Spirit-Flesh Contrast in Paul

It's so crucial to understand the Spirit-Flesh contrast in the writings of the Apostle Paul not only for understanding books like Romans and Galatians, but for understanding the New Testament as whole. Here's a helpful cut-and-paste from an excellent book on Pauline Theology, that will help nail down what we've been studying on Sunday.


Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).



That Paul viewed the flesh as belonging to the past for believers, in the same way as he viewed Torah observance, is specifically stated in Romans 7:4–6: “When we were living in the flesh, the passions of sin, aroused by the law, were [also] at work in us; … but now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been set free … to walk in the new way of the Spirit.” How Paul understands this is set forth vividly in 2 Corinthians 5:14–17:


For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So then, from now on we regard no one from the perspective of the flesh. If indeed we once considered even Christ from this perspective, now we know him in this way no longer. So then, if anyone is in Christ, a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, the new have come.


The death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit have changed everything. The former order of things is described in terms of flesh, that basically self-centered, creature-oriented point of view, which has caused the Corinthians to regard Paul as he had formerly regarded Christ, as weak and therefore not of God. The flesh perceives things from the old age point of view, where value and significance lie in power, influence, wealth, and wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 1:26–31).


To be sure, such a worldview is still about. But for those in Christ, all of that has passed away; behold, the new has come, the time of the Spirit, in which there has been a total change in the definition of what has value or significance. The new model is the cross: the power lies not in externals but in the Spirit, who indwells believers and by grace is renewing the “inner person” (2 Cor 4:16), transforming us into God’s own likeness (ultimately portrayed in Christ through the cross).




What about the intense, deeply emotional narration of Paul’s own internal conflict in Romans 7:13–25? Doesn’t this passage suggest that Paul himself, even though a man of the Spirit, continually struggled in his inner person with the pull of the flesh? At first glance, and taking the passage out of context, one might think so. But three things reveal otherwise: the surrounding context, what Paul actually says, and what he does not say.


The context throughout has to do with the place of Torah in the Christian life. In vv. 1–6 Paul has made it clear, by repeating himself yet one more time, that the believer has no relationship to it at all. In the death of Christ we have died with respect to the law (v. 4). Not only so, he adds, but we have also died with respect to the flesh (vv. 5–6; note the past tense, “when we were in the flesh”). But Paul is also aware that he has been extremely hard on the law in his argument to this point, which will hardly sit well with his readers who are Jewish Christians. Besides, he does not really consider the law a bad thing—quite the contrary. His problem with the law was with its inadequacy, its helplessness to empower what it required.


So in vv. 7–25, he sets out to exonerate the law from any suggestion that, because it was implicated in our death, the law itself was a bad thing. To make this point, he argues in two ways. First, he says in vv. 7–12, what killed “me” (and “me” in this paragraph stands for all other Jews as well as for himself) was not the law but the innate sinfulness that the law aroused. The law is implicated in his “death,” to be sure, but as an abettor, not as a direct cause.


This, too, could put the law in a bad light, so he starts all over again (v. 13), this time insisting that the law is not really to blame at all. Its fault lay in its helplessness to do anything about the sin it has aroused in us by making us vividly aware of sin’s utter “sinfulness.” This is said with great intensity, and in a way in which all who try to please God on the basis of law can empathize. In the final analysis it is a totally useless struggle. For the person under law, who has not experienced the gift of the Spirit, sin and the flesh are simply the stronger powers.


Enter Christ and the Spirit (Rom 8), as God’s response to the anguished cry of 7:24. Not only is there no condemnation in Christ (that is, the judgment we all so richly deserve has been put into our past through the death of Christ), but we now live by a new “law,” that of the Spirit of life (8:2). What the law was unable to do, Christ has now done for us (positionally) and the Spirit “fulfills” in us (experientially) as we “walk in the Spirit” (vv. 3–4).


Three simple points, then, in conclusion:


  1. What Paul describes throughout is what it was like to live under the law; and whatever else is true of the Christian Paul, he did not consider himself to be under the law. What he describes, from his now Christian perspective, is what it was like to live under law before Christ and the Spirit. The use of “I” and the present tense of the verbs only heighten the intensity of his feelings toward the utter helplessness of the law to do anything about the real problem of sin.


  1. The person here described never wins. Being under the helpless law, in the face of the more powerful flesh and sin, means to be sold as a slave under sin, and thus incapable of doing the good thing the law demands. Such a description is absolutely incompatible with Paul’s view of life in Christ, empowered by the Spirit.


  1. There is not a single mention of the Spirit in the entire passage (vv. 7–25). The Spirit was last mentioned in v. 6, as the key to our new life in Christ, who has brought our relationship with the law and the flesh to an end. Christ and the Spirit are then picked up again in 8:1–2 as the divine response to the anguished cry of the person struggling with sin, but with the helpless law standing by, pointing out the sinfulness of our sin, unable to do anything about it.


Thus the only questions Paul himself raises in this entire passage have to do with Torah, whether it is good or evil, and, once this is affirmed as good, how this good thing is still implicated in our death. Life under Torah alone is under scrutiny.



