Crucifying the Flesh by Faith

It is one thing to preach, teach, and discuss the need to “crucify the flesh”.  It is another matter altogether to put the idea into practice.  That is, how do resurrection-empowered saints “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24)?  At least three ways come to mind as we read the New Testament.

The first is to “walk by faith” (II Cor 5:7), another New Testament phrase that needs some explanation.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).  Faith is believing everything God has said is true even when temporal evidence – what we see, hear, and touch – would suggest otherwise.  Faith is believing God is active along the lines of His promises even when His work remains unseen.  Faith is believing in a world ruled by the Sovereign of the universe that operates in ways that are counter-intuitive to our natural way of thinking.  Faith is following God’s lead even when the path forward is dimly lit and the answers to our burning questions are slow in coming, if at all.

How “walking by faith” affects our moral decision-making or responses to temptation is best understood by comparing it to its opposite, “walking by sight”, since “we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor 5:7).  Walking by sight sees the world as an amoral cause and effect relationship between my choices and my desired results.  If I cheat on my taxes, I will have more disposable income.  If I become angry enough at the store manager, he will resolve the situation in my favor.  If I squash my co-workers in a subtle (so I look like a team player) but effective manner, I will move quicker up the company ladder.  If I lie about this particular situation, I will get out of a jam.

All of these “walking by sight” choices see the world as a natural cause and effect relationship.  Walking by faith sees an unseen world governed by God’s commands that empowers us to resist temptation.  Practically speaking it looks like this.  Because I trust God for my finances, I resist the temptation to cheat on my taxes.  Because I trust God for the results of this business transaction, I will treat the store manager with respect and kindness.  Because I trust God for my career, I will put the interests of my co-workers above myself.  Because I trust God’s commands to be life-giving, I will tell the truth even when it appears to cause me harm.  This is living by faith.  And it has a very direct effect on our moral decisions.

When I walk by faith, I am believing what God said about His empowering me to make moral choices that line up with my new identity.  The New Testament focus on “walking by faith”, “walking in the Spirit”, and “walking in a worthy manner” all equate our “walking” with how we conduct ourselves in light of who we are as God’s seed, God’s children.  The Apostle Paul summed it up this way, in concluding that faith is not just for our initial salvation, but the very foundation of how we live the Christian life, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

Galatians 5 and the War with the Flesh

The Apostle Paul gives a succinct summary of our war with the flesh in Galatians 5:16-25, “But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.  For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal 5:16-18).

Your flesh, your old self, your body of sin was put to death; “crucified with Christ” (Rom 6:6).  But like the bad guy in a horror movie, he never quite goes away for good.  He somehow keeps coming back from the dead, as it were, to wage war with our new Spirit; the Spirit of God living in us.  This ongoing war between our flesh and our Spirit is one of the main sources of our struggle with sin.

Paul writes in Galatians 5 that because the flesh and the Spirit are in such strong opposition, we cannot serve these two influences at the same time.  If we are walking in the Spirit, following the influence of the Spirit, we will not serve the flesh, we will not continue in sin.  We will not engage in sin as our normal practice.  How can we tell which influence we are walking in?  Paul goes on to explain.

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are:  immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envyings, drunkenness, carousings, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21).

Paul is not saying that anyone who has done these things will not enter heaven.  He is listing these things as a picture of what a lost person looks like.  The one who is not a member of the kingdom of God is characterized by these kinds of activities.  This is what the flesh – “deeds of the flesh” – look like.  And if you participate in these desires of the flesh, you will look like a lost person.

But you, the redeemed, do not need to look like this.  Because this is not the fruit of the Spirit who lives inside you.  This is not your “natural look” as a believer.  What is the fruit, the “natural look” of the believer in Christ?  Let’s read on.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law”(Gal 5:22-23).

Notice the last phrase, “against such things there is no law”.  How many times have we memorized these verses with no idea of what that last phrase means?  This phrase hearkens back to verse 18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.”  The Law is basically a flesh-based system.  That is, keeping the Law was a willpower effort to keep the commands.  It was drumming up enough good effort to overcome the deeds of the flesh that were condemned by the Law.  And that is what the Law was, a ministry of condemnation that said, “Don’t do that; don’t do this; don’t touch, etc.”  It was all condemnation without power.

