Flesh vs. Spirit


Can you explain a little bit about the struggle between the flesh and spirit? (Gal 5:17).


The Bible speaks often about the struggles between the flesh and the spirit. Some brief definitions may be helpful. In context, normally the “flesh” refers to our being (including our body) with all its limitations and depravity. It is intimately connected to this temporal world. The “spirit” refers to the immaterial part of a person. In a Christian this is the immaterial part that has been born again. It is connected to the spiritual world, which presently, and for the most part, is an unseen realm. It is connected to God and his eternal kingdom.

Let’s briefly look at the above definitions in further detail.

The Flesh

The flesh is highly susceptible to the world and all its wiles. There are many things in this world that appeal to our flesh. As John writes in 1 John 2:16:
For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world."
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and his wife were tempted in all three of these areas. Moses wrote of this in Genesis 3:6:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food [lust of the flesh], and that it was a delight to the eyes [lust of the eyes], and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise [the pride of life], she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

John probably had Genesis 3:6 in mind when he wrote 1 John 2:16. In addition, Jesus, the second and last man Adam (1 Cor. 15:45, 47), was tempted in these same three areas. We see this in Matthew 4:3-10:

And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” [lust of the flesh] But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” [the pride of life] Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. [the lust of the eyes] And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

Notice in both instances, besides the same sin categories, there was the tempter and an Adam. And as one may clearly see, what the first Adam in the garden got wrong, the second man Adam in the wilderness got right. Jesus never fell into sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:26; cf. Luke 23:47).

Moreover, we observe all three of these categories of sin referred to in other places in Scripture. They are ongoing themes. For instance, some of the works of the flesh are mentioned in Galatians 5:19-21. King David was guilty of the lust of the eyes (2 Sam. 11:2), which led to adultery and eventually even murder. And the pride of life is spoken of in Isaiah 14:14. Every man, woman and child has been tempted in these three areas.

The Spirit

God has given every man a spirit, or soul (Zech. 12:1; cf. Num. 27:16). As Genesis 2:7 states, “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” This breath of life is our spirit. It is within us. It is us; the body is merely a shell for the soul.

One of two types of spirit is within a man — lost or saved. The spirit of a lost man is hostile to God; it does not and cannot submit to God's law and can’t please God (cf. Rom. 8:7-8). For such a person, the fallen flesh and spirit agree and therefore there is not a struggle between them. They both enjoy sin. They adore congregating with sinners. Since sin is their nature, they wallow in the mire of it. This doesn’t mean they are as bad as they could be, because God in his mercy and grace restrains this from happening. So, everyone is not a Judas, Hitler or a Stalin, who even weren’t as bad as they could have been.

However, Christians who have been born again (John 3:3-7) aren’t hostile to God, and they desire to obey and please God. They have renewed spirits (souls) and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). The Spirit imparts wisdom to their spirits (1 Cor. 2:6-16). This includes, but is not limited to, spiritual self-awareness, intellect, personality and temperament — everything that facilitates human accomplishment and knowledge and a holy life before God. As Peter wrote, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3).

Unlike the unsaved, the redeemed hunger and thirst after the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). They have new desires; they are spiritually minded and desire fellowship with God and his people. They relish such things as prayer, praise and practicing God’s Word. They desire to discipline the body and bring it into subjection (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27).

The Struggle

John tells us, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6). So, there is a difference between the two. And in the believer the flesh and spirit are contrary to one another. Additionally, Paul says, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17).

While Christians constantly desire to bring their body under subjection to the Spirit (which is an evidence of their salvation), this focused activity also causes an ongoing struggle (cf. 1 Cor. 9:27). The spirit is willing towards the things of God, but the flesh is weak (cf. Matt. 26:14). Why is this? When a person has been raised to life by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:11), the old desires of the flesh do not immediately disappear. They linger on. They are continually bothersome and burdensome. So, this creates tension, a battle between flesh and spirit (cf. Gal. 5:16-17).

The Christian has no excuse for sin (1 Cor. 10:13). And depending upon their focus, they will struggle in different ways with it. The more the saint feeds himself from the things of this world, the more he will struggle with sin and the reality of his own salvation. This kind of person doesn’t have completeness of joy; he’s devoid of many of the available victories of the Spirit. However, the more a Christian feeds his spirit with God’s fellowship, including his Word, prayer, praise and fellowship with other believers (cf. Eph. 4:23; Col. 3:1-2; Rom. 12:1-2; Heb. 9:27), the more he realizes the presence and power of his eternal redemption. While this later struggle is to be commended in the saint, one way or another there will be tension. But if there is no ongoing struggle, then beware as there is no salvation! (2 Cor. 13:5; 1 John 2:19).

Because of this ongoing struggle within the saint this side of glory, Paul talks about the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-18; cf. 1 Thess. 5:12). He says, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:12). He mentions “weapons of righteousness” in 2 Corinthians 6:7 and “the weapons of our warfare” in 2 Corinthians 10:4. The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). And James admonishes us, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7; cf. Eph. 4:27). This all denotes an ongoing struggle.

Only at death or when Jesus returns in glory will our struggles between the flesh and spirit end (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:22-24; 2 Tim. 4:6).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).