In order to set the stage for what we’re going to be discussing this morning, it’s important we start at the beginning - literally the very beginning. Back in Eden God gave Adam a garden to enjoy with the singular exception of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In Genesis 2:15-17 we’re told, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’”
Well, as the story goes, it didn’t take long for Adam and his wife Eve to disobey God’s command and reap the consequences. Through mans rebellion the cancer of sin rooted itself in the creation of God, meaning things would no longer operate according to His design.
Three things immediately occurred as a result:
First… Humanity was instantly separated from God. As a swift consequence of sin, Adam and Eve hid themselves from God before God ultimately expelled them from the garden. Because human rebellion demanded God’s wrath (Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death”) man had to be separated from the holy presence of God. To enter into His presence in such a state meant certain death.
Secondly… All of creation ceased operating as it was originally designed. Not only would creation rebel against the dominion of man charged with her care and stewardship, but as a result of this fallen state man himself was also irrevocably broken. According to Genesis 3:7, immediately upon eating of the forbidden fruit, “The eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.” While their existence had been “God-centric” and “others-focused,” sin resulted in a “self-awareness.”
And finally… Humanity would be in perpetual conflict with one another. Because within every person “self” is stirred to life on the account of sin, mans primary focus naturally centers on “me, myself, and I” instead of others. All of humanity has this one common trait - the love of self! (Example: It’s why babies are so self-centered.)
Consider that in less than a chapter and a half following the introduction of sin to the human condition we see blame instead of personal responsibility, envy instead of love, and cold-blooded murder! Because of sin and self mankind has never gotten along since!
I bring this up to illustrate what regeneration accomplishes in our lives…
First… Since God’s righteous wrath towards sin was satisfied by Jesus on the cross, we no longer have a need to remain separated from God and can now enjoy communion with Him.
Secondly… Because we’re now reconciled with our Creator, we (as His creation) can begin to operate as we were originally created. Sure, while this world might remain in a state of fallenness and disarray, the new life we’ve been given not only frees us from sin but fills our lives with both meaning and purpose flowing from a restored relationship with our Creator.
2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Romans 6:4-6, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.”
Finally… Because we’re right with God as we’ve been restored by Jesus through His Spirit we’re all finally able to love our fellow man. It’s why Paul would say in Galatians 5:14, “For all the law is fulfilled (carried into effect) in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Because of the threefold effects of sin, Paul points to the final result (human interactions) as being the ultimate litmus test for actual regeneration. “You know you’re right with God and operating as you were designed, if you love one another.”
Since God’s love for me is the primary driver of His grace towards me, love for God and others is the primary reciprocating result. Without His love there is no grace; and yet, without His grace there can be no love! God’s love for me leads to God’s grace being shown towards me which leads to God’s love now being demonstrated through me.
And yet, while Paul had definitively illustrated the failure of legalism by pointing to their lack of love as being the evidence they had departed from grace, it tends to be the default of the legalist faced with a glaring failure to immediately consider what they must do to fix the problem! Paul will now answer their question in a most interesting way.
Galatians 5:16-18, “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Before we unpack the particulars of these verses, it’s important I begin by first addressing a much larger question as to what Paul is referring to when he mentions “the flesh.”
For starters, I think it’s safe to say we all know experientially what Paul is referencing when he describes the war that rages within between the “Flesh and Spirit.” Every Christian knows first hand of this internal wrestling… The magnetic pull to do the things I don’t want to do!
What becomes problematic when discussing this internal war is the quantifying of what two things are actually in conflict! While we understand what Paul means when he refers to “the Spirit” things become hazy when trying to nail down and define this thing he calls, “the flesh!”
Sadly, this reality has led many pastors to attempt at defining these things illustratively (provide two examples). Regrettably, even more make the mistake of regurgitating unhelpful platitudes (describing the flesh as the “fallen nature within” or the “traitor inside each of us”).
Here’s the problem with illustrations and antidotes like these and why they often lend to more confusion than clarity. If the old man has been reckoned dead and is no longer alive, then how can something dead wage a war with God’s Spirit with so much veracity? Since there is an obvious fight within me, what was “crucified with Christ?”
I mean Paul was crystal clear in Galatians 2:20 when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; 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 gave Himself for me.”
In order to define “the flesh” and provide clarity on this subject it’s helpful if you actually know what makes you - you. The Bible presents the fullness of man as being a trichotomy (triune nature similar to God’s) meaning every human is made up of three distinct parts: a physical body, an immaterial soul, and a spirit. 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit, soul, body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Body: The physical part of a person that tethers you to the physical world. The body would include the mind (where thoughts, emotions, and feelings originate) as well as your genetic traits and tendencies (what drives your personality, habits, and predispositions).
