CHAPTER 3- THE FLESH
…your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires. ~Ephesians 4:22
Think of your three enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil. Which one are you most afraid of? Which one keeps you up at night?
Or perhaps we should start at a different level: do any of those enemies worry you? Or are you comfortable and naïve about the peril and danger of living peaceably with these enemies?
So think about those enemies—which one do you think is the worst? Is the danger of worldly temptations what keeps you up at night? Or, like most of us, are you way too comfortable with worldliness? How about Satan? Many of us think of him as a little red guy with horns and a pitchfork—in other words, a bit ridiculous. Yet we underestimate him to our own peril. When you consider that we have a supernatural foe filled with ancient hatred and deception who is bent on our destruction, the reality of Satan should be enough to keep us up at night.
But I’ll tell you what I’m most afraid of. Forget the world and Satan. Let them do their worst. What I’m most afraid of—what really does keep me up at night—is me. I’m most afraid of myself. I have seen enough of my heart to know its deceptions, and I truly believe that its deception is far more dangerous than “the deceitfulness of riches” (Mark 4:19) or “the father of lies” (John 8:44). And while I know that nothing can pull me out of the Father’s hand to final destruction, I have seen firsthand that I am more than capable of making shipwreck of my faith, without any assistance from the world or the devil. I am my own worst enemy.
Do you really believe that? Do you really believe that you are your own worst enemy? Or, put another way, do you have a sober, biblical view of the flesh? The Bible’s analysis of and outlook on my sinful heart is so bleak that I know that without daily divine intervention, I would destroy myself. I am daily fighting an insurrection against God in my own heart; the rebels are within the castle walls.
To illustrate the deadly nature of this enemy, consider the parable that we looked at in the previous two chapters: Jesus’ parable of the sower. Read his explanation of the parable, and look for each of our three enemies:
Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among the thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit.
Do you see all three enemies? Satan is easy to spot; Jesus identifies him as “the evil one” who comes and snatches away the word. And the world is there in “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.” But what about the flesh? Where is the flesh in this parable?
It’s easy to miss. The answer is: it’s all of them—the flesh is the soil! This is not a parable about external dangers, although those dangers are certainly present in the form of “the evil one,” “tribulation” and “cares of the world.” No, this is a parable about different kinds of soil—different conditions of the heart. Each kind of soil is a manifestation of the sinful flesh. The first kind of soil, the path, is identified by Jesus as “the heart” that the word cannot penetrate. This is the hard heart that refuses to embrace the things of God. Such a heart, Jesus tells us, is Satan’s playground—but the real danger is the condition of the soil itself. The rocky ground is the heart that receives the word “yet has no root in himself”—the gospel has not savingly taken hold. And so, while tribulation and persecution threaten, they are not the true danger; the true danger is the rocky soil itself, a heart that has not made full room for the gospel. And consider the third soil; when you remember that in this parable, the soil is the heart, you’ll realize that the weeds are not external dangers of worldliness—they are internal dangers of the heart. The weeds are the cares and lies and desires of the heart that choke out the word and keep it from bearing fruit in your life. That’s especially clear when compared to the good soil at the end of the parable: the person whose heart is “good soil” certainly faced the same temptations as all the others. The difference between the good soil and the others is not that this person never faced external opposition or temptation to worldliness; the difference is the condition of the heart. The most dangerous enemy in this parable is the soil, the heart. This is Jesus’ way of warning: you are your own worst enemy.
You see, the flesh is not only a deceitful and deadly enemy in and of itself, but it is also the battleground where the world and the devil wage war against us. In fact, it’s the only area in which they have any power. Think about that parable again: Satan is powerless to pluck the word away from the “good soil,” because it immediately receives the word with saving faith. He can rage and threaten and accuse, but a heart bearing fruit for God is savingly immune from him. The same goes for worldliness; think back to last chapter and how much of the Bible’s description of worldliness centered around passions and desires. Yes, external things in the world prompt those desires, but never forget that those desires originate in a fleshly heart that prefers God to other things. Effective warfare against worldliness is primarily directed at me, at my own heart and desires. The same goes for spiritual warfare; the best way to take your stand against Satan’s schemes is to guard your own heart and mind with the truth of the gospel (see Ephesians 6:10-20). In both cases, the greatest danger is you—your own sinful heart that rebels against God.
