The Nature of the Flesh and its Dynamic in the Believer’s Life

By Dr. Robert Saucy
[Distinguished Professor of SystematicTheology,
Talbot School of Theology; B.A., Westmont College;
Th.M, Th.D., Dallas Theological Seminary]

Scripture speaks of the “flesh” in relation to the unbeliever and the believer. The exact meaning and especially its relation to the believer have evoked considerable discussion among biblical students. Questions have also been raised about these issues in some of the materials of Freedom in Christ. What exactly is the nature of the “flesh” and how does it relate to the believer “in Christ”?

I. The nature of the “flesh.”

The word “flesh” has several uses in Scripture including the material part of our being, i. e., our body. However, it is also used in an ethical sense for the human being himself apart from God. In general “flesh” denotes the weakness of man when compared to God who is Spirit. The use of “flesh” in the ethical sense therefore signifies the moral weakness of a person apart from God. Such a person is enslaved to the power of sin. The “flesh” thus is that propensity to live apart from God as one’s own god which in biblical terms is living under the domination of sin. (For a fuller treatment of this ethical meaning of flesh including its relationship to the unbeliever and the Christian, see Anderson and Saucy, The Common Made Holy, pp. 312-22).

Frequently in Freedom in Christ materials the flesh in this ethical sense is described as “learned” or “conditioned” behavior. The flesh is said to be that aspect of me which was programmed by attitudes and behavior that were characteristic of life apart from God under the domination of sin. The question is raised as to whether this is an adequate understanding of the flesh, and whether it does not suggest that the solution to the flesh is simply reprogramming.

1. In the first place, talking about the dynamic of the flesh as it functions in human life is simply a practical way of saying that the person lives in a certain way that is characterized by attitudes and actions. That these attitudes and actions are related to what the person thinks and believes in his heart is clearly the teaching of Scripture. Sometimes the person is not even aware of the underlying beliefs that motivate his attitude and behavior. One either lives on the basis of truth or lies. Since living apart from God as one’s own god is the root of all lies, a life lived in the flesh or according to the flesh is a life lived on the basis of lies.

Scripture also suggests that the lies of the flesh that dominated the person before salvation are related to the environment in which one lived. While it is true that the way of living for those apart from God entails an underlying belief and attitude that one is his own god, it also involves beliefs, attitudes, and actions that are in the person’s environment and are enculturated into the person as he lives in the culture and accepts its values. Thus it is not improper to speak of being influenced by one’s environment.

The apostle speaks of those who walked according to “the course of this world,” that is the worldly system about them which is in opposition to God and represents thoughts and values that are opposed to Him (Eph. 2:2). People have also inherited a “futile way of life” from their forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18). This statement appears to say more than that they simply inherited a sin nature. They also inherited a “way of life,” that is the values and beliefs by which they lived as expressive of the sin nature. And these values and beliefs were enculturated into them by their “forefathers.”

2. To look at the flesh as characteristic ways of thinking that develop out of separation from God in no way intends to deny that the separation from God was not itself sin or rebellion against God stemming from pride and unbelief. It is simply looking at the effects of this sin in the practical ways in which it reveals itself in life and can be countered with God’s truth. The reason that the person apart from God programs himself with these lies and consequent sinful actions is because of a fundamental choice to be his own god, i.e., a prideful rebellion against the true God. Thus flesh is at its root bent toward sin.

A note in The Common Made Holy gives this clarifying explanation regarding the illustration of the flesh as a programmed computer: “This illustration . . . is not intended to deny that we are all born with a bent away from God. We have a clean slate only as far as information from outside. But we are born with a program that structures the input during our developmental years into habits and patterns of living for self independently of God” (p. 393, n. 2 under Chapter Eight).

3. Finally, to speak of the flesh as that aspect of us that is programmed with lies that produce sinful attitudes and actions is not to suggest that the flesh is neutral and can be reprogrammed. The flesh, which speaks of a person apart from God, includes the bent that receives the lies. Thus the flesh includes both the underlying inclination to the lie because of rebellious pride as well as the lies that have been inculcated into the mind and consequently influence the attitude and activity of the person.

Perhaps it would be helpful to add to the illustration of the flesh as a programmed computer the thought that the operating system of the computer has a serious virus in it. This virus causes the programming system to process all information from the sinful perspective of life apart from God. In other words, it attempts to make sense out of everything without including God. Thus the information programmed (i.e., thoughts, values, world views) is skewed and is in reality lies because the flesh includes the disordered operating system itself that is bent with the lie that man can have true life without God. It is thus the flesh with its lying virus and consequent fleshly lies that motivate and dominate our attitudes and consequent behavior.

