FLESH AND SPIRIT
D. M. PANTON, B.A.
There can hardly be a Christian anywhere in the world who has not, at some time or another, uttered Paul’s cry:- "0 wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (ROM. 7: 24). For what is the analysis of a believer? A wild man, if imprisoned in a cage, so long as he is alone, is gentle, tractable, quiet, and appears quite civilized and reasonable; alone in the cage, he follows his own will, and has his own way, and is at peace. But unlock the door, and push a civilized man into the cage; and watch. The wild man’s countenance changes; an angry scowl darkens his face; and in another moment he hurls himself on the intruder, and the two are locked in deadly conflict. So the old man in us, and the new, are at death-grips, and the distressing thing is that I am both. It is of all wars the worst - civil war; and it is so peculiarly painful because I myself am responsible for it.
Let us take for a moment a world view. All mankind fall into four classes. Class one - no struggle, no warring natures,* for there is no life: the flesh reigns - it is the unbeliever. Class two - a practical deadlock; a life largely stationary under forces that cancel out; not lost, but not delivered - the carnal Christian. Class three - the Spirit triumphant, though still thwarted, and sometimes blocked - the spiritual Christian. Class four - no struggle, because no sin - Heaven.
[* The struggle in the severe moralist or Hindu ascetic is no conflict between the flesh on the one hand and the Holy Spirit and the regenerate nature on the other, but the attempt of conscience to establish self-righteousness by putting a curb on sin. So the man of the world’s self-control is merely a restraint of passions which might prove physically suicidal or effect business bankruptcy.]
So we see our exact position, and its consequent peril. "The flesh" - not the sinews, muscles, etc., for our sinless resurrection body will have flesh and bones as the risen body of our Lord has (Luke 24: 39); but the principle of evil lodged in us all by the Fall, and made most obvious through the flesh - "lusteth against the Spirit" - the Holy Ghost in the believer, and the reborn nature which He creates - "and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary the one to the other" - for ever prompting opposite desires and actions: "that" - so that, as an inevitable consequence, - "ye may not do the things that ye would" (Gal. 5: 17) - we are in danger, always, of a stultified life: if I wish to do good, I am thwarted; and if I wish to do evil, I am thwarted. A boat simultaneously propelled by two oars forward, and two oars backward, is apt to be stationary. What a photograph of countless Christians! The life is little more than a stalemate.
Let us now turn aside for a moment to ponder the very searching question why God has ordained so extraordinary an arrangement. The reasons are profound and precious. (1) In no other way could we learn, deeply and forever, the loathsomeness, the malignity, the fearful power of sin. lf God made us, instantly, at conversion, automata of goodness, helpless to do anything but good, our value of goodness and our horror of sin would be incomparably less than it now will be. We now know sin from prolonged and bitter experience. (2) God summons us to co-operate with Him in the attainment of our own perfection. He has given us a ready-made justification, but He never gives a ready-made sanctification: we have it in our power to become a servant of passion, or luxury, or self - or to master evil as God masters it, by the sovereign choice of a holy will. (3) An enemy always at the gates, nay, an enemy within the citadel itself, ought to create, and is meant to create, a constant watchfulness, and the incessant wrestling which alone makes the mighty athlete. The whole possibility of reward would be swept out of existence if the Church were instantaneously made perfect. (4) It makes everything good so much more practically precious, for it is so much more actually costly. It endears the Saviour to us, for it drives us to Him as our own perfection never would; it enhances our sense of the value and efficacy of Divine grace; it calls into constant exercise the counterworking activities of the Spirit; and it gives us a close, personal knowledge of the Holy Ghost we could never have otherwise had. (5) It makes us humbler souls. Perhaps nothing is so humiliating, and therefore calculated to humble, as to discover that it is we ourselves, something that is still ‘us’ which wishes to sin. It teaches us forever what awful beings we once were.*
[* It is just here, in the one passage of all Scripture where we should expect to find it, that not only is there no statement of any possible sinlessness in a believer, but the whole argument transparently assumes a lifelong conflict between flesh and spirit. We are composite, and therefore remain so until embodied afresh. The only cure of the flesh is the coffin. Reckoning the flesh to be dead (Rom. 6: 11), and acting on the reckoning, is a profoundly different thing from saying that it is dead, and assuming consequent sinlessness.]
