“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.” Romans 5:18
Every believer can identify with this conundrum. We want to do the right thing, but we don’t have the will power. There is a part of us that wants to do what is right, but we can’t find the power to do it.
A few years ago, an elder and I took a man out to dinner we had met while doing an outreach. He professed to be a believer, but was in a seriously bad situation. His wife and child had left him because of his addiction to pornography. We shared some Scriptures with him, but he just stared blankly, as if to say he knew all that. He told us how he had checked himself into a recovery program, but nothing worked. He said hopelessly, “every day God is calling on me to repent.”
The man’s problem was that he was walking according to the flesh. I remember another guy I had a Bible study with who was an alcoholic saying, “I asked God to take away my desire to drink, but it just hasn’t happened.”
These examples, and so many more we could list that may seem less serious, are the result of not understanding the distinction of the flesh and spirit. The Bible clearly says, “if you live according to the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13), and that’s exactly what these men were experiencing. So how do I get out of that rut? How do I “perform what is good”?
What exactly is “the flesh”?
First, let’s take a look at what the flesh is and is not.
The word “flesh” is used several different ways in the New Testament. Sometimes it just refers to our physical body (Galatians 2:20; Phillippians 1:22), and similarly Christ’s physical body (John 1:14; John 6:51; Romans 1:3). The “flesh” is also used to describe our sinful nature passed down from generation to generation since Adam’s fall.
When used this way, it is not referring to our physical body, but to the principle of indwelling sin. One of the heresies to arise in the early church was Gnosticism, which later became Manichaeism. The heresy was that the flesh always meant the physical body, and was therefore always bad, and the spirit meant the non-physical realm, which was always good.
They then taught that Christ never had a physical body, and therefore never died for our sins. So we don’t want to think that our physical body is what is causing the problem, it is our sin nature that does that. One day our physical body will be totally redeemed, and we will have a renewed physical body that will not have the affects of sin in it (Romans 8:23).
The unbeliever lives under the power of sin in the flesh. Romans 7:5 and Romans 8:8 place the unsaved person “in the flesh;” whereas, Romans 8:9 explains that the believer is no longer “in the flesh” but now “in the Spirit.” Christians are not under the power of sin, but although they are not “in the flesh” the flesh is still in them, Romans 7:17-25 explains this.
How do I overcome the flesh?
Because of the confusion in the early church about the flesh just being our physical bodies, the monastic movement was born. Monks would live aesthetic lifestyles secluded from society in order to purify their bodies. In the third century, Antony lived in a cave for 20 years and is reported to have said, “Lord, I want to be saved but these bad thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do? How can I be saved?”
Unfortunately for Antony, but thankfully for us, overcoming temptation and evil is not accomplished by extreme life choices or strict rule keeping.
Many Christians today think that by going on the mission field, getting a job with a Christian organization, or doing some other feat for God, they will be able to overcome temptation and live up to the calling God has placed on their lives. Although those things are better than living alone in a cave for 20 years, they will not lead a Christian to victory over sin (Colossians 2:23).
The path to victory over sin is found in walking in the Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit of God. Romans 8:5 says, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” Galatians 5:19-23 gives a list of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit.
The results of living after the flesh are called “works” but the results of living after the Spirit are called “fruits.” When I try by my own power to do what is right, I will fail. But if I surrender to God, admit how weak I am, confess my sin, and call on Him to help me everyday, then He will produce fruit in my life.
How to walk in the Spirit
There are several practical steps we can take to walk in the Spirit:
- Be “born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-6). Unless someone has believed in the Lord Jesus alone to deliver them from the consequences and power of sin, they cannot have the Spirit (Romans 5:1, 2, 5). Every true believer has the full amount of the Holy Spirit, the moment we believe.
- Regenerates us (Titus 3:5), in other words, gives us new life.
- Brings us into the Church through spiritual baptism (1 Corinthians 12:13).
- Seals us until the day of redemption, making our salvation secure (1 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30).
The list could go on, but the important point here is that if we are truly saved, we have all the resources we need to walk in the Spirit and live a life of victory over the flesh.
- Maintain a consistent prayer life. The Lord Jesus exhorted His disciples “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41). The only way to live in “the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13) is to remain in communion with God.
- Read, memorize, study, and meditate on the Word of God. These are the words the Holy Spirit inspired (2 Peter 1:21), so it makes sense that these are the words that He will use to guide and direct our lives (2 Timothy 1:13).
- “Make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14). Don’t allow temptation to surround you, instead “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Remember who you belong to and whose servant you are.
- Move from devotion to action. As we fellowship with the Lord, we abide in Him. When we abide in Him we begin to see Him work in our lives (John 15:7-8). God is not glorified until we begin to bear fruit for Him. Our walk in the Spirit needs to go far beyond an intellectual exercise (1 Corinthians 1:18). It needs to be a daily surrender to God, enjoying Him, and allowing Him to change us.