In the last session we recognized that practicing what we believe is hard. Why are we so prone to living contrary to what we say we believe? Scripture tells us that both the fallen world in which we live and our enemy, Satan, influence us to live contrary to biblical principles. But another major factor is what the apostle Paul calls our “flesh.” We will examine the concept of the flesh to see what exactly the Scriptures mean by the term. We will also explore the way our struggle with the flesh shows itself in our lives.
- Individual Aim: To examine the effects of an orientation toward self by considering both the overt and subtle manifestations of the flesh.
- Group Aim: To recognize manifestations of the flesh that many group members share.
Read Session 3: Flesh.
Complete Biblical Exercise: Romans 1 beginning on page 32.
In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard cites a Gallup survey indicating that 94 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, 74 percent claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ, and about 34 percent profess to have had a “new birth” experience. He then adds, “These figures are shocking when thoughtfully compared to statistics on the same group for unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealings and the like.... Could such a combination of profession and failure really be the ‘life and life abundantly’ that Jesus said he came to give?”
What could possibly account for such a disparity between profession and practice? We might suspect that many who make such claims are mistaken as to what a commitment to Christ is. But all of us can probably think of men and women who we think are genuine believers yet whose lives exhibit this same inconsistency. And in our moments of honest self-reflection, we recognize that often we don’t need to look any further than our own hearts and lives to see the evidence of this disparity.
Paul makes a clear distinction between those who “walk by the Spirit” and those who “carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16, NASB). “Flesh” in this passage is often understood as a reference to a sin nature that remains in the believer, doing battle with his new spiritual nature. (The NIV renders “flesh” as “sinful nature.”)
However, such an explanation seems inconsistent with Paul’s view of human nature. While Greeks in his day saw a dichotomy between the human body, which to them was inherently evil, and the soul, which was inherently good, Paul knew of no such dichotomy. Instead, as Scot McKnight explains,
When Paul uses “flesh,” he is not thinking primarily in terms of “body” and the inferiority of the body in comparison to the spiritual aspect of human nature.This is a Platonic notion, not a biblical one. What Paul has in mind is “the total person living outside of God’s will and apart from God’s guiding influence through the Spirit.”
For Paul then, sin is not restricted to one part of us. Nor is there another part of us that transcends sin’s corruption. Rather, Paul sees that though we are redeemed people, we are still fallen people and part of a fallen creation. While we are no longer what we once were, we are not yet what we one day will be. It is not our nature but our allegiances that are divided. Our practice often fails to line up with our vow of faith because rather than submitting to and relying on the Spirit, we assert our self-sufficiency.
The conflict between the flesh and the Spirit is not between one part of us and another part of us but rather between us and the Holy Spirit of God. As Robert Pyne points out, “We continue to sin, but we cannot blame our struggle on a particular part of ourselves… . To do so would be to avoid full responsibility for our behavior, and that avoidance would only compound the problem.”
Anthony Thiselton defines the flesh like this: “The outlook of the flesh is the outlook oriented toward the self, that which pursues its own ends in self-sufficient independence of God.” Here is the reason we often fail to practice what we say we believe. We are born with this selfish disposition, our culture reinforces it, and it remains with us even after we are born again. We are all in the process of having our hearts transformed from an outlook oriented toward the self into an outlook oriented toward God and others. But part of the transformation involves recognizing our selfish disposition and submitting to God’s will. Such recognition and submission does not come easily.
In Galatians 5:19-21 (NET), Paul identified the “works of the flesh” as “sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things.” These overt manifestations of the flesh can be summed up by two broad categories of motivation that express an outlook oriented toward the self: (1) the desire for control and power and (2) the desire for self-gratification. For example, those in Paul’s day who practiced idolatry wanted gods they could control and use to gain power. Those involved in drunkenness used alcohol to gain self-gratification.
For those of us who have spent much time around the church, such overt manifestations of the outlook oriented toward the self may not be our primary struggles. But Paul’s list is not intended to be exhaustive. Honest reflection will reveal that we all still have behaviors and attitudes, subtle or overt, that express our desire for control or self-gratification. We all still struggle with an outlook oriented toward the self.
Throughout Galatians 5, Paul spoke of Christian freedom, but Paul’s understanding of Christian freedom did not mean self-sufficiency or autonomy. The quest to be self-sufficient and autonomous reflects the outlook oriented toward the self. Christian freedom means freedom from the law and the power of sin, but it also involves submission to God’s will and dependence on His Spirit. Unfortunately, Christians can and often do make the illogical choice to behave as though they were self-sufficient and autonomous. Then they carry out the “works of the flesh.” In calling Christians to “walk by the Spirit,” Paul pointed out this irony: In dependence on the Spirit and in submission to God’s will lies great freedom, while the assertion of one’s self-sufficient independence brings only bondage.
Read Romans 1:18-32. Also, review “A Method for the Biblical Exercises” beginning on page 15.
Observation — “What Do I See?”
1. Who are the persons (including God) in the passage? What is the condition of those persons?
2. What subjects did Paul discuss in the passage? What did he assert?
3. Note the sequence in which Paul made these assertions. (You might number them in order.)
4. What did Paul emphasize? Are there repeated ideas and themes? How are the various parts related?
5. Why did Paul write this passage? (Did he say anything about ways he expected the reader to change after reading it?)
Interpretation Phase 1 — “What Did It Mean Then?”
1. Coming to Terms—Are there any words in the passage that you don’t understand? Write down anything you found confusing about the passage.
2. Finding Where It Fits —What clues does the Bible give about the meaning of this passage?
- Immediate Context (the passage being studied)
- Remote Context (passages that come before and after the one being studied)
3. Getting into Their Sandals—An Exercise in Imagination
- What are the main points of this passage? Summarize or write an outline of it.
- What do you think the recipients of the letter were supposed to take from this passage? How did God, inspiring Paul to write Romans, want this passage to impact the Roman believers?
Interpretation Phase 2—“What Does It Mean Now?”
1. What is the timeless truth in the passage? In one or two sentences, write down what you learned about God from Romans 1.
2. How does that truth work today?
Application — “What Can I Do to Make This Truth Real?”
1. What can I do to make this truth real for myself?
2. For my family?
3. For my friends?
4. For the people who live near me?
5. For the rest of the world?
Read Session 4: Seven Deadly Sins.
Complete the Life Change: Seven Deadly Sins exercise beginning on page 82.
Related Topics: Sanctification