WORKS AND FRUIT
So now the Apostle presents to us, not merely the tendencies of flesh and Spirit, but their actual outcome, their concrete results in a believer’s life, with their consequences. "The works of the flesh" - not its lusts, which are in us all, but the actual flowering out of the flesh into facts - "are these" : (1) sensual sins - "fornication, uncleanness", every kind of impurity; "lasciviousness," wantonness, shamelessness; (2) religious sins - "idolatry, sorcery," every kind of evil spiritism (3) social sins - "enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, envyings"; (4) church sins - "factions, divisions, parties"*; (5) gross sins - "drunkenness, revellings," carousings; "and (6) such like" - an uncatalogued expansion. On the other hand, the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit - not the sap, but the outward visible growth, the organic development from a living root (Ellicott) "is LOVE, JOY, PEACE, LONGSUFFERING, KINDNESS, GOODNESS, FAITHFULNESS, MEEKNESS, TEMPERANCE." As these activities of the flesh, unrestrained, can thus be in a believer, Paul adds a warning; not the Lake of Fire, as the Apocalypse does for identical sins in the unsaved (Rev. 21: 8), but a tremendous loss:- "I forewarn you" - ‘forewarn’ you, for the loss has not come yet, since it is not a loss of the present Kingdom of Grace, but of the coming Kingdom of Glory - "even as I did forewarn you, that they which practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." The truth is so momentous that it is well to repeat it in other words. It is impossible of denial that by this double nature Paul means the regenerate, and the regenerate only: constant experience confirms that these sins, as a matter of fact, sometimes appear in the regenerate: therefore it is a certainty that the threatened penalty - exclusion from the [Millennial] Kingdom - will fall on true believers, men indwelt of the Spirit, who alone are named throughout the whole chapter.** The fruit of the Spirit, therefore, is as a sure passport into the glorious coming Kingdom of Messiah.
[* “By the name of sects Paul meaneth here, not those divisions or contentions which arise sometimes in the government of households or of commonwealths, for worldly and earthly matters; but those which rise in the Church, about doctrine, faith, and works" (Luther)]
** We may add a word confirming the obvious. Someone in the passage is certainly warned, and only [regenerate] believers are addressed in the passage: to warn one set of people of the consequences of sins which they do not commit, because of the penalty which will fall on another set of people who do commit them, would be absurd: therefore it is believers who are warned, and it is believers who will suffer. It is exceedingly impressive that Paul himself asserts of the bulk of the Corinthian disciples, - "Ye are yet carnal, and WALK AS MEN" (1 Cor. 3: 3): whereas our command is - "Walk worthily of God, who calleth you" - His voice sounds from the Kingdom already on high - "into his own KINGDOM and GLORY" (1 Thess. 2: 12).]
symbol chosen to picture our struggle is extraordinarily illuminating. "They that are of Christ Jesus" - they that are
Christ’s - "have crucified" -
at conversion: it is the one universal repudiation of sin by Christians that
makes them such - "the flesh with the passions and
the lusts thereof." If it
were a stab through the heart, or (in modern language) a bullet, or the sudden
drop on a gallows, or beheadal by an axe, it would
have meant instant perfection for us all: on the contrary, no known death
penalty is so prolonged as crucifixion - a man has been known to survive on a
cross nine days - till death comes through hunger and thirst, haemorrhage, and
gradual paralysis. The flesh has been
executed, but it is not dead; and the world calls to us, exactly as it did to
[*An exceedingly serious consequence of assuming that the flesh can be made extinct by faith - either through eradication or through death - is that all the personality is then assumed to be sinless; and therefore any doctrine or practice, to the evil of which that believer’s eyes have not been opened such a ‘work of the flesh’, for example, as ‘strife’ or ‘sects’ is accepted as part of the sinlessness, and so is continued.]
So, finally, we learn the sole and supreme lesson of the triumphant life which we all so sorely need: the climax is reached in the means whereby our flesh can be kept crucified. "If we live by the Spirit" - if His regeneration has planted life in US - "BY THE SPIRIT ALSO LET US WALK" - let us keep step with the Spirit. Another precious revelation, in the believer’s battle for a higher life, is contained in a singularly categoric, challenging assertion. "WALK BY THE SPIRIT, and ye shall not" - a double negative: in no wise (Lightfoot) - "fulfil the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5: 16). The value of the revelation lies in that it is the assertion of a law: do the one, and the other follows: walk by the Spirit, and, automatically, the lust of the flesh will not be fulfilled. To carry into full effect (such is the significance of the Greek) any desire of the flesh is, for one walking by the Spirit, and so long as he walks by the Spirit, impossible. He may feel the desire, nay, he must; but to carry it out into accomplishment is a thing that, for him, will not happen. But the whole responsibility is placed on us - "walk" while the sole channel of victory is Another - "the Spirit." "The Apostle places us upon a fearful battlefield, he opens to our view a frightful abyss, and he leads us into a heavenly orchard" (Reiger). There is no believer so holy that he does not have conflict with his flesh, and there is none so weak that he cannot get the victory. The impulses are not eradicated, but overcome "ye shall not fulfil" - ye may feel but not fulfil - "the lusts"; and the more habitually and powerfully this is done, the weaker and the fewer - as in a crucified man - will the impulses themselves become. Fill all thought and emotion and conduct with good, and it automatically excludes the evil: plant the whole bed with strawberries, and here is no room left for weeds. And this divine "walk" closes in the Reign of Christ on earth: co-sanctity in the walk produces co-heirship in the Glory. "He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father in his throne" (Rev. 3: 21).