In The Flesh Or In The Spirit

The old flesh gets blamed for quite a bit in Christians’ lives. If someone blows up on you in anger, you might hear, “That’s just the old flesh coming out in me.” The reasoning behind this is something like this: I’ve got a good part of me that is controlled by the Spirit, and I have a bad part of me that is controlled by the flesh. The flesh, in this way of thinking, is the old man to which a new man was somehow added. You might even hear illustrations about how we carry around this dead man, a rotting corpse, on our backs like some old Roman punishment. As Christians we have multiple personalities. This makes it all too convenient when we sin to shift responsibility to the “flesh-side” and act as if we really don’t have any control. That’s just kind of the way we are and the way we’re going to be until we die and leave this flesh behind in a grave somewhere enjoying disembodied bliss in heaven.

That picture is not exactly accurate. Yes, there is a sense in which the flesh is still a reality in our lives as Christians. Our “mortal bodies” (our “death bodies”) are still associated with the flesh; that corruptible and corrupted existence that we inherited from Adam. These death-bodies still have those desires of the flesh (Rom 6.12) that plague us and want to bring us under dominion. We still have the desires in our bodies to sin, and we do sin.

However, as those who have received the Spirit of Christ, there is another sense in which we are not in the flesh. Paul says this emphatically in Romans 8.9: “Y’all are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” How can Paul say this? Is he speaking out of both sides of his mouth?

Being “in the flesh” is more than just having a body. Being in the flesh is living as if Jesus had never died, risen again, and given us his Spirit. Being in the flesh is living under the dominion of sin and death. It is to be in bondage to the desires of the flesh and, thus, opposed to Christ’s kingdom program (see Rom 8.5-8). As Christians, we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. Being in the Spirit means that we have adopted Jesus’ kingdom program for ourselves, swearing our allegiance to him as Lord, and fighting against the flesh. 

When the Spirit dwells in us, the body is “dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom 8.10). The Spirit now inhabits this death-body. What the Spirit does with dead bodies is raise them from the dead. He gives life to this mortal flesh both now and when he raises our bodies from the grave.

As you walk in the Spirit, you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal 5.16). The Spirit is working in us and with us to put to death the deeds of these death bodies (Rom 8.13). The Spirit is doing with us (generally) over a long period of time what he did with Jesus in a short period of time: transform our dead bodies through resurrection. 

He works in this way as we hear the Word read and taught, as we gather with other saints to pray around the Lord’s Table, and as we encourage one another daily. The Spirit is ministering through the other members of the body of Christ transform us from glory to glory (2Cor 3.18).

One thing that Paul is doing here, as he says in Romans 8.12, is telling us that we are not debtors to the flesh to live after the flesh. We have no obligations to obey the flesh. In other words, we can’t say (as a riff on an old Flip Wilson line), “The flesh made me do it.” You don’t live under the kingship of the flesh but of the Spirit. You don’t have to obey. You are not a helpless victim. God has provided means through which his Spirit will minister to you; whether through counselors, pastors, friends, the ordinary life of the church, or similar things. 

Faith accepts this reality, understanding that this is who God has made me in Christ Jesus, and then walks in lock-step with that reality. When you obey the desires of the body and sin, you own the full responsibility for your sin, you confess and repent of it, and keep moving forward. 

You are not a subject in the kingdom of the flesh. Don’t let anyone, even yourself, convince you that you are. God has given you his Spirit and with him all the power you need to put to death the deeds of the body.