To hear most Christians talk about it, you’d think that sins are something we should actively avoid committing. When the street preachers here in Toronto give their sermons, the focus is always on sin and how our sinful actions will send us to an afterlife realm called “hell” if we don’t get our sin dealt with by “getting saved” in the manner the preachers believe one needs to do so in (completely missing the fact that Christ’s death for our sins in the Gospel is a proclamation, not a proposition, and that sin has already been taken care of for everyone whether they believe it or not). And if you talk to them one-on-one you’ll discover they believe that, even after we ”get saved,” we still need to do our best to avoid certain actions the preachers consider to be sinful (as well as do certain things they consider to be commanded of us). Following rules is basically the foundation of their entire religion, and so when they attempt to interpret passages such as the following ones, they’ll tell you Paul was explaining how we need to try to do good, spiritual acts while trying to avoid fleshly, sinful acts:
Nothing, consequently, is now condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. Not according to flesh are they walking, but according to spirit, for the spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus frees you from the law of sin and death. For what was impossible to the law, in which it was infirm through the flesh, did God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sin’s flesh and concerning sin, He condemns sin in the flesh, that the just requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who are not walking in accord with flesh, but in accord with spirit. For those who are in accord with flesh are disposed to that which is of the flesh, yet those who are in accord with spirit to that which is of the spirit. For the disposition of the flesh is death, yet the disposition of the spirit is life and peace, because the disposition of the flesh is enmity to God, for it is not subject to the law of God, for neither is it able. Now those who are in flesh are not able to please God. Yet you are not in flesh, but in spirit, if so be that God’s spirit is making its home in you. Now if anyone has not Christ’s spirit, this one is not His. Now if Christ is in you, the body, indeed, is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is life because of righteousness. – Romans 8:1-10 (Concordant Literal Version)
Now I am saying, Walk in spirit, and you should under no circumstances be consummating the lust of the flesh. For the flesh is lusting against the spirit, yet the spirit against the flesh. Now these are opposing one another, lest you should be doing whatever you may want. Now, if you are led by spirit, you are not still under law. Now apparent are the works of the flesh, which are adultery, prostitution, uncleanness, wantonness, idolatry, enchantment, enmities, strife, jealousies, furies, factions, dissensions, sects, envies, murders, drunkennesses, revelries, and the like of these, which, I am predicting to you, according as I predicted also, that those committing such things shall not be enjoying the allotment of the kingdom of God. Now the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control: against such things there is no law. Now those of Christ Jesus crucify the flesh together with its passions, and lusts. If we may be living in spirit, in spirit we may be observing the elements also. – Galatians 5:16-25 (Concordant Literal Version)
While Paul is indeed telling his readers they shouldn’t be walking according to flesh — and what the consequences of doing so might be — in those verses, that he isn’t telling people to try to actively avoid sinning should be very obvious to anyone who considers the context of the passages. Unfortunately, most Christians are so obsessed with religious rules that they’ve actually made Sin their lord, which keeps them from being able to grasp what Paul actually taught about the topic of sin at all.
So what was Paul talking about in those passages? Well, if you ask any Christian who has studied Paul’s epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, they should be able to tell you that a large part of both books is about how we’re not under the law, and how we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be placed under it at all. The problem is, when they get to passages that talk about ”the flesh,” most Christians immediately forget this fact and proceed to completely ignore the context of the passages, reading their love of religious rules into the passages instead. Following religious rules isn’t even close to what Paul was talking about when he wrote warnings about walking in accord with the flesh, however. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Even though the context of those passages should make it obvious, it can help to read an entirely different passage written by Paul, one which can serve as the key to understanding the other times he writes about the flesh. In Philippians 3:1-11, Paul is warning his readers against having confidence in their flesh — by which he means trying to be righteous by following rules — telling them they should instead be trusting in the faith of Christ for their righteousness rather than in their own actions.
