The Other Side of the Flesh
Do the works of the flesh include only what we hitherto mentioned? Or are there other fleshly works? Is the flesh now inactivated under the power of the cross?
Up to this point what we have stressed has been the sins of the flesh which are the lusts of the human body. But our attention now needs to be drawn to another side of the flesh. You will recall we stated earlier that the flesh comprises the works of the soul as well as the lusts of the body. Thus far we have touched upon the body side only, leaving the soul side nearly unscathed. The believer, it is quite true, must rid himself of the defiling sins of the body, but he also needs to resist the works of his soul; for these are no less corrupt in the eyes of God than the sins of the body.
According to the Bible the works of the "flesh" are of two kinds (though both are of the flesh) : the unrighteous and the self-righteous. The flesh can produce not only defiling sins but also commendable morals: not only the base and the ignoble but the high and noble as well: not only sinful lust but good intention too. It is this latter side to which we must address ourselves now.
The Scriptures employ the word "flesh" to describe man’s corrupt nature or life which embraces soul and body. In the creative act of God soul is placed between spirit and body, that is, between what is heavenly or spiritual and what is earthly or physical. Its duty is to mingle these two, according each its proper place yet making them intercommunicative, that through such perfect harmony man ultimately may attain full spirituality. Unfortunately the soul yielded to temptation which arose from the physical organs, thus releasing itself from the authority of the spirit and embracing instead the control of the body. Soul and body accordingly were joined together to be flesh. Not only is the flesh "devoid of the spirit"; it also is directly opposed to the spirit. The Bible consequently asserts that the "flesh lusts against the spirit" (Gal. 5.17 literal).
The opposition manifested by the flesh against the spirit and against the Holy Spirit is two-fold: (1) by way of committing sin—rebelling against God and breaking the law of God; and (2) by way of performing good—obeying God and following the will of God. The body element of the flesh, full of sin and lust, naturally cannot but express itself in many sins, much to the grief of the Holy Spirit. The soul part of the flesh, however, is not as defiled as the body. Soul is the life principle of man; it is his very self, comprising the faculties of will, mind and emotion. From the human viewpoint the works of the soul may not be all defiled. They merely center upon one’s thought, idea, feeling, and like or dislike. Though these all are focused upon self, they are not necessarily defiling sins. The basic characteristic of the works of the soul is independence or self-dependence. Even though the soul side is therefore not as defiled as the body side, it nonetheless is hostile to the Holy Spirit. The flesh makes self the center and elevates self-will above God’s will. It may serve God, but always according to its idea, not according to God’s. It will do what is good in its own eyes. Self is the principle behind every action. It may not commit what man considers sin: it may even try to keep God’s commandments with all its power: yet "self" never fails to be at the heart of every activity. Who can fathom the deceitfulness and vitality of this self? The flesh opposes the spirit not just in sinning against God, but now even in the matter of serving Him and pleasing Him. It opposes and quenches the Holy Spirit by leaning upon its own strength without wholly relying upon God’s grace and simply being led by the Spirit.
We can find many believers around us who are by nature good and patient and loving. Now what the believer hates is sin; therefore if he can be delivered from it and from the works of the flesh as described in Galatians 5, verses 19 through 21, then is he content. But what the believer admires is righteousness; therefore he will try hard to act righteously, longing to possess the fruits of Galatians 5, verses 22 and 23. Yet, just here lies the danger. For the Christian has not come to learn how to hate the totality of his flesh. He merely desires to be liberated from the sins which spring from it. He knows how to resist somewhat the deeds of the flesh, but he does not realize that the entire flesh itself needs to be destroyed. What deceives him is that the flesh not only can produce sin but can also perform good. If it is still doing good it is evident it is yet alive. Had the flesh definitely died the believer’s ability both to do good and to do evil would have perished with it. An ability to undertake good manifests that the flesh has not yet died.
We know that men originally belong to the flesh. The Bible distinctly teaches that there is no one in the world who is not of the flesh, for every sinner is born of the flesh. But we additionally recognize that many, before they are born anew, and even many who in their lifetime never believe in the Lord, have performed and continue to perform many commendable acts. Some seem to be naturally born with kindness, patience or goodness. Notice what the Lord Jesus says to Nicodemus (John 3.6); though the latter man is so good naturally, he is nonetheless regarded as of the flesh. This confirms that the flesh can indeed do good.
