In the Christian world there is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the terms “flesh” and “sin,” especially as Paul uses them in his letters. In fact the misunderstanding of these words has had serious consequences for believers for the past millennium and a half. The church, both Protestant and Catholic, has taken the position that we have an independent human nature that has been corrupted or made defective by Adam’s original sin, and that Satan was only the tempter in the garden. The truth that humans are not self-operating and never will be, and that Satan is the true source of every sin, not just Adam’s, has been lost.
So what about the word “flesh?” Does the “flesh” refer to independent human nature? Paul says that the “flesh” is in conflict with the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), so does that mean we have a sinful human nature?
The Greek word sarx or “flesh” is one of the most difficult words to translate in Paul’s writings. Most translations just use the word flesh without further explanation because it is so difficult to understand just what Paul means. Even the apostle Peter claims that there are some things which Paul has written that are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16).The NIV translators, however, decided to translate the word as “sinful nature,” implying that human beings have an independent human nature that is sinful and that leads them to sin against God.
But I believe this is a seriously inaccurate interpretation of what Paul means. Sarx or “flesh” in its most basic sense refers to the soft parts of the body as opposed to the bones. The New Testament only uses the word once in that sense, when the risen Jesus says to the disciples that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have (Luke 24:39). More often “flesh” refers to the human body. A man and woman become one flesh or body in marriage (Matt. 19:5-6). Paul writes about continuing to live in the flesh rather than departing to be with Christ because it is spiritually better for the Philippians that he continue to remain in the body (Phil. 1:20-24). In this neutral sense, the word “flesh” is interchangeable with the word for body. In Galatians 2:20, Paul writes “the life I live in the flesh” and once again he is referring to the life he lives while in the mortal body.
Sometimes “flesh” refers to human beings generally or to what we have in common with other human beings. Paul, speaking to Jewish believers, calls Abraham our “forefather according to the flesh” (Rom. 4:1). Paul calls his fellow Jews his “flesh” in Romans 11:14. Jesus himself is descended from David according to the flesh (Rom. 1:3), and is the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14), that is, the eternal Son came down from heaven and became a human being. Sometimes Scripture will speak of “all flesh,” meaning all human beings. God promised to pour out His Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:17), that is all human beings, and Paul declares that all flesh (or all humanity) shall not be justified or made right with God by the works of the law (Rom. 3:20).
Flesh can also be used in two negative senses. “Flesh” can mean humanity in contrast to God. Whereas God is powerful and immortal Spirit, humanity is weak, powerless and mortal. Consequently, human beings should not put their trust in human beings and their resources but in God. Isaiah declares that the Egyptians and their horses are mere flesh and not God, not Spirit, and that they ultimately perish, being mortal, and so Israel should not trust in the earthly help of Egypt against Babylon, but in God’s power to save them (Isaiah 31:3). Isaiah also says that all flesh is like the grass that withers, whereas God’s word stands forever (40:6-8). In the same way Jesus declares to the disciples in Gethsemane they could not stay awake even an hour to pray with him because although their spirit was willing, the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41).We human beings do not possess within ourselves the power to resist temptation.
But it is Paul who sometimes uses the term in the most negative sense of all. Flesh is in conflict with Spirit (Gal. 2:20). He says that he is fleshly, sold as a slave to sin (Rom. 7:14), that nothing good dwells in his flesh (7:18), that those who are in the flesh cannot please God (8:8), and that when we were in the flesh, sinful passions were at work in our body that ultimately lead to death (7:5). Because Paul uses the past tense here, “when we were in the flesh,” he is referring to our spiritual condition prior to our receiving Christ. “Flesh,” therefore refers to the sinful condition of human beings outside of and apart from being joined to Jesus Christ in their spirits. The NIV translation unfortunately understands flesh here as a sinful human nature or human nature corrupted by a spiritual sin principle dwelling within it. In this view we are self-operating human beings with a nature that is defective in some way that results in sins or sinful actions. Supposedly believers are gradually being cured of this defectiveness or corruption as they go through the process of sanctification and become more “like” Christ. Paul, however, teaches that believers have died to sin (Rom 6), which would be impossible if they still had a sinful nature or a sin principle dwelling within them.
There is another possible interpretation of what Paul means by flesh in these contexts. Flesh certainly may mean “human nature,” but not in the sense of a human spiritual nature. Flesh is our human body and soul with all its capacities, appetites, desires, emotions and passions. Flesh is human bodily nature. When it is used in a negative sense, it is our human bodily nature as indwelt and misused by the spirit of sin. It is this indwelling spirit which makes the flesh sinful. It is not that our human spirit has been made defective by sin (the way that a piece of iron is corrupted or made defective by rusting). Instead our flesh or human body is indwelt by the spirit of sin which misuses and twists our bodily members, appetites and desires. Sin is not some defect in human nature or even worse an evil human spiritual nature, but a spirit, as Paul actually states in Rom. 8:15: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery (to sin) so as to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption (the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ).” So flesh refers to the human body and soul, to the appetites, desires, passions, and emotions of the body as enslaved and operated by the spirit of sin (see Rom. 6:12, 7:5, Gal. 5:24; Eph. 2:2-3).
