Proclaiming Christ's Victory Over Sinful Personal Desires
Here are four spiritual warfare habits that are essential to keeping in step with the Spirit and proclaiming Christ’s victory over sin.
by Gary J. Tyra
Fully aware of the importance of the company I keep (see Proverbs 13:20), I admit there is a person in my life who is no good for me. When I allow him to influence me, I think, say, and do things that displease God and prove hurtful to me and others. I hate the fact this person wields so much power over me, yet I keep yielding the reins of my life to him. Perhaps you think I should just break off this association and have nothing to do with this problematic person. Easier said than done. You see, this person stares back at me every time I gaze into a mirror. This person, who too often entices me to think, say, and do things I later regret with all my heart, is me.
Can you relate to this honest admission? Have you ever thought of yourself as your own worst enemy? Does the term self-sabotage ever occur to you? Do you hate the fact you seem to possess what psychologists refer to as a shadow self who thinks, says, and does things that have the potential to ruin more than your reputation as a fully devoted follower of Jesus?
What psychologists call a shadow self, the apostle Paul refers to as our flesh.The rather consistent teaching of the New Testament is that a Christian’s flesh can serve as a very serious impediment to his or her walk with Christ. This article is about what must occur if we are to avoid spending our lives as church-going, church-leading Christians who nevertheless keep allowing our flesh to cause us to act in ways that are not only self-destructive but also detrimental to the cause of Christ. The bad news is we all possess the kind of flesh this article is about. The good news is that there is hope. Because of what Christ has accomplished through His flesh, and is doing now through His Spirit, our flesh does not have to rule (and ruin) our lives.
What the Flesh Is
From the outset we must do our best to correctly understand the way the New Testament uses the term flesh. In his letters, the apostle Paul’s normal practice was to employ two different Greek words (soma and sarx) when referring to his readers’ “physical bodies” on the one hand (soma), and their “flesh” on the other (sarx). Though Paul could use sarx in a more general sense, there was often an ethical dimension to his use of sarx or “flesh” that was missing when he was simply talking about a person’s physical body.1 This is why the New International Version (1984) often translated sarx with the phrase “sinful nature.” In other words, the context of many of Paul’s references to his readers’ sarx or “flesh” makes it apparent that what he had in mind was not their physical bodies but an unregenerate or sinful nature that still resided in them despite their conversion to Christ.2
Though Paul seems to embrace the traditional Hebraic idea that our bodies are not in and of themselves evil, he also held that Christians continue to possess an inherited, deeply ingrained propensity toward sin that often manifests itself through our bodies (Romans 6:13,19; 7:23). Though our physical bodies are not evil per se, a sin principle is at work within us (Romans 7:20) that can cause us to allow the members of our bodies to function as “instruments of wickedness” rather than “instrument of righteousness” (Romans 6:13). Paul wrote often about the need for Christ’s followers to be proactive about dealing with this issue. According to Paul, it is impossible to live a victorious Christian life without learning to engage in spiritual warfare with respect to a resilient sinful nature he referred to as the “flesh.”
The Conflict Between Flesh and Spirit
In Galatians 5:16–26, the apostle Paul portrays our flesh (i.e., sinful nature) as a serious enemy to our walk with Christ. Paul presumes that his readers knew what the flesh is. Thus, he proceeded straightaway to comment on what the flesh does. In a nutshell, the problem with our flesh is that it is in constant conflict with the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives. Paul put it this way: “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (Galatians 5:17).
Having drawn attention to this debilitating “conflict of influence” at work in the lives of his readers (cf. Romans 8:5–8), Paul proceeded in Galatians 5 to list some attitudes and actions that people produce when their flesh is in the driver’s seat and they yield themselves to its unholy influence: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Galatians 5:19–21).
Was Paul implying that at least some of these behaviors were still occurring in the lives of his readers? I believe he was. Thus the strident warning we find in the remainder of verse 21: “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21, NIV, 1984).
Such a bold exclamation makes it clear that this is a serious discussion. At the least, Paul aimed to warn how inappropriate and unnecessary it is for professing Christians to continue to have their sinful nature influence their day-to-day behavior. He has already asserted that there is an alternative to allowing their flesh to control them: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
It is this crucial alternative that explains why, having highlighted the earmarks of being controlled by the flesh, Paul lists the God-pleasing and Christ-imaging attitudes and actions produced in the lives of Christ’s followers when they yield themselves to the influence of His Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23).
