Flesh and Spirit

An understanding of the Epistle to the Romans is fundamental to every Christian. In it the doctrine and the terms of the Gospel are clearly and unmistake-ably set out. Here too are the germs of the teaching of the New Testament, elaborated in the following Epistles, answering in this way to what Genesis is to the Old Testament, a seed-plot. Our primary concern in this article is the conflict delineated in chapter 7. This and the following chapter present to us somewhat of a climax in regard of those preceding. The first three chapters are occupied in setting out in forceful terms the utter depravity of the human heart and the truth that it is incorrigible. Hence, of course, the necessity for the new birth. In chapter 4 this state is answered on God’s part by the imputation of righteousness to believing Abraham and to all believers. Chapter 5 opens with the truth of justification by faith and peace with God, whilst the following chapter develops the implications of the believer’s baptism.

Chapter 7 opens with the statement that the law (of Moses) has dominion over a man as long as he lives. The importance of the cumulative teaching of the Epistle is seen in that the believer in baptism is said to have died with Christ and to be risen with Him, and thus set free from the law. This chapter is thus the practical outworking of the doctrine and teaching hitherto expounded. The figure of marriage is introduced, and the woman is bound to one man until his death sets her free to be “married to another”, even Christ, who is raised from the dead, vv. 4-6. The apostle connects this bondage with the time “when we were in the flesh”. This is strikingly illustrated in the history of Abigail and Nabal, a churlish man, 1 Sam. 25. The desires of Abigail toward David (Christ in figure) mirror the inward exercises of Paul (and of ourselves) depicted from verse 18 onward, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh [typically Nabal]) dwelleth no good thing”. Happy for us when this conclusion is reached, although the struggle is still to be continued, with the flesh being starved and the spiritual being nourished.

The incompatibility of the flesh and the Spirit is plainly stated by the Lord Jesus Himself, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”, John 3. 6. We may educate the flesh, refine it and give it a religious aspect but it remains still unchanged and is unacceptable for God. This truth is pictured in the Old Testament a number of times in the setting together of two persons. Early in the history of man is the extreme case of the murderous hatred of Cain against his brother Abel, features of opposition in a close relationship to be applied to ourselves. This is more definitely stated in the case of Ishmael and Isaac, both sons of Abraham, where we read, “he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit”, Gal. 4. 29. It is most interesting to note (and not without significance) that Abraham made a great feast the day that Isaac was weaned, Gen. 21. 8. Would that we too knew what it is to be spiritually “weaned”, that the ties of mere nature should not predominate over that which is of the Spirit.

Probably one of the most graphic illustrations of the opposition of these two features is portrayed in the case of Esau and Jacob, twins born to Rebekah. We read in Genesis 25. 22 that “the children struggled together within her”, and she asks “why am I thus?”. Paul finds also a struggle, Rom. 7. 21-23, and has to distinguish what he is “after the inward man” from his members warring against the law of his (renewed) mind and bringing him into captivity to the law of sin which is in his members. It is not surprising that we read “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated”, 9. 13. Should we not come alongside God in His judgments, as Jude says, “hating even the garment spotted by the flesh”? We have every encouragement in that it is said that in the purpose of God the elder shall serve the younger, so that final victory is assured. The histories of king Saul and king David illustrate very vividly this outcome whilst in the meantime the former persecuted David continually even in attempts to take his life. The subtlety of the flesh is seen in the attractiveness of Saul, a man after the flesh but a choice young man, head and shoulders higher than any of the people, 1 Sam. 9. 2. David, however, was a man after God’s own heart.

The Scriptures bring before us several types of the flesh in order that we might recognize its features, seen in the nations who opposed God’s earthly people. It is said, for instance, that Israel served Eglon, king of Moab eighteen years, Jud. 3. 14. We learn further that this Eglon was a very fat man, suggesting to us the lethargy that marks the flesh and may allow it to predominate at times. Again we are told that God will have war with Amalek from generation to generation, another figure in the conflict seen strikingly in its king, Agag. Saul is ordered to destroy utterly Amalek and all that they have. He disobeys and spares the king and the best of the cattle. Agag comes to Samuel “delicately”, saying “Surely the bitterness of death is past”; “And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal”, 1 Sam. 15, 32, 33. He is not deceived by an approach marked by sentimentality, and deals drastically with it. May we too take heed to the exhortation, “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof”, Rom. 13. 14.


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