The Flesh of Believers
For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh;
and these are contrary to one another
Galatians 5:17 NKJ
Question 78 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “Whence ariseth the imperfection of sanctification in believers?” It gives the answer, “The imperfection of sanctification in believers ariseth from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.” Last time we saw how the “lustings” of the flesh continue to afflict true believers as long as they live. Today we look more closely at the “flesh” of believers and how it operates within us.
When we hear or read the word “flesh” in the Bible we should not immediately think of our skin or of the physical body. Though the word can refer to these corporeal aspects of man, most often the word flesh refers to the sinful nature of fallen human beings. Martin Luther taught that especially when the Scripture contrasts flesh with spirit we should understand that it is the fallen, sinful nature of man that is being referred to and not the physical body. True believers in Jesus Christ trust in Him for forgiveness and for righteousness and they will most certainly and infallibly be saved and have eternal life. This is because true believers have been given new natures in their regeneration by the Holy Spirit. This new nature trusts in Jesus Christ, loves God, and loves his neighbor. In fact, because of our new natures, we love God’s law and we want to keep it, and we hate sin and we want to turn from it. However, real believers still have their old natures lurking within them, and this old nature is that “flesh” to which the Scripture at the head of this article is referring.
The flesh refers to every part of the sinful self: the mind, the heart, the will, the affections, desires, judgments, imaginations, thoughts, and reasoning. The flesh then is all that we are in our fallen unconverted state. The flesh is hostile to God. It is at enmity with him. The flesh will not submit to God’s law because the flesh will not submit to God. In our flesh, every fallen human being seeks to have the prerogative and authority of God Himself. The prayer of the flesh is, “My will and not Thy will be done.” In our flesh we seek our own glory, our own pleasure, our own will before anything else. In the unbeliever the flesh is all that there is. There is nothing within him that seeks to submit to God and to honor Him first and foremost. Unbelievers often do and choose those things commended by God in nature and in His Word, but they do so not out of deference to God or for His glory, but only when their own primacy and pleasure just happen to line up with God’s Word and will on those particular occasions.
Believers, on the contrary have new natures. They intentionally side with God against the flesh. They want to see their flesh destroyed so that nothing will be left but their new natures, which would perfectly love God and neighbor and keep all of the commandments flawlessly and perpetually out of a sincere love of righteousness. But as we saw last time – by God’s will – we still have to contend with our flesh: our old way of thinking and willing whereby we want our own wills to be done before and above anything else. This is that spiritual warfare that only believers experience. It is referred to in today’s Scripture passage. We have lusts or desires for sin and we have lusts or desires in line with the Spirit of God. And though the continuing presence of our old natures, our flesh, ensures that we will not be perfect in this life, yet we can side with God’s Spirit in us. We can more and more put off the “old man” and put on the new (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). We each have a new nature and this nature defines us. So, while your flesh will still desire and lurch for sin within you, that flesh is not who you are. It is not you! You are a child of God. You may have been that old man of flesh, but you have been washed, you have been born from above, you have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11). Do not allow your flesh ever to define you again. He is not you! You are God’s saint whose imperfect works are fully acceptable and pleasing to Him for He receives them through the blood of Christ!