Romans 8:13 “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
The central point of Romans 8:13 is that a war exists between the flesh and the Spirit. This war manifests itself in death, either ours or that of our sin. John Owen, who wrote a treatise on this one verse, summarized it in the following way: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” The Apostle Paul further describes the nature of this war in Galatians 5:16-17 where he writes, “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…” The battleground for this war is not only around us, but it is within us. The flesh intends to kill our souls, while the Spirit intends to save us by killing our sin.
Flesh: So, what does Paul mean by the term flesh? Well, it seems clear in this passage that he is not merely describing the physical body. For all men live in a physical body and all will die a physical death, because all have chosen to rebel against the holy God who created them. Sin is rebellion against God, something that all of us are well-acquainted with if we’re honest enough to admit it. When Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die,” he seems to be talking about the sin that remains within us, not simply our physical bodies. Those who live according to the flesh demonstrate that they are not of the Spirit. While those in Christ have been given a new nature and are no longer slaves to the flesh, they are not without the propensity to sin and wander from the fold. A believer’s legal standing before God has been reconciled through Christ’s blood, but the inner nature of the believer is being gradually transformed as the Spirit works to conform us to the image of Christ. They may suffer from the influence of the flesh, but they are no longer ruled by its passions and desires.
I believe that Paul is using the term flesh to describe the dominion, desire, and destruction of sin. Certainly these three characteristics are not exhaustive descriptions of the flesh, but they will suffice for our current meditation.
I. Dominion: In the Garden of Eden, God gave mankind dominion over creation (Gen. 1:36-31). Man and woman were given the charge to cultivate and keep the garden. But when Adam sinned, he compromised his faithful stewardship of God’s kingdom. Instead of exerting dominion over creation, he allowed sin to exert dominion over him. In that moment the captain of creation became the captive of the Enemy. He gave up his freedom to serve the Creator, and instead was forced to serve the flesh. And all of creation was subjected to the same frustration. Sadly, this horrible condition has plagued every fallen human-being ever since the Garden. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That includes us.
Although sin entered the world through Adam, it has taken up residence in our hearts so that it might use us to carry out its destructive demands. Like an unchecked cancer, it has spread to infect every organ of our bodies, so that we might live according to the desires of the flesh.
II. Desire: Through Adam we were born into sin, and through the evil desires of our flesh we have continued to sin. Like Cain who murdered his brother, sin has been crouching at our door and it desires to have us. It is subtle and seductive. It often disguises itself as a kind friend ready to serve our most pressing need, but the knife is hiding behind its back. Deceived by its attraction, we drop our defenses and welcome it into our home. It promises immediate pleasure without any consequences, and its appeal seems impossible to refuse. Yet, it is a cruel master who makes demands on all who accept its offer. Imagine that you are thirsty and a close friend of yours offers you a glass to quench your thirst. Eager to be satisfied you guzzle down every last drop only to find out that your supposed friend just served you a glass of poison. What satisfied your immediate thirst will eventually begin to kill you.
That’s what sin does to all who drink its poison. It targets our thirst through idolatry and self-indulgence. By feeding our desire, it tricks us into thinking that it has our best interest in mind. And, we think we are in control; yet, all the while we are slaves waiting to be slaughtered. Sin is devastating, and the more we drink of its poison the more destined for death we become.
III. Destruction: The flesh intends to destroy us. The primary reason is because we were created in the image of God. The flesh is hostile to God and hates anything that was made to reflect Him. Its desire is to distort, then destroy, any evidence of God within us. What is worse, God violently opposes the flesh along with all who serve it. For such enemies, He has reserved nothing short of His terrible wrath. Those who serve the flesh will die physically, spiritually, and eternally. They will experience the destruction reserved for all who oppose God.
Like fire, the flesh ruins everything it touches. It starts off with a small desire that grows into sin and when full-grown it brings forth death (James 1:15). Imagine a foolish man who starts a fire in his own home. Enjoying its warmth, he gradually adds more fuel to it when he ought to be adding water. Eventually it will destroy the house and everything in it. Those who are intoxicated by the warmth of sin will be destroyed by its flames; as they live according to the flesh, so they will die. They will die physically, spiritually, and eternally. Therefore, let us be warned that those who live for themselves will be devoted to the destruction that they deserve. However, those who take refuge in the Cross of Christ will find the mercy and love of God to deliver them from the horrific consequences of their sin.
Our Hope: Praise God, that is what we were… We were dominated by the flesh, we were suffering under the desires of the flesh, and we were destined to be destroyed by the flesh and with the flesh. But that is no longer who we are… Those of us who are in Christ have been saved from the power of the flesh. We have been given new life and the privilege of being transformed into the image of Christ. In the next post, we will consider the second half of this verse: “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We will look at the work of Christ who defeated the power of sin and won the war that we could never win. Then, we will reflect on how the Spirit wages war against the flesh, and empowers us to enjoy eternal life.
Blessings in Christ,