We must grasp this all-important truth if we are to make any headway in the battle against our other two enemies. All our strategies against the world and Satan will fail if we will not understand that the rebels are within the castle walls; my own sinful heart is on the side of the enemy. Without a strategy that takes this into account, my own Judas desires will betray me to the enemy’s plots time and time again.
Therefore, this is an enemy that we must understand at all costs. So this chapter will focus on three things that are paramount to know: the origins of the flesh, the deception of the flesh, and the reality of the remaining flesh in the believer.
THE ORIGINS OF THE FLESH
If you have been a Christian for a while and know your Bible, you probably know the simple answer of where our sinful nature comes from (by the way, in this chapter, as in the Bible, I will be using the terms “flesh,” “sinful nature,” “sinful heart,” “old self,” and “indwelling sin” interchangeably; they all refer to the same reality). You’ve heard that because Adam first disobeyed and rebelled against God, we descendants of Adam have all inherited that sinful nature. And that’s true.
But what exactly does that mean, and how does it work? Is the sinful nature like a genetic disease, passed from parent to child? Could scientists announce tomorrow that they have found the “sin gene,” and start giving out shots to “cure” our sinful nature? Most of what I’ve heard about the origins of the sinful nature sound sort of like that—it’s a disease, a poison, that infected Adam and spread to all of us.
And while that’s partly true (except for the part about scientists developing a sin vaccine), it doesn’t fully take into account the mystery of human nature that the Bible holds forth. The Bible traces the sinful nature to one of the deepest, most profound realities about humanity: God has constituted the human race as a unified whole to be represented before him by one person.
That’s a very unclear statement, so let me unpack it a little further. When God created mankind, he designated Adam to be our representative (or, in the words of theologians, our “federal head”). What he did would count for all of us, in the same way that your representative in Congress makes decisions and casts votes representing you, the citizen. When your congressional representative votes, their vote counts for their entire district; when my congressperson votes “yes” on a bill, the entire first district of Maryland votes “yes.” That’s how our democracy works.
This is similar to how God has constituted the human race. We are, at the deepest and most fundamental level of reality, not individuals. We are a unified whole, represented by the one whom God appointed to be our representative. The decisions our representative makes count for everyone he represents.
Now, please don’t just take my word for this—especially if this sounds esoteric and complicated. Please continue to track with me, because it will turn out that this understanding of human nature is at the very core of both the Bible’s explanation of sin, and of the gospel itself. This explanation of human nature is the hinge in the book of Romans that transitions from Paul’s unpacking of the gospel to his application of the gospel. He takes ten verses in Romans 5 to elaborate on the parallel origins of the sinful nature and the redeemed state of justification.
Paul’s argument boils down to this: in the same way that Adam represented the human race, and his sin is credited to all who are united to him, so also Jesus represents a new human race, and his righteousness is credited to all who are united to him.
Beginning in Romans 5:12, Paul starts to build this argument, by pointing out a problem in the biblical origins of sin that you may never have thought of:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin was indeed in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one to come.
Paul begins to say the Bible story that we all learned in Sunday school—“sin came into the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, and death spread to all men because all sinned”—and then suddenly stops short. He stops his train of thought (a train of thought he won’t pick up again until verse 18) because he realizes that what he has just said is open to misunderstanding. It sounds like what he means is, “Adam sinned and so Adam died, and so death spread like a virus because everybody sins and now dies.” It sounds just like the way we tend to understand sin and sinful nature. But actually, he’s trying to say something that is almost the opposite of that, and so he cuts himself off and begins to clarify.