To reject the lie is therefore not simply to reprogram the flesh; it is to reject the flesh itself. As fallen humans, we need more than different thoughts, we need a new operating system as well, i.e., one that is bent with faith toward God and his truth. What is reprogrammed then is not the flesh, but the mind or the reasoning capacity which can be dominated either by the flesh or the Spirit

Utilizing the computer illustration again, one could say that the mind is the hardware and software program which can be used either by a good operating system or by an operating system corrupted by the virus of sin, i.e., the flesh. In order for the mind to function as God created it, the virus of the flesh with its manifestations (thoughts and behavior) which are in opposition to God must be crucified.

In coming to salvation, the believer “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). This was done in principle, as John Stott explains: “When we came to Jesus Christ, we repented. We ‘crucified’ everything we knew to be wrong. We took our old self-centered nature, with all its sinful passions and desires, and nailed it to the cross. And this repentance of ours was decisive, as decisive as a crucifixion” (The Message of Galatians [London: Intervarsity Press, l968], p. 151).

The meaning and experience of this decisive crucifixion of the flesh in the believer’s life is briefly explained in the following fromThe Common Made Holy: “. . . the reality of our actions is experienced only in accord with the faith in which it is done. As Stott says, we crucified ‘everything we knew to be wrong.’ And it might be added that we did it with all the faith that we had at the time. But our faith (which in reality includes knowledge), while sincere and genuine, was not yet mature and complete. As Scripture says, we are born again as babies, alive and designed to grow (see 1 Peter 2:2). We grow as we appropriate more and more of Christ’s life by the power of the Spirit. And as we grow, the reality of what we did totally in principle—namely, crucify the flesh and its old self-centered influence‚ becomes increasingly more real in our experience” (p. 315).

Involved in the exercise of faith is the need to continually reaffirm the crucifixion of the flesh and its works. As Jesus taught, the believer must “take up his cross daily” (Lu. 9:23; cf. also Rom. 8:13).

II. Dealing with the flesh through reprogramming the mind.

If as explained above, the flesh is more than its lying thoughts and attitudes, but includes the corrupt lying operating system itself, how does one go about dealing with the flesh? How does one change from living under the domination of the flesh and the power of sin to living under the domination of the Spirit of God in holiness? Is it adequate in dealing with the flesh to recognize and deny the lies of the flesh and focus on God’s truth so that we can live in that truth?

In answering these questions it is important to note that Scripture does not simply talk about the power of sin, but also how sin expresses itself to enslave us. Beginning with the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 we see that the way that sin manifests itself and captures men and women is through the lie. Adam and Eve fell because they chose to believe the lie of Satan. In explaining why his enemies sought to kill him, Jesus said, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). Even as the death of mankind came from the lie in the case of Adam and Eve, so the murderous desire of Christ’s enemies came from Satan whose is fundamentally a liar and thus a murderer.

It is doubtful that anyone deliberately and knowingly chooses to hurt himself (cf. Eph. 5:29). Therefore in order for one to sin he must believe (consciously or not) that he is gaining something which is in some way beneficial to him. Thus Scripture teaches that the real disease of the sinful heart is its deceitfulness (Jer. 17:9; for the deceitfulness of sin see also Rom. 7:11; Eph. 4:22; 2 Thess. 2:10; Heb. 3:13). Sin takes shape to exert its power in human life through the lie.

The power of sin in the lie is seen in the corresponding biblical teaching of the relationship of the power and life of God to his word of truth. Scripture does not simply talk about receiving life or the power of life, but also about how it is imparted to us and that is through God’s truth. The life and power of God are linked to his word in such a way that to receive the truth of God’s word is to receive God’s life and power (cf. Jesus’ statement: “. . . the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (Jn. 6:63). One of the key ways (if not the key way), therefore, in which the battle between sin/death and righteousness/life is waged is between the lie and the truth. The enemies of Christ sought to kill him because they would not receive the truth of his words (Jn. 8:40, 45).

Receiving the truth of God in the gospel, including who we are “in Christ” as a result of his work, is, in fact, receiving the dynamic life of God. To receive the truth is, therefore, not only a change of thinking. It is the reception of the power of God to defeat and put to death the power of sin that reigns through the lie. This is why Scripture continually talks about the mind in relation to salvation and sanctification. To sin is to have a mind that is deceived (2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 4:1). Salvation and Christian growth comes through the renewing of the mind and thoughts with the truth of God (Rom. 12:3; cf. Jn. 8:32; Jn. 17:15).

In summary, both the power of God and the power of sin are communicated and have their effect as we receive the truth or lie into our heart. Focusing on God’s truth and denying Satan’s lies is therefore not simply a “reprogramming” of our minds, nor is it a failure to deal with the deepest sinful power of the flesh. It is, in fact, God’s way in which the underlying power of sin is overcome by the power and life of God. (For a more complete discussion of the lie and truth in the matter of sanctification, see Unleashing God’s Power in You, chapter 7, “Transformed by the Renewing of the Mind,” and chapter 8, “The Truth Shall Set You Free”.)

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