Originally published as a single article in DBSJ 2 (Fall 1997): 81–103. Used by permission.
This installment continues our study of the believer’s struggle with sin, focusing on “flesh” vs. “the Spirit.”
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.
It is universally recognized that this passage describes the believer’s battle with sin—the flesh against the Spirit. Though Paul sometimes uses flesh (σάρξ) for the physical aspect of man, it is widely conceded that in this passage we find Paul’s well-known “ethical” use of the term—fallen human nature. Longenecker explains:
It has often been noted that σάρξ used ethically has to do with humanity’s fallen, corrupt, or sinful nature, as distinguished from the human nature as originally created by God…. Translating σάρξ as “flesh” in ethical contexts (as KJV, ASV, RSV) has often encouraged ideas of anthropological dualism, with the physical body taken to be evil per se and the mortification of the body viewed in some manner as necessary for achieving a true Christian experience. In reaction to such ideas, various translators have tried to give to the expression a more interpretive and descriptive rendering.
Probably the best of the interpretive translations are those that add the adjective “corrupt” or “sinful” to the noun “nature” (i.e., KNOX, NIV), thereby suggesting an essential aspect of mankind’s present human condition that is in opposition to “the Spirit” and yet avoiding the idea that the human body is evil per se.1
Paul’s use of “flesh,” or “sinful nature” as the NIV renders the term, in Galatians 5:16–17 is viewed by two-nature advocates as a direct reference to the believer’s old nature—his continuing tendency to sin or rebel against God. Those who argue against the two-nature view would not refer to the flesh as a nature, yet they still define flesh similarly. Packer, for instance, says:
Believers find within themselves contrary urgings. The Spirit sustains their regenerate desires and purposes; their fallen Adamic instincts (the “flesh”) which, though dethroned, are not yet destroyed, constantly distract them from doing God’s will and allure them along paths that lead to death (Gal 5:16–17; James 1:14–15).2
Galatians 5:16–17 does not say that there is, in the believer, a struggle between the old nature (flesh) and new nature, but between flesh (old nature) and Spirit. However, Lenski, following Luther, among others, has understood “Spirit” as “spirit” and interpreted it as a direct reference to the new nature.3 But this view has found few supporters, and, as Fung observes, “is highly unlikely in view of the Spirit-flesh contrast Paul develops elsewhere (cf. Rom 8:4–6, 9, 13), particularly in Gal 3:3, and in view of the clear reference to the divine Spirit in both the preceding and the following verses (5:16, 18, 22, 25).”4
Because Paul’s language speaks specifically of a struggle between the flesh (old nature) and the Spirit, does that mean it is invalid to characterize that struggle as also one between the old and new natures? It is interesting to read Calvin’s discussion of Galatians 5:17, where, in the same paragraph he speaks of the “Spirit” as both the “Spirit of God” and “the renewed nature, or the grace of regeneration.”5 While, as Pink observes, “we must distinguish between the Holy Spirit and the principle of which he imparts at regeneration,”6 and while it is almost certainly true that Paul’s contrast in Galatians 5:16–17 is between the flesh and the Holy Spirit, we should not attempt to drive a wedge between the Spirit himself and the new disposition (new nature) he imparts at regeneration. Stott concludes: “By ‘the Spirit’ he seems to mean the Holy Spirit Himself who renews and regenerates us, first giving us a new nature and then remaining to dwell in us.”7
Even those who oppose the two-nature viewpoint strongly affirm that the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with the believer’s new disposition. Warfield, perhaps the greatest foe of the two-nature view, says that in the process of sanctification the work of the Spirit includes “the development of the implanted principle of spiritual life and infused habits of grace,”8 and, in addition, “holy dispositions are implanted, nourished and perfected.”9 As was previously observed, Packer says that while “believers find within themselves contrary urgings, the Spirit sustains their regenerate desires and purposes,” and Packer ends this sentence with a reference to Galatians 5:16–17.
So, it may be concluded that the struggle which Paul describes in Galatians 5:16–17 as being that of the flesh against the Spirit is no less a struggle between the believer’s old and new natures.
1 Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1990), pp. 239–40.
2 Concise Theology, p. 171.
3 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, and to the Philippians (Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1946), p. 281; Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, ed. Philip S. Watson (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), p. 501. Also, J. C. Ryle, Holiness (reprint ed.; Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), p. 21.
4 Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), p. 249.
5 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Romans–Galatians (reprint ed.; Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.), p. 1921.
6 Arthur W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955), p. 245.
7 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians, The Bible Speaks Today (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), p. 146. Cf. Homer A. Kent, Jr., “It is preferable, therefore, to regard the contrast as between the old nature of man (‘flesh’) and the new nature controlled by the Holy Spirit” (The Freedom of God’s Sons: Studies in Galatians [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976], p. 156) and William Hendriksen, “Verse 16 clearly implies that there is a conflict between the Spirit and the flesh, therefore also between the believer’s new, Spirit-indwelt, nature and his old, sinful, self” (Exposition of Galatians [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968], p. 214).
8 John E. Meeter, ed., Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, 2 vols. (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 2:327.
9 B. B. Warfield, “On the Biblical Notion of Renewal,” in Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), p. 372.
Bill Combs serves as Academic Dean as well as Professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has been teaching since 1983. He earned his BA at Tennessee Temple University, and his MDiv and ThM degrees at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a ThD from Grace Theological Seminary. Dr. Combs has also served in pastoral ministry. He and his wife Pansy are members of Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, MI.