He clarifies by pointing out a discrepancy that, honestly, I had never thought of before. The problem with simply saying that “death spread to all men because all sinned” is that, if you think about the rest of human history in the book of Genesis, only Adam actually sinned. Only Adam disobeyed a direct order from God—“Don’t eat that fruit.” Yes, Cain murdered his brother… but that was before God actually said, “Thou shalt not kill.” You see, the law hadn’t been given yet—that didn’t happen until the book of Exodus. That’s what Paul breaks his train of thought to say: “sin was indeed in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.” And yet it’s clear when reading Genesis that sin and death are rampant, even though no one is actually disobeying express commands from God. That, of course, is what Paul says next: “yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam”—in other words, death reigned even over those who didn’t transgress a command like Adam did.
See the problem? It makes sense that Adam disobeyed God and therefore died… but what about all his descendants? They didn’t actually disobey God, and yet they died too. What’s going on? This is the discrepancy that Paul points out and makes the central building block in his explanation of the gospel.
Paul argues that because Adam represented everyone united to him (all humanity), his actions counted for them. That’s what he says about Adam through the rest of his argument: “Many died through one man’s trespass… the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation… because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man… one trespass led to condemnation for all men… by one man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners” (verses 15-19). This is the unpacked version of what Paul says succinctly in 1 Corinthians 15:22—“In Adam all die.”
What this means is that when Adam ate the fruit, God credited his action to you. In Adam, you ate the fruit. Adam received the sentence of spiritual death, curse, and brokenness; in Adam, that sentence applies to you. Death—both physical and spiritual—reigned in power because of Adam, and because you are represented by Adam, spiritual and physical death reigns in you too. The power of sin—its rebellion against God, its distaste for truth, its blindness to the beauty of God, its powerful attraction to worldly things—took root in Adam’s heart, and because he’s your representative, it took root in your heart too.
The actions of one man didn’t just wreck the world; they wrecked your own heart too. Every sin and lust and pride and envy that you struggle with in your heart, every insecurity and fear, every bad thing that has ever happened to you, has its roots in this reality: Adam was your representative, and he failed. That is the origin of the sinful nature and all its horrific consequences.
Does that sound unfair to you? Before you jump to dismissing Romans 5, or criticizing God for setting up a rigged system, or deciding that everything bad must not be your fault (all these are responses that your flesh wants to have), consider two things. First, if this is how God set up humanity to function (and I think it’s pretty clear from Romans 5 that this is exactly his intention), then who are we, the creature, to criticize the Creator? If the Bible is true, then this much we can be sure of: God is infinitely wise and infinitely good, and he knows what he is doing. We can trust that his plan for the universe is better than anything we could ever come up with.
And there’s a second thing to consider, and this is what makes my heart sing for joy, even in this discussion of the origins of the flesh. This argument that Paul is making in Romans 5 is ultimately not actually about Adam and the sinful nature; this is an argument about Jesus and grace. That’s why, in verse 14, Paul inserts this strange phrase: “Adam, who was a type of the one to come.” In the Bible, a “type” is a foreshadowing, a picture in history of a coming reality. Everything that Adam did, which was then credited to us in all its power and consequence, is a foreshadowing of the reality to come. And the reality is breathtakingly, wonderfully beautiful. In the paragraph above, I pulled out of context everything Paul said about Adam so that you could trace his argument about the sinful nature. Now read it in context:
If many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
That final sentence says it all: in the same way that Adam’s disobedience was credited to you—even though you didn’t do it—and you reaped both the eternal consequence of that sin and its daily power in your life; so also Jesus’ perfect obedience was credited to you believer—even though you didn’t do it!—and you now reap both the eternal consequence of that obedience and its daily power in your life. That’s Paul’s closing conclusion in verse 21: “As sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” For you believer, who are now united to a new and better representative—Jesus Christ—sin’s consequence has been decisively removed and its power decisively broken, so that now righteousness’s consequence can be decisively yours, with the life of Jesus working in power in your heart.