Paul concluded this discussion of the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit’s work in the lives of his readers with this brief but powerful exhortation: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Galatians 5:24–26).
Based on Galatians 5:16–26, it is safe to say that it makes a huge difference whether those who have become Christ’s followers continue to yield the control of their lives to the influence of their flesh (sinful nature), or, having crucified the flesh, go on to learn what it means to “keep in step with the Spirit.” The big question then: Precisely how do we perform these two moves? What did Paul have in mind when he spoke of crucifying the flesh and keeping in step with the Holy Spirit?
Experiencing Christ’s Victory Over the Flesh
Biblical scholars have discerned that when writing about the Christian life Paul routinely emphasized two themes: the indicative and the imperative.3 Roughly speaking, the indicative involves that which is true about Christ’s followers — i.e., that which Christ has accomplished on their behalf and the blessings that accrue to them “in him” as a result (e.g., see Ephesians 1; Colossians 1). The imperative, on the other hand, has to do with the manner in which Christ’s followers can and should live out what is true of them “in Christ” (e.g., see Ephesians 4–6; Colossians 3,4).
With respect to the issue at hand, Paul’s bold teaching was that living by the Spirit rather than flesh (the imperative) is possible precisely because of the victory over the flesh Jesus Christ accomplished for all of humanity by virtue of His incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father (the indicative).
In Romans 5:12, Paul portrays Jesus as a second Adam whose life of righteous obedience, which included His vicarious death on our behalf, has effected a potential healing of our humanity, making it possible for those who are in Christ to escape the tyranny of their sinful flesh (and the death it precipitates) and live lives of righteousness instead (cf. 1 Peter 2:24). In Romans 5:17, Paul, comparing the first Adam with the second (Jesus), announces this good news: “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”4 Then, in Romans 6, Paul elaborated on the significance of Christ’s victory over the sinful flesh for His followers. At the risk of oversimplifying, Paul’s message in Romans 6 is this: Because of our association with the death and resurrection of Christ as sincere believers baptized into Him, we now, like Him, possess the power to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. Because of Christ’s birth and vicarious life, death, resurrection, and ascension, there is no longer a reason for the tyranny of the flesh in people’s lives.
It is this wonderful indicative, echoed early on in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (e.g., Galatians 1:3,4; 2:20; 3:14,26–29; 4:4–7) that makes the imperatives prescribed by Paul in Galatians 5:24–26 possible. So, again, we ask the crucial question: What did Paul have in mind when he counseled the Galatian readers to crucify the flesh and instead keep in step with the Spirit?
First, we need to acknowledge that the larger context in which Paul embeds Galatians 5:16–26 suggests that he meant to encourage his original readers to reject the idea presented to them by some false teachers (Galatians 4:17; 5:1–12; 6:12,13), that the key to living in a God-pleasing manner is to carefully keep the rules and observe the ceremonies prescribed in the law of Moses. This critique of religious legalism/ceremonialism explains Paul’s clarifying comments regarding the role and limits of the “Law” scattered throughout this letter (Galatians 2:15–21; 3:1–3,5,24; 4:4,5,21; 5:3,4,14,18,23). The same critique shows up in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he makes it clear that it is precisely because of the sinful nature resident in all human beings (i.e., the flesh) that the law of Moses, by itself, simply cannot succeed at enabling the kind of righteous living God desires for and from us (Romans 8:3). If we tragically flawed human creatures are to live holy lives before God, says Paul, we need more than an external set of moral standards to strive toward in our own strength. Instead, we need a real, faith-produced, trust-based relationship with the risen Christ that instills within us a new source of spiritual and moral competence. In short, we need nothing less than the Spirit of Christ himself working deep within us, empowering us to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law (Romans 8:4–14).
Thus, when Paul spoke of the need for Christian disciples to crucify their flesh, he was not encouraging an ascetic mistreatment of their physical bodies (cf. Colossians 2:20–23). He was calling them to make a bold decision to abandon a futile attempt to earn their salvation and/or achieve sanctification by means of religious rule keeping and ceremonial observance. In other words, to crucify the flesh is to make the huge decision to give up trying to be righteous in our strength on the basis of the Law. Rather, we should choose to “live by” the righteousness-enabling help of the Holy Spirit made possible by the victory over the flesh accomplished on our behalf through Christ’s vicarious life, death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father.
