Sin, Salvation and the Flesh
SIN, SALVATION AND THE FLESH
by Dr. D. W. Ekstrand
According to the book of Genesis, God placed man in the “Garden of Eden” to be His vice regents on earth. He gave them maximum freedom, authority, and dominion over all the earth (Gen 1:28). There were no apparent restrictions on how they were to do it, except one – they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). The fruit was a tangible symbol of the fact that the man and woman were God’s creatures – they were not God – as such, they were responsible to Him: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:16-17). A contradiction of the veracity of God’s Word is the issue in Satan’s temptation of Eve – “you shall not die” (Gen 3:4-5). Here, then, is the first revelation of sin’s nature and of what is basically wrong with mankind: 1) Sin is unfaithfulness – it is to doubt God’s goodness and truthfulness, leading inevitably to an act of outright rejection; 2) Sin is apostasy – it is rebellion against that sublime nature and destiny God made for man; and 3) Sin is pride – in the woman’s case, it was the conviction that she knew what was better for herself and her husband than God; incidentally, this was the original sin of Satan (Is 14:14). So man’s sinful nature is characterized by the fact that it is faithless, rebellious, and full of pride; sin is everything within our being that is contrary to the expressed will of God (Rom 3:20; 4:15; 7:7; Jam 4:12, 17). The sinfulness of sin lies in the fact that it is “always against God,” whatever the sin may be (Ps 51:4).
The questions arise, “How bad is man? How bad is sin?” Some believe man is only “slightly flawed,” that he is just “sick” – observers differ over how sick he is: acutely, gravely, critically, or mortally. The Bible says man is “dead” (Eph 2:1), that he is “totally flawed.” Furthermore, the tragedy of human existence is overwhelmingly visible to anyone who will honestly view the mounting starvation, suffering, hatred, selfishness, and indifference on our planet. The fall affected every part of man – his spirit died, for his fellowship with God was broken. . . his soul began to die, for he began to lie and cheat and kill. . . his body eventually died, for God had said, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). So man is now alienated from God. . . and that, says John Stott, “is the most dreadful of all sin’s consequences.” The threefold result of man’s alienation is expanded upon by the apostle Paul in Romans 3:10-12 –- 1) “No one is righteous, not one;” that is the essence of the moral side of every man. 2) “No one understands;” sin has also polluted our intellect and our spiritual understanding. 3) “No one seeks for God;” this is the area of our will – we have no desire to come to God; instead we make gods of our own making, in the hope that they will fill the spiritual vacuum in our lives. As Luther says, “We are wholly given over to sin” – we are enslaved to sin (Rom 6:6, 17, 20); therefore, the only proper thing for us to do is to humbly acknowledge our sin, and call upon the eternal God for mercy.
What does “sin” really look like in the heart of man? According to Scripture, man is totally corrupt, and has placed his own interests above all other interests; hence, man is fully “self-centered.” His entire life is totally oriented toward himself – man loves himself; as such, God commands him to “love others!” (Mt 22:39). The sum of all the commandments is “love” – thus sin in its nature is egotistical and selfish; self is put in the place of God (Rom 15:3; 1 Cor 13:5; 2 Tim 3:1-2; 2 Th 2:3-4). By the way, “self love” is one of the signs of the last days (2 Tim 3:2). Ultimately, men have their own self-interests at stake in everything they do; in some way, their intent is always to satisfy and gratify themselves. Paul writes, “Don’t merely look out after your own personal interests, but also look after the interests of others” (Phil 2:4) – why does Paul say this? Because we “naturally” have a self-focus in life, and we need to be reminded to focus on others. Since our number one concern is “us,” everything we do in life is to make us feel good and gain the approval of others; it is natural (that’s the essence of “flesh”) to want others to “like us,” so we behave in ways that elicit favorable responses from others. When people don’t like us, or respond negatively toward us, we become angry, discouraged, depressed, or hurt – because our own “self interests” have been impinged. Remember, every human being operates this way; even the so-called “lovely people” of this world – they are just more disciplined in their behavior than others – the fact is by “nature” we are all sinful and self-centered.