This is the mystery of the human nature and the mystery of the gospel: just as an act of disobedience completely outside of you was credited to your account in all its damning, destroying power, so also a life of perfect obedience completely outside of you was credited to you in all its life-giving power. I think this is amazing: it’s impossible to unpack the biblical doctrine of the flesh and sinful nature without running into the gospel! This is the wisdom and power of God on full display—who else but God could have so constituted the human race that the very thing that was our downfall—our union to our representative—could be turned around to be the means of our rescue? As Paul exclaims in Romans 11, “Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”
THE DECEPTION OF THE FLESH
There is a particular battle strategy that all three of our enemies—the word, the flesh, and the devil—each share. That strategy is deception. If we will believe and embrace a lie, we will then live out that deception, with all its damaging consequences. We saw in the previous chapter that Jesus singled out “the deceitfulness of riches” in his critique of worldliness. The world, and money in particular, promise that which they have no power to actually give. Money promises security and happiness and power, but all it can actually give is a mirage—a temporary buzz and a false assurance—that only leads to destruction. And Satan, as we know, is called “the father of lies” (John 8:44). He invented the very first lie in the garden: “You shall not surely die.” Ever since then, humanity has been swallowing his lies of life apart from God.
What you may not realize is that, while the world and Satan both lie, there is another liar much closer to home. That liar is you. Your flesh—your own sinful heart—lies to you all the time. And because this liar is so close, we are probably most susceptible to believe it.
Jeremiah 17:9 gives this sober diagnosis of the fallen human condition:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
And in case you don’t like that Old Testament diagnosis and want a second opinion, here’s what Hebrews 3:12-13 says:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Have you ever considered that your heart lies to you? This, Jeremiah says, is not just a common experience we all share; it is literally the defining characteristic of the sinful nature. The heart is “deceitful above all things;” more than anything else, your heart lies to you. Your thoughts and feelings and beliefs are not morally neutral or objectively true; they filter through the sieve of the sinful nature before emerging in your consciousness. Don’t trust yourself, the Bible urges. But because they come from our own heart and mind, we tend to trust our thoughts and feelings even when we have objective evidence to the contrary.
That’s why the Bible warns against what every Disney movie tells us to do: follow your heart. The American Dream—really, the dream of all fallen humanity—is summed up in that little line, “Follow your heart.” Pursue your desires, chase your dreams, do what is right in your own eyes, and you will find success and happiness and your fairy godmother will make all your dreams come true.
But what if your heart lies to you? What if it is, in fact, a deadly and deceptive guide? Then instead of finding success and happiness and fulfilled dreams, following your heart will instead lead to ruin, despair, and death. That’s exactly what the Bible says is the consequence of following your heart. Even when the world makes our heart’s desires look so attractive, God assures us that “the end of these things is death.” The book of Numbers gives us an explicit, graphic warning: “Do not follow after your own heart and eyes, which you are inclined to whore after” (Numbers 15:39). Following your heart leads you into spiritual adultery with the world and will end in your everlasting destruction.
And it gets even worse. The ironic and tragic thing is that this reality is really easy to see in others and really hard to see in ourselves. Because the sinful nature is deceitful, we are very easily fooled into thinking that our behaviors and motives are good and above reproach, even as we can quickly spot the flaws in other people. Maybe you’re quick to get irritated by the know-it-all pride of that person in the office, but blind to the truth that your eagerness to share Bible verses in small group flows from a desire to be admired as wise, more than a desire to help others and honor God. Maybe you shake your head at the hair-trigger temper of a family member, but don’t realize that the bitterness and grudges you hold against that person are symptoms of the same sinful anger turned inward. These subtle deceptions are really hard for us to spot on our own. Our lives are full of sinful blind spots.
That’s why Hebrews says that, in the face of this deceptive enemy, we must “exhort one another.” We need each other to look into our hearts and see what is obviously there yet invisible to us. In the face of an enemy like the flesh, the Christian life is impossible to live in isolation; the Christian life is a group project. We need fellow believers to lovingly but firmly point out sin that we can’t see: “I’m not sure that your reaction to that person was justified or right.” We need people to question our motives—motives that usually seem so pure and upright to us—and say, for example, “Have you considered that you may be acting out of a desire to look good, rather than to serve others like you claim?” We need brothers and sisters who will ask probing questions to help us get to the bottom of our desires: “Why did those words bother you so much? Why do you get so discouraged at relatively small setbacks? Why were you so angry at that person yesterday?” Without the help of fellow believers, we will usually fool ourselves into thinking we’re progressing in sanctification, while all the while an “evil, unbelieving heart” is growing just beneath the surface. Without the input of those who can see what we can’t, we are in great danger of following our heart into destruction even when we think we’re on the right path.