Unfortunately, however, many biblical theologians and commentators conclude the discussion here, focusing their attention on the indicative to the neglect of the imperative. Thus, even though many Christians understand that, theoretically, we do not have to follow the dictates of the flesh, practically speaking we continue to allow the flesh to control our day-to-day attitudes and actions rather than the Spirit. This is why it is important to note that, having encouraged his readers to crucify the flesh and “live by the Spirit,” Paul proceeds to exhort the Galatians to “keep in step” with the Spirit as well (Galatians 5:25). I contend that this kind of language argues for a practical rather than merely theoretical understanding of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.5
So, what does it mean to “keep in step” with the Spirit? In my book, Christ’s Empowering Presence,6I argue that at the heart of Christian spirituality is the cultivation of a moment-by-moment mentoring relationship with the risen Christ (see Colossians 3:1–4). Simply put, we really do live differently when we sense that, through His Spirit, Jesus is with us each moment, eager to provide us with the empowerment we need to say yes to righteousness and no to sin (Colossians 3:5–17). This is a biblically informed understanding of how the Holy Spirit actually influences us toward righteous living. He does what Jesus promised He would do: He makes the risen Christ real to us (see John 14:15–18,25,26; 15:26; 16:12–15). This rather crucial idea that one of the main aims of the Holy Spirit is to make Jesus real to the people He indwells shows up in several places in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In Ephesians 1:13,14, Paul seems to suggest that at the very beginning of the Christian life, having embraced the message of the gospel, it was the Spirit who actually “included” us in Christ. This is why, in other passages, Paul indicates that if his readers are going to grow in their awareness and experience of Christ in their lives, it will be the Spirit who accomplishes this. Paul’s own experience of coming to understand the significance and power of Jesus was through the work of the Spirit (Ephesians 3:4,5). This explains why Paul was so keen on praying that this same kind of revelatory dynamic might occur in the lives of his disciples (Ephesians 1:17; 3:14–19).
I suggest that essential to keeping in step with the Holy Spirit are four habits, each of which enjoys tacit support from the New Testament as a whole and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in particular. For what it is worth, each habit is also validated by my nearly 40 years of personal and pastoral experience.
First, we should take seriously the call in Ephesians 5:18 to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. Fairly well known is the fact the tense of the Greek verb Paul utilized in this passage implies a continual action. This would seem to indicate that Paul had in mind ongoing infilling experiences with the Spirit rather than a once-for-all indwelling. Not only can we cite passages such as Acts 4:8,31; 13:9 in support of this interpretation, it only makes sense given the way Paul connects the Spirit with the already converted Christian’s ability to keep growing in his or her experience of the life-defining presence and power of Jesus (Ephesians 1:17; 3:14–19). Furthermore, my personal and pastoral experience has been that such ongoing infilling experiences of the Spirit require an ongoing surrendering of our lives to Jesus’ lordship. Psalm 51:1–12 and Acts 2:38, which seem to connect the acts of repentance and surrender with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, support this conviction. Thus, to be continually filled with the Spirit calls for a daily, if not moment-by-moment, resurrendering of ourselves to Jesus. No wonder Paul encouraged the Ephesian readers to be continually filled with the Spirit of Jesus.
Second, we should take seriously the encouragement in Ephesians 6:18 to pray often in the Holy Spirit. The context in which Paul locates this exhortation suggests that he meant for his readers to understand praying in the Holy Spirit as a powerful and important act of spiritual warfare (cf. Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38; Romans 15:30; Jude 20). One reason why I think this is so is because such prayer constitutes an invitation for the Spirit to, over and over again, make the empowering presence of the risen Christ real to us. James 4:7,8 makes it crystal clear that the most effective way to deal with the devil is not by going against him toe-to-toe, but by deliberately, reverently drawing near to the presence of God instead. Each semester I deliver a lecture in which I explain to my freshman students why my normal practice is to spend time praying in the Spirit every day. I indicate that a huge reason for this spiritual discipline is that my experience has been that it really is a powerful act of spiritual warfare precisely because it strengthens me in my pursuit of Christ’s empowering presence.
