For Part 1 in Nick’s series on “Radical Reliance,” click here.
In my intro to this series I highlighted the remarkable lack of consensus among biblical scholars as to what, exactly, the “flesh/Spirit” contrast in Scripture actually means. This disagreement is all the more noteworthy in view of the undeniable importance of the contrast (in Paul’s letters, particularly) and the influence it has wielded in various theological traditions. I also cited the places where it occurs in the Old Testament, though these are somewhat scarce.
Two questions are at the heart of the “flesh/Spirit” conundrum. First, what do “flesh” and “s/Spirit” (whether this denotes the human spirit or the Holy Spirit can only be determined from context, not from the Hebrew basar or Greek pneuma) actually signify in the minds of the biblical authors? Second, what is the nature of the contrast—that is, in what sense are they opposed to or differentiated from one another? The latter question will occupy me today as I provide a brief overview of, arguably, the most significant interpretations that have been proposed throughout church history. Next time out the focus will turn to how the individual terms ought to be defined.
I would single out six interpretations of the “flesh/Spirit” contrast as the primary contenders, some older and some newer on the scene. However, it should be pointed out that these various positions are not all necessarily exclusive of one another. I will eventually argue that several of them overlap in capturing the heart of the biblical contrast. Here, then, are the main viewpoints with regard to what the nature of the contrast between “flesh” and “s/Spirit” is:
1.) Physical (Visible) vs. Spiritual (Invisible)
2.) External (Body) vs. Internal (Soul)
3.) “Bad” Part of Human Nature vs. “Good” Part of Human Nature
4.) Human (Creature) vs. Divine (Creator)
5.) Realm/Power of the Present Evil Age vs. Realm/Power of the New Creation
6.) Human Agency vs. God’s Agency
Further elaboration upon the finer nuances of each interpretation will come later. For the record, #1 and #2 are distinguished from each other in that the latter (which has reference to humanity only) is a subset of the former (which deals with all existence). The first three options understand “spirit” to refer to either the human spirit or to spiritual reality in general; the final three all (rightly) understand pneuma as primarily pointing to the Holy Spirit. #5 is probably the newest interpretation on tap in modern biblical studies, and prevails in much of the current scholarly literature. However, without any reasonable doubt the most common understanding of the “flesh/Spirit” contrast in the recent past (especially on a popular level within the church) is #3, in which “flesh” is understood to be synonymous with a person’s “sinful nature”—as the NIV so renders it 20+ times.
Next week I’ll explore the meaning of “flesh” (sarx), which will go a long way towards separating the wheat from the chaff, the plausible interpretations of the contrast that actually “fit” the biblical context from those that, well, don’t. Special attention will be given to debunking the NIV’s horrendous translation of “sinful nature”, which I contend has seriously hindered an accurate grasp of the contrast. “Sinful nature” has nothing to do with a biblical definition of “flesh.” Or so I will attempt to persuade you. I conclude with this list of the (astonishingly frequent) occurrences of the “flesh/Spirit” contrast in the New Testament. I know there is a lot here, but I encourage you to read them discriminately with the above proposals in view:
Matthew 26:41—“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (cf. Mark 14:38)
John 3:5-6—“Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
John 6:63—“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
Romans 1:1-4—“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Romans 2:28-29—“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical [Greek, ‘in the flesh’]. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”
Romans 7:4-6—“Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
Romans 8:1-17—“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 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. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 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. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
I Corinthians 2:12-3:4—“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?”
I Corinthians 5:4-5—“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
II Corinthians 3:1-3—“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of fleshly hearts.”
II Corinthians 7:1—“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
Galatians 3:2-3—“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Galatians 4:29 (cf. 4:23)—“Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.”
Galatians 5:13-26—“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
Galatians 6:7-9—“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
Philippians 3:2-4—“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the true circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more…”
Colossians 2:5 (cf. I Cor. 5:3)—“For though I am absent in flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.”
I Timothy 3:16—“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: ‘He was manifested in the flesh, justified by the Spirit, seen by the angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
I Peter 3:18-4:6—“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God…this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”