the Christian life

The War Against the Flesh: Romans 6, 7, and 8
by Carol Berubee

We will examine the Biblical truth about sin, the flesh, and the Christian. We are free from the law of sin and death, so why do we try to fight our sin? Are we to live under the Law or in Christ Jesus?

Most of us as Christians have been taught that we must fight against our flesh, to wage war over our sin. This sounds right, it sounds Biblical, but in so doing, we are only setting ourselves up to fail, and, I believe, to fall into a trap of sin and self-righteousness, a Pharisaical quagmire.

Many point to the apostle Paul's writing in Romans 7 as proof that even he struggled against his flesh and went to battle against his sinful nature. However, a careful study of Paul's writings will show that that is not the Christian life of which he spoke.

In Romans 6, he clearly says that "our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin" (vv. 6-7). He goes on to say that "sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace" (v. 14), and "having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (v. 18).

Then, in chapter 7, he uses marriage to illustrate. In speaking to Jews who were under the Law, he shows that as long as a woman is married to her husband, she is under her husband, but if her husband dies, she is free from him. In chapter 6, he says that the Christian is free from the Law, which brings death, and free to live in righteousness, which brings life. Now, in chapter 7, he says that the Christian has "become dead to the Law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another -- to Him who was raised from the dead."

If we say we are married to Christ, but continue to put ourselves under the Law, we are adulteresses. If we continue to pledge our lives to the first husband, then we are not being faithful to our new husband, Christ Jesus our Lord. As Gentiles, who were never under the Law in the first place (Psalm 147:19; Malachi 4:4; Romans 2:14, 9:4), this is profound. There is no reason for us to try to live up to the Law.

In chapter 7, verse 5, Paul says that when we were "in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the Law were at work in our members..." The Law arouses sinful desires and brings death, but if we are crucified with Christ, we are dead to the Law and alive to Christ and His righteousness.

In verses 7 through 12, Paul says that he would not have known sin except that the Law showed him his sin. Paul calls the Law "good" for two reasons. One, it is a revelation of the perfect holiness of God; and two, it makes sin exceedingly sinful, plain for all to see (Romans 7:13). But in Christ, we are not under the Law (Galatians 3:24-25).

In verses 14 through 24, Paul says that it is "the sin that dwells in [him]" that wars against his spirit. In this section, he is saying that if we try to live by the flesh and do what is right, we will fail ("...but how to perform what is good I do not find" [v. 18]), for the flesh is sinful and cannot do what is right. But Paul says when he sins, it is not him, but his flesh that sins. He is saying that he is a new creation in Christ, so that he is no longer identified by his flesh as he used to be, but is now identified in Christ. If he sins, it is not he (Paul in Christ) who sins, but the flesh.

In verse 24, he asks the question: "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" We've already seen in chapter 6 that the Christian has been freed from indwelling sin (v. 7), so to what body of death is Paul referring? This tent, this body in which our new soul/spirit live, is still weighing us down. The flesh manifests itself in this body and Paul longs to be free of it. He says that Jesus Christ our Lord has delivered us from this body of death (v. 25), but notice that he says that it is "through" Christ that we are delivered.

The Christian life is always through Christ, not us. This is the whole point of Romans 7. Paul is explaining that we have died to indwelling sin, the old Adam nature, and are now alive in Christ. However, the flesh remains and some day we will even by free from that (when we receive our new bodies), but in the meantime, we are free through Christ. The sin that takes place is not of us, but of the flesh, which can never be tamed by the Law.

In chapter 8, Paul says, "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law [power] of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law [power] of sin and death" (vv. 1-2). We walk in the Spirit because we are in Christ, new creations, born again of the Spirit. In verse 9, Paul explains that we "are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you." If you are born again, the Spirit dwells in you, so you walk according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh.

So, why do we continue to battle the flesh? Why do we continue to wage war against the old nature? Paul says that there is a war going on between the law of sin and his new nature; yet, he says that he walks according to the Spirit and whatever sin occurs is not done by him but by his flesh.

How is it that we are to respond to sin in our lives? According to Romans 6, our old man has been crucified, so what are we doing going to battle against a dead enemy? What soldier continues to fight against a soldier who has already been killed? Why would we repeatedly pick up that dead enemy? Would that not keep us from pressing forward? Wouldn't that dead enemy distract us from what the Lord would have us do going forward? If He has rendered the old nature dead, why do we keep looking at it, fighting it, picking it up and dragging it around?

While Paul acknowledges that the battle continues, he knows that the enemy has been reckoned dead by Christ, so he moves forward. He knows that the battle is the Lord's, not ours. God saved us by His grace and rendered that old nature dead, and God continues to do that by His grace. We get the picture of Paul being pestered by the enemy but always moving forward, away from the enemy, knowing that the enemy only has power over him as long as he stops to do battle with him.

Like the woman of Romans 7 who is now married to another, he moves on, not dwelling on the dead spouse. If the woman continues to act as if she is married to a dead man, how is she going to have a married life with her new husband? We must move forward, pressing on.

Hear what Paul says to the Philippians: "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (vv. 13-14).

What are the consequences of doing battle with a dead enemy? When we stop to fight our flesh, we get caught up in it. We focus on our sin rather than the glory of Christ. When we focus on our sin, we give power to it and inevitably give in to it. When we always look at it, it tempts us; sin lures us in when we give attention to it. And when we constantly look at ourselves, we forget what God has already done. When we try to do battle against the flesh, we inevitably do battle by our flesh, which leads to self-righteousness. Somehow we think that we must confront our flesh if we are to be pleasing to God, but God says it is faith that pleases Him. We have faith that Christ has already done the work.

"And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross... Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility...and not holding fast to the Head... Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations...? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 2:13-3:3).

Rather than focus on our flesh and our sins, we must focus on Christ. When we focus on our flesh and try to make it conform, we only set ourselves up to fail and that leads to further guilt and self-condemnation. And when it does seem like we are winning the battle, we get puffed up and self-righteous, which goes before a fall. Instead, we are to focus on God and things above. When we do that, we do not give attention to the flesh. When we meditate on who we are in Christ and we walk in the Spirit, we do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Galatians 5:16, Romans 13:14).

"For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law... Against [the fruit of the Spirit] there is no law. And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another [through self-righteousness], envying one another" (Galatians 5:17-18, 23-26).

The Spirit and the Law are contrary to one another because the Law works through the flesh. Therefore, if we are the Spirit's and we live by the Spirit, then there is no reason to live by the Law; in fact, trying to put the flesh under the Law is impossible (Romans 8:7-8), and trying to subject the spirit to the Law is against everything that Christ has done.