When we became Christians, we obviously experienced a “radical transformation” within us. Scripture tells us that we were “saved from something” and that we were “saved to something.” According to the Bible, we have been “saved from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2); sin is no longer our master, and eternal death is no longer our destiny. The Bible also tells us we have been “saved unto eternal life” – we have been “made alive in Christ,” and we will live and reign with Him forever (Jn 3:16; 10:10; Rom 6:4, 11, 23; 8:9; Eph 1:5; 1 Jn 5:13). If you are a child of God, you are a new creation (Jn 3:3; Rom 6:4; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15); your sins are forever forgiven (Rom 6:23; 8:2-3; Jn 5:24; Eph 4:32); though your sins were as “scarlet,” they have been “white” as snow! (Isaiah 1:18). You have been made righteous with the righteousness of Christ – the very DNA of Christ Himself has been given to you (1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5: 20-21). You are now indwelled by the Holy Spirit, that you might walk in newness of life (intimacy with Christ), just as God intended at the day of creation. As believers we have been re-created! (Jn 14:16-17, 26; 16:13; Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 6:19-20). By the way, though you stumble and mess up over and over and over again, as all of us do, and though you are even faithless at times, God will never abandon you, or give up on you, because You are now “His possession!” (Jn 6:37, 39; 10:11, 14; 1 Cor 6:20; 2 Tim 2:13; Tit 2:14; 1 Pet 1:18-19; 2:9), and He has promised to see the transforming work in your life through to the end! (Ps 138:8; Prv 24:16; Rom 8:28-31; Phil 1:6; 2:12-13; 1 Th 5:24; Heb 13:5; Jam 3:2).
Now, if the foregoing is indeed the case, that He bought you in the “slave-market of sin” and made you His own, you should be an excited, rejoicing, exuberant follower of Christ… and fully engaged in the work of Christ in the world! If you are not fully engaged – why? Are you ashamed of the gospel? (Mk 8:38; Rom 1:16; 2 Tim 1:8, 12, 16; 1 Cor 1:18). If it embarrasses you – study the “cross” – you have lost your focus! If you are disappointed or discouraged in your faith, or are seemingly too weak to fight the good fight or stand for Christ in your area of influence, you have taken your eyes off of Christ, and are once again preoccupied with “yourself.” If that is the case, it is only natural that the things of this world consume you, and the destiny and concerns of others, essentially, are irrelevant issues to you. The remedy for your problem? Stop focusing on yourself! and get your focus back on Christ! (Heb 12:2; 1 Jn 3:3). By the way, this is a very common problem for believers. The fight of faith must be intentionally fought – we must be intentional about eliminating all the clutter and noise in our lives, find a quiet space, still our hearts before God, and actively pursue intimacy with Him. There is no such thing as “spiritual cruise-control” in the Christian life – either you are progressing or you are regressing. Embrace the spiritual disciplines with renewed vigor and regain your focus. Reflect again upon what the Scriptures have to say – James writes, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (Jam 4:8); Jeremiah puts it, “You will find Me when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer 29:13). Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you” (Mt 7:7) — the three present tense verbs Jesus used emphasize the importance of continually asking, seeking, and knocking; spiritual growth is not something that occurs at just “one moment in time,” it is a process that continues throughout your entire life; hence, it is a lifestyle of daily drawing near to the Lord Jesus. God has made our whole-hearted movement toward Him a con-dition of His drawing close to us – though God is ultimately the “First Cause” in our becoming like Christ, the process includes our cooperation, participation and obedience (Phil 1:6; 2:12-13; Heb 11:6).