You can see why I said that this is the enemy I am most afraid of. There have been so many times that God has graciously exposed the sin in my heart that I had no idea was there that I’m amazed I haven’t made shipwreck of my faith. I’m so thankful for God’s preserving grace expressed to me through my brothers and sisters who have not been afraid to ask hard questions or give timely encouragement. Time and time again, faithful accountability partners have applied the sword of the Spirit to the roots of sin deep in my heart that I never could have uncovered without help, bringing painful healing to areas of deception in my life to which I was utterly blind.
The Bible’s diagnosis keeps getting worse. Not only do our deceitful hearts blind us to our own indwelling sin, but our hearts actively fight against our Christian life through desires opposed to God. 1 Peter 2:11 urges us to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Paul calls these “deceitful desires.” In Ephesians 4:22 he identifies them like this:
…your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires…
The main way that our hearts deceive us and draw us into sinful behavior is through desires. We’ve already seen the reason that these desires are deceitful; they promise joy and fulfillment and happiness if only you will give into them, but they never deliver. Instead, like a drug addiction giving ever-smaller returns for ever-greater indulgence, these desires will slowly strangle our souls, leaving us empty, bitter, and broken, and in the end, damned.
This means that the flesh is something far more pervasive and powerful than just bad behavior. The flesh operates not on the level of behavior, but of desire. Sinful nature is not the fact that you looked at pornography; sinful nature is the assortment of desires and longings deep within your soul that craved the brief emotional and physical pleasure that pornography provides, the twisted selfishness that wants to use other people to meet your own perceived needs, and the haughty disregard for what God says about his purposes for sexuality. The act of looking at pornography (or any other sinful behavior) is not the real issue, and victory in the battle will not be found by simply addressing those behaviors; the roots of those sins run far deeper and are far more difficult to discern and defend against.
Because the sinful nature is a constellation of rebellious desires rather than behaviors, the primary way that the Bible equips believers to battle against the flesh is not behavior modification, but rather desire modification. What we need is not new behaviors; we need new desires. These, of course, are far more difficult to produce and control (impossible, in fact, apart from the Holy Spirit’s work), because what we desire is not just something we do; it’s who we are. Sinful desires flow from the very heart of who we are, and that’s not something you can just turn off with the flip of a switch. This points us to the central reality of the Christian life: the necessity and reality of the Holy Spirit and the new birth.
REMAINING SIN IN BELIEVERS
But this is where it gets tricky. As Christians, we have been born again (John 3:3, 1 Peter 1:3). That means that God has supernaturally placed his Spirit inside of us, recreating us with a new heart and new spirit that is now sensitive and receptive to the things of God. This is the great promise of the new covenant that Jesus bought with his blood (Luke 22:20). Consider this promise from Ezekiel 36, which I’ve put here in the New Living Translation because of how it captures these glorious realities:
“Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
The hope that Jesus purchased for us is that God would not leave us with our twisted desires and spiritually dead heart, but that he himself would intervene, cleansing us from our deep-seated idols from the inside out. He would perform spiritual heart surgery, removing our stony, stubborn heart and giving us a tender, responsive heart in its place. His Holy Spirit would take up residence inside of us, prompting new desires to honor and treasure God.
But what does that look like practically? Because of course you know that since you became a Christian, you still have many of the same sinful desires rising up from within you just like before you knew Jesus. Has the promise of Ezekiel 36 not come true? Did God’s open heart surgery fail? And if not, why are those sinful desires still there?
