Article of the Month
FOR PAUL, TO BE “UNDER LAW” IS ONE WAY OF BEING “IN THE FLESH”. His use of the term “flesh” (sarx) plays such a central part in his theology that it calls for careful examination. The background of his terminology is provided by the Old Testament, although the Old Testament usage is extended along lines peculiarly his own.
In the Old Testament “flesh” is the basic material of human and animal life. Apart from occurrences of the word in the sense of animal life in general (as in Genesis 6:19)1 or the meat of animals which may or may not be eaten (as in Exodus 12:8), men are categorized as “flesh” in contrast to “the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Daniel 2:11). When God imposes a limit on the duration of human life, he says, “My spirit shall not abide in man For ever, for he is flesh”2 (Genesis 6:3). Man, in fact, is animated flesh: “all flesh” means “all mankind” (except in a few places where it has the wider sense of “all animal life”). “Flesh” may denote human nature in its weakness and mortality: “he remembered that they were but flesh” (Psalm 78:39). It can be used of the human body, as when a man is directed to “wash his flesh in water” (e.g. Leviticus 14:9), or of the man himself in a more general sense, as in Psalm 63:1, where “my flesh faints for thee” stands in synonymous parallelism with the preceding clause, “my soul thirsts for thee” — here both “my soul (Heb. nefesh)” and “my flesh (Heb. bāsār)” are little more than alternative ways of saying “I”.
We turn, then, to Paul’s usage against this Old Testament background.
First, he uses “flesh” in the ordinary sense of “bodily flesh”, as in Romans 2:28, of literal circumcision (cf. Genesis 17: 11), by contrast with spiritual circumcision, the circumcision “of the heart”,3 or in 2 Corinthians 12:7, where he describes his physical affliction as his “thorn (splinter) in the flesh” (cf. Galatians 4:13).4 More generally, when he speaks in Galatians 2: 20 of “the life I now live in the flesh”, he means “in mortal body”.
Next, he uses “flesh” in the sense of natural human descent or relationship, as when Christ is said to be David’s descendant or a member of the race of Israel “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3; 9:5), when Abraham is called “our forefather according to the flesh” (Romans 4:1) and his biological descendants are called “the children of the flesh” as against “the children of the promise” (Romans 9:8; cf. Galatians 3:7; 4:23ff.), or when the Jews are referred to as Paul’s “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3) or simply his “flesh” (Romans 11:14).5
In the third place, he uses “flesh” in the sense of “mankind”, as in Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:20, “no flesh shall be justified by works of the law”, or I Corinthians 1:29, “so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God”. Sometimes he expresses the same idea by the phrase “flesh and blood”, as in Galatians 1:16, “I did not confer with flesh and blood” (i.e. with any human being).6
But most distinctively, he uses “flesh” in the sense of “human nature”, in the following ways:
(a) Weak human nature. In Romans 6:19 Paul explains himself by means of an analogy from everyday life “because of the weakness of your flesh” (i.e. your natural understanding). In Romans 8:3 he speaks of the law as unable to produce righteousness because it was “weakened by the flesh” (i.e. by the frail human nature with which it had to work). He speaks of an occasion when, because of his anxiety over his friends at Corinth, his “flesh (sarx) had no rest” (2 Corinthians 7: 5); he refers to the same experience in 2 Corinthians 2:13 by saying “I had no rest for my spirit (pneuma)” — a remarkable instance of the practically synonymous usage of two nouns which are normally antithetical in his writings (and not in Paul’s writings only, as is indicated by the familiar antithesis of Mark 14:38, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”).
(b) The human nature of Christ. The humanity of Christ is shared by him with all mankind. But ours is “sinful flesh”, because sin has established a bridgehead in our life by means of which it dominates the human situation. Christ came in real flesh — he lived and died in a “body of flesh” (Colossians 1:22)7 — but he did not come in “sinful flesh”, because sin gained no foothold in his life; he is said therefore to have come “in the likeness of sinful flesh”,8 so that, when he presented his life as a sin-offering, God thus “condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3) — passed the death-sentence on it by virtue of the sinless humanity of Christ.