Soul: The non-material essence of a person’s being. The soul is the real you and is therefore the part that will continue on following the physical death. Within the soul dwells your conscious and will (where decision are made). Note: The soul is impressionable.
Spirit: The spiritual part of a person that provides life to both the body and soul. In regards to the soul, the spirit tethers you to God. As it pertains to the body, the spirit would include the seat of your desires, nature, or what is commonly referred to as “the heart.”
Note: While there are passages that use the words “soul and spirit” interchangeably there are just as many that indicate a distinction between the two. A balanced perspective would see the soul and spirit as being two separate, but distinctly connected components.
Because everyone is born with a fallen nature (we received life through the human spirit provided by Adam) we all immediately experience the results of sin in both our mortal bodies (the practical effects of sin leading to death) and our souls (eternal death as a result of a separation from God). This is why passages like Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 describe us in this particular state as being “dead in our trespasses and sins.”
And yet, upon accepting Jesus as our Savior, an amazing, supernatural work takes place in our lives… What is described as the “old man” (the spirit of sin given to you by Adam) is replaced with a “new man” (the Holy Spirit given to you by Jesus)… The spirit of death is replaced with the Spirit of life. In a very literal way when this occurs you’re “born again.”
This is why we use the phrase, “Ask Jesus to come into your heart.” What we mean by this is that we’re asking Jesus to replace our sinful nature (my spirit) with His righteous one. In Ezekiel 36:26 God said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.”
Romans 8:2, “The Spirit of life in Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”
Ephesians 2:4-5, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
1 Corinthians 15:21-22, “Since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”
When this supernatural work of God occurs two things immediately result:
First, your soul (the real you) that had been separated from God since birth because of your sin nature is instantly reconciled with the Father through Christ Jesus because you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit (you’re made alive in Christ). In 1 Peter 1:9 this result is described as “obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
Secondly, because you now have the Spirit of God (a new nature) indwelling your seat of desire (spirit) the very body these desires control begins to naturally behave differently.
And yet, if we’re to be honest this morning, we’ll concede the fact this behavioral change doesn’t occur without a level of resistance from the body. Understand… Though the indwelling Spirit of God has changed who you are because it’s tethered your soul back to God (making you righteous, sinless, son, heir, etc.) and has the power to control the body because He resides in the seat of desire, the literal effects of sin in the body still remain.
You see… “The flesh” or what some call “self” is actuality nothing more than a reference to your unregenerated, mortal body, which still remains tainted and corrupted by sin and death. Unlike the soul and spirit, as apart of the physical, natural world your body is still waiting to experience regeneration at a yet future resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption... In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”
Historically, Bible scholars have been hesitant to define “the flesh” as only being the physical body, but this perspective was mainly the result of an incomplete understanding as to what all the physical body actually controls (what’s included in the physical man).
While the Greek word translated as “flesh” is “sarx” which referred to “the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones and is permeated with blood,” today we understand the physical body of man (including the mind and overarching genetics) additionally covers a person’s thoughts, emotions, feelings, personality, habits, and predispositions - all of which are presently experiencing the effect of sin as they’re still awaiting regeneration.
What this means is that the battle between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” describes two completely contrary forces under the directive of my will (soul). On one side there is my body (my flesh) still corrupted by sin and one that by its very constitution pursues the pleasure of self as its chief ambition. On the other there is the supernatural (the Spirit) which desires to use my body as an instrument of righteousness.
The battle we experience rests in a decision of the will, which chooses to either surrender control of my body to the Spirit of God (so that I can live consistent with the new nature I’ve been given in Christ) or allow the body to function as it naturally will (corrupted by sin).
Note: What makes this experience different than the one before regeneration is that the body of sin and the spirit of sin operated in concert. The old man (spirit of Adam, fallen nature) and my body acted in harmony, which explains why I was a really good sinner! And yet, the old man, crucified with Christ, was replaced with a new man - new nature - new Spirit!
You see the resistance occurs following regeneration because my flesh corrupted by sin is now under the control of God’s Spirit. My body is no longer free to operate as it naturally would, because my desires are no longer driven by the old man but by the new! Meaning the flesh corrupted by sin is in constant tension with the Spirit that desires righteousness.
