In Acts 18:11 Paul spreads the gospel in Corinth and plants a church with the help of Aquila, Priscilla, Silas, Timothy, and Crispus. During his second missionary journey out of Antioch he spent about 1.5 years in Corinth and then wrote this letter to them probably a year or so later. Corinth was the 3rd largest Roman city, it was wealthy, and it was a hub of culture, merchants, philosophy, and religions.
Carnal speaks of our flesh and comes from the greek word σαρξ (sarx) which refers to our sinful nature or slavery to sin. We should not think of flesh as speaking about our natural bodies. John Chrysostom (“golden mouth”, early church’s greatest preacher) in the late 4th century wrote of the flesh as the depraved will, meaning that our nature and will are in slavery to sin.
A year or so later the Corinthians are still carnal (1 Corinthians 3:3), they have not matured.
What kind of letter would you receive from your pastor or mentor in a similar situation?
Like the Corinthians, we are prone to listen to the wisdom of this age as opposed to diligently going counterculture and pursuing God’s wisdom. Instead of being dead to the flesh, we live in it. Instead of living in the Spirit, we deny it and often oppose it. Far too often we fill our minds with the desires of the flesh, even though, spiritually, we want to be more mature and Christlike.
Romans 7: The Battle Between the Flesh and the Spirit
Paul understands our battle and talks about it at length in Romans 7.
He begins with a marriage analogy: Imagine a woman married to her dear husband – Mr. Law of Sin and Death. While he’s alive, she cannot belong to another. If so she would be an adulteress. But when death occurs, the marriage law is broken. She can legally belong to another now.
At salvation our flesh/carnal/sinful nature was dealt a deathblow as our spirit was brought to life by the Holy Spirit. We are no longer married to Mr. Law of Sin and Death. In the KJV Romans 7:4 says that we are “married to another” “to Him who is raised from the dead.”
This is great! We are no longer sinners…our flesh is dead and done…or is it?
Of course not and Paul surely doesn’t leave us hanging there. Romans doesn’t end at chapter 7!
In Romans 7:14-25 Paul walks us through what seems to be a schizophrenic break down. In the flesh (Romans 7:14-15) he does what he doesn’t want to do/what he hates. The law shows it to be wrong and he agrees but the flesh keeps on rebelling.
Have you ever been there? Maybe even once or twice this week?
Sin still dwells in our flesh and our flesh has no ability to carry out the good that we desire to do (Romans 7:18-19). In his spirit, Paul desires to carry out God’s righteous law but the law of sin in the flesh is in constant rebellion to the renewed mind and spirit (Romans 7:21-23).
Paul pauses to reflect at the point where we often give up in despair (because we don’t know what to do or we don’t understand the battle): What a wretch that I am, how can I escape this law of sin and death? But he also has the solution – Jesus Christ has truly set us free from this law of sin and death (Romans 7:25).
The Holy Spirit dwells in us and gives life to our mortal bodies (Romans 8:11). We have to choose to not live in the flesh and put to death the deeds of the flesh, not by the flesh (will power), but by the Spirit (Romans 8:12-13). And the Spirit helps us in our weakness (Romans 8:26). The Spirit has already broken in and done what we couldn’t by resurrecting our Spirit. The Spirit is willing and able to fight this battle.
Now, this all has to do with recognizing immaturity and growing in maturity. In a sense, we are all immature – not fully developed. But, immaturity carries qualifiers – age, surroundings, abilities, experience, opportunity, etc. So two 15 year olds could vary in maturity based on expectation. Paul expected the Corinthians to be more mature because of the gospel he had preached to them.
You, as servant of God, have higher expectations than someone your age living a worldly/carnal life. So, when you act just like the world, you are showing immaturity as a Christian, choosing the flesh and not choosing to put the deeds of the flesh to death by the Spirit.
So, what does immaturity look like? How can we classify it so we can recognize it, confess it, and repent of it?
An easy way to broadly look at this is to use the classic 7 deadly sins. Do you know where the 7 deadly sins are found? In the Bible? OT or NT?
It’s not! It’s biblical and Christian but it is a collection and synthesis of Scripture (Proverbs 6, Galatians 5)
The modern idea of the 7 deadly sins actually originates in the 6th century from Gregory the Great’s 4 volume commentary on the book of Job.
The 7 sins are: vainglory/pride, melancholy/sloth, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and avarice/covetousness.
