10 Steps to Holiness[i] – Five: This Means War!
10 Steps to Holiness – Five: This Means War!
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.[ii]
We have seen several times already how the New Testament writers shape their teaching on holiness and our devotion to God. The same pattern is present in each NT writer. Commands to be holy always come out of specific teachings on who God is and what the Father has provided for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Indicatives are always the foundation for imperatives, even when they appear in reverse order.
God never demands believers rely on our own resources to “gut out” the Christian life. Instead, he encourages us to dive even more deeply into the riches of his grace in Christ Jesus. Messiah Jesus and all his benefits are the rich soil into which we sink our roots as the Holy Spirit bears spiritual fruit in our lives. This pattern reappears in Galatians 5:16-17.
Here Paul commands us to live by means of the Holy Spirit. It arises from the new situation into which we are brought by becoming Christians. Paul teaches us that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives leads us into a war zone where we are active combatants in the Spirit-against-flesh war. Forces have been unleashed to keep us from doing what we want to do.
People who aren’t saved can certainly have conflicted consciences. The flesh can be at war with the flesh; it can have an inner conflict since God’s law is written on the hearts of all human beings and everyone feels some pressure in various areas of their lives to do better and be better. But Paul is writing of a greater war – not one between flesh and flesh, but one of the Spirit with flesh. The new Adam 2.0 Operating System is at war with the old Adam 1.0 hardware in a continuous and irreconcilable conflict.
The apostle commands us to walk by the Spirit. But that is not something we can do by simply trying to avoid sin. We can only do it by refusing the desires of the flesh while at the same time living in the power of the Spirit. Biblical commands always include both a positive and negative aspect – in each command are things we are to do and things we are not to do. The negative and positive must be lived at a deep, profound level. Our entire Christian experience is founded on the greatest negative act in the universe – the crucifixion of Christ, and the greatest positive act in the universe – the resurrection.
To live a life devoted to glorifying God and enjoying him requires being both negative (denying the Old Adam its wants and demands) and positive (living under the reign and rule of the Holy Spirit). If you are going to resist the powers of the flesh (negative), then you will need to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and walk according to God’s Word (positive). Three ideas help us to understand the flesh-Spirit war.
The first idea is that flesh and Spirit are not only two aspects of our earthly existence as believers, they are characteristics of the two ages in which we live. The word flesh has several variations of meaning depending on the biblical author’s context. Sometimes flesh and spirit simply define the difference between body and soul. So, we tend to think of those two words as aspects of an individual person.
But Paul uses flesh and spirit as characteristics of two ages: this present evil age dominated by self-worship; and, the age to come ruled entirely by the Spirit to effect perfect devotion to God. Flesh can refer merely to our bodies, it can refer to our humanity (versus God’s deity), or it can refer to our sin nature with its desire for self-worship and self-rule (“It’s all about me!”). In this sense, Paul can speak of the flesh being in us and about our being in the flesh. We live in, breath the air, and share the nature of a fallen world. Flesh is another way of describing the impact on our lives of the present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and its self-worship mindset.
By nature, all human beings are left completely in Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:20-28), that is in the flesh. When Adam, our Union Representative, rebelled against God he released powers into the human bloodstream leaving all humanity:
dead in the trespasses and sins … following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.[iii]
But those who trust into the perfect life and sacrificial death of the risen Christ Jesus for their rightness with God are no longer in Adam. We are no longer in the flesh because we are no longer dominated by the old operating system of Adam 1.0. We are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. We breathe his air even though we live at the same time in a world infected by Adam’s fall and enslaved to the power of sin. We are resident aliens like Abraham, looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.[iv] Like addicts in recovery, we need to make daily choices and commitments to live out this new life because the cravings of the Old Adam never die. Think of yourself as a former smoker and this present world as one large smoke-filled room begging you light up just one more. That analogy doesn’t come close to the constantly-raging, deadly-serious war between the flesh and the Spirit.
TWO LIFE PERIODS
Being in the flesh and in the Spirit, refer to two different ages. But they also denote two different periods in the life of someone who has come to trust into Christ. The fact that Paul can speak of two categories (flesh and spirit) presupposes that Christ the Second Adam has come and reversed the self-worship that entered our DNA from the original Adam. Jesus has led us into a resurrection life with a new world order and a new atmosphere where the Holy Spirit governs the environment where grace and righteousness reign.
Paul established this earlier in Galatians (1:4; 4:4). God the Father sent God the Son to buy us out of slavery to sin. He then sent out the Spirit of Christ to bring us into his family, enabling us to call him Father. In doing so, he has rescued us from the present evil age and lifts us up into the world of righteousness and life of which we are now permanent citizens. The apostle summarizes those facts when he writes that believers are no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9).
He doesn’t write that the flesh is no longer in you so that you are free from the presence of sin in you and around you. Paul means that by the power of Spirit delivering all the benefits of Christ to us, we are no longer an under obligation to the flesh. We owe it no loyalty; we are under no obligation to it because we are no longer citizens of its country. If you are trusting into Christ, you are a child of God and the Holy Spirit dwells in you. We are responsible for living according to the laws of our new kingdom, not according to the law of “It’s all about me.”
On one hand, flesh and Spirit are two different ages, worlds, kingdoms, dimensions – not simply aspects of my individual life. On the other hand, being in the flesh and being in the Spirit represent two separate, identifiable periods in my life. But you might feel that those two facts don’t resonate with your experience in struggling with sin. So, Paul adds a third principle to help us get a grip on our lives in Christ.