Romans 8:11-13, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors--not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you (the soul) live according to the flesh (the body) you will die; but if by the Spirit you (the soul) put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
With every decision your soul (the real you: alive in Christ, right before God, sinless) must choose between the bodies natural tendencies towards sin (which is to act contrary to who you really are) or the surrendering of the body to the control of the Spirit (new seat of desires). Every aspect of your life is subject to this battle between “the flesh” and its natural tendencies and proclivities to sin and the contrary desires of “the Spirit” to live righteously.
Look at our text again… Paul begins, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust (literally, “the desire, craving, or longing”) of the flesh.” In order to understand the fundamental nature of the battle first consider… What is the lust of the flesh?
The simple answer to this question is that the “desire of the flesh” is to self-satisfy which has always been the case originating back in the awakening of self back in the Garden.
Pause for just a moment, because there is a critical observation that needs to be made before we continue… While it’s absolutely true the solution to sinful behavior (the natural default mode of the flesh) is to “walk in the Spirit,” in context to the fundamental purposes for his letter to the Galatians this is not the topic Paul is specifically addressing.
You see, in context to all that he’s been discussing as it pertains to the mechanism by which we live a righteous-life (the topic at hand), we understand that even after being filled with the indwelling Spirit of God our “flesh” still seeks to self-satisfy in a way that might be different than overt carnality (of which it’s capable), but one that is just as sinful and destructive.
Sure, it’s important every believer understand the actual remedy for overcoming the natural proclivities of our sinful flesh (whether it be the flaws in our personality or the tendencies of our biology) is to resist these urges by choosing to “walk in the Spirit” knowing I am more than mere flesh and blood… I’ve been made a righteous son and heir with Christ.
And yet, the greater urge of our sinful flesh and the one in which our battle truly lies is the fleshes attempt to manufacture a righteous-life apart from the Spirit using the law.
For the believer it’s a truth that our flesh will more often than not gravitate toward religiosity in place of carnality. The flesh will seek to self-satisfy in a different way. Instead of brazen rebellion against God, the flesh will try to play an active role in righteousness, to earn God’s favor, display its worthiness, and in the end find pride in its self-achievement. It’s why J. Oswald Sanders wrote, “Self cannot dethrone self or it will wear the victors crown!”
And yet, not only will the flesh fail to yield the results it craves (a life that pleases God), but it will also rob you of the very mechanism Godly-living demands… The Spirit!
It’s why Paul continues by saying, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh…” Literally, since the flesh is continually craving what only the Spirit can provide, the flesh actively wars against the Spirit (“against” means “to suppress the influence of” or “to hold down”) while in turn the Spirit actively refuses to allow the flesh to attain its wishes.
The great irony is that while the flesh boxes out the Spirit, the Spirit will never allow the flesh to find success. This is why Paul then says, “These are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
You see, the flesh uses the law to try to manufacture a result that can only be yielded “by the Spirit.” And yet, not only does the flesh fail because the law is powerless (“you do not do the things you wish”), the attempt itself suppress the only power that can bring success.
What does “the lust of the flesh” actually produce in my life (“fulfill”)? Answer… The flesh only produces a pseudo-moralism that God rejects and one the Spirit actively resists so that it only leads to spiritual frustration and failure! Paul’s point is that in Galatia legalism fed their flesh, robbed them of the supernatural power of God’s Spirit, and had failed to yield righteous-living as evidenced by their lack of love for one another!
So what was the remedy? How were these Galatians going to be able to reject the flesh and break free of legalism? How were they going to “cast away the bondwomen and her child” so that God’s work could be accomplished in their lives through God’s Spirit?
The answer: If the flesh and Spirit are “contrary to one another” and therefore cannot work in concert, the solution is to simply “walk in the Spirit!” In a profound sense the only way self will advocate the throne is for the will to enthrone the Spirit!
This word “walk” literally means “to live” and was a common way of describing the way in which someone lived their life. Note: Paul’s exhortation was “present active” meaning these Galatians needed to first choose to “walk in the Spirit” before then deciding to continue to “walk in the Spirit!” Paul’s not describing a one time decision, but rather a new way of living!
This morning whether it be a battle between the flesh and it’s natural default to act out in a sinful way or it’s more sneaky attempt at self-pleasing through religious moralism, I want to encourage you with a simply yet powerful observation Charles Spurgeon made concerning this battle between the flesh and Spirit. He said, “Dead men don’t wrestle!”
Please understand, the very nature of the struggle is evidence of an incredible reality… You are alive because you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit. This flesh is not you! You have not only been made righteous, but God has given you everything you need for Godly living. The solution… “If you don’t want to fulfill the lust of the flesh” choose to “walk in the Spirit!”
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