Previous article in this series: February 15, 2017, p. 232.
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
The Flesh as our Enemy
In our spiritual warfare we must know our enemies. Ignorance of the enemy is inexcusable folly. Knowledge of the enemy is one of the first principles of all warfare. Christian soldiers must know Satan, the wicked world, and finally, what the above passage calls “the flesh.” Our greatest enemy is within. The fiercest battle is within. And the menacing enemy within us is “the flesh.”
Our enemy “the flesh” does not refer to our physical body that occupies space and bleeds, but the corruption of our fallen nature that we receive from our first father Adam. The flesh is not a tangible thing. The flesh—what we also call our old man of sin (; )—is a principle of operation, a spiritually dark and sinful power impelling to sinful affections, emotions, desires, thoughts, words, and deeds. As we have explained in earlier articles, regenerated believers have a new heart graciously ruled by the Holy Spirit of Christ and from which proceeds love for God and hatred for sin. The Spirit, not the flesh, has dominion within us. We live “in the Spirit” and are called to “walk in the Spirit” ( ). But until we take our last breath and leave this life, we children of God have cleaving to us our sinful flesh. Unlike the devil and the wicked world, the flesh is not an enemy who resides without, but within. He’s the enemy in the camp. If we are not consciously and actively fighting this enemy by the power of the Spirit, we fall into many sins, even great sins.
As our enemy, the flesh is a hell-bent, traitorous, totally depraved, unchangeably and irreparably corrupt foe. The flesh cannot be converted, transformed, or counseled. Regeneration dethrones but does not eradicate him. This foe is a very present danger within and must be strenuously resisted and opposed, even mortified, until he is abolished at the end of our earthly lives.
The reason we regenerated believers are not sinless but continue to sin is the presence of our sinful flesh. The reason we sigh often and lament “O wretched man that I am,” even to our deathbed, is the presence of our sinful flesh. The reason our best works of joyful worship and our charitable acts of brotherly kindness are tainted with sin is the presence of our sinful flesh. The flesh is a miserably relentless foe that cleaves to us wherever we go and in whatever we do. Even when we make confession of faith and participate in the Lord’s Supper for the very first time, our sinful flesh will accompany us to the table of our Lord and seek to prevent us from lifting our hearts on high where Christ is at God’s right hand. The flesh will do that as long as we partake of holy communion.
Each one of us is responsible for the wickedness of our flesh. Our flesh does not sin. We sin. I sin. You sin. The person sins. The Adamic flesh did not eat the forbidden fruit, Adam did. The Mosaic flesh did not strike the rock, Moses did. The Davidic flesh did not take another man’s wife, David did. As we live from the flesh, we sin. Thus our lament is not, “Oh wretched flesh that cleaveth to me!” but “O wretched man that I am!”
As a tree is known by its fruits, so the sinful flesh is known by its works. Galatians 5 gives a catalogue of seventeen manifested works of the flesh. It is not an exhaustive list, for the apostle concludes with the statement “and such like” (v. 21), indicating there are many more similar works. But the list is complete for the apostle’s purposes. It is quite a list, a shameful and horrifying list. A sane man shudders. When you hear that the works of Caesar Nero included setting aflame Christians as torches to illuminate his imperial festivals, or that the work of the modern abortion doctor is to go to the clinic each day to crush little babies into pieces, then you say “Desperately wicked men! Monsters!” But what do you say about your own flesh?
The flesh of every believer is desperately wicked and capable of producing every kind of vile work from the outward acts of “adultery” or “drunkenness” to the inner attitudes of “wrath” or “envyings.” We might go through our entire lives without ever committing the act of adultery as David did, or getting drunk as Noah did. Nevertheless, the flesh of each one of us is inclined and oriented toward adultery, drunkenness, and every sin. The power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and sometimes even the influences of the out-workings of God’s providence—as in the wrath () of the police officer in his patrol car looking out for drunkards behind the wheel—may keep us from yielding to the flesh and keep many evil works from proceeding from us. Nevertheless, our sinful flesh as it stands alone without any influence acting against it is completely corrupt and capable of producing every conceivable form of iniquity, whether mentioned in the Galatians catalogue or not.
Furthermore, while every regenerated believer’s sinful flesh is inclined toward all wickedness and capable of manifesting all seventeen of the representative works catalogued in Galatians 5, not every believer feels the same pressure from the flesh toward the same sins. All will be aroused by the flesh, but not all are aroused to nor yield to the same sins of the flesh. While you might struggle mightily with and often find yourself yielding to sexual temptations, another might not. While another might struggle mightily with and often find himself yielding to fits of violent wrath in yelling, shaking, smashing, and throwing, you might not.
The seventeen works of the Galatians catalogue divide nicely into four groups. According to these four groups we could give the sinful flesh as personified four distinct names. These names impress us all the more with the frightening wickedness of our foe.
The Flesh as a Filthy Fornicator
First, our sinful flesh is a filthy fornicator whose works include the sexual sins of “adultery [sexual intercourse with another’s spouse], fornication [from the Greek porneia and including all forms of sexual sin], uncleanness [which refers not exclusively but primarily to sexual uncleanness] and lasciviousness [unbridled lust giving way to unchaste actions].”
Know the enemy! The flesh is a filthy fornicator. Before any other of his works are mentioned, his sexually unclean works are mentioned. Does that not indicate that temptation to sexual sins of one sort or another and to one degree or another will cease not to threaten the believer in this life? Because of his sinful flesh, the believer is prone by nature to promiscuity, illicit fantasies, shamefully unclean desires that if uncovered and broadcasted to the world would horrify him, and temptations to find sexual satisfaction outside of the undefiled marriage bed in abhorrent relationships, in filthy jokes, movies rated “R” for their nudity, raunchy television programs, suggestive social media posts, lewd advertisements, and easily accessible pornography. The flesh has an insatiable appetite for fornication, and with every taste he is allowed, the cravings of this filthy fornicator intensify.
