By Reginald Wallis



Inner Conflict

To understand God’s way of victory over sin and self, it is vitally important to recognize the conflict of flesh versus Spirit in the believer. Many a young Christian has been bothered about the continued recurrence of former sinful desires. As believers, they have been “born again” and are true children of God; they are as much “justified” before God as ever they will be; yet they are conscious, from time to time, that there is a traitor within who ever challenges the will of God in and through them (Ro. 7:21). With every impulse towards holiness, and every urge of the Holy Spirit towards whole-hearted consecration, there is ever present this other thing which “wars against the soul” (1 P. 2:11).

The Scripture views him as a child of Adam by natural generation, and as a child of God by spiritual regeneration. When we are born again, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 P. 1:4). The very nature of Christ himself is imparted to us by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Since the truest believer, however, is not beyond the range of temptation, or exempt from the possibility of yielding to it, the flesh is obviously still there, and is neither improved nor removed by regeneration.

An Incessant Warfare

This accounts for the fact that the moment you were “born anew”, an incessant warfare commenced in your heart. Paul describes this conflict as, “the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). Each of the two is ever striving for the mastery. It is possible for you as a Christian, to yield to either, and the one to whom you yield, his servant you are (Ro. 6:16). Later we shall see God’s method of victory over this carnal enemy, but meantime let us emphasize the fact of its existence. These two are diametrically antagonistic. The flesh “cannot please God” (Ro. 8:8). On the other hand, the divine nature “does not sin” (1 Jn. 3:9). With every impulse of the one, therefore, there is invariably the challenge of the other.

Read through Romans 7 and see how the apostle Paul describes his own conflict along this line. When I “will to do good”, he says, “evil is present with me” (Ro. 7:21). Now this evil principle of sin has a number of designations in the Scripture. Reference is made to “the law of sin and of death” (Ro. 8:2), “the carnal mind” (8:7), “the law of sin which is in my members” (8:23), etc. In the passage quoted already from Galatians, it is referred to as “the flesh”, and this term we shall use for the purpose of our study. Remember, therefore, that “the flesh” does not refer to this substance that goes to make up our physical bodies, but to the fallen aspect which resides within the body. The term “flesh”, in this sense, is really an abbreviation of “sinful flesh” (8:3), as we shall see later.

The “Self” Life

It has been helpfully suggested that the best way to define “the flesh”, is to cross out the “h” and spell it backwards. This makes “SELF”, and that, after all, is the very essence of the old life. We arrive at this simple conclusion, therefore, that there are two possible centers for every Christian life: SELF or CHRIST. The carnal Christian (1 Co. 3:3) is one who, though born again, lives a self-centered life and seeks along many avenues (even in Christian work and ministry) to “serve” self (Ro. 15:3). This produces a desire for praise of self, and possibly a resentment of anything in the nature of rebuke or correction. This is a sad and subtle temptation, one to which any Christian may yield.

We easily become “I specialists” (Lk. 18:11-12)! Christendom is infested with a dread malady called “Chronic Selfitis” which has acute flare-ups. It is just that big “I“, the self life, carnality, intruding into the realm of spiritual experience and service. What a blessed thing to know the way of deliverance from SELF (Ro. 7:25)! Remember, therefore, that the believer possesses these two competitors for the ascendancy, and each is in deadly combat with the other.

Now, it is important that we should see what the Scripture has to say about this traitor within, i.e., the flesh. Let us examine the matter simply and carefully.

1)            “Flesh” is NOT the physical body. The Greek word for “body” (soma) is quite a different word from that which is used for “the flesh” (sarx). The body is a tangible, material substance. “The flesh” is a principle. Indeed, the body of every believer was redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ in his Calvary atonement and actually belongs to God. This “lowly body” or “the body of our humiliation” (Phil. 3:21) is not something repulsive. It is sacred. It is holy unto the Lord (Ro. 12:1). It is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is to be presented to God as an instrument of righteousness (Ro. 6:13). Why, then, is the body referred to as “lowly”? Because it is the residence of this carnality, and therefore, is subject to disease, sickness, death, and, frequently, infirmities.