- Vainglory/Pride: disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy
- Envy: hatred, whispering (gossip), detraction, exultation at the misfortune of others
- Anger: strifes, swelling of mind, insults, clamour
- Melancholy/Sloth: malice, cowardice, despair, slothfulness, wandering of the mind
- Avarice/Covetousness: greed, treachery, fraud, deceit, restlessness, violence
- Gluttony: foolish mirth, uncleanness, babbling, dullness in understanding
- Lust: blindness of mind, inconsiderateness, self-love, hatred of God
Gregory the Great likens these sins to an army besieging our hearts with pride as the captain. How can we face such a worthy foe? Gregory cites Paul (Colossians 3:9, 2 Corinthians 4:16), it is only by the power and renewing of the Holy Spirit that we defeat our flesh and the rebellion of the law of sin and death, all through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. He likens the saint to a bird receiving new plumage:
Morals on the Book of Job, Volume 3 Book XXXI
What is it then for the hawk to get its plumage in the south, except that every Saint glows, when he is touched by the breath of the Holy Spirit, and, casting off the habit of his old conversation, assumes the form of the new man? Which Paul advises, saying, Stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, and pulling on the new man. Col. 3:9. And again; Though that outward man of ours be corrupted, yet that which is within is renewed day by day. 2 Cor. 4:16. But to cast off the old feathers, is to give up the inveterate pursuit of crafty conduct; and to assume the new, is, by good living, to maintain a gentle and simple feeling. For the feather of old conversation weighs down, and the plumage of the new change raises up, to render it the lighter for flight, as it makes it newer.
These 7 sins are all signs of spiritual immaturity and hindrances to growth in maturity. As Christians, we should be growing in spiritual maturity and we should be alarmed when we reflect back months or years and see no positive growth or, worse, negative growth.
Honestly, would you confess to no positive growth or a negative growth?
To grow, we must set our minds on Christ and live in the Spirit…but how?
Living in the Spirit: Galatians 5
John Calvin astutely observed that “the spiritual life will not be maintained without a struggle.”
Here it helps and may be necessary to have a clear view of the doctrine of the nature of man: total depravity or free will/human ability. Your belief matters because it affects how you fight the battle. Total Depravity states that our sinful nature totally corrupts us and we cannot be truly good or act truly good without the intervention of God (all action before regeneration is in rebellion to God/sinful, though this does not mean that everything we do is evil, it is simply for a different god, us). For our discussion, that means that you must rely on the Spirit to fight the flesh (Romans 8:7) and you cannot rely on the flesh to fight the flesh – the carnal mind is at enmity with God and cannot serve Him.
In Galatians 5:16, Paul commands us to “walk in the spirit.” The greek word for walk is περιπατέω (peripateo) and it means to walk, live, or behave and it connotes imitating or walking in the footsteps of someone.
Aristotle’s students were called peripatetics because of their habit of following their teacher around.
Jesus calls us to walk in His light, to be His peripatetics:
English Standard Version Chapter 12
“So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
We must decide/choose to walk in the Spirit. At the same time, the Spirit is at work in us to create new appetites and gives power to resist the flesh.
For Example: Have you ever suddenly realized that you crave God in a new way or a way that you never thought you would before?
Paul not only gives us the solution for battling the flesh, he also gives us a holy promise: When we walk in the Spirit, the verse says that we “will not” or “shall not” gratify or fulfill the desires or lusts of the flesh.
But, knowledge alone doesn’t change us. This is not a passive battle. The key to waging the war and winning (which means growing in maturity) is actually saying no to the flesh and yes to the Spirit. The deception of the enemy is that fighting the flesh is casual, but Paul clearly emphasizes the aspect of warfare.
The problem isn’t the world around us – its our fallen nature. Removing ourselves from the world doesn’t remove sin or temptation.
Jerome, scholarly monk, sarcastic secretary to the Pope Damasus in the late 4th century
(He mocked the clerics’ lack of charity (“I have not faith and mercy, but such as I have, silver and gold—that I don’t give to you either” Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know (p. 338). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.), and creator of the vulgate (Latin Bible used for 1000 years), sheds some light on the universality of our sinful nature even in Christians as he wrote the following about a time in a desert monastery:
“Oh, how often I imagined that I was in the midst of the pleasures of Rome when I was stationed in the desert, in that solitary wasteland which is so burned up by the heat of the sun that it provides a dreadful habitation for the monks! I, who because of the fear of hell had condemned myself to such a hell and who had nothing but scorpions and wild animals for company, often thought I was dancing with a chorus of girls. My face was pale from fasting, but my mind burned with passionate desires within my freezing body, and the fires of sex seethed.”
How many of you thought or think that a monastery is where your relationship with God will explode in growth and your desires for the world will fade without any effort? Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case.
Summary (What Do We Actually Do?)
Stop being casual/passive.
Get a grip with reality. Understand the flesh and the Spirit. Read your Bible. Study those who have gone before us and thought through the Christian doctrines.
Pray for desire.
Fight the battle. When the flesh rebels, get in the Spirit. Pray for help and the power of the Holy Spirit to fight the flesh.
Also published on Medium.