From the letter of Paul to the Galatians, we once more can see that the flesh is capable of doing good. "Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (3.3). God’s children in Galatia had descended into the error of doing good by the flesh. They had begun in the Holy Spirit; they did not continue therein to be made perfect. They wanted instead to be perfected through their righteousness, even the righteousness according to law. Hence it was that the Apostle put such a question to them. If the flesh in the Galatian believers could only do evil, Paul would not have needed to pose such a question, because they themselves would have known only too well that the sins of the flesh could not possibly perfect what was begun in the Holy Spirit. That they desired to perfect with their flesh what the Holy Spirit had initiated proves that to arrive at a perfect position they were depending upon the ability of their flesh to do good. They had truly made an arduous attempt to do good, but the Apostle shows us here that the righteous acts of the flesh and the works of the Holy Spirit are worlds apart. What one does by the flesh is done by himself. It can never perfect what the Holy Spirit has begun.
In the preceding chapter the Apostle can be found uttering another weighty word on this: "But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor" (2.18). He was pointing at those who, having been saved and having received the Holy Spirit, still insisted on gaining righteousness according to law (vv.16,17,21) through their own flesh. We have been saved through faith in the Lord and not through our works: these are what Paul meant by the things torn down. We know that he always had thrown down the works of sinners, treating such deeds as absolutely valueless in anyone’s salvation. Now if by doing righteously we try to "build up again those things" which we have destroyed, then, Paul concludes, "we prove ourselves a transgressor." The Apostle is hence telling us that inasmuch as sinners cannot be saved through their efforts, so we who have been regenerated likewise cannot be perfected through any righteous acts of our flesh. How vain do such righteous deeds continue to be!
Romans 8 maintains that "those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (v.8). It implies that the fleshly have tried, but unsuccessfully, to please God. This of course refers specifically to the righteous acts of the flesh which utterly fail to please God. Let us become profoundly informed here of precisely what the flesh is able to do: it is able to perform righteous deeds, and to do them expertly. We often conceive of the flesh in terms of lust; we consequently consider it strictly defiled, not realizing that it includes more than the lust side.
The activities of the various faculties of the soul may not be as defiled as lust. Furthermore, "lust" as sometimes used in the Bible has no connotation of defilement, as for example, "the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh" in Galatians 5.17 (Darby). We see that the Spirit also lusts—against the flesh. Lust in this instance simply conveys the idea of an intense desire.
All which one does or is able to do before regeneration is but the efforts of the flesh. Thus it can do good as well as evil. The error the believer makes lies right here in that he only knows that the evil of the flesh must be destroyed without appreciating that the good of the flesh needs to be done away with as well. He is unaware of the fact that the righteousness of the flesh belongs as much to the flesh as its evil. The flesh remains flesh, no matter how good or how bad. What imperils a Christian is his ignorance of, or his reluctance to face up to, the necessity of ridding himself of everything of the flesh, including what is good. He must positively recognize that the good of the flesh is not one bit more presentable than its evil, for both pertain to the flesh. Unless the good flesh is dealt with no Christian can ever hope to be freed from the dominion of the flesh. For by letting his flesh do good he will soon find it working evil. If its self-righteousness is not destroyed, unrighteousness shall surely follow.
The Nature of the Good Works of the Flesh
God opposes the flesh so drastically because He knows its actual condition thoroughly. He desires His children to be released completely from the old creation and enter fully upon the new in experience. Whether good or bad, flesh is still flesh. The difference between the good which proceeds from the flesh and the good which flows from the new life is that the flesh always has self at its center. It is my self who can perform and does perform good without the need of trusting in the Holy Spirit, without the necessity of being humble, of waiting on God, or of praying to God. Since it is I who wills and thinks and does without the need of God and who consequently considers how improved I am or how truly a somebody I have now become through my own efforts, is it not inevitable that I shall ascribe glory to myself? Obviously such deeds do not bring people to God; instead they puff up the self. God wants everyone to come to Him in a spirit of utter dependency, completely submissive to His Holy Spirit, and humbly waiting upon Him. Any good of the flesh which revolves around self is an abomination in the sight of God, for it does not proceed from the Spirit of the life of the Lord Jesus but is of self and glorifies self.