The flesh should not be confused with the body. Remember also that the atoning work of Christ included the redemption of the body. That redemption will not be actually experienced (Ro. 8:23), however, until the coming again of the Lord Jesus in the air for his redeemed. Then this earthly “tabernacle”, with all its limitations and weaknesses, will give place to a glorified body conformed to HIS (Phil. 3:21). In the meantime, the believer is responsible to nurture and care for the body (1 Ti. 4:8) thus keeping it as fit as possible for an earthly instrument of service and a vehicle of divine life. To sin against the body either by neglect or through fleshly indulgences is a sin that “defiles the temple of God” (1 Co. 3:17). Your body belongs to him; you are only the tenant. It must be presented “a living sacrifice” to God. To pander to it or use it as an instrument for the mere satisfaction of “the flesh”, or the exhibition of “camouflage beauty”, is grieving to the Holy Spirit of God (Gal. 6:12; Eph. 4:30).

Real beauty in the sight of God is not the product of cosmetics but the outshining of the indwelling Christ (Ps. 90:17). A Quaker lady was once asked the secret of her beautiful complexion. She said, “I use truth for my lips; for my voice, prayer; for my eyes, pity; for my hands, charity; for my figure, uprightness; and for my heart, LOVE.” These heavenly cosmetics are worthy of trial, and are supplied free to every applicant at the Throne of Grace.

2)           “The Flesh” is the Residue of the “Old Man”. All that a fallen person is by nature is included in God’s designation “the flesh” (Col. 3:5-9). Man in his failure and corruption before God is “flesh”. A physician in Scotland was out visiting one day when he called at a house where a “new arrival” had recently blessed the home. The proud mother, carrying the infant in her arms, said to the visitor, “Who do you think he is like, doctor?” His reply was, “Very much like Adam, Madam”. That was probably a little disappointing to the mother, but it was sound theology! Yes, all that we are by virtue of our natural generation is “flesh” – but more about this in a later paragraph.

3)           Flesh, therefore, includes and is responsible for “Indwelling Sin” (Ro. 7:17, 20). There are some who claim that “the flesh” is unrelated to “indwelling sin”. This invariably leads to confusion and error. The apostle Paul gives a very ugly and repulsive catalog of sins in Galatians 5:19-21, to which even a Christian may yield if he fails to live under the domination of his new nature. Where do these ugly things come from? The apostle is careful to tell us that they are “the works of the flesh”. Who could doubt, therefore, that the flesh embraces “indwelling sin”? Paul again refers, in another connection, to “sin in the flesh” (Ro. 8:3). Everything that displeases God finds its birth in “the flesh”.

Some may argue that the scriptures quoted have sole reference to “the natural [i.e. the unsaved] man”. This is not so, however, for similar warnings concerning the sins of the flesh (Eph. 5:17-18) are included in the epistles to the congregations, and in close proximity to the highest doctrines of spiritual experience. Truly, the believer must ever walk close to the Lord, and appropriate the divine means of victory if he is to know deliverance from the subtle maneuverings of this traitor within. In Romans 7:22, the new man in Christ had no will to violate God’s purpose. It is “sin that dwells” in him.

4)           “The Flesh” cannot be eradicated or annihilated. This is very important, and this paragraph should be read in conjunction with the special chapter later devoted to the consideration, “Is it sinless perfection?” Little more need be said on this point here. In Romans 7, Paul expressly declared “I am carnal”. As you know, there are three classes of men spoken of in the epistles:

The “Natural” man: the unregenerate child of Adam (1 Co. 2:14);
the “Carnal” man: the “born again” believer living under the domination of “the flesh” (Ro. 7:14) and
the “Spiritual” man: the believer who is “filled with the Spirit” (1 Co. 2:15).

Of whom is the apostle speaking in Romans 7? Of himself as “carnal”… Therefore, he recognizes the presence of “the flesh” within. In fact, he actually speaks of himself as in captivity to this fleshly nature. He found that when he would do good, “evil is present with me”. With every desire of holiness he is conscious of another law operating in his members. What is this law but the flesh principle within? He further says, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (Ro. 6:12). This clearly implies that sin is present, but it must not be allowed to prevail. It cannot, therefore, be eradicated.

