Since this quarter’s started, I’ve been caught in a flurry of discontentments ranging from Christian community in college to long-distance friendships to my failure to love perfectly to…well, the list goes on. None are trivial topics, and all have preoccupied a greater slice of my mind than I’d like to admit.
Towards the middle of this week, God gave me an in-depth look into something that pivoted my attention off my circumstances and back onto Himself: what does it mean to crucify the flesh?
The “flesh” in the Biblical sense is something I’ve barreled into several times in the past few months as my small group and I marched through Romans 8 and into Galatians. But this was the first time I’ve examined it with greater attention than usual.
For so long, I’ve believed and I’ve been told that the “flesh” is simply the innate sinful nature humans possess as fallen creatures. While I would not outright refute this point, after looking deeper into the matter in preparation for our study on Galatians 5:16-25, I learned it may be slightly more complicated than I’d always supposed.
Finding myself stumped on what questions to ask, which topics of discussion we should tackle, and how to approach this passage in the context of the rest of the book (you know, typical small group leader struggles), I decided to direct my mind away from my own thoughts and sample someone else’s.
A friend of mine has been recommending Blue Letter Bible, an online resource library that emphasizes a historical and contextual approach to studying the Bible, so that was where I turned first.
I headed straight for BLB’s collection of commentaries and chose one by random. Though I wasn’t sure of what to expect, I was confident that whatever God had in store, it’s got to be better than staring at two screens and a crinkled page of microscopic words while yanking my hair out for another hour.
With time fast ticking away and impatient as I was, I scrolled down a few paces, then back up, then a few more paces down before deciding to scour the writer’s comments on verses 16-18. Those had proved particularly challenging to decipher during a leaders’ meeting earlier in the week.
One particular sentence snagged my attention almost instantaneously, and yes, it had to do with crucifying the flesh: “Flesh isn’t even that fallen nature, the “old man” that we inherited from Adam” (think, original sin). I don’t know about you, but this certainly made me go “huh”. Enthralled, I forged on.
Apparently, the flesh translated from the Greek term sarx means “all the evil that man is and is capable of apart from the intervention of God’s grace in his life”. Essentially, it’s the influence of our old selves–who we were before knowing Christ as our savior–which saturates our earthly flesh until we have received God’s gift of a new body after our time in the world.
This makes sense especially if you consider John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We may have been cleansed and forgiven in Jesus. We may have received His Spirit as saved people. But our bodies, our flesh are still of the old, like a tainted garment draped across a new frame.
That is why Paul wrote “you are not to do whatever you want”. Whenever the flesh is winning its conflict against the Spirit, you don’t live the way you’d like to as a new creation. You follow the flesh.
The Good News
The good news then rests upon the crucification of the flesh, which in its usage in verse 24 surprisingly also connotes a different meaning than what I’d expected.
Whereas in Romans 6:6 and Galatians 2:20, the author delegates the act of crucifying to another, namely God, in verse 24, he delegates the act to the believers themselves. He says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” The action here lies in our own hands.
How do we reconcile these discrepancies?
The object receiving crucification in the Romans and earlier Galatians verses is our old selves, the one who did not know Christ. The object receiving crucification in verse 24 is the flesh. In essence, God crucified our old selves, but we must actively, willingly, regularly crucify the flesh .
There is a two-fold work that occurs within us during the process of sanctification: God’s work and ours. God’s is of course making our hearts grow more like Christ’s and our lives more inclined towards holiness. Ours is to flee from sin and obey His commands. In a way, it’s to crucify the flesh, to reject its beckon and choose God over and over and over and over again for as long as we dwell on this earth.
This may sound wearisome, believe me I know; however, consider Romans 8:24 which proclaims, “we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” God’s promise to those who are saved through Christ is that they have not only died to their old selves, but they will also receive a new body, untainted by sin, fully compatible with the Spirit alive in them.
Therefore there is an end to the conflict between the flesh and Spirit described in verse 17–a glorious, triumphant, and definitive end. Now, is this good news or is this good news?
A Personal Resonance
One reason why I’ve been feeling discontent with my circumstances is because I’ve been feeling discontent with myself.
I can’t help but feel disappointed with some of the decisions I’ve made in college for the past year and a half. I can’t help but feel disconnected, even severed from various friends and extended family members in this time of necessary self-isolation. And most of all, I can’t help but feel inadequate as a representative for Christ when I fail to live and to love perfectly all the time.
It’s so very easy to survey the messes we make and immediately wonder, “What can I do to fix this?” I am susceptible of this flaw to the highest degree. For people who do not know Christ, it might not seem unfavorable to want to take action and enact change when change is required. After all, it’s better than slouching around and moping, “Woe me, woe me.”
For the Christian, that’s not the case. When the first thing we want to do upon seeing our broken selves in this broken world full of broken people is pick up our tool box and start hammering away at everything like a maniac, we’re forgetting the most vital component in the entire operation: God.
Nobody can fix themselves. Nothing we do can permanently stave off feelings of discontentment, inadequacy, and disappointment. Our little mortal toolbox simply don’t have the tools. But God does.
This is what He reminded me this week when He taught me what it really means to crucify the flesh.
I don’t know how I’d be able to live with myself if I only ever saw myself through my own eyes. No wonder why people deal with self-loathing, self-deprecation, self-pitying. There’s no doubt I would still identify as one of these people were it not for God. The weight of all the atrocities I’ve committed against Him and against others would simply be too great to bear without assurance of His grace.
Though I entered the world and lived in it for seventeen years as a wretched and proud sinner, Christ gave me a new identity in Him. He looked upon me and the rest of the world throughout all of history with compassion then chose to give up his life to pay for our sins. With our sins paid and our old selves crucified forever, those in Christ are considered a totally new creation.
This is how distinct I am from my old self. This is how powerfully and totally God’s love works for us. Truly, nothing is impossible with Him (Luke 1:37). Truly, if God loved us enough to offer His own son’s life in exchange for ours, He won’t allow anything, neither in the earthly nor spiritual realms, to ever separate us from His love (Romans 8:38-39).
Why God chooses to love sinners who are far from deserving of love, why He is love, I cannot rightly explain (though, if you’d like clarification on the core truths Christians believe, I recommend this POST). All I know is this is the reality of how God sees me and the rest of our Heavenly family–as new creations with new identities and new life in Christ.
Despite this uplifting news, let’s not neglect our very real and constant battle against the flesh. There’s no doubt that “crucification” elicits an unpleasant image and feeling, yet that’s what we must undertake against our flesh every single day as we strive to become more and more like our savior.
John 3:30 states, “He must become greater; I must become less”. The whole point of being Christian, of Christianity itself, of all that God has and still does for us is so that we may be like our savior and so that we may glorify Him. Crucifying the flesh is simply another paramount piece in this lifelong operation.
Hey there, it’s Macy! If you’re new to macythoughts, I encourage you to check out my About page to learn more about who I am and what macythoughts is all about. Also feel free to connect with me via social media. I love meeting new people and would always cherish a new friend. 👋