But this all changed with the coming of the New Covenant.  “Therefore, my brethren, you were also made to die to the Law, through the body of Christ…But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:4,6).  We must not fall back into a law-based system of condemnation, “for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).  Trying to live the victorious Christian life by the effort of the flesh is a return to the Law of which we have been set free (Gal 5:18).

Being led by the Spirit is the exact opposite of keeping the Law.  It is going from negative injunctions with no power to positive qualities implanted by God’s Spirit.  There is no law involved in practicing the fruits of the Spirit because they are not commands to keep, but qualities to unwrap; fruit that is already in you, ready for display.

A fruit tree is genetically bound to produce a certain kind of fruit.  It cannot produce any other.  We are genetically bound by our new birth to produce a certain kind of fruit, the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  But our fruit production is not automatic.  Just as a fruit tree’s production can be diminished by disease, our practice of the Spirit’s fruit can be hindered by our war with the flesh.  What can we do when the flesh attacks our fruit tree like aphids on steroids?  Let’s read on.

“Now 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” (Gal 5:24-25).  Our fruit tree will be productive because our flesh was crucified once and for all at the cross and we are continuing to crucify the flesh daily by choosing to walk in the Spirit.  It is a paradox, but true.  Our flesh was killed once for all and we must continue to crucify the flesh each day by our choices.  How can “once for all” and “every day” both be true?  Welcome to the beauty of the mystery of God!

And part of that beauty is that God, having killed the flesh once and for all at the cross, has also given you incredible resurrection power to continue crucifying the flesh when needed.  It is called “walking by the Spirit” (vs 25).  “But since 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 lives in you.  So then, brethren, we are under no obligation to live according to the flesh” (Rom 8:11-12).  As Dwight Edwards has summarized, “Resurrection power is always greater than the dysfunctionality of our past, the wounds of abuse or neglect, the power of sin, the pressure of outward circumstances, or the phobias of our personal inadequacies.”

Resurrection power!  May you walk in that power today.


The Ambiguity of Dead Flesh

In my continuing study of Scripture, I have become more comfortable holding apparently competing spiritual concepts in my head.  Whereas previously I wanted to track spiritual ideas down to a concrete and logical conclusion that fit neatly into a theological system, I have come to realize that much of God and His ways lie beyond easy compartmentalization.

For example, Paul writes of the Jews of his day, “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ.  But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (II Cor 3:14-16).

Think about the phrase, “their minds were hardened…and a veil lies over their heart.”  In this specific case, who hardened Israel’s heart?  Since we have a record of God hardening the heart of Pharaoh, could God be responsible for hardening Israel’s heart?

Or what if we look a few verses ahead to II Corinthians 4:3-4, “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving.”  We recognize the “god of this world” as Satan and here he is identified as the mind-blinder of the lost.  Since lost would certainly apply to modern day Israel, is Satan responsible for hardening their hearts?

Or how about option three?  The Jews themselves are responsible.  After all, since “the veil is removed in Christ” and “whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away”, could it be that anyone who rejects Christ is responsible themselves for their spiritual blindness?

What I am getting at is this.  In the case of II Corinthians 3:14-16, we know Israel’s heart is hardened, but I don’t think the Scripture is clear as to the responsible party; God, Satan, or themselves.  It is a spiritual ambiguity.  Likewise, our flesh – pronounced dead at the crucifixion of Christ and subsequently replaced by a new nature by Christ’s resurrection power – still carries some influence in our lives.  And that influence can be awfully strong.  The tarnish on the silver can get pretty thick.  How is that possible?  How can a “dead nature” manipulate us so?  It is a spiritual ambiguity.

And because of this ambiguity, it is a difficult task to reconcile God’s “dead to sin” promise with my experience with sin.  So we are tempted to downplay the promise.  We are tempted to twist Scripture to fit our experience.  We are tempted to interpret God’s view about our war with the flesh solely based on our experience with sin.  But when I trust God with being bigger than the ambiguity, I can come to His Word without a preconceived notion of what God says about the believer’s relationship with sin.  Our goal is to let Scripture speak for itself regarding our war with the flesh.  A goal we will pursue next time.