(c) Unregenerate humanity. Paul at times denotes the sinful propensity which belongs to his heritage “in Adam”9 as “my flesh”. In “my flesh” in this sense nothing good resides; with it, he says (perhaps speaking representatively) “I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:18, 25).10 Its surviving influence can be traced even in the regenerate: the Corinthian Christians, for example, are addressed as “men of the flesh”, despite their having received the Spirit, because they are still prone to jealousy and strife and judge men according to the standards of worldly wisdom (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). The “works of the flesh”, listed in Galatians 5:19-21 in contrast to the “fruit of the Spirit”, include not only sensual vices like fornication and drunkenness but mental attitudes like jealousy, anger and party spirit. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus”, however, “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24) — a statement similar to that of Romans 6:6, “our old man (NEB ‘the man we once were’) was crucified with him [Christ], so that the sinful body [the sin-dominated nature that was ours ‘in Adam’] might be destroyed”.11 That the “flesh” was crucified with Christ and can yet be a menace to the believer is one aspect of a paradox that recurs repeatedly in Paul’s writings. Believers are said to have “put off the old man” and “put on the new man” (Colossians 3:9f.), while elsewhere they are exhorted to do just that — to “put off the old man” and “put on the new man” (Ephesians 4:22, 24). The “old man” is what they once were “in Adam”, the embodiment of unregenerate humanity; the “new man” is what they now are “in Christ”, the embodiment of the new humanity. Therefore to “put on the new man” is to “put on Christ”: if Paul can say that all who were baptized into Christ “have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27), he can also urge such people to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14) and thus be in practice what they already are by the call of God.
Though “my flesh” (as Paul thus puts it) is still a reality to the believer, he is no longer “in the flesh” in this sense. To be “in the flesh” in this sense is to be unregenerate, to be still “in Adam”, in a state in which one “cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). Believers were formerly “in the flesh” (Romans 7: 5), but now they are “not in the flesh, but in the Spirit”, if the Spirit of God really dwells within them — and if he does not, they have no title (according to Paul) to be called the people of Christ (Romans 8:9).
Since, then, believers are no longer “in the flesh” but “in the Spirit”, they should no longer live “according to the flesh” but “according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4f., 12f.). They have exchanged their unregenerate outlook (“the mind of the flesh”) for that which is proper to the children of God (“the mind of the Spirit”); it is their duty henceforth to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 8:5-7; 13:14).
The “flesh” is subject to the law of sin and death and so is under sentence of death: “if you live according to the flesh, you will die” (Romans 8:13); “for he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Galatians 6:8). Sin, of any kind, is a “work of the flesh”, and results in death.
Sometimes the word “body” is used in place of “flesh”. What are called “the works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19 are called “the deeds of the body” in Romans 8:13.12 So also “the body of sin” (Romans 6:6) is a near-synonym of “sinful flesh” (literally “flesh of sin”) in Romans 8:3. We may compare “this body of death” in Romans 7:24, from which deliverance is so earnestly sought.13 On the other hand, the “body” of Romans 8:10, which is “dead because of sin”, is simply the mortal body of flesh and blood, which at the resurrection is to be replaced by the “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44).14 “Body” for Paul is an altogether nobler word than “flesh”. When he says that “the body is . . . for the Lord, and the Lord for the body”, calls the believer’s body “a temple of the Holy Spirit”, and urges his Corinthian converts to “glorify God” in their “body” (1 Corinthians 6:13, 19, 20), it would be inconsistent with his usage to replace “body” by “flesh”, just as bespeaks of the redemption of the body (as in Romans 8:23) and not of the resurrection of the flesh. The flesh, in the distinctive Pauline sense, is doomed to die; the body is destined for immortality.
