The flesh is our corrupted, sinful nature we have inherited from our first father, Adam. Because it is at odds with God and His law, it is at odds with itself. The flesh pursues license; it finds bondage. This is true in the unbeliever; it is also true in the Christian.
The Flesh and License
The flesh wants license to do as it pleases. Because of this, the Christian who has not come to grips with his own depravity may misunderstand the full force of God’s law. He may think that he has kept it better than he really has.
Remember the rich young ruler who came to Christ (Mk. 10:17ff.). He really thought he had kept God’s commandments, and was ready for something higher or deeper. Actually, his external conformity to some of God’s commandments masked a covetousness and an idolatry that separated him from the Kingdom of God. The young man’s mistake is one we can easily make, especially if we read selectively from God’s Word — or worse, read selectively from theologians who write about God’s Word.
God’s law says, “Thou shalt not steal,” and we smile. Paul says “don’t steal” means we should work hard and save so that we can give to those in need. We nod carefully. Then James blasts the rich for letting their clothes and treasures lie around unused, moth-eaten and rusted, and we begin to get nervous. How many shoes do we have in the closet? How many extra storage units have we rented?
Again, the Psalmist says, “The earth is the LORD’s,” and Paul says that no thing is unclean in itself. Very good. We aren’t Gnostics; we embrace the good creation. We revel in our Christian liberty. But then Paul warns us about addiction and obsession. He says he won’t be brought under the power of any created thing, however harmless it may be in itself. We’re still pretty comfortable. Of course, we’re not addicted.
But the Holy Spirit won’t leave it there. He tells us not to lead a weaker Christian into sin, not even sin against his conscience. He tells us to redeem time rather than waste it. He tells us to be careful about our companions and our communications. He tells us not to make provision for the flesh.
This last warning is especially disturbing. What exactly makes provision for the flesh? That depends. One man’s friends may strengthen his faith; another’s may weaken it. One man may use books to further his service for Christ; another may use them to avoid responsibility. One man may use wine to celebrate God’s grace; another may use it to escape godly inhibitions.
We each bear the image of God differently, and are each vulnerable to different sorts of temptations. What may be a thing indifferent to one man may be a great stumbling block to another. And if we are not savagely honest with ourselves, we may easily embrace provision for the flesh by arguing that we’re not breaking any laws; that the things we’re using are good in themselves; that at least we’re not Gnostics. It is very easy to turn the grace of God into licentiousness.
The Flesh and Legalism
Because of this danger, the Christian moved by the flesh is often quick to embrace man-made rules. Within the American church, the rules vary by denomination and geographical region. Here it’s no make-up; there it’s no syncopated beat. The rules differ by theological subculture as well. Pick a banner — child training, education, courtship, marriage and family, counseling, whatever — and you will find someone making up rules in the name of Christ.
These rules are, in part, a concession to self-righteousness. Man-made rules are easier to keep than God’s law. But there is also an underlying fear of the responsibility involved. God’s law leaves us with too many decisions, too many hard calls. How much is too much? How close is too close? How involved is too involved? The answers may be difficult. It’s easier and safer to accept a set of rules that will sort it all out for us. That way we never have to face the real force of God’s holy law or the depths of our own depravity.
Man-made rules also have this failing: they have no spiritual power. They play to the flesh, not to the Spirit of God. They clean the outside of the cup, but leave the inside untouched. Surround a man with a barricade of man-made rules and you may keep him from certain external temptations. You will, however, leave him completely vulnerable to the temptations and deceptions of his own heart. Man-made rules will not save us from sins. If we trust in the flesh, we will reap what we have sown: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry… all the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 6. There is no liberty here, only bondage.
True liberty is in Jesus Christ. As we trust in Him, the Holy Spirit brings forth His fruit in us, fruit that is in harmony with God’s law. This is a central theme of the New Covenant: not only does God forgive our sins; He also puts His Spirit within us so that we can obey Him. He writes His law in our hearts. He does this because of who Christ is and what He has done. If we want more of God’s Spirit, if we want to obey God better, we need to trust more fully in Jesus Christ.
For the flesh, this approach to sanctification is too easy. And it is too shameful. The flesh wants to offer at least one filthy rag to God. But God is holy, and Christ needs no supplements. We are justified by faith; we are sanctified by faith. Faith brings us to Christ, and in Him we have everything we need for our salvation. The flesh would betray us to license and bondage. Jesus Christ makes us free indeed.