Should we hear of a former classmate who had a child out of wedlock, or that a cousin of ours has “come out as gay,” or that our friend’s sibling is divorced and getting remarried, or that our best friend’s father is getting counseling for pornography addiction and we exclaim (as if we would never fall victim to any of those sins), “Unbelievable! How can someone be so sinful!” we must stop. Stop. Stop, and with sanctified humility understand that our flesh is also a filthy fornicator and that if it were not for God’s gracious preservation, we would certainly be manifesting the exact same work of sexual uncleanness, just as certainly as we presently manifest the despicable work of arrogant self-righteous incredulity. How deceitful is our flesh! How powerful! Know the enemy.
The Flesh as an Infatuated Idolater
Secondly, our sinful flesh is an infatuated idolater whose works include “idolatry” and “witchcraft.” The flesh is not only idolatrous, but so infatuated with idolatry that he may go so far as to practice witchcraft. Witchcraft includes all the ritualistic formulas, curious arts, incantations, and magic potions used to contact evil spirts in order to achieve extraordinary experiences. If it were not for the Holy Spirit, you and a few friends might use social media to contact some witchcraft enthusiasts and try to gather secretly in a back shed somewhere after school in order to cast spells and call up the spirits of dead men before an altar to Satan. Sound bizarre and unthinkable? Our flesh is that depraved as an infatuated idolater.
Is it not so painfully true to our own experience that our flesh is infatuated with idolatry? Idols include (in addition to a wood carving that is venerated) a scholarship, a G.P.A number, clothing, money, automobiles, a smartphone, celebrities, professional athletes, and self. Self is the great idol before whom every knee must bow. The flesh is so idolatrous and infatuated with the praise of men that when walking according to the flesh we may sweat and toil and do all kinds of good things for people not first of all because we care about them or want to hear God say, “Well done thou good and faithful servant,” but because we want to enhance the reputation of self and get others to say, “That guy is something else—what he won’t do for people!” Or, “that girl is such a sweetheart— always thinking of others!” And if the compliments and recognition do not come? Then, according to the flesh, we say, “What’s the point of all the effort?” Such is the infatuated idolater’s way of thinking. Know the enemy!
The Flesh as an Angry Agitator
Thirdly, our sinful flesh is an angry agitator always chipping away at the unity of the body of Christ. The works of the flesh include “hatred [enmity], variance [strife], emulations [jealousies], wrath, strife [rivalries with others], seditions [creating dissention, division], heresies, envyings, and murders.” It is nothing short of a miracle that peace may prevail in a congregation when behind every entry in the church directory could be the notice “angry agitator by nature”. The bitter little rivalries of junior high girls, the emotional outbursts of snobby high school drama-queens, and the intimidating, pompous strut of the alpha male in the senior class are all a part of the secular schools of the state. The same behavior can even appear in the good Protestant Reformed school, not only because there is carnal seed among the spiritual seed, but also because cleaving to every believing student is the sinful flesh that is given over to hatred, strife, murders, and the rest.
The flesh as an angry agitator is always critical of someone and unhappy with something. He can find something he would like to fight about with anyone—the pastor, the school teacher, the fiancé, the best friend, the sibling, the grocer, the bank teller, even Christ Himself.
Heresy can appear in the church of Christ because even believers have by nature a sinful inclination toward “heresies,” which are inherently divisive. And even when heresy is effectively rooted out of the church, that leaven is sometimes purged in a dishonorable manner because even the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy are prone by nature to hatred and envy and the desire just to be right. Even the holiest of men when fighting for truth—men like the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Herman Hoeksema—had to give themselves to continual, conscious examination of the motive of every word they spoke or wrote, lest that angry agitator within have an influence. Know the enemy! Do not minimize him!
The Flesh as a Debauched Drunkard
Finally, the sinful flesh is a debauched drunkard whose works include “drunkenness and revellings [drinking parties of debauchery, that is, excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures].” The flesh wants to go to college, live in the dorms, and party every weekend. The flesh wants to have some people over to “watch sports” while the parents are gone. “Watch sports” is code for “drink beer secretly smuggled, and lots of it.” If you have no desire to go to a party and get drunk, it is not because your flesh is sober but rather that the Spirit is graciously crushing these desires of your flesh. Every man’s flesh is inclined toward drunkenness. Therefore, the biblical narrative that includes the words, “And he drank of the wine and was drunken, and he was uncovered within his tent,” should not be shocking to us—lamentable, but not shocking. The tireless ark-building, righteousness-preaching, covenant father Noah could pass through the wonder that was salvation in the ark, hear the covenant promise of God confirmed by a rainbow, and then get drunk because his sinful flesh, like ours, is a debauched drunkard. Know the enemy!
The Flesh in Perspective
Does not a consideration of the evil and powerful enemy that is our sinful flesh furnish us with constant matter for humiliation before God? This flesh is in us! In me! O wretched man that I am! God be merciful to me a sinner!
Does not this power of the flesh magnify the power of Christ’s Spirit and the wonder of salvation? How is even one sinner saved? How is it even possible not to walk in the flesh? How is the church not torn to pieces by her own members and conformed to the world? Jesus Christ who quickens us by His Spirit unto a sanctified life of devotion to God must be some Savior. It is simply astounding that Christ by His Spirit beats back our flesh, enabling us to love God and sing from the heart, “Lord, I love Thy good commandments, and esteem them more than gold; all Thy precepts are most righteous; hating sin, to these I hold.” Indeed, my only comfort in the battle is that I am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
Now, let all the impenitent who continue in the works of the flesh be warned, “…as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”