Human Beings as Flesh and Spirit
In the modern church there is much confusion about the biblical meaning of flesh and spirit. On the one hand, the church still struggles with the ancient Greek idea that anything physical must be evil to some degree. Some assume therefore that the Christian life is something entirely spiritual that has nothing to do with our bodily existence. Some take this to require that all bodily functions are necessarily evil, including eating, drinking, and sexual fulfillment. Others, thinking the body doesn’t matter, deceive themselves into thinking that it doesn’t matter how they use their bodies as long as their soul is healthy. Both positions reflect a serious distortion of biblical teaching that body and spirit alike are important and must be properly nourished and cared for.
A second problem emerges when too sharp of a distinction is made between “carnal” Christians and “Spirit-filled” Christians. Here, three types of people are considered: (1) carnal non-Christians, (2) carnal Christians, and (3) Spirit-filled Christians. If we think of a carnal Christian as one who is totally empty of the Holy Spirit and is given over to a completely carnal life-style, we are not speaking of a carnal Christian, we are speaking of one who is not a Christian at all. A person may profess to be a Christian and still be utterly carnal, making a lie of his profession. A totally carnal Christian is a contradiction in terms.
Every Christian is Spirit-filled. The “filling” of the Spirit may be to a lesser or greater degree as Christians vary from one another in yielding to the Spirit. But the Spirit dwells within all Christians.
The apostle Paul speaks of a warfare or conflict that the believer experiences between the flesh and the spirit. In doing so, Paul does not teach a dualism or inherent disharmony between the body and the soul. The conflict he describes is not one that may be reduced to a struggle between physical desires or appetites and spiritual virtue. The conflict goes deeper than that.
The word flesh (sarx) is sometimes used in the New Testament as a virtual synonym for body (soma). However, when this word is used in clear contrast with spirit (pneuma), it most often refers to something other than a physical body. Here, flesh usually refers to the corrupt nature of fallen human beings. When we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit and become new creatures in Christ, the power of our fallen nature (flesh) is conquered but not destroyed. Because sanctification is a lifelong process, Christians are daily engaged in warfare with their old nature as they seek to grow in the Spirit and in grace. The old person dies daily as the new person in Christ is strengthened by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit, who is given to us as a pledge and by whom we are sealed, will prevail in this warfare in the end. In the meantime, however, the struggle can be intense. Christians continue to struggle with sin and temptation. Conversion liberates us from the total control of the flesh, but it does not perfect us.
The struggle between the old person (the flesh) and the Spirit continues until we die. After death we are glorified: the flesh is completely put to death, and the new person is completely purified.
- The Bible rejects the Greek idea that the body is intrinsically evil.
- Christians are neither to despise nor exalt the body. The body and the soul are in need of sanctification.
- No Christian is completely carnal or completely free of carnality.
- Every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
- The warfare between flesh and spirit is not a conflict between body and soul but a conflict between our fallen sin nature (old person) and our regenerated nature (new person).
- The struggle between the flesh and the Spirit continues in the Christian life until glorification.