But what of Galatians 5:17, where Paul says (literally), “for the flesh has desires over against the Spirit, and the Spirit over against the flesh; for these two [realities] are in opposition to each other, so that whatever things you may wish [= feel like doing], these things you may not do”? Does this not indicate that there is an internal struggle of the Spirit against the flesh? In context, not so. In fact, this text is precisely in keeping with the texts previously looked at, where this contrast appears.


Verse 17 comes at the heart of an argument dealing with one urgent question: Since Torah observance is now a thing of the past because of the coming of Christ and the Spirit, what is to ensure righteousness? That is, Paul is arguing against (perhaps anticipating) Jewish Christian opposition that would see his bypassing Torah observance as a sure invitation to license and ungodliness. Indeed, as Romans 3:7–8 makes clear and Romans 6:1 implies, Paul has been charged with this very thing.


Paul takes up this question, typically, not in terms of the individual believer in a one-on-one relationship with God, but at the very point where the Galatians are living as they used to, when the flesh held sway. Paul therefore warns the Galatians not to let their new freedom in Christ serve as a base of operations for the flesh (5:13), meaning in this case to continue to engage in strife within the community of faith (v. 15). Rather, in love they are to “perform the duties of a slave to one another” (v. 13). For love like this “fulfills the law” (v. 14).


Paul’s response to vv. 13 and 15 is vv. 16–26. He begins in v. 16 with the basic imperative—and promise. “Walk in the Spirit,” he urges them, “and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Since this responds to v. 15, he is not talking about the inner life of the believers, but of giving in to ungodly behavior within the community. After all, the works of the flesh that follow, all have to do with behavior, and eight of the fifteen items mentioned are sins of discord within the believing community.


Verse 17 functions to elaborate v. 16, and does so by way of what has been said in vv. 13–15. The elaboration simply says what we have seen him say elsewhere: walking in the Spirit is incompatible with life according to the flesh, because these two are in utter opposition to one another. And because they are utterly incompatible, those who live in the Spirit may not do whatever they please, that is, their new freedom in Christ does not permit them to continue living as they used to, by eating and devouring one another.


Thus the flesh-Spirit contrast has to do with those who have entered the new way of life brought about by Christ and the Spirit; Paul is urging them to live this way by the power of the Spirit. His point is that the Spirit stands in opposition to the other way of living, and is fully capable of empowering one to live so. It is not that Paul does not care about the inner life; he does indeed. But here he cares especially that the way God’s people live provide a radical alternative to the world around them. Those who so walk by the Spirit will not keep on destroying the Christian community through strife and conflict.


In all the passages where Paul sets the Spirit against the flesh he insists that through the death of Christ and the gift of the Spirit, the flesh has been mortally wounded—killed, in his language. It is not possible, therefore, that from Paul’s perspective a Spirit person would be living in such a way that she or he is sold as a slave to sin, who is unable to do the good she or he wants to do because of being held prisoner to the law of sin.


Believers live between the times. The already mortally wounded flesh will be finally brought to its end at the coming of Christ. The Spirit, already a present possession, will be fully realized at the same coming. To the degree that the old age has not yet passed away, we still must learn to walk by the Spirit, to behave in keeping with the Spirit, and to sow to the Spirit. We can do so precisely because the Spirit is sufficient. In Paul’s view, we live in the flesh, only in the sense of living in the present body of humiliation, subject to the realities of the present age; but we do not walk according to the flesh. Such a way of life belongs to the past, and those who live that way are outside Christ and “shall not inherit the [final eschatological] kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21).


Paul is always a realist. The “new righteousness” that fulfills Torah, effected by the Spirit, is itself both already and not yet. To return to the preceding chapter, the coming of the Spirit means that “divine infection,” not divine perfection, has set in. Our lives are now led by the one responsible for inspiring the law in the first place. But that does not mean that God’s people cannot still be “overtaken in a fault” (Gal 6:1). The resolution of such between-the-times trespassing of God’s righteous requirement is for the rest of God’s Spirit people to restore such a one through the Spirit’s gentleness. It means regularly to experience God’s forgiveness and grace. It does not mean to accept constantly living in willful sin as inevitable, like a slow leak deflating our lives, as though the Spirit were not sufficient for life in the present.


If this explanation does not satisfy those of you who live in a constant struggle with some besetting sin, my word to you is to take heart from the gospel. I do not minimize the struggle. But you are loved by God, and that love has been “shed abroad in your heart by the Spirit.” The key to life in the Spirit for some is to spend much more quiet time in thanksgiving and praise for what God has done—and is doing, and promises to do—and less time on introspection, focused on your failure to match up to the law.


Whenever you do feel like getting even for what someone has done to you rather than forgiving them as Christ has forgiven you, you are made to realize once more that you do still live between the times, between the time the infection set in and the perfection will be realized (see above, p. 112). But by the Spirit’s leading, neither do you do whatever you wish—tear into somebody for what they have done to you—as you used to do without thinking. The Spirit, God’s own presence—his empowering presence—is within, and will lead you into appropriate responses.


Finally, to bring this discussion full circle, here is where your being a member of the body comes in. Since the ultimate goal of salvation is for us individually to belong as a growing, contributing, edifying member of the people of God, others in the body exist for the same purpose, and thus should serve you in the same way. Don’t try to be a lone ranger Christian, slugging it out on your own. Seek out those in the community to whom you can be accountable and let them join you in your desire to grow into Christ’s likeness.