Spirit and Flesh in Paul’s Letters
In Romans 6, Paul asks a rhetorical question about continuing to sin in order that grace might be multiplied. He answers this question with another: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2). This raises the question of why believers still struggle with sin. Are believers somehow defective?
Jesus’ death and resurrection not only conquered death once and for all, it enabled believers to have new life as well (Rom 6:4; Col 3:1–3). Paul describes a twofold division between the flesh and the spirit. The flesh refers to God’s originally perfect creation, which is now mortal and in decay as result of sin entering the world through Adam (Rom 5:12). The spirit is the essence of who we are, the part of us that lives on after our physical bodies die. In 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul contrasts the two, stating that our outer person is being destroyed as our inner one is being renewed. Our physical bodies will continue to decay until Christ returns (1 Cor 15:39–42).
When Paul talks about being raised from the dead once we have believed in Jesus (Rom 6:4), he is talking about the spirit rather than the flesh.Second Corinthians 5:17 states, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Here, the old and new refers to our spirits.
This is where the ongoing problem of sin arises. Although someday our physical body will indeed be raised and transformed (1 Cor 15:50–52), our new spirits must dwell in our fallen bodies. Previously, our spirits were in bondage to sin, but now our spirits have been set free from this bondage (Rom 6:17–18).
Inner Spirit and Outer Flesh
The problem of sin for believers stems from the struggle between the new inner spirit and our old sinful flesh. Since our spirits are no longer slaves of sin, we must no longer obey the lusts and desires of the outer person—our flesh (Rom 6:12). Although sinful desires reside in the flesh, we must consider ourselves dead to sin (Rom 6:11; Col 3:5).
The only way we can overcome sin in this way is by walking in the Spirit. Paul says that if we live by the Spirit, we will “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13). Where we choose to set our mind makes the difference between life and death (Rom 8:6). Living by the Spirit is the only way our new self can overcome the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16). Paul contrasts the natural consequences of each option: the fruit of the Spirit versus the deeds of the flesh (Gal 5:19–23).
When Paul addresses this theme in his letters, he highlights the now and “not yet” tension of the Christian life. The rebirth of our inner spiritual beings enables us to live for God as He intended. But since we continue to live in our earthly bodies, we continue to engage in the battle between flesh and spirit. The key to victory is walking in the Spirit, no longer obeying the desires of the flesh. If we allow our inner spirits to obey the outer flesh, we choose to allow sin to reign over us again (Rom 6:12–13). Paul offers us hope as we wait for the “not yet.” All of creation waits with us for the same restoration and fulfillment of God’s original intention (Rom 8:18–19).
Steven E. Runge