The reason Christians struggle with obeying Christ is their “flesh” or the “sin principle” within them. The “flesh” or the “sin principle” is referred to by theologians and Scripture as the sin nature, the old nature, the sin disposition, and human nature – in short, it is that part of us that is weak, low, debased, inclined toward evil, and tends toward ungodliness and vice (Mt 7:11; 15:19; Rom 3:9-10; 5:12, 19; 7:14-17, 21; 8:3, 5, 6; Eph 2:1-3; 2 Tim 2:26). Nothing good dwells within the flesh (Rom 7:18). The propensities of the sin nature (“fruit of the flesh”) are immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, and carousings (Gal 5:19-21). Each of these qualities reside in each of us, and these cravings and fleshly desires incite to sin (Mt 26:41; Mk 14:38; Jam 1:14-15). So the flesh of man is inherently corrupt, diabolical, and fully against the rule of God in a person’s life (Gal 5:17) — God and the flesh are diametrically opposed to each other, and they “both” have taken up permanent residency in our lives.
Because the “sin principle within” has some degree of freedom to operate in our minds, its influence at times seems to overwhelm us to the extent that our inner man “strongly identifies with its passions and cravings.” This exerting influence causes some believers to “feel” as though they are not just a “little corrupt,” but “fully corrupt to the core” — as such, they are prone to question whether or not they are really “new creations in Christ;” after all, how could a believer think such sinful thoughts? (a typical questioning strategy of Satan). When “fleshly thoughts” enter our minds, many of us have such a strong tendency to identify with those thoughts, that we actually feel as though “those thoughts” express the essence of who we really are – Satan works at trying to convince us of such. Because the “flesh” is so influential in our minds and hearts, many of us try to “transform our old sinful natures through religious regimen” – but the flesh cannot be transformed, no matter how hard we may try to change it! The truth of the matter is our flesh is actually becoming more corrupt every day! (Eph 4:22), so forget trying to change it! The lack of success in trying to transform it causes many of us to conclude that we (our spirits) are “not being transformed into the image of Christ.” It is extremely important that the believer understands that the flesh and the spirit are “two distinct entities” co-existing within us; and these entities are in direct opposition to each other – complete opposites. We are called to “identify with the spirit” – not the flesh (Rom 6:3-11) – so that our lives are Christlike rather than ungodly (Rom 6:4).
As a believer, what are you to do to combat this problem? First, you have to come to the point where you accept the fact that “your sin nature” is going to accompany you all the way through life, yet you have to realize that “it is no longer the real you” that is now a child of God. Your sin nature is that “sin principle” in you that continually tries to influence your life for evil. The sin nature is extremely stubborn and persistent, and it will never lay down its arms; it operates like a “heat-seeking missile” – when it sees something in your life it wants to hone in on, it fires one of its missiles, and the battle is on! As a believer, you need to be able to look at yourself from outside yourself, in a sense, and see that your sin nature is that part of you that is really not you; though you accept the fact that it is still present in your life… spiritually speaking, your sin nature is no longer the real you (Rom 7:17). So, when it rears its ugly head, you don’t have to think “that’s the real me,” because it is not! This is not a matter of semantics or playing word games. Knowing this fact should cause you be tremendously grateful that it indeed is “no longer you!” It is now just an ugly sinful voice within you that is screaming for attention. On the one hand, the honest transparent admission that “sin dwells in you” is very humbling… on the other hand, it causes you to give God all the praise (Rom 7:25). By the way, for you as a believer to think that your flesh is not going to “desire to do evil” is ludicrous – it is going to! That’s the reality of the sin disposition. Your flesh is like another person (a totally sinful person) who is going to walk beside you throughout your entire life; he is going to talk to you almost non-stop expressing his desires. The good news is, you no longer have to obey your sin nature… or strive to transform it… or be embarrassed by its corruptness... or grieve over how diabolical it is! You are no longer to identify with “the sin nature” within you – because it is no longer YOU! It is just a part of the total package that will accompany you as a participant in the cosmic battle of which you are now a part. By the way, if God didn’t want it in your life – it wouldn’t be there! If He didn’t want you to have to deal with it – He would remove it! This concept is fully developed in my book, “Soul Transformation.”