You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16So I say, live by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit, and the spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under law.
The above text is quoted from the New International Version (NIV), but some of you may have noticed that I used the alternate translation of “flesh” where the NIV used “sinful nature.” “Sinful nature” is not a translation, it is an interpretation; it is what the translators felt that Paul mean by the word σαρξ. It is not a hard word to translate, it means the same thing as our word “flesh.” Arndt and Gingrich describe it as referring to “...the material that covers the bones of a human or animal body….”
I like the NIV, but the translators did us a great disservice when they left the role of translator and took on the role of interpreter. The question of what Paul meant is for us to answer: What did Paul mean by the “flesh?”
Paul picked the word flesh for a reason. When he chose that word he chose not to use other words. Yes, I know that is very obvious, but we can learn a lot from the words he could have used, but chose not to use. For example: Paul could have used the word “nature” (φυσις). He did use it in Rom. 2.14: “Indeed, when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, they are law for themselves….” There is something about the word “nature” that Paul found unsuitable for what he meant to say. Nature is what is built into us, we don’t have to be taught we just do it. Dogs chase cars and bark because it is their nature to do so. If our nature is to sin, then what choice do we have in the matter? How can God punish us for doing what He made us to do? Genesis 1.26-27 teaches us that God made us in His image and in His likeness. Paul did not choose the word nature because that was not what he meant.
Let’s just pause here for a moment. We have not talked about the “sinful flesh.” The word “sinful” was put in by the translators of the NIV. Paul never called our nature sinful and he never called our flesh sinful. Our bodies were created by God and God only created good things. The desires of our bodies are natural, it is the actions we choose to take with those desires that are sinful. The desire for sex is natural. Satisfying that desire outside of marriage is sinful.
Paul could have used the word “body” (σωμα). Our bodies are our flesh and bones. Paul didn't want to use this word either, but he did use it in places like Romans 7.24 “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” So, why did Paul use the word flesh and not any of these other words? I think that Paul wanted to emphasize the fleshly part of our bodies; the weakest part, the part that wastes away and turns to dust when the bones remain. And not only is it the most temporary, it is the part of us that we most desire to satisfy and that we feel the most vain about. Those are the qualities that I think Paul wanted us to see in this word.
Read passages like Romans 7 and Galatians 5. When Paul talks about the flesh he contrasts it with the spirit. Our flesh is the most perishable part of us, but our spirit is eternal part of us. Our flesh is concerned about life and joy now, our spirit is concerned about eternal life and joy. I think Paul chose the word “flesh” over “nature” or “body” because he wanted to contrast the two ways of living our lives. We can love this present world and enjoy the pleasures of our flesh now, or we can love eternal things. We can’t serve two masters, we have to choose one of them.
Go over to Luke 4.1-13, where Jesus was tempted by Satan. No one says that Jesus had a sinful nature, but Satan was still able to tempt Jesus with the desires of his flesh. After 40 days of fasting Jesus was hungry; Satan pointed out that Jesus had the power to command stones to become bread, why wait? Use the power for your own good and eat now! Satan showed him the kingdoms of the world; why wait and suffer the crucifiction and conquer your enemies? Jesus could be a king now, just bow down and worship! And why wait to prove who you are? Jump from the highest point of the temple and let the angels catch you!
Jesus died to set us free from living to satisfy our flesh, and Paul appeals to us to not go back to that way of life: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh…” (Gal. 5.13). And “The one who sows to please his flesh, from his flesh will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the spirit, from the spirit will reap eternal life” (Gal. 6.8).
What did Paul mean by living to please the flesh? He wrote that the acts of that life are obvious, but he gave us examples in Gal. 5.19-21: “...sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Paul was not the only one to contrast the two ways we can choose to live. Jesus spoke of the broadway that leads to destruction and the narrow way that leads to life (Mat. 7.13-14). And John wrote: “Do not love the world, or the things in the world. If someone loves the world, the love for the father is not in him. All the things in the world: the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the arrogance of our lives does not come from the father, they comes from the world. The world is passing away and its desires with it. But the one who does the will of God remains forever” (1John 2.15-16, my translation).
We have been set free. Do we go back to our old life of living to please our flesh or do we live to please God? If we want to please God then “...let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangle...Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and the perfecter of our faith…” (Heb. 12.1-2).