BIBLE STUDY: Sin, Satan, and the Flesh
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 byAdams original sin, and that Satan was only the tempter in the garden.The truth that humans are not self-operating and neverwill be, and that Satan is the true source of every sin, not just Adams, has been lost.
So what about the word flesh? Does the flesh refer to independent human nature? Paul says that the flesh is in conflictwith the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), so does that mean we have a sinful human nature?
The Greekword sarx or flesh is one of the most difficultwords to translate in Pauls 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 whatwe 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 fellowJews 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 rightwith 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 Gods power to save them (Isaiah 31:3). Isaiah also says that all flesh is like the grass thatwithers, whereas Gods 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 praywith him because although their spiritwas 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 conflictwith 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).The NIV translation understands flesh in this sense as sinful human nature or human nature corrupted by a spiritual sin principle or nature dwelling within it. In this viewwe 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.
There is another possible interpretation of what Paul means here. Flesh certainlymaymean 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 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 nowatwork in the children of disobedience. Most scholars recognize this as a reference to Satan. It is Satan who is the spirit of sin 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 Gods law. John too says that those who do sin are from the devil (1 John 3:8). F. F. Bruce,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 Adams!) 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 Christs body for a time on the Cross. God condemned this spirit in Jesus flesh, breaking Satans 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 bodywas the means by which God dealtwith the spirit of sin that was the source of those sins.
So howdid 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 Adams 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 Gods grace alone, butwrong in his understanding of sin and human nature.
In fact before St.Augustines 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 Christworks 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 lawof 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 Satans possession. I could quote additional early church writers, but I think these suffice to showthat 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 Adams 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 doesnt perform as God created it. Unfortunately, the Western half of the church (which became the Roman Catholics and later the Protestants) followed Augustines 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.
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 21 No 3
- Speaking The Word of Faith
- Editor’s Note
- A Miracle of Small Stones
- A Vision For Zerubbabel
- Tape Talk
- Modern Man and the Ultimate Question
- Two Common Misunderstandings
- Living in the Promised Land
- BIBLE STUDY: Sin, Satan, and the Flesh
- School Days
- To Think About
- Powerless over Alcohol and Life: Step 10
- Letters From Norman
- A Priceless Inheritance
- Words To Live By
- The Laugh of Faith Part 1