In the Old Testament, as in the New, “spirit” is the antithesis of “flesh”. “The Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit” (Isaiah 31:3). God, by implication, is Spirit (cf. John 4:24); not only so, but the Spirit of God energizes men and imparts to them physical power, mental skill or spiritual insight (expressed pre-eminently in prophetic utterance) that they would not otherwise have. So, in Paul, the antithesis to “flesh” is “spirit” — not so much the human spirit as the Spirit of God.15
The Old Testament prophets foretold a coming age which would be marked in a special way by the activity of the Spirit of God. Two strands of this expectation are specially important. In one, the activity of the Spirit is associated with a coming figure — variously depicted as the ideal ruler of David’s line (Isaiah 11:1ff.) and as the humble and self-sacrificing Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 42:1ff.) — who would be anointed with the Spirit in order to discharge a ministry of mercy and judgment for Israel an& the nations. In the other, the promise is given that in days to come the same Spirit will be poured out on “all flesh”, so that the gift of prophetic utterance will no longer be confined to a chosen few but will be widespread (Joel 2:28 f.).16
These two strands of expectation are brought together in the New Testament with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The Spirit came upon him in power at his baptism, so that he could identify himself with the speaker of Isaiah 61:1f.: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor . . .” (Luke 4:18f.). At the same time, John the Baptist pointed to him as the Coming One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8; John 1:32-34). Jesus, then, receives a special endowment of the Spirit of God and in turn imparts this Spirit to others.
When and how this impartation of the Spirit to others would be effected might be a matter of debate, but two of the Evangelists unambiguously view it as dependent on the passion and triumph of Jesus. “As yet the Spirit had not been given”,17 says the Fourth Evangelist, referring to Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, “because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39), while the author of Luke-Acts, in one of the most remarkable “undesigned coincidences” of the New Testament, narrates the outpouring of the Spirit by the exalted Jesus on the first Christian Pentecost, together with the sequel to that outpouring, in a manner which practically documents the detailed fulfilment of the promise of the Spirit given by Jesus in the upper-room discourse of John 14-16.18
The picture given in Acts of the presence and activity of the Spirit is probably true to the general experience of the primitive church, or at least to that major segment of it which had links with the original community of believers in Jerusalem. The Spirit enables the disciples to bear witness and proclaim the gospel with convicting effect and to perform signs and wonders in the name of Jesus;19 he speaks through prophets in the church;20 when the apostles and their colleagues reach a common mind, his is the primary authority invoked in its promulgation;21 it is he who directs the course of missionary activity.22
This picture is assumed throughout the Pauline letters, but further and distinctive emphases are added. If in the upper-room discourses of the Fourth Gospel the Spirit is to recall to the disciples’ minds the teaching of Jesus and makes its meaning plain to them, as well as to lead them into all the truth and show them things to come,23 in Paul he communicates the life and power of the risen Christ to his people. For Paul, as for Luke and John, the age which follows the departure of Jesus in visible form from earth is the age of the Spirit, but for Paul the age of the Spirit supersedes the age of law. The law means bondage, while the Spirit brings freedom; “the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Thanks to the coming of the Spirit, the people of God, who were formerly in their infancy, restrained by the leading-strings of the law, have now come of age. “If you are led by the Spirit”, says Paul, “you are not under law” (Galatians 5:18), for the leading of the Spirit is not a restraining, but a liberating, force: “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). He is therefore called “the Spirit of sonship” (Romans 8:15), the Spirit who enables them to claim and enjoy their status as full-grown sons of God, in anticipation of that fully manifested “adoption as sons” which will be theirs on the day of resurrection — that “revealing of the sons of God” for which the created universe eagerly waits. On that day, says Paul, creation will be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21); but the children of God themselves exult in that liberty here and now by the power of the indwelling Spirit. By the power of that same Spirit they can address God confidently and spontaneously as Father: “when we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15f.). It is, in fact, one and the same Spirit who enables believers to call God “Father” and to call Jesus “Lord” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3). But “Abba” was the distinctive word for “Father” that Jesus had used (cf. Mark 14:36); that Christians even Greek-speaking Christians — should take over this Semitic form and use it in their devotions is a token that the Spirit whom God has sent into their hearts is not only “the Spirit of sonship” but “the Spirit of his Son” (Galatians 4:6), the Spirit that indwelt and empowered Jesus himself.
