The Flesh (Sin-Nature)


We’re continually told to fight our flesh and its sinful urges. However most of us don’t know just what it is –so we’re hopelessly left to battle our thoughts, regret what happened yesterday and dread tomorrow.

The goal here is to clear away the smoke and carnage from the battlefield within –to make life much easier and the battles winnable. Just for now, set aside those oppressive feelings and consider the following observations.

Neither Good Nor Bad

The first description of our human makeup is in Genesis chapter two where Adam admiringly said of his mate, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.”

Bone alludes to our human structure. It’s made from non-living earthly elements –the dust to which it will someday return.

Flesh pertains to our natural, living being. It consists of a body for interacting with our environment, a soul for controlling that body, and a spirit for communicating with God. Further, our soul is made up of a mind for thinking, a will for deciding and emotions for evaluating experiences.

The flesh is neither good nor bad. Rather, God designed it so that we can operate autonomously (independently) without His constant intervention. It’s often called the sin-nature because it doesn’t recognize its need for Him.

It heeds a process for getting through life’s experiences. When the body’s senses detect a change, a memory or fear surfaces and corresponding emotions are aroused. That sequence results in an action –planned or spontaneous– which also contributes to future experiences. That’s the natural cycle of the flesh.

We use that process to shape our environments. It’s how we decide who to associate with, where to live, what to eat, when to sleep, how much and often to exercise, what career to take up —and what, where and who to avoid. By evaluating the outcomes of those decisions we establish a set of behavioral rules –making “improvements” as we go. That includes selectively adopting some moral and civil codes and even part of what’s in the Bible.

Those rules comprise the laws that we live by. Your flesh has one and so does mine. They’re written in our hearts –our repository of principles for life (Romans 2:14-16). The flesh’s intention is to make this life the best it can be –according to its own determination of what’s “best.”

Judge of Good and Evil

In Genesis chapter three, Satan said to Eve “…when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Eating the fruit from that tree wasn’t the tipping point –eating it was simply proof that she wanted to be the ultimate decider of what’s “best.” She wanted to be in control of her life and whatever affected it.

Let’s look closer at Satan’s seemingly innocuous words in which he appealed to Eve’s desire “to be like God.”

Good means “valuable” –it’s what God cherishes and will keep with Him forever. Evil means “worthless” –it’s what He is going to discard into the furnace. And knowing means “to competently discern,” “to fully comprehend,” “to be thoroughly familiar with.” It’s about judging which of the two destinations that a person will end up in –heaven or hell.

Eve was a small part of the creation, not the Creator. So she didn’t have the capacity to know (to competently discern, to fully comprehend, to be thoroughly familiar with) what was best for His entire creation. Trying to “be like God” is why He put a separation between them and Himself –and He called that separation “death.” But it wasn’t without providing a way to life.

In His warning, God first told them about the tree of life –and afterward He told them about the tree of death. Those trees represent the only two laws for which He holds everyone accountable. There’s the law of the Spirit of life which describes the way to eternal life –and there’s the law of sin and death which describes why we need that life (from Romans 8:1-2).

I call it “the tree of death” because God said “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” There’s no “if you eat from it” –it was just a matter of time.

Death is part of the natural cycle –and the tree of life isn’t something that we can walk up to and pick its fruit to resolve our condition. That was taken out of human reach and angels stand guard with a blazing sword. It serves as a welcoming beacon for those who seek eternal life and it’s a foreboding deterrent to those who are still trying to be God. That tree is pictured by the cross and its fruit is Jesus’ blood and flesh (from John 6:51-58).

Meanwhile, our flesh –that autonomous, independent being– attempts to fulfill God’s role. It’s been fooled into thinking that its law (its decision-making process, its ability to judge) is perfect. So when it’s confronted with another law that is elevated above its own (the Ten Commandments or practices for godly living or doing the right thing) our flesh rebels against it –and more importantly, against the authority that made it.

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; (1 Corinthians 15:56)

But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me. (Romans 7:8-10)

What is it that enables and gives power to our rebellious ways? Isn’t it “someone” else’s law –a law that’s elevated above our own? Our flesh wholeheartedly believes that it is God –of course it’s going to rebel.

