Paul and the Problem of the Flesh

An Imaginative approach

stressed mumINTRODUCTION

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul exposes the Old Testament Law as inadequate to bring us to the righteousness that God seeks, and ourselves as too weak in the flesh ever to achieve holiness.

In teaching this he uses the illustration of relationships and marriage to show how a woman (unsuited to her legalistic husband in every way and unable to carry out his strict commands) cannot be free of his tyranny until a DEATH takes place, freeing her to "marry another" (God).

The new "husband" is not only sympathetic and merciful but together with his commands gives sufficient help and support and strength at all times to do what she is asked (in fact, HE does all the work himself!!).

That is the meaning of Paul's passage, and because he has used the illustration of marriage he then talks of this new and holy union in terms of it "bearing fruit" which would be the children produced by this act of love.

Romans 7:4 "Therefore, my brethren, you also have 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, that we should bear fruit to God."

Further Thoughts

What Paul has said is complete and in no need of addition. Through Paul's union with God he also has "bourne fruit" in the form of a letter to the Romans that would become part of God's word, the bible. His basic points are these:

  • The OT Law and commandments, although perfect, are unattainable and indeed only induce sinfulness and guilt.
  • The desire to do good is within us all, but despite that we find ourselves doing wrong.
  • Without the intervention of God's power, the natural "man" or flesh always triumphs over our better judgement.
  • Acting on the impulse of the flesh even in conjunction with the Law "bears fruit leading to death".
  • Jesus Christ has removed this natural man by his substitutionary death on the Cross.
  • Joined as one Spirit with God through Christ, we receive power to desire and carry our God's commandments.

But while reading this passage I caught a glimpse of Paul the MAN.

After all, he'd been talking about man's struggle with the base sin nature that needs to be destroyed at the cross and replaced by God's righteousness and ability. I considered a circumstance that helped me see behind the Paul's words. I was taken back in my imagination to Paul the mere man sitting in his room writing his letter all those years ago.Paul Writing

Here was Paul, an unmarried celibate man, but who had many married friends and fellow Christians and must have stayed in their houses often. Paul - at the human level - struggled with just the same temptations as the rest of us. He wasn't divine. So on this unspoken human level I can see how his circumstances might produce the revelation and truth that became our Romans Seven.

Those circumstances add to my understanding of the passage and are in fact - in my opinion - an even better illustration of his point but one he did not use in his letter for obvious reasons.

Human nature exposed

I see a man perfectly in accord with the call and will of God, with every good intention, who loves the will of God earnestly and truly, but despite this is caught out by his human nature. A delightful lady visitor who is nothing but purity and goodness comes to call on Paul and his body betrays him with arousal that is unintentional.

For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death.
(Romans 7:22 &:5)

The arousal is caused by the unexpected arrival of "the law, the commandment". We can picture this lovely young lady visitor then as The Law. "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law... But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead." (Rom 7:7-9)

This becomes a perfect illustration of the difference between the flesh and the spirit. It also shows that "good intentions" are not enough when we stray into the flesh, because although we have the will to do good, our "members" war against the inward intention and go ahead by themselves with a reaction we detest.

Law as the inadvertent temptress

Paul then pictures a relationship in which the LAW is seen as an inadvertent incitement to evil (perhaps the well-meant attentions of this pretty visitor) without which, before, he was quite safe. "For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died."

Rebekkah at the wellPaul was perfectly all right by himself and in the right circumstances, but when this personified "law" lady showed up he was taken by surprise and dismayed by his own reactions, all too aware that his "flesh" was acting outside of the intentions of his inward spirit. "So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin."

Now it is possible to see clearly the truths that Paul wanted to convey. More light is shed on the battle between spirit and body, a battle than in fact can NEVER be won without a DEATH to the flesh and the REMOVAL of the "man of sin" that Jesus accomplished on the cross. (This Paul goes on to explain in Romans 8)

What is the answer?

How is this LAW lady to be dealt with. Is she at fault? Must Paul report her to the authorities, reprove her for enticement, denounce her as a harlot? NO, because the LAW is good, He can't find fault with the LAW, it's his own reactions he must find fault with.

Romans 7:12 "the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.... (14) For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin."

At this juncture it's Paul's own reactions he must deal with. The betrayal of his own flesh against his better judgement is like the "law of sin" that Paul says is "another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members".

The commandments of God, the LAW-lady, came into his life and circumstances for an ultimate good reason - to demonstrate to him that he does have the capability to sin against God, even if he doesn't follow through his thoughts with actions! The LAW brings awareness of our weakness and need of God.