I once met a dear Christian who appeared to advocate the annihilation theory in his ministry. I asked him why he emphasized eradication. His reply was that he did not teach eradication, but used an even stronger word, the word which God used. “Oh,” I said, “what is that?” He said “destroyed”, and then quoted Romans 6:6 in the KJV. “Well,” I responded, “tell me, is the devil destroyed in so-and-so?”, mentioning the name of his home town. He admitted that this was far from being true. I then pointed out that Hebrews 2:14 clearly pronounces that the devil is “destroyed”, the same word as is used in Romans 6:6. It is obvious, therefore, that the force of the word’s meaning is not ‘annihilated’ or ‘abolished’, but rather, “rendered inoperative”, or “put out of action”, or “made of none effect”. This is a very different significance.

The devil is very busy today, in this age (Lk. 22:53), and a worse climax will even yet be reached as the age draws on to its midnight (Ro. 13:12). Yet the devil is a defeated foe (Col. 2:15). He was vanquished through the death of the Lord Jesus, and the believer may know constant victory over him through the greater power of the indwelling Christ (1 Jn. 4:4). I trust this distinction is clear – “The Son of God was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). This He actually accomplished nearly two millennia ago, though the full consummation of his work is not yet apparent. That is yet to be. In the same way “the flesh” is not destroyed in the sense of obliteration, but, thank God, it has been “crucified” (Gal. 5:24) and may be mortified, as we shall see in a later chapter. Another important fact to recognize is that:

5)          “The Flesh” includes not only gross sin but all humanistic natural goodness. This is vitally important truth, but often unrecognized. If the flesh includes all that a person is naturally, it obviously embraces the good and attractive side of human nature. Yes, “the flesh” has a good side. The natural man may, and often does, possess very delightful qualities (Mt. 19:16-22). He may be kind, amiable, generous, gracious, artistic, religious, well-inclined, accomplished – and possess many other admirable virtues from a human standpoint. It must be remembered, however, that human goodness is never spiritual (Ro. 3:12). “There is none who does good, no, not one”(Ps. 14:3). The flesh does not contain, and cannot produce, anything spiritual. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (Ro. 7:18). “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God”(Ro. 8:8).

Our Lord also said, “The flesh profits nothing” (Jn. 6:63). The two vital words which God writes over the flesh are “Cannot” and “Nothing“. It is utterly futile, therefore, to try and improve or patch up the flesh. God can never accept it. It is utterly beyond any hope of recovery. God has condemned it, root, branch, and fruit (Ro. 8:3). There is ever a subtle danger of Christians investing in shares and interests in “The Old Adam Improvement Society”. It is an utterly bankrupt concern, however. The Holy Spirit describes it in commercial phraseology. It is “no good”, and “profits nothing”. It pays no spiritual dividends. God can never recognize “flesh”, however humanly attractive it may be.

The fact that it includes human goodness is clearly stressed in the apostle Paul’s own testimony…

“For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.  But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.” (Phil. 3:3-7)

Yes, the apostle was a good, honest, sincere religionist before his conversion. Which of us could submit such a claim as, “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1)? Here was a good, religious, moral enthusiast on the road to Hell. He was not an adulterer, or a thief, or a murderer. His morality and his religion were scrupulous. Yet it all belonged to “the flesh”.

So also with Nicodemus (Jn. 3). Here was a conscientious devotee of the law; he was a “teacher of Israel”. All his good qualities, however, could never be recognized by God because they belonged to “the natural man”. He must receive a new life. We can now understand why even good people need to be “born again”. God places a vital line of demarcation between “flesh” and “spirit”. The one is death and the other is life. The natural man is “dead in trespasses and in sins”. He needs to be spiritually made alive.

Our Lord emphasized a logical principle when He stated, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). Of course it is. It can never become anything else. It may go to church and be religious, but that is “religious” flesh. It may be accomplished, but it is only “accomplished” flesh. You may try to educate a baby pig, but it remains a pig, and all your attempts to improve the manners or appearance of the little creature do not change its nature (Jer. 13:23). At the first opportunity, it will reveal this fact by scampering off again to the dirty pig-sty.

The human can never develop into the spiritual. All that man is by nature, therefore, is “flesh” – good and bad. He may possess wonderful talents by the endowment of natural inheritance, or by human genius, but even these are unacceptable to God until they are lifted into the realm of the Spirit and become animated by divine life.