The Apostle protests in his Philippian letter that he "put no confidence in the flesh" (3.3). It tends to be self-confident. Because they themselves are so able, the fleshly do not need to trust in the Holy Spirit. Christ crucified is the wisdom of God, but how much confidence a believer reposes in his own wisdom! He can read and preach the Bible, he can hear and believe the Word, but all are executed in the power of his mind, without experiencing the slightest inner registration of a need to depend absolutely upon the instruction of the Holy Spirit. Many therefore believe they possess all the truth, though what they have comes merely from hearing others or from themselves searching the Scriptures. What is of man far exceeds what is of God. They do not have a heart to receive instruction from Him or to wait upon the Lord to reveal to them His truth in His light.
Christ crucified is also the power of God. But how much self-reliance obtains in Christian service. More effort is exerted in planning and arranging than in waiting upon the Lord. Double is the time expended on preparing the division and conclusion of a sermon than on receiving the power from on high. Yet not because the truth is unproclaimed or the person and work of Christ is unconfessed or the glory of God is unsought do all these works become dead before God, but because there is so much trust in the flesh. How we stress human wisdom and strive for satisfactory arguments in our messages: how we use appropriate illustrations and diverse other means to stir men’s emotions: how we employ wise exhortations to induce men to make decisions! But where are the practical results? To what degree do we rely upon the Holy Spirit and to what degree upon the flesh? How can the flesh ever impart life to others? Is there actually any power in the old creation which can qualify people to inherit a part in the new creation?
Self-confidence and self-reliance, as we have said, are the notable traits of the good works of the flesh. It is impossible for the flesh to lean upon God. It is too impatient to tolerate any delay. So long as it deems itself strong it will never depend upon God. Even in a time of desperation the flesh continues to scheme and to search for a loophole. It never has the sense of utter dependency. This alone can be a test whereby a believer may know whether or not a work is of the flesh. Whatever does not issue from waiting upon God, from depending upon the Holy Spirit, is unquestionably of the flesh. Whatever one decides according to his pleasure in lieu of seeking the will of God emanates from the flesh. Whenever a heart of utter trust is lacking, there is the labor of the flesh. Now the things done may not be evil or improper; they in fact may be good and godly (such as reading the Bible, praying, worshiping, preaching); but if they are not undertaken in a spirit of complete reliance upon the Holy Spirit, then the flesh is the source of all. The old creation is willing to do anything—even to submit to God—if only it is permitted to live and to be active! However good the deed of the flesh may appear to be, "I", whether veiled or seen, always looms large on the horizon. The flesh never acknowledges its weakness nor admits to its uselessness; even should it become a laughingstock, the flesh remains unshaken in the belief in its ability.
"Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" This uncovers a great truth. One may begin well, in the Spirit, but not continue well therein. Our experience bears out the fact of the relative ease with which a thing may begin in the Spirit but end up in the flesh. Often a newly apprehended truth is imparted by the Holy Spirit; after awhile, however, this truth has turned into a boasting of the flesh. The Jews in the early days committed just such an error. How frequently in the matters of obeying the Lord, of denying one’s self afresh, of receiving power to save souls, one genuinely may rely upon the Holy Spirit at the outset; yet not long afterwards that same person changes God’s grace into his own glory, treating what is of God as his possession. The same principle holds true in our conduct. Through the working of the Holy Spirit at the beginning there occurs a mighty transformation in one’s life whereby he loves what he previously hated and hates what he loved before. Gradually, though, "self" begins to creep in unawares. The person increasingly interprets these changes to be of his making and unto his own admiration; or he grows careless and gradually pushes on by self-trust rather than by dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Thousands of matters there are in the experiences of believers which begin well in the Spirit but terminate unfortunately in the flesh.