God allows testing

Nonetheless, Paul's fleshy response is a very unpleasant reminder that "in my flesh dwells no good thing" (Rom 7:18) and "those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom 8:8).

And how did this revelation come about? Through the LAW "But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead."

I was okay once, before this law-lady came calling, Paul says to himself. Before this happened I was blithely and heedlessly content in my own conformity to God's will. All kinds of ungodly desires might have been present in me all along but they never had opportunity to present themselves without the provocation of the LAW. So I thought myself perfectly holy. But lest I should be too conceited in my supposed godliness, there came along something to prove me wrong, yet again. (This happens to us all and God allows it!).

Thus he rejoices in the LAW, which is prefect and good, but despairs of himself and his base reactions: (24) "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"

The sin-nature

angel-devilBefore giving the answer - which I'm sure you already know - I want to digress into something written by a Jew in the 12th century about the whole problem of good and evil in man. The Jewish rabbis did not believe in "original sin" stemming from Adam but they did believe babies were born with an evil impulse (the yetzeh hara) that was in a constant battle with a person's better instincts the "yetzeh tov". These were almost like two spirits arguing the case inside a person, a bit like the cartoon angel and devil sitting one on each shoulder.

Jews believed this evil impulse had to be controlled and contained by the study and practise of the Torah (with which we disagree of course) but an illustration one Jewish writer used was of a man who had gone to a Court of Law to get a ruling on his marriage/divorce. The Court had decided in favour of the wife who had good grounds for a divorce but the man disagreed. Nonetheless, the LAW overruled him and he was FORCED to agree. If not, he would be beaten until he did.

The physical beating was seen as the way to suppress or overthrow the "yetzeh hara" within him, the satan in his soul, so that his better nature (the good spirit) would be liberated to act according to the Court's directions.

Thus we have the LAW's ruling and the HUMAN NATURE reacting against it, just as Paul taught. When Paul cried out: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" he was also asking "who here in this courtroom will give me a beating that will overthrow the impulses of this yetzeh hara that plagues me, and deliver me to the impulses of a right spirit?" Well, his answer is of course "Jesus Christ". It's not that Jesus wants to beat us up, but HE is the only man who can step forward in that Court of Law and deliver us to the right judgement! HE is the Advocate. HE does not do it by teaching us more about the commandments, but by crucifying the yetzeh hara altogether and replacing it with his own righteousness.

Jesus Christ the Answer

At the moment Paul reacted wrongly to his lady visitor (we can surmise) he cursed the evil impulse of his flesh and prayed that a strong deliverer would step forward to remove it for ever. Jesus was the answer. Paul himself was at that moment helpless, weak and incapable. No man or woman can tame the flesh and the battle against it is futile. "if you live according to the flesh you WILL die"

BUT we have to recognise and trust in one liberating fact: Jesus Christ carried that sin-nature to the cross and crucified it once and for all. For us, if we walk in the Spirit the yetzeh hara is DEAD. Knowing and trusting that fact releases us to a victorious life! As long as we receive and walk by the Holy Spirit living within, we can walk in a place safeguarded from ANY wrong reaction.

" you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Romans 8:9-10)

Paul takes the higher road

In my little illustration, Paul practised what he preached. As Paul responded to this lady's spiritual need for advice, guidance or salvation any and every other reaction died out in him completely.

Once he walked in the Spirit of God, he was safe. He could have no thoughts, imaginations, feelings or desires apart from serving God. A higher law than the drive of human nature had kicked in and kicked sin out...the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus: "Rom 8:1-3 "there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death."

Looking at it from a relationship point of view, as we did above, there was a possibility of FRUIT in this illustration. To see it symbolically, the union of the flesh and the "law" would have brought about fruit to death. The impulse of the "man of sin" if acted upon, would have led to the act of rebellion, which in turn would have "brought forth death".

On the other hand, in giving way to the Man of God (the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus) and coming into union with HIM, obedience followed and fruit was born to eternal life. This is the choice we have daily.

(This has been just my way to understand the passages in Romans and is a simple illustration. It has no reality in historical fact.)

© 2013 Tricia Tillin-Booth. All rights reserved. Birthpangs Website:  This document is the property of its author and is not to be displayed on other websites, redistributed, sold, reprinted, or reproduced in printed in any other format without permission. Websites may link to this article, if they provide proper title and author information.   One copy may be downloaded, stored and/or printed for personal research. All spelling and phraseology is UK English.