To be “in the Spirit” is for Paul the opposite of being “in the flesh”. All believers, according to him, are “in the Spirit”: “you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit”, he tells the Roman Christians, “if the Spirit of Christ really dwells in you. Any one who has not the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). The two following sentences begin with the conditional clauses, “But if Christ is in you . . .” (Romans 8:10) and “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you . . .” (Romans 8:11). It appears, then, that there is no difference between the indwelling of the Spirit and the indwelling of the risen Christ, so far as the believer’s experience is concerned, although this does not mean that Paul identified the risen Christ and the Spirit outright. There is a dynamic equivalence between them,24 but they are nevertheless distinguished. The Spirit conveys the resurrection life of Christ to believers (which may be a further reason for his being called the Spirit of Christ), and in doing so he conveys the assurance that they in their turn will rise in the likeness of Christ’s resurrection — the assurance that “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). This is one of the most distinctive Pauline insights regarding the Spirit: it is because of this that he describes the Spirit as the “first fruits” of the resurrection life (Romans 8: 23), the “seal” and “guarantee” — the arrhabōn or initial down-payment — of the heritage of glory into which they will then be ushered (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13f.).25 The Spirit not only makes the benefits of Christ’s saving work effective in them, but also enables them to appropriate and enjoy in advance the benefits of the age to come.
For the present, then, they live in hope, but theirs is a living and certain hope because it rests in the living Christ, dwelling within them as their personal “hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), and is sustained by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit at the same time aids their prayers, interpreting their deepest, even inarticulate, aspirations and presenting them to God in an intercessory ministry.26 He cooperates in everything for good with those who love God,27 enabling them to live as befits the children of God and liberating them from the law of sin and death which dominates the children of “this age”.28
The Spirit is the sanctifying agency in the lives of believers: he wages perpetual warfare against the flesh, but he is more powerful than the flesh, and can put the flesh progressively out of action in those lives which are yielded to his control. It is by “the Lord who is the Spirit” that believers, “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:17).29 This reproduction of the image of Christ in the lives of his people is the Spirit’s most congenial ministry, and forms a preparation for that day when Christ, their true life, will be manifested, and they too “will be manifested with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4), wearing in its perfection “the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49).
Nor is the Spirit’s ministry confined to believers’ individual lives: in uniting them to Christ, he unites them one to another. Paul’s conception of the church as the body of Christ is inseparably bound up with his doctrine of the Spirit: “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were watered by one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). In the narrative of Acts John the Baptist’s promise that the Coming One would baptize with the Holy Spirit is viewed as fulfilled on the day of Pentecost; indeed, the authority of the risen Christ is cited for this (Acts 1:5; 11:16). The “togetherness” of the church from Pentecost onwards is emphasized in the narrative of Acts (cf. 2:44; 4:32) in a manner which may be thought to pave the way for Paul’s teaching, but it is Paul who gives distinctive expression to the idea of all believers, whatever their race or social status, united in a common life as fellow-members of a body, with the Spirit as the source and principle of its corporate existence and its bond of unity, each member discharging for the good of the whole that function with which the energizing Spirit has endowed it. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).30 But the prime function of the indwelling Spirit in the believing community, as in the individual believer, is for Paul the reproduction of the Christ-likeness in his people, until the whole body corporate attains “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4: 13).31
At the time of this writing, F.F. Bruce was Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, England and editor of The Evangelical Quarterly. The article is taken from his book, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Eerdmans: 1977, Chapter 19).
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