Why is it that many of God’s dear children eagerly seek a wholly consecrated walk and most earnestly desire the more abundant life but nevertheless fail? Often when listening to messages, conversing with people, reading spiritual books, or praying privately, the Lord makes known to them how perfectly possible it is to have a life of fullness in the Lord. They are made to sense the simplicity and sweetness of such a life and they see no obstacle in the way to their securing it. Indeed they experience a blessing with power and glory which they have never before known. Oh, how good it is! But alas, how soon it all vanishes. Why? How? Is it because their faith is imperfect? Or their consecration not absolute? Surely their faith and consecration have been utterly towards the Lord. Then why such a failure? What is the reason for losing the experience and how can it be restored? The answer is simple and definite. They are trusting in the flesh and trying to make perfect by the flesh what was begun in the Spirit. They are substituting self for the Spirit. Self desires to lead the way while hoping that the Holy Spirit will come alongside and assist. The position and work of the Spirit have been replaced by that of the flesh. Absent is that complete reliance upon the Spirit’s leading for accomplishment. Absent also is a necessary waiting upon the Lord. Attempting to follow Him without denying the self is the root of all failures.
The Sins Which Follow
Should a believer be so self-confident that he dares to complete the task of the Holy Spirit in the energy of the flesh, he will not come into full spiritual maturity. He will instead drift until the sins he previously had overcome return to him again in power. Do not be surprised by what is said here. It is a spiritual truism that wherever or whenever the flesh is serving God, there and then the power of sin is strengthened. Why did the proud Pharisees become slaves to sin? Was it not because they were too self-righteous and served God too zealously? Why did the Apostle chide the Galatians? Why did they manifest the deeds of the flesh? Was it not because they sought to establish their own righteousness by works and to perfect by the flesh the work which the Holy Spirit had begun? The hazard for young believers is to stop short of the putting to death of the power of the flesh in doing good by only knowing what the cross does for the sinful side of the flesh. In so doing they retreat again into the sins of the flesh. The greatest blunder Christians commit upon experiencing victory over sin lies in not using the way of victory to sustain it; instead they try to perpetuate the victory by their works and determination. It may perhaps succeed for a while. Before long though they shall find themselves sliding back into their former sins, which may differ in form but not in essence. They then either slump into despair by concluding that constant and persistent triumph is impossible to achieve or they try to camouflage their sins without honestly confessing that they have sinned. Now what is it that causes such failure? Just as the flesh gives you strength to do righteously so it also gives you the power to sin. Whether good acts or evil, all are but the expressions of the same flesh. If the flesh is not furnished opportunity to sin, it is willing to do good; and if once the opportunity to perform good is provided, the flesh will soon revert to sin.
Here Satan deceives God’s children. If believers would habitually maintain the attitude of the flesh being crucified Satan could have no chance; for "the flesh is Satan’s workshop." If the flesh in whole, not just in part, is truly under the power of the death of the Lord, Satan will be totally dis-employed. He is consequently willing to allow the sinful part of our flesh to be offered unto death if he may only deceive us into retaining the good part. Satan is quite aware that should the good side remain intact the life of the flesh will continue to be kept alive. He still has a base from which to operate to recover that side which he has lost. He knows very well that the flesh could win and regain its victory in the realm of sin if the flesh succeeded in squeezing the Holy Spirit out in the matter of serving God. This explains why many Christians fall back into the service of sin after they have been set free. Should the spirit not actually be in complete and continuous control in the matter of worship, it will be unable to maintain dominion in daily life. If I have not yet entirely denied myself before God I cannot deny myself before men, and therefore I cannot overcome my hatred, temper and selfishness. These two are inseparable.
Through ignorance of this truth, the believers at Galatia fell into "biting and devouring one another" (Gal. 5.15). They attempted to perfect by the flesh what had been begun by the Holy Spirit, for they desired "to make a good showing in the flesh" in order that "they might glory in (their) flesh" (6.12,13). Naturally their successes were very scanty in performing good by the flesh, while their failures in overcoming evil became quite numerous. Little did they realize that as long as they would serve God with their strength and ideas they doubtlessly would serve sin in the flesh. If they did not forbid the flesh to do good they could not prevent it from doing evil. The best way to keep from sinning is not to do any good by one’s self. Being unconscious of the utter corruption of the flesh, the Galatian believers in their foolishness wished to make use of it, not recognizing that the same corruption marked the flesh in boasting of doing good as in following lust. They could not do what God wanted them to do because on the one hand they tried to accomplish what the Holy Spirit had begun and on the other they vainly attempted to rid themselves of the passion and lust of the flesh.