want to please the Father instead of the flesh, just like Jesus did (John 8:29).
And similar to Jesus when He was still a child, we grow in wisdom and become more and more pleasing to God as we mature in Christ (Luke 2:52).
6 Our constant struggle with the flesh
Becoming mature does not happen overnight. We face many battles in that process, day in and day out. We face physical, mental, and spiritual challenges of all kinds. Challenge after challenge we learn more about God, we grow in faith and perseverance and we become more and more like Christ.
When Jesus rose again after three days, His body wasn’t subject to anything carnal anymore. He could cook and eat (John 21:9-14, Luke 24:36-43), but not because He would otherwise starve. Even locked doors didn’t stop Him from entering a room (John 20:19, 20:26). His body wasn’t a natural body anymore, but an imperishable spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-45, Hebrews 9:11).
Just like Jesus, we will one day be raised from the dead physically too, and receive our spiritual bodies. But for now, we have to walk this earth in our fleshly bodies, strengthened by the life-giving Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11).
But although we still walk in this fleshly tent, there is one crucial difference: We don’t have to do what it wants; it has to do what we want, and we want what Jesus wants if we live by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-17, Romans 8:13, 1 Corinthians 6:17).
Now that we are a new creation, sin has no dominion over us since we are under grace. We must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, for that is who we really are (Romans 6:10-14). We must start to act and continue acting like that new person we now are. And we can, because now we have the Holy Spirit as our Guide.
These are some of the ways in which we subdue the flesh:
- We exercise self-control and we make our bodies, and our thoughts and actions, subject to Christ on a daily basis (1 Corinthians 9:25-27, 2 Corinthians 10:5).
- We starve our flesh by not sowing to please it so that we won’t reap corruption instead of eternal life (Galatians 6:8).
- We deny ourselves and crucify the flesh daily by keeping in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 24, Luke 9:23).
- We are careful not to use our newfound freedom as an excuse to do whatever the flesh wants (Romans 13:14, 1 Peter 4:2).
- We realize that even seemingly good deeds that are not led by the Spirit or done for the glory of God are still fleshly (Ecclesiastes).
- We stand firm in our faith and obedience to Christ so that we will not be yoked to slavery again. Because then Christ would have died for nothing (Galatians 5:1, 5:13, 2:21).
- We don’t turn to fleshly measures to subdue the flesh unless it serves to demonstrate that we treasure God above all else (for example when we fast, or to get rid of an addiction or disease). But even then we don’t do those things by the flesh but by the Spirit’s strength and guidance. Because what is perishable is not going to lead us to what is imperishable; we should not put our confidence in the flesh instead of in Christ. We don’t become holier by circumcision or by physical violence. No mutilation of the flesh will cut it: We wage war by using the spiritual weapons God provides (2 Corinthians 10:4, Galatians 5:2-6, Philippians 3:2-3, Colossians 2:11, Matthew 26:52).
The Holy Spirit once gave me a dream to explain the principle of continually putting our flesh to death. I hope it will be helpful for you too.
In that dream, He showed me a black suit. There were white and orange threads woven into the whole suit. He told me that the suit represented the tent that we are wearing in this world and the threads represented the sin woven into that. He said that when the Holy Spirit enters your body, the tent is pierced as with a sword and so the flesh dies. But like a weed, it can grow back. Therefore, you need to constantly kill it.
To me, that made so much sense: just like an ordinary weed in a garden, we need to constantly keep it in check before it smothers the good seeds.
7 Why this struggle with the flesh?
Now one question remains: Why this struggle? Why did God not instantly make us sinless creatures with glorious bodies living on a new, sin-free planet or in heaven?
Of course, God has His reasons, but I think that some of those reasons have been revealed to us:
- Because of our struggles in this life, we long to be with Jesus all the more. We seek Him out and we grow to deeply realize that our reward is in heaven (Philippians 1:21-23, Colossians 3:24, Hebrews 11:6).
- Living in this body keeps us humble. Not only because there is nothing glorious about having to go to the bathroom every day, but also because our struggles remind us that we are weak without God.
- Living like Jesus also means sharing in His suffering (Colossians 1:24, 2 Corinthians 4:11).
- In this fleshly body, we are part of the body of Christ here on earth (John 14:12).
- We are God’s coworkers, building and sowing, producing good fruit with the help of the Holy Spirit (Philippians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 3:9-10). Thanks to our fragile bodies, God will get the glory for what is accomplished, so that people may believe in Him and not our abilities (John 5:43-44, Matthew 5:16).
- We need to be among other people that look like us so that it becomes clear that the true difference is on the inside (1 Peter 3:3-4, 1 Samuel 16:7, 2 Corinthians 5:12, Matthew 23:25).
- Part of our job is sharing the Gospel with unbelievers, so that they too may believe in what is unseen. If we would have glorious bodies, it seems likely that they would focus on what they see, and maybe they would even start worshiping us instead of Jesus. And that is what this article is about: No person should not put their trust, confidence, or hope in the flesh. Our hope should be in God and His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Paul says it most beautifully (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, ESV):
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”