The powers of flesh (my old Adam 1.0 hardware) and Spirit (my new Adam 2.0 operating system) are locked in a perpetual conflict for the remainder of my earthly life. They compete for my lifestyle. If flesh and Spirit as different ages give us the big picture, and flesh and spirit as two aspects of our histories give us the personal picture, then the flesh/Spirit War gives us the “here and now” picture. We are faced with a moment-by-moment choice between acting according to our old broken hardware or acting according to our new operating system.
Paul is saying as long as we live our earthly lives we are living in a war zone and we are not free to make life “all about me.” We must keep deciding to live consistently with our new identity of being in Christ people. You may have given your whole life to Christ but it will take the rest of your life to work that out in practice. Sin and the life of “It’s all about me!” is a spiritual addiction. Paul writes in Romans 5:
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. …12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.[v]
Addiction to the flesh shows itself in any number of forms – drugs, money, alcohol, sex, sports, work, popularity, approval, self-image, relationships. Anything other than Christ and all his benefits that I trust to satisfy my life is a form of spiritual bondage. It’s an idol. It’s a functional savior, not the real Savior. “…whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”[vi] The real Savior once-for-all crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24). When you trusted into Christ, that became immediately true for you. But the consequences of that action must be lived out daily in any number of small decisions we make to think, speak, or act according to “the kingdom of me” or according to the Kingdom of Christ.
But does Paul leave us hanging here? He seems to be good at telling us who we are in Christ. He’s clear about what we are to do because of who we are in Christ. But what about the “how-to-do-it” question? Paul weaves his “how-to” instruction into his writings as well, and they come in a series of Four R’s: recognize, realize, respond, and, reap.
The more we recognize we’re living in wartime, the more we will desire to see and repent of our sins and the more deeply we will trust into Christ to live according to his resurrection resources. We must recognize the ongoing reality, the urgency, and the magnitude of the conflict. We live in the midst of a battle between “It’s all about me!” and “It’s all about Jesus.” Being constantly aware of this creates an alertness to the subtle demands of the “kingdom of me” with all its addictions to whatever idol promises the most momentary satisfaction.
Second, the raging war is going on because we have been given a new status in Christ. So, we recognize the war; but we remember we belong to a new creation. As those who live in a wealthy Kingdom, we have all the resources we need. We are in Christ, in the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit lives in us. The Father’s love is ours in Christ; Christ’s gifts are ours in the Holy Spirit. We recognize we’re in a war. We remember our new status brings the vast resources of a powerful new operating system.
Third, we realize we are commanded to live by the Spirit and not according to the demands of our sin nature, our flesh, our Adam 1.0 hardware. Paul commands the Roman congregations:
12 …cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. [vii]
“…make no provision for the flesh” is the crucial command for the growing believer. We are enabled to do that when we take hold of Christ by renewing our minds with the facts of all that Christ is to us and for us. Do you do that? Have you, by faith, put on his resources deliberately and consciously? Do you refuse to make provision for the flesh? That is how we live in Christ, in the Spirit.
We recognize we’re living in wartime. We remember we belong to a new creation. We realize we are commanded to live in the Spirit and make no provision for the “It’s all about me!” mentality. Fourth, we are to respond sensitively to the Holy Spirit. Paul tells the Galatians that if they’re led by the Holy Spirit, they are not under the condemnation of the Mosaic law. He wants us to know we cannot have the Spirit as our Leader if we do not have Christ as our Savior. And if Christ is our Savior, then we are no longer under condemnation from the law because Jesus paid the law’s penalty for sin in our place.
In Romans 8:14-15 Paul writes, “14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 …you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”[viii] We have a new family and a new family lifestyle. That’s what it means to be led by the Spirit of God. We begin to be sensitive to his direction to us in God’s Word as we renew our minds with his two equally-important words of law and gospel. We begin to see more and more of the sin deep in our hearts, making the good news of the gospel ever more precious to us so that we desire to respond with thoughts, words, and deeds that glorify God and enable our enjoyment of him.
Finally, we learn that we reap what we sow. In Galatians 6:7-8 Paul goes on to write:
7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.[ix]
The more we renew our minds with the Word of God, the more we come to know what glorifies God and enable our enjoyment of him. Consequently, the more the Spirit will produce fruit in us. Paul’s use of an agricultural analogy helps us to think in the long term. “What will be the final harvest of this thought, act, pattern of behavior?” Adam did not think beyond the serpent’s promise of an all-powerful “kingdom of me.” He thought, “What now?” rather than “What then?” If the “kingdom of me” is all about what I demand for myself now, the Kingdom of Christ is all about what Jesus commands of us and provides for us.
Flesh and Spirit represent two ages, two kingdoms, two periods of our individual lives, and two powers at war. The battle required us to recognize, remember, realize, respond, and reap. We battle with the flesh and its “all about me” hardware. It is an ongoing, lifelong, often-exhausting war. But spiritual agriculture is a long-term process as the Spirit sows his harvest in us through Word and Sacrament, prayer, and fellowship in the family of God. Sometimes we refocus on building our own “kingdoms of me” rather than on Christ. We bog down.
But holiness is NOT an individual project! All believers are in this battle together. We don’t shoot our wounded, we treat their wounds with encouragement and (when necessary) admonishment because we are commanded to love one another. Holiness is not one pilgrim’s progress alone; it is the advancement of an army together, moving from the dung heap to the glory heap. So, St. Author of Hebrews commands:
…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another….[x]
[i] This series, with otherwise-noted sources, is a condensed version of Devoted to God: Blueprints For Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust (2016).
[ii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Gal. 5:16–17.
[iii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Eph. 2:1–3.
[iv] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Heb. 11:10.
[v] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Rom. 8:5–13.
[vi] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Rom. 14:23.
[vii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Rom. 13:12–14.
[viii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Rom. 8:14–15.
[ix] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Gal. 6:7–8.
[x] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Heb. 10:24–25.