This, along with the context of not being under the law (and the fact that Paul compares walking according to spirit with not following the law), should make it clear that Paul was actually telling people to stop trying to follow (and enforce) any religious rules at all, because trying to follow religious rules is what it actually means to walk according to flesh. (This includes the 10 Commandments, by the way, which are indeed a part of the Mosaic law, as Paul made clear by referencing the 10th commandment when he wrote Romans 7:7-9 as a part of his teaching that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be placed under any parts of the law.) So if you are actively trying to avoid (or even do) specific actions in order to please God, you’re actually walking according to flesh. He then contrasts the concept of walking according to flesh with the concept of walking according to spirit. But what does it mean to walk according to spirit? Well, if walking according to flesh means trying to follow religious rules, walking according to spirit must necessarily mean we aren’t trying to follow religious rules. Those who are walking according to spirit are instead trusting that Christ will live the life He wants us to live through us, and will end up doing the things God wants us to do and avoiding the things God wants us to avoid Himself through us. It’s only when we start walking according to flesh, meaning we start worrying about religion and trying to follow rules and prohibitions, that we begin doing the very things that God doesn’t want us to do, because trying to follow religious rules (be it the Mosaic law, or any other form of religious rules) only leads to more sin.
At this point most Christians will protest and say that, while we aren’t under the Mosaic law itself, there are still other rules in the Bible we need to follow, but in making such claims they’re ignoring everything Paul taught throughout his epistles. You see, the reason we don’t follow the Mosaic law isn’t because there’s anything wrong with the specific rules in the law themselves. The commandment which says “thou shalt not murder” is not a bad rule. Which means that it isn’t simply the specific rules in the Mosaic law we aren’t supposed to follow, but rather it’s trying to follow religious rules in general that we aren’t supposed to do.
Which brings us to the next protestation most Christians will make. “What about the long list of sins Paul mentioned in the passage in Galatians? Wasn’t he telling his readers to do their best to avoid those specific actions?” The answer to this will shock most people, but no, he most certainly wasn’t. If walking according to flesh means trying to follow religious rules, how could Paul possibly then turn around and say, ”but make sure you don’t break these specific religious rules, okay?” Instead, if you look at the context, it becomes clear that he’s warning his readers what will happen if they try to avoid sinning. Instead of becoming the holy, righteous people they hope that avoiding those specific actions will make them, those actions are instead exactly what they’ll end up doing. Just as positive attributes like love, joy, and peace are the fruit of walking according to spirit, the various negative actions Paul listed there are the fruit of walking according to flesh, meaning those actions are the fruit that will come forth from trying to follow religious rules.
And so, Paul’s condemnation in Romans 10:2-3 can equally be applied to Christians today: “For I am testifying to them that they have a zeal of God, but not in accord with recognition. For they, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, were not subjected to the righteousness of God.”
There’s a ton more that can be told about this topic than I have the time to tell today (I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of the subject), but my friend Martin Zender has written some excellent material in his series of articles on Romans that says it even better than I ever could, so rather than try to reinvent the wheel, I’m going to instead direct you to a few of the articles (and you can find even more by searching for “Romans” in the ZWTF Archives) where he goes into some great details on the topic of sin, the old humanity, and walking according to spirit rather than according to flesh:
- Vol. 4, Issue 6: Romans Part 51, Chapter 6:1-7: Death of the Old Humanity, Part 1
- Vol. 4, Issue 8: Romans Part 52, Chapter 6:8-11: Death of the Old Humanity, Part 2
- Vol. 4, Issue 13: Romans Part 53, Chapter 6:12-14: Death of the Old Humanity, Part 3
- Vol. 4, Issue 14: Romans Part 54, Chapter 6:15-16: Death of the Old Humanity, Part 4
- Vol. 4, Issue 15: Romans Part 55, Chapter 6:17-19: Death of the Old Humanity, Part 5
- Vol. 4, Issue 16: Romans Part 56, Chapter 6:20-23: Death of the Old Humanity, Part 6
- Vol. 4, Issue 26: Romans Part 60, Chapter 8:1-2: Walking According to Spirit
- Vol. 4, Issue 27: Romans Part 61, Chapter 8:3-9: “FLESH” in Romans 8