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How Far Can We Follow Jesus? Part 6
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In part 5, I offered an explanation I've not read anywhere else for Paul's God-inspired use of the present tense in Rom 7.14-25. I also offered further evidence in support of the interpretation favoured by most of the Church Fathers for these verses. But some of my readers may still be puzzled about what Paul could have meant by “the flesh”. To put it bluntly, the passage doesn't offer us enough detail about “the flesh” to arrive at a clear answer; but we do get some helpful pointers.
Paul describes his “flesh” as something in his physical body (Rom 7.22-23), which suggests he's not talking about his literal flesh. Paul also says that nothing good lives in his flesh, and that it has proved strong enough to repeatedly overcome his personal wishes to obey God's laws (Rom 7.18-19). Paul uses this last point as evidence that his repeated disobedience to God's laws is rooted in his condition as a slave to sin (Rom 7.20), which is not true of born-again Christians (Rom 8.2-4).
So, how are we supposed to identify “the flesh”? The key lies in Paul's list of “the works of the flesh” (Gal 5.19-21). Works are the artificial products of decisions. The word Paul uses for “works” was often used to describe a list of chores given to household slaves. The contrast with “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5.22-24) is revealing. Fruit is naturally produced by living plants.
Every single one of the works of the flesh refers either to the gratification of an appetite (e.g. nourishment, various forms of pleasure, social status, power over others) or to a typical reaction when gratification is either denied to us or unavailable (e.g. fits of anger, envy, divisions). So I suggest that “the flesh” is Paul's shorthand for all of an individual's earthly appetites, cravings, and passions. What “the flesh” doesn't represent is the decision-making faculty. That is part of one's inner being.
This division helps to explain how ungodly people can nevertheless sometimes choose to do something which God is pleased to see. Unless the light that is in us is darkness, we all have some innate idea of how we should or should not treat people, other living things, and the natural world around us at any given instant. Sometimes, our fleshly desires may happen to be in step with what we ought to do; or we may not harbour strong earthly desires in a given situation.
Nevertheless, it takes no more than a moment's thought to realise that people who become Christians don't automatically stop being hungry and thirsty. True, some of them may choose to stop going to certain places, or to throw out items they now find distasteful. But all this means is that the Holy Spirit is changing who and what attracts them. It doesn't mean they've stopped being attracted by anything or anyone on earth. It certainly doesn't mean they will never again have ambitions or face decisions; nor should it.
The born-again flesh is still part of a body doomed to age and die. The appetites and passions which move us will be no less real than they were before we became Christians. The difference is that, as Christians, the bottomless pit of fleshly craving can be avoided or surmounted with the Holy Spirit's help, so that we may obey the teachings of Jesus. If we walk by the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5.16), no matter how deep, insistent, or urgent our passions may seem.
© 2014 by Christopher Bevis. A Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England, a Christian for many years, and an avid reader for even longer, Christopher is a UK-based writer who has long-standing friends and contacts in the USA. He will be setting up his own web site soon, and can be contacted for matters relating to Christian writing via the Faithwriters.com website.
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