Home / Tough Topics Explained / The Spirit vs. The Flesh
The flesh and the Spirit are complete opposites. Our most fundamental choice as believers is choosing each day, each moment, which to obey.
The flesh and the Spirit are not only opposed to one another; the Apostle Paul’s description of this conflict in Galatians 5 makes it clear that they are mortal enemies. The desire of the flesh is set against the desire of the Spirit. And these are in direct opposition to one another. It is interesting to note Paul’s observation regarding an outcome of the Spirit and flesh operating within each believer, and vying against one another: we do not do the things that we really desire to do (that we please, or wish). It seems that in the flesh resides our predominant “doing” and in the Spirit is our dominant desiring. Paul says something similar in Romans 7:19, For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.
The ramifications of this internal conflict are enormous for all believers. First, it means that the main contest the Spirit and the flesh have within us is a contest to get us to choose who to follow. That means there are three entities living within each believer: the Spirit of the Living God, the sinful flesh (in which nothing good dwells) and us (which at least includes our ability to choose between the two.) Paul says in Romans 6:16 that our basic choice is which of these two do we obey. We can obey sin in the flesh, or God in the Spirit. There is not a third option. The “I will do it my way” option is choosing the flesh. Not surprisingly, the “me” flesh option leads to biting and devouring, and the Spirit option leads to faith working through love, which will evidence the fruits of the Spirit.
The Spirit calls believers to live in the freedom that Jesus gives, rather than in bondage to sin and the law. Freedom is, in its essence, the ability to make choices. Slaves do not get to make choices, they simply do as they are told. This is an essential element of the grace of God. Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross made every believer righteous in God’s presence, and gave them power over sin. But every believer still has a daily choice whether to walk in the resurrection power of Jesus or in the power of their old nature, the flesh. Each believer, from Paul’s time until now, can walk in one of two ways. One is to walk in love, the other to turn freedom into an opportunity for the flesh.
Although believers are made righteous in the sight of God, and given the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome sin, all believers still have an old nature, which Paul calls the flesh. Paul says in Romans 7:18 that nothing good dwells in our flesh. Even so, we can still exercise our freedom to choose by choosing to obey the flesh. That does not mean we will be made unrighteous in the sight of God. It is impossible to undo Jesus’ work on the cross by our behavior.
What does it mean then? It means when believers choose the flesh they will have the fruits of the flesh, the results or consequences of walking according to the flesh. Paul warns the Galatian Church that if they follow the flesh they will bite and devour one another because they will be consumed with selfish desires rather than a love for one another.
When believers choose the flesh it means they will not only bite and devour one another, but perhaps even be consumed by one another. That is not a good outcome, to say the least. Paul acknowledges the amazing freedom to choose that God grants every believer. But he also acknowledges that God made consequences for our actions; we will reap what we sow.
The contrast to making a poor choice, to carry out the desire of the flesh, is to make a good choice, to walk in the Spirit. What does that look like? When believers through love serve one another. Believers who walk by the Spirit won’t carry out the desires of the flesh. The Spirit and the flesh are direct enemies; we can’t pursue one and also follow the other. We get to choose, but our choice is binary. We can either obey the flesh or the Spirit. There is not a third option. Following religious rules in order to seek to be justified is following the flesh.
Freedom shouldn’t be misused to choose to follow the sinful desires of the flesh but to instead obey the Spirit by serving each other through love. This is what living by faith produces. Even the law could be summed up as this service to each other: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. One may wish to appeal to the law. Fine, the law says to walk in love. That’s how to fulfill the law. An appeal to the law is defeated by the law. This verse You shall love your neighbor as yourself, comes from Leviticus 19:18. Leviticus is from the section of the Old Testament that was referred to as the law.
The problem is not the law. The problem is that “law-keeping” is a “self-improvement” approach. And the flesh cannot be improved. That is why believers need to crucify the flesh daily.
The Spirit is also not under the law. In the Book of Galatians, when Peter ate with the Gentiles he was following the Spirit, not the law. And when he withdrew from the Galatians he was not walking in the Spirit, because the Spirit leads us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Instead, Peter tried to obey man’s version of the law. As Paul argues in Romans 7:14, the Law of God is spiritual and good, but we are carnal. That is how we turn something meant for good into something bad.