Failures of the Flesh

Most of the time we operate independently –relying on our intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, wealth, abilities, charisma… That’s how we go through each day –just like the one before– thinking we’re being moral or faithfully following the Ten Commandments or doing the right thing. We’re not even conscious of the fact that these are attributes of our flesh.

The cycle of the spirit begins when our mind listens to our spirit. That’s the conduit through which the Holy Spirit appealed to us and we trusted Him for our salvation. From that time onwards, He’s been confronting us with opportunities to either trust our flesh or to trust Him.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. (John 6:63)

We might naturally live out our days content with just our flesh in control. But God doesn’t leave us that way. He intentionally frustrates us. Romans 8:19-21 (through the end of that chapter) explains that He has subjected the whole creation to futility to bring about our salvation.

It’s when our world falls apart, when we realize that we can’t really make things turn out the way we want, when emotional peace can’t be found, when our own resources are exhausted– then we might seek God to fix what we can’t. That’s the Holy Spirit interrupting our routines to point out the flesh’s limitations –and each time He does it a little more conspicuously.

When we choose to rely on our flesh, and subsequently comprehend its failures, He shows us a little later that He worked out those “bad choices” for our good. His amazing inner peace can be found in the middle of our chaos. That peace is one of the first-recognized forms of the fruit of the Spirit. Over time He shows us that only He is trustworthy. That’s how He builds the perfect bond with us –proving His compassion.

What Changed?

When we accepted God’s gift of eternal life, the Holy Spirit formed an inseparable bond with our spirit. We were born-again –born of the Spirit. And another thing took place at that new birth…

Although the term for it brings up unpleasant imagery, it’s essential to take in the New Covenant’s concept of circumcision –circumcision of the heart. That’s when the Holy Spirit cut our flesh away from our soul and spirit. Until that happened, our flesh functioned as an anchor to keep us captive. The flesh of this life cannot inherit the kingdom of God (from 1 Corinthians 15:50-58).

Moses was the first one to describe circumcision of the heart. In Deuteronomy chapters 29 and 30, he identified Israel’s then-future failures of following the Law –the failures of their flesh. Just before he said “Today I set before you life and death, choose life” he told them how that life would be possible –God would circumcise their hearts.

Later, Ezekiel was talking about this transformation in regard to Israel (in his chapter 36). God was going to change what motivated their conduct and actions (their principles for life). He was going to take away their heart of stone and give then a heart of flesh –and He was going to put in them a new spirit. What a magnificent contrast! A stone has no life but flesh is a living being. It’s a perfect correlation to believers going from death to life –being born-again. And He completes it by putting His Holy Spirit in us.

In Romans, Paul continued the explanation by differentiating between Jews by heritage –and true Jews. “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:29). He amplified his insight in Colossians chapter two…

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;

and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Colossians 2:8-14)

In Galatians chapter five, Paul argued that the Jewish religious practice of physical circumcision was a continuation of depending on their Law to be on good terms with God. It was only two chapters earlier that he told them that it was like a tutor to lead them to Christ so that they would then live by faith and leave the Law behind (Galatians 3:23-24).

In that chapter he called them “foolish” for allowing themselves to be enslaved again after starting to live by faith (Galatians 3:3). To prove the point he explained that following any part of it without keeping it all was useless. At least if they tried to do absolutely everything that was written –and do it perfectly– then they would realize (like he did) that they were dead in their failures.

By the way, our flesh continues with us until the day we leave this body. But as born-again, spiritual beings, we’re no longer controlled by it –we’re not anchored to it. We have another source for our minds to listen to and “walk by” –the Holy Spirit. We certainly aren’t held accountable to the Law of Moses since it led us to Jesus. We’ve been freed from that barren existence.

There are two lists in that chapter –one characterizes the results from what the flesh naturally does (it’s the fruit from the tree of death). The other is the results of when we let the Holy Spirit do the leading (it’s the fruit from the tree of life –the fruit of the Spirit). Jesus is the One who fulfilled the Law –it’s His biography. We can let Him –who is alive in our bodies– love others (Galatians 2:19-20).

“Crucify the flesh,” “die daily,” “pick up your cross.” –These are pleadings to trust God to have circumcised your heart. Your eternal spiritual being has been freed from your untrusting, naturally independent flesh.