The Bible’s answer to that question is multi-faceted and nuanced, but it’s incredibly important that we understand the full truth, so that we can combat the enemy’s lies. Satan would like nothing better than for us to get this question wrong—on one hand, believing in a naïve triumphalism that doesn’t appreciate the depths of indwelling sin; or on the other hand a pessimistic fatalism that says, “This is just the way I am” and fails to appropriate the massive, supernatural grace for transformation available to believers. Both extremes are unbiblical and come from not knowing what the Bible teaches about the sinful nature’s reality and role in the life of the believer.
THE WAR WITHIN
The truth is, our rescue from the sinful nature, our spiritual heart transplant, comes in stages (just like every other aspect of redemption). On the cross, Jesus not only bought full and final forgiveness for every sinful desire and act, but also purchased full and final victory over every last vestige of the flesh (Romans 6:5-6). But that victory is applied to us in stages. At the moment of conversion, we are born again into a living hope (1 Peter 1:3) and indwelt with the Holy Spirit who serves as a living power for our gradual transformation now and the guarantee of our complete transformation soon (Romans 8:9-13, Ephesians 1:13-14). The condemning legal weight of sin, as well as its deceptive power to blind and control, is decisively nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14, Romans 6:6) so that we can live free from its damning slavery. A new heart that beats with tender responsiveness to God is brought to life in our souls, Satan’s blinders fall off our eyes (2 Corinthians 4:4-6), and we can see and respond to the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ. We can truly say with Paul, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
However, that’s not the whole story. The stony, stubborn heart that Ezekiel promises will be removed is still there. It’s been disarmed and defeated, yes, but it remains. While Romans 6:6 is true—“Our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing”—it’s not quite dead yet. It’s still there on the cross, kicking and threatening and cajoling us to join us in its pursuit of suicidal desires. And the tragedy is that we so often listen to it, continuing to give into its crucified lies even while a new heart that loves truth beats within us.
This means that the Christian life is not the easy victory parade that we often expect when we are first saved. Instead, the Christian life is a war—a war within, a battle between the competing desires of our two natures. On the one hand, deep within us is an implanted longing to be holy, to know more of God and delight more deeply in his beauty and truth. And yet, right alongside those longings are still selfish, stubborn desires—cravings for power and pleasure, to take what should be mine and define truth and goodness for myself. Over and over again, in decision after decision, the battle lines are drawn and fought out in the form of temptation and conviction, sin and repentance, backsliding and growth.
Paul describes the frustrating reality of this war in Galatians 5:16-17, and points us to the power that enables victory:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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.”
The frustrating reality is that in the battle of opposing desires, we often choose our flesh and are kept from doing the things that our new, true heart wants. But the power for victory is encapsulated in four little words: “walk by the Spirit.” Choosing to side with and cultivate the desires of the Spirit, and simultaneously begin to starve the desires of the flesh, is the strategy of the entire Christian life summed up in a sentence. That strategy of feeding godly desires and starving ungodly ones will be unpacked in chapter 9.
The good news in all of this is that, while the remaining heart of stone within us seems so strong and alluring, it has been decisively defeated. It really has been nailed to the cross, and all its allurements are only the gasping lies of a defeated and dying liar. And even more importantly, its ability to condemn us with the weight of unforgiven sin has been fully removed. Though the war still rages, we fight as rescued, forgiven people. The most important truth we could ever internalize in this fight against the flesh is this: we fight against forgiven sin. This news of freedom and power is what we will look at in more depth in chapter 6.
For now, we will end in the midst of the tension. This is Paul’s anguished, frustrated cry from Romans 7—and every believer in every age has added his voice to this complaint.
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
How often have you felt like that? If you are honestly engaged in the struggle of sanctification, you probably feel like that a lot. “I don’t understand my own actions; my heart betrays me, the enemies are within the castle walls, and over and over again the evil I don’t want is what I keep on doing.”
What hope is there for sinners like us—redeemed sinners to be sure, but sinners nonetheless? Well, Paul has an answer for us. He doesn’t leave us in despair, but quickly catapults to exulting in the goodness of the gospel that liberates us from slavery to sin:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)