It would be perfectly reasonable for someone to ask, “This is all very spiritual and intangible. How can I know whether I am choosing rightly?” We can look at the fruit of our lives, at any point, to see which we are choosing. The flesh produces immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. To the extent a believer’s life produces these things, he is not walking in the Spirit, but in the flesh. This is how we can know whether we have chosen the Spirit or the flesh at any point in time.
In Romans chapter 2, Paul addresses the competing Jewish “authorities” who claim to be righteous through following the law. Paul points out that they break the very law they claim to follow. They keep the law in one way while breaking it in another way. Our flesh is very good at dressing itself up as though it is spiritual. That is a compelling reason to listen to spiritual brethren to help us discern regarding ourselves. It is important to bear in mind that the context of this passage is instruction to believers.
Someone might also say “So what if I sin? We are justified in the sight of God solely by believing in Jesus, and are covered by grace. So there really isn’t any negative consequence to selfishness in God’s sight. If there is any biting and devouring I will just make sure I am the one who devours the most.” Walking in the flesh has a very negative consequence. Paul said to the Galatian Church, Those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
As believers, we inherit eternal life through faith in Jesus, which is unconditional (we can never lose it). We will inherit glorified bodies in the next life, and nothing can take that away. Maturation includes exercising the responsibility and authority of heirship, by becoming a “son” who takes on the family’s authority. Walking by faith takes on responsibility to serve. Walking in the flesh leads to childish behavior, and we serve our appetites as our master. Any time we sow to the flesh we reap the flesh. That includes in this life. If we sow division we will reap strife. When we live the resurrection power of Jesus in this world by walking in the Spirit, we bring Jesus’ Kingdom into this world.
But the warning of loss of inheritance likely includes the next life as well. Colossians 3:23-24 says, Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.
The key phrase here is “the reward of the inheritance.” This passage is speaking of rewards given by God. Each believer has God as an inheritance unconditionally (Romans 8:17). Nothing can cause us to lose being God’s child. That is work done by Jesus on our behalf. But the inheritance to gain rewards is conditional upon our obedience. If we practice walking in the flesh, we get our reward from the flesh, rather than from God. One available reward is to share the throne of Jesus. This reward is conditional upon sharing in the sufferings of Christ (Romans 8:17). Every child is an heir. Fully possessing the inheritance is something only the faithful believer gains, only the “sons” that exercise responsibility.
What about the list of fruits that are evidence of choosing the flesh?
“Immorality” has the Greek root porneia, also the root of the English word pornography. Paul uses porneia when referring to an incidence of incest. Paul also uses porneia in 1 Corinthians 6:18:
Flee sexual immorality (porneia). Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality (porneia) sins against his own body.
This makes clear that pursuing sexual immorality brings its own destruction, to our body. And the destruction is worse than other kinds of sin, in that it is against ourselves.
“Impurity” is the idea of being unclean. What would the application of “unclean” be to the Gentiles Paul discipled? We might get an idea from 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8. In this passage, Paul contrasts “impurity” with sanctification, and the particular behavior that is impure is defrauding a brother. This again emphasizes that believers can (and do) behave in all these ways. Our flesh never improves. It begins and ends with nothing good dwelling in it. Defrauding is a way to bite and devour.
“Immorality” is a Greek word also translated “adultery,” as in John 8:3. The root of adultery includes envy, to take what belongs to someone else. But adultery is predictably accompanied by destruction, destruction of relationships. The core attitude is focus on self.
“Sensuality” is the idea of unbridled appetites.
“Idolatry” is a practice based on having those appetites satisfied. Pagan idolatry included prostitution, live pornography, and debauchery. It also included appeasing the “power” to get what was desired. Both include an illusion of being in control, when in actuality we are choosing to be slaves of our flesh.
“Sorcery” is a translation of the Greek word with the root pharmakeia. Occult practices, then and now, included the use of drugs. The idea here is a way to gain power over our environment. Drugs alter our mind, so that we don’t have to interact with the world as it actually is, but as our drug-altered mind perceives it. We think we gain control, but instead we become addicts (another word for slave.) Or perhaps we seek an occult power to change the world around us. In the quest for power, we again become slaves.
“Enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, and envying” are all cousins. The essence of these behaviors is to pit one person or group against another in order to gain control.
“Drunkenness and carousing” have the idea of participating in a drunken party. Both of these activities seek to control the environment around us by creating a drug-induced imaginary world within our heads.
These behaviors do not breathe the spirit of Jesus into our world. They do however lead us into dysfunction, addiction, escape, and ultimately depression. The thing they all have in common: a focus on “Me.” My appetite fulfilled, me in control, me over you. This is the world’s way, but not God’s way. When we self-examine and see these behaviors, it tells us something very tangible: we are walking in the flesh. The answer is to crucify the flesh, to set it aside and instead walk in the Spirit.
Believers should focus on walking in the Spirit rather than trying to follow rules. Rule-following justifies fleshly behavior. Spirit-following unleashes the resurrection power of Jesus.
The Spirit is not against the law. The law is not against the actions produced in the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; where would anyone find a law against these things? Certainly not in Rome, during Paul’s time, as he says “against such things there is no law.” Paul says in Galatians 6:2 that bearing one another’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ.
When we choose the Spirit living within us rather than the flesh, we get a completely different set of behaviors. Rather than a set of behaviors centered on “Me” we get a set of behaviors seeking the best for others. The law of God can be summarized in two statements, loving God and loving others. When we choose the Spirit over the flesh to power our lives, we get the Spirit working out the law of God. The first of the fruits of the Spirit, “love,” can be said to summarize the rest.
The next fruit listed in Galatians 5:22 is “joy’. The greek word for “joy” here is “chara”. The Spirit is glad to serve others and to serve God. This same word “chara” is used to describe the joy of a woman after the travails of child birth in John 16:21. The result of service to others and obedience to Christ creates a satisfaction akin to bringing a new child into the world. It is difficult, but worth it.
Peace and patience seem to go together. Patience, by definition, means there is something irritating we are putting up with. When we bear with the faults or quirks of others, we sow peace. Enmity comes about when we engage in a battle to coerce them to change in a way that does not irritate us. The best way to accomplish change in others is often through exercising patience ourselves.
“Kindness” can be thought of as doing good for others when they can’t pay us back. We are not said to be kind when we pay the price for something we purchased. We are paying what we owed. Kindness is giving someone something they are not owed. Again, this is others-centered behavior.
“Goodness” is a translation of a word that is used in the Bible to describe things that are useful, desirable, and productive. Good fruit as opposed to bad. Good servant as opposed to lazy and wicked. When we choose to walk in the Spirit, we are useful, productive and beneficial to those around us. We are good team members, contributing our gifts to benefit the team.
“Faithfulness” emphasizes walking in accordance to believing what God says is true. We have an external rather than internal focus. We look to God to see how we should live, and live in that manner to benefit others, rather than seeking to satisfy our appetites by our circumstances.
In Titus 3:2 the word translated “gentleness” is contrasted with brawling and speaking evil of others. It is also used in 2 Timothy 2:25, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition. When confronting, there is an attitude of seeking the best for the other person rather than an insistence they must agree with us. Again, the focus is on serving rather than controlling.
“Self-control” is a particularly interesting word to end a list of other-centered behavior. When we choose the Spirit, we control the self. Instead of being controlled by our appetites, we live out our values.
Paul states that all who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh. When believers are born again, the flesh is crucified with Christ, meaning its power over us has been broken. Believers are no longer slaves of their passions and desires residing in their flesh. They now have the resurrection power of Jesus residing within: the Spirit of God. So when believers walk in the flesh, they are choosing to once again come under the control of the flesh, whose power has been broken. The believers’ true identity is one who lives in the Spirit.
However, believers have a choice how they walk. Although each believer lives in the Spirit, they are still free to choose how to walk. Believers can walk in the Spirit, or walk in the flesh. The most logical thing to do is to use our freedom to love, and walk in the Spirit. That is the thing most consistent for us, since we live in the Spirit. Believers should reject the path of sinful, selfish desires. Instead, we should walk by the Spirit, not the passions and desires of the flesh.