My brother, Johnny, and I would race home from a long day of school at Weston Elementary and settle ourselves in front of our television set which consisted of a hand full of channels. We would gather snacks which were made up of chips, chocolate, or candy and would follow it up with a nice cold glass of Coke. Sometimes we would sneak our way to the local drug store, Hooks, about 3 blocks from our house and indulge in a few cups of malt chocolate ice cream. This may not seem too adventurous to the common child, but for kids ranging from the age of 9 and 6 years old it was the greatest adventure to date. As we carved out our spots in the couch we would zero in on an afternoon filled with cartoons. Tom and Jerry was one of our favorite shows. Tom, the clumsy cat, would continuously chase and try to eat the elusive mouse, Jerry. Each episode consisted of the same story — Tom chases Jerry and Jerry never getting caught.
It was in watching Tom and Jerry where I found my first theological lesson. Though, at the time, I did not know that I was absorbing theologically training, in hindsight, much of what I was taking in assisted in understanding the Christian’s day to day battle in spiritual maturity [I am not advocating that the Tom and Jerry showcased an accurate depiction of biblical theology, rather it gave me a visual to frame an understanding of the spiritual battle between sin nature and the new life in the Spirit]. In some episodes one or both characters, Tom and Jerry, would have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel would be persuading one of the characters to choose the more righteous and moral path while the devil would encourage the characters to pursue the rebellious and dangerous path. All in all the struggle was extremely intense and these choices had enormous consequences for the end of the story.
In the Christian journey we have received life through the Son by His work on the cross and power through the resurrection. The work of the Spirit has given us access to this life giving work in Christ, and by His blood has brought us into a direct relationship with the Creator God. The giving of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ sustains the life of the believer. The power of the Holy Spirit does the work of regeneration which “brings new spiritual life . . . [in which] we gain new desire and new ability to serve God.”1 This transforming work brings forth a new nature which generates a genuine belief “that Jesus is the Christ, and will refrain from a life pattern of continual sin, and will love his brother, and will overcome the temptations of the world, and will be kept safe from ultimate harm by the evil one.”2
Though believers have been made into new creations the sin nature continues to war against the newly found life in the Spirit. The flesh, or the Greek version of sarx, does not necessarily refer to the human body rather “the sin-desiring aspect of our whole being.”3 Ultimately it is in reference to humanity’s depravity.
Galatians 5:16 ESV, “16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Walk by the Spirit:
The Apostle Paul’s decree to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 ESV) is directly correlated to two main emphasis that he has continuously highlighted — (1) a person is made right through faith in Christ Jesus and (2) the service of love is rooted in our acceptance in Christ. Walking by the Spirit has implications that Jesus has become our Lord and Savior. To continue to walk in the Spirit is to continue to walk in the righteousness that Christ has given to us through His perfect life. This righteousness in “resisting the flesh isn’t about willpower, but the Spirit’s empowerment.”4 The service of love has direct connect to the righteousness we have obtained through faith in Jesus. “Being redeemed and justified by the Son, we begin to love.”5 Because we have been positionally accepted and spiritually adopted our approval by God is not warranted through works. This reality should free us to love without self ambition or a desire for a reciprocal response. Our love for others is for the good of others in Christ Jesus. As it pertains to love Martin Luther articulates the essence of the Spirit in the life of the believer by saying:
Your brother does not cease to be your brother because he slips or offends you; that is when he has most need of your love. Loving your neighbor as yourself means that you should not obey the sinful nature, which, when it is offended, hates and bites and devours. Rather, you should wrestle against it by the Spirit and continue loving your neighbor, although you find nothing worthy of love in him. Our righteousness is much more abundant than our sin, because the holiness and righteousness of Christ our Mediator far exceeds the sin of the whole world, and the forgiveness of sins that we have through Him is so great that it easily swallows up all our sins, so long as we live by the Spirit.6
Theology of the Flesh:
The Apostle Paul reiterates that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). Paul places these two natures — the sin nature and the Spirit — at odds against one another. They are conflicting counterparts which can not serve the same end or purpose. The term flesh is linked with the language of “desire”, or epithumia, which refers to an “over-desire” or an “inordinate desire.” Now, desire in of itself is not sinful, negative, or unlawful. God has created us to be people with desires. “The main problem our heart has is not so much desires for bad things, but our over desires for good things.”7 Due to the fall our sinful nature has a bent to make good things into ultimate things which leads to idolatry and rebellion against the personhood of God. Through the sin nature these “sinful desires become deep things that drive and control us. Sin creates in us the feeling that we must have this, or that, or the other.”8
Theology of the Spirit:
There is a direct correlation in assuming the “desires of the flesh” alongside the “desires of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). If Paul is insinuating a function within the Holy Spirit the question must be asked: What does the Holy Spirit desire? In our pursuit to better understand Paul’s intentions we must put ourselves under sound biblical theology. Within the Gospel the Spirit functions with the purpose of guiding believers “into all the truth . . . He will glorify [Jesus], for He will take what is [His] and declare it to you” (John 16:13 – 14 ESV). In the context of the Gospel of John what is the truth? Jesus clearly points out that “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6 ESV). The Spirit operates to magnify, exemplify, and glorify the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit’s desire, then, in the believer’s life is to “conform [us] to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29 ESV). “The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectively binds us to Himself.”9
All believers walk with a battle to put to death the nature of the flesh and “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 ESV). This new self is rooted in Christ Jesus to which all believers “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:13 – 14 ESV). Now that we have found life “by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 ESV). As the Spirit encompasses our entire being we have the living God “in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV). Therefore, the church is to live a life of love that exemplifies the work of the cross and the power of the resurrection through the empowerment of the Spirit. The church is to “image God by living in ‘right relationships’ characterized by mutual love, respect, equal regard and concern, justice, and solidarity with others in the work of God in the world.”10
True spirituality is not rooted in monasticism where we seclude ourselves from the world but rather engage the world through the love, sacrifice, and care of Christ Jesus. God has called us to a holistic Gospel that transforms our inner being as well as the fruit to which we bear. “When Jesus is simply Lord over our piety, disciples begin to measure their Christianity in ways that run counter to the Gospel. Vertical disciples unknowingly try to cultivate righteousness on their own apart from Christ.”11 Walking by the Spirit “is inseparable from the stuff of daily life, and inseparable from true humanity. I am never more authentically human than when I am living in functional worship of God and active love for my neighbor.”12 Jesus declared that by love “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV). To this end, ‘serving one another through love becomes, therefore, all about the Spirit: relying upon the Spirit to work in our hearts, so that we can be who God calls us to be for each other and the world.”