What or who is this spirit of sin? It is not part of our humanity, but dwells within the human body (Rom. 7:15-20). Paul identifies this spirit for us in Eph. 2:2: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit which is now at work in the children of disobedience.” Most scholars recognize this as a reference to Satan. It is Satan who is the spirit of sin and who expresses his nature in the sins of human beings. It is he who misuses and twists the normal appetites and desires of our bodies in disobedience to and rebellion against God’s law. John too says that those who do sin are from the devil (1 John 3:8). F. F. Bruce, the well-known British evangelical scholar, writes in his commentary that this means that those who sin have their spiritual source in the devil. So the origin of all sins (and not just Adam’s!) is in the devil himself and not in a defective or corrupted human nature. Sin is the spirit of Satan indwelling the human body, twisting and misusing its appetites and desires, and expressing his rebellion in sinful actions.
But when Jesus died on the Cross, he became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), and God broke the power of Satan in his flesh or body on the Cross (Rom. 8:3). Jesus was never joined to Satan in his spirit, since Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21), but the body of Christ was given over to the spirit of sin, which indwelt Christ’s body for a time on the Cross. God condemned this spirit in Jesus’ flesh, breaking Satan’s hold over the human race. This is the bodily aspect of the atonement, in contrast to the blood that bought forgiveness of sins. The blood dealt with sins, but his body was the means by which God dealt with the spirit of sin that was the source of those sins.
So how did the church get this wrong?
When did it go wrong? It really all goes back to St. Augustine. Augustine is probably the most influential theologian and biblical interpreter in the history of Christianity. The entire Western Christian tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, are deeply influenced by Augustine and his view of human nature, sin and salvation. He is perhaps best known for his defense of the idea that salvation is by God’s grace alone and that human works contribute nothing to our salvation (Martin Luther in the Reformation was actually just repeating St. Augustine on this point, since Luther had been a monk in the Augustinian order).The British monk Pelagius had argued that human beings were able to keep God’s law with some help by the Spirit of God. All that human beings needed to do was repent. Augustine responded: No, human beings are completely incapable of obeying God because Adam’s original sin has infected human nature and made us incapable of obeying God without dramatic divine intervention. Augustine was right that salvation was not by human works but by God’s grace alone, but wrong in his understanding of sin and human nature.
In fact before St. Augustine’s time, the early church believed that “Sin” in Romans 7 did not refer to some mysterious sin principle or sin nature but to Satan himself. Didymus the Blind, who wrote in Egypt in the fourth century, said: “it is the devil who dwells in sinners and does the evil through them, just as Christ works the good in believers.” Another important theologian, Basil of Caesarea, known for his important work on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit, calls the devil “sin itself,” when interpreting Romans. Another church father of the fourth century, Methodius, also interpreting Romans 7, says: “But the devil, whom he calls sin, because he is the author of sin, taking occasion by the commandment to deceive me into disobedience, deceived and slew me. By such a choice I am sold to the devil, fallen under sin, the law of the devil according to the lust which dwells in the flesh.” Irenaeus, one of the earliest Christian theologians and bishop of Lyon (185 AD), writes that Adam became a vessel in Satan’s possession. I could quote additional early church writers, but I think these suffice to show that something changed in the way that sin in Romans 7 was understood. In my doctoral dissertation I have traced this change to St. Augustine. In fact, in the eastern part of the church, Augustine had no influence on their understanding of sin and human nature, and so to this day, the understanding of sin as a reference to the spirit of Satan is still an influential and important interpretation in Eastern Orthodox theology.
So why did Augustine introduce a new understanding of sin and human nature? Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine had been a follower of the Manicheans, a religious group that believed there were two equal deities in eternal conflict, a good deity of light and a bad deity of darkness and evil. The evil deity was not a creation of the good deity, but equal in power and origin. All human sin was the result of and was caused by this evil deity. In contrast, in the Christian view Satan is a spirit created by God in time and is not a deity equal to God in power and attributes (though he may think he is), and is only a rebel against the one true God.
When Augustine became Christian, he reacted against the Manichean religion he had once followed and rejected the view that Satan continued to be the source of all human sin even after Adam’s sin and reduced him to only beginning the process. In other words, Satan corrupted human nature, which became independently sinful, but Satan did not continue to dwell in humanity, as the other church fathers taught. Augustine was right to reject the teachings of the Manicheans, but went too far in the other direction. Instead of understanding sin as the spirit of Satan, he reinterpreted sin as a corruption of human nature, as a defect in our humanity that caused the will to function incorrectly and pursue what God had forbidden. Sin in his view is like rust that corrodes iron. Rusted iron is defective and not as strong as pure iron, so sin has weakened and corrupted human nature so that it doesn’t perform as God created it. Unfortunately, the Western half of the church (which became the Roman Catholics and later the Protestants) followed Augustine’s teaching about original sin and human nature.
Contrary to what Augustine and the entire Catholic and Protestant traditions have taught, sin is not the corruption of an independently operating human nature, but the enslaving spirit of Satan. Humans do not operate themselves, since Paul says that we are either operated by the spirit of sin which indwells us, “it is no longer I but sin” (Rom. 7:17, 20), or we are operated by the spirit of Christ, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). So when is it just me? Never. There is no independently operating human self or nature in the New Testament. So does this abolish our free will? By no means, recognizing what we do not control enables us to recognize what is within our control: we have the choice to take God at His word and trust Him, or we can continue to trust Satan’s deception that we autonomously run our own lives. The choice and the consequences are ours: but why would we continue to trust one whose aim is theft and destruction instead of the One who loves us and has predestined us to share in His own glory?