Third, when (not if) it becomes apparent we have, by giving in to the influence of the flesh, grieved the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we must repent of the specific sin(s) involved and, once again, resurrender ourselves to His loving leadership, trusting the Spirit of Christ to be as forgiving as Jesus is. We have already established the fact continued infillings of the Spirit require repeated acts of surrender to His leadership in our lives. A fresh act of surrender does not always have to include an expression of contrition with respect to some moral misstep we have made; but, quite frankly, if you are anything like me, often it does. Would it not be wonderful if we could believe that each time we address the Spirit, expressing genuine sorrow for having behaved in a way that frustrates His sanctifying work in us, this experience of contrite resurrender might actually increase rather than decrease His ability, going forward, to do His work in our lives? Based on my experience and passages such as Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15; 66:2, I’m convinced that such a belief is justified.7
Finally, we should involve ourselves in a community made up of at least a few fellow Christ-followers who will prayerfully support us in and hold us accountable for our Spirit-enabled pursuit of the empowering presence of Christ, and for whom we will do likewise. Another major theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has to do with the Spirit’s role in creating and maintaining Christian community (see Ephesians 2:18–22; 4:3–6,29–32; 5:18–21; 6:18). This might suggest that it is impossible to keep in step with the Spirit while at the same time attempting to function as a lone-ranger Christian.8 However, this is only part of the equation. It is not simply that a serious involvement in a genuine Christian community is appropriate for someone endeavoring to keep in step with the Spirit; it is necessary. Paul hints of this fact in Ephesians 5:18–20 and Colossians 3:16,17. Both passages, paralleling each other the way they do, emphasize the crucial importance of a mutual ministry occurring between members of the body of Christ. Indeed, a nuanced understanding of the way these passages are grammatically structured in the original Greek reveals the startling truth that a mutual ministry of the Word of God to one another is not only the result of the infilling of the Spirit, it is the way we maintain such an infilling. The upshot is that it is simply impossible to keep in step with the Spirit without being seriously engaged in a genuine Christian community where a mutual encouragement to stay at the pursuit Christ’s empowering presence is taking place.
I do not want to give the impression that I have mastered what it means to keep in step with the Spirit. Still, I have experienced enough of Christ’s empowering presence through the Spirit to know that it is possible to do so. So, here is the good news: Because of what Christ has done and the Spirit is doing, it is possible to win the war against our flesh. It is possible to just say no to that person in the mirror.
1. See George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 511,12.
2. See Ladd, 512.
3. For example, see Ladd, 536,37, 563, 565, 568,69.
4. We find a similar comparison and contrast between Jesus and Adam in 1 Corinthians 15:45–49.
5. See Ladd, 517 for a focused discussion of the indicative and imperative aspects of the Christian’s victory over the flesh.
6. Gary Tyra, Christ’s Empowering Presence: The Pursuit of God through the Ages (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2010).
7. In my book, The Holy Spirit in Mission, I make the point that while the Scriptures speak of the controlling (Romans 8:6), compelling (Acts 2:37; 20:22), and inspiring (Matthew 22:43; 1 Corinthians 12:3) effects the Holy Spirit can have on people, they also indicate that the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force (as in Star Wars) but a divine person with whom we can and must relate in an interpersonal manner. The fact the Holy Spirit is personal and seeks to interact with us in an interpersonal manner means that His sanctifying work in our lives is anything but automatic. Instead it is contingent on a personal response. While the Spirit can be: followed (Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1; Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:18), fellowshipped with (2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1), lived by (Galatians 5:16,25), lived according to (Romans 8:4,5,13), kept in step with (Galatians 5:25), and learned from (1 Corinthians 2:13), He can, unfortunately, also be: lied to (Acts 5:3); tested (Acts 5:9); resisted (Acts 7:51); rejected (1 Thessalonians 4:8); quenched (1 Thessalonians 5:19); and even insulted (Hebrews 10:29). We need to take Paul seriously, therefore, when he speaks in Ephesians 4:30 of the possibility of grieving God’s Spirit. This is the bad news. The good news is that, while grieving the Spirit of Jesus is a terrible possibility, God’s grace is greater than our sin. My experience has been that a sincere expression of sorrow over having done something to grieve the Spirit, accompanied by a fresh surrender to the Spirit’s leadership in my life, has made the relationship stronger. See Gary Tyra, The Holy Spirit in Mission: Prophetic Speech and Action in Christian Witness (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2011), 32,33.
8. As I point out in my book The Holy Spirit in Mission (29,30), not a few theologians view the Holy Spirit as the eternal personification of the eternal love that exists between the eternal Father and the eternal Son (see Romans 5:5). It should not surprise us then to read in Galatians 5:22 that Paul’s listing of the fruit of the Spirit’s influence in the life of the fully devoted Christ-follower includes attitudes and actions that contribute to, rather than destroy, Christian community.