The flesh ever serves “the law of sin” (Ro. 7:23-25). From the divine standpoint it can never make any contribution to the heavenly program. Now it is also important to remember, particularly in relation to the life of victory, that “the flesh” in the believer is exactly the same as in the unbeliever. That accounts for the sad fact that if a believer loses touch with the Lord, he may backslide into sins which would hardly be named among decent living men of high moral standards (Ro. 6:21). As we have seen already, the difference between the saved and the unsaved man is that the former has a new nature – a divine nature.

Notice also that:

6)           “The Flesh” possesses a will of its own. John 1:13 speaks of “the will of the flesh”, i.e., the natural or fleshly will. The spiritual man says, “Not my will, but Yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42). He is not governed by his personal likes or dislikes. The yielding to the will of the flesh necessarily involves a blockage of spiritual life. A Christian may yield to the impulses of a fleshly will, producing carnal decisions and natural judgments (Jn. 8:15), even in relation to spiritual problems. This must result in confusion and consequent grieving of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). The Lord is never glorified through a decision of the flesh, even though it comes within the circle of “orthodox service”. The flesh possesses a zeal of its own, but such zeal is “not according to knowledge” (Ro. 10:2).

Beware of responding to any call or deciding upon any course of action at the impulse of the natural will. Pray before you act and be sure you hear “what the Spirit says” (Rev. 2:7). The new man in Christ has a new hearing – “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, this is the way, walk in it” (Is. 30:21). What havoc and desolation have been wrought in many a redeemed life and many a congregation because of an important judgment arrived at in the flesh!

Further, how often a fleshly judgment has manifested itself in the imputation of a wrong motive and a harsh, unkind conclusion concerning another Christian. “The flesh” is responsible for all unjust criticism. It has a language of its own. The fleshly tongue “is set on fire by hell” (Js. 3:6). There is a spiritual and constructive criticism which redounds to the Lord’s glory. Let us see to it that before we speak critically of another, we ask the Lord to put the purification of the Cross upon our fleshly lips, and first question ourselves along this line: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

Notice lastly:

7)           “The Flesh” has its lusts (Ro. 13:14; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 2:3; 1 P. 2:11; 2 P. 2:18).

Look up these references and see what God has to say about this matter. The “lusts of the flesh” can only be conquered by a “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16), and a definite refusal to make any provision for their fulfillment. A boy was told by his mother that he was not to bathe in certain water, and if ever he was tempted to do so, he was to refuse the suggestion of the Evil One. One day he disobeyed, and when asked why he had done so, he said that the devil tempted him and he could not resist. His mother saw that he had returned with his bathing suit, however, and at once asked the boy why he had taken it with him. Said the boy, “I took it in case I might be tempted”. Moral: “Make no provision for the lusts of the flesh”.

So much then for “the flesh”. What a repulsive thing it is in the sight of God! What should be the Christian’s attitude toward this evil factory of sin and unrighteousness? We should “hate” it (Jude 23). We shall see how it can be overcome. The victorious life is not trying to conquer SINS, as some seem to believe. What a hopeless and disappointing task that is! Real victory finds deliverance from the power of indwelling SIN.

image009There was a Christian who often used to pray at his prayer meeting: “Lord, take away the cobwebs of sin from my life”. The poor man was evidently fighting his sins one by one, and seemed to be enveloped in carnal cobwebs! Another believer who knew more about the divine way of victory, present on one of these occasions, got to his feet and prayed, “Lord, kill the spider!”

Now in the next chapter we shall see the divine method of dealing with “the flesh”, this internal traitor!

Study Guide

By natural birth, everyone is a child of _______________.

What is the nature of the “inner conflict”?

Can sin spring from “the divine nature”?

How does Romans 7:15-26 describe this conflict?

What is a “carnal” Christian?

Show how “flesh” (ethically) does not refer to the physical body.

What is the relationship between “flesh” and indwelling sin?

Why can the flesh not be eradicated during this lifetime?

Give examples of “good” (religious) flesh.

How is flesh related to self-will?

Which is wiser:  to clean the cobwebs or “kill the spider”?