Monday, February 26, 2018

The Flesh in Romans: How It Relates to Works of the Law and Works of Evil

When interpreting Romans (and Galatians), Paul discusses the flesh in terms of both doing evil and obeying the law, sometimes in the very same paragraphs. This contextual proximity can be confusing and needs to be sorted out. It seems that either the flesh, which we automatically understand to be bad thing, either makes people do really bad things, or it keeps the law from being effective for salvation.  But we don't always intuit that those two things are exactly the same. How can someone who is trying to obey God's law be credited with the same problem as those engaging in the worst possible acts of sin?  Picture for instance two people--a hypocritical pharisee and a back alley murderer.  Obviously they are both bad people in Scriptural terms.  But in what way is the flesh at the root of both their disparate problems?

The Flesh

To clear this up, let's first define the flesh. For the most part, Paul's term refers to the unregenerate state and/or the ways of life that go along with it. As such, it includes 1) a person’s total corruption (meriting God’s wrath), 2) their inescapable slavery to sin, and 3) their merely external righteousness, which is in fact no righteousness at all. When the unregenerate do religion and righteousness, even when it is God’s law, it amounts to little more than a fruitless idolatry that falls far short of true virtue.

When the flesh is used with respect to Christians, Paul is not automatically implying they are unregenerate. He is warning against ways of life that normally go along with the unregenerate state. We can gather that professed Christians who persist in such ways of life should have their regeneration called into question.  Hence, "if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" ( Romans 8:13 ESV).

The Flesh and the Works of the Law vs. The Flesh and Works of Evil. 

The flesh is discussed in terms of its relationship to horrendous works of evil and also to efforts to obey the the law. It is responsible for both hostility to God that keeps people from obeying the law (Romans 8:7-8)--the back alley murderer--and for the disobedience of those who apparently "serve the law of God with my mind" (Romans 7:25)--the hypocritical pharisee. We know that the reason people like the pharisee cannot obey the law is because they are unregenerate, but why are these discussed in the same breath as those the flesh has led to commit acts of murder and hatred?  It's clear enough that works of the law cannot save because of the flesh, but how does it appear that the same flesh necessarily results in horrendous works of evil? I mean, it is one thing to be a murderer, but it is quite another to be miserable failure.  Yet both are credited to the flesh almost as if they were so of a kind that they should not be qualitatively separated. 

The Flesh and Works of Evil

With regard to works of evil, the flesh sets its mind on the things of the flesh (Romans 8:5-8). These things are spelled out early in Romans and in convenient detail in Galatians (see 5:16-25): “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  All this evil is due the unregenerate state of the corrupt and enslaved human soul.

The Flesh and Works of the Law

On the other hand, the flesh also impacts the unregenerate relationship to God’s law. With regard to righteousness (God’s law), the flesh can only serve in the old way of the written code and not in the new way of the Spirit (Romans 7:6). What is this "old way of the written code?"

The old way of the written code is "unregenerate law keeping," or in other words, loveless lawfulness, or perhaps even lawful lovelessness. The law is a form of righteousness that is by its nature (and theirs) external to the unregenerate. It serves to demonstrate the corruption of the unregenerate heart. On the other hand,  the regenerate have been born again with a heart of love. This love is both the measure of and the motivation for true righteousness. Since the heart of the law is love, the law cannot be obeyed without love in the human heart. Only the Spirit can pour this love into the human heart (Romans 5:5).  Only the Spirit can change corruption into lawful love and love-filled law. Only the Spirit can produce obedience according to "the new way of the Spirit."

Therefore, the old way of the written code is any effort to obey God’s law from an unregenerate heart--a heart utterly incapable of true virtue. Such loveless lawfulness inevitably produces mutations of sanctimony and monsters of hypocrisy--miscreations that exemplify and disseminate both the pride and misery of the flesh

How the Two Tie Together

The flesh may try to accomplish righteousness--it may have a “zeal for God”--but it will never succeed. To whatever extent it is lawful, it will always and only be loveless. The unregenerate appearance of lawfulness will always be interrupted by instances of evil. Contrariwise, patterns of evil will be frequently punctuated by instances of apparent lawfulness. The flesh insures that all unregenerate righteousness is tainted by evil, and it covers over evil with the appearance of unregenerate righteousness.  

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