Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In the Flesh I Live by Faith

Ever since I became a follower of Jesus in college, Galatians 2:20-21 has been one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!  (NIV)
It's one thing to be excited about a Bible verse that captures the essence of the good news about Jesus when you're new in the faith.  But it's another thing to look back eleven years later and see more of this.  I guess that's one of the many things I love about the Word of God, too: it's so rich that it never ceases to be relevant.  As I learn more about life, it speaks deeper truths.

Paul wrote Galatians sometime between A.D. 48-52, at least 17 years after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus (see 1:18 and 2:1).  And what did he learn in those 17 years?  "It becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners" (2:17).  When I first began to love the gospel I think I had some idea I'd have grown a halo by now.  But instead I'm pretty sure the opposite has happened.

What I never saw before--and what I love now--is that Paul says that "the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith" (ESV).  For years I read "in the body" (NIV) and thought, Duh.  Of course he lives in the body.  He's a human.  He has a body.  I never understood why that was relevant for Paul.  But seeing "flesh" (Greek sarx) made sense of it: "flesh" is Paul's one-stop-shop for referring to the powers and postures of a fallen world and a sinful nature that tries to exercise every way of achieving hope and peace and life and joy except for submitting to God and trusting in him.  Our flesh represents our self-serving desires bent against God.

So why do I love this?  Because Paul just spent 17 years becoming an even bigger sinner, growing daily in his debt to God.  He knows he still lives "in the flesh."  He still has a "body of death" that perplexes him with his conflicting desires that rear their head without warning (see Romans 7).  And yet he can say that even in the midst of that--in fact, precisely because of that--he lives by faith in Jesus, God's Son.*  He sees he can't earn God's favor and love by his moral rectitude and just gives up, casting his worn-out soul on Jesus who loves him.

And if Paul can do that, so can I, because Jesus is not dead but alive.  In the middle of my perplexing, senseless sin that just grows every day, I can and must live by faith in Jesus.  I can know that Jesus "loved me and gave himself for me."  His death has not only fully paid for all my sins but also served as the culmination of a life of obedient sonship that became a fragrant offering to God (see Ephesians 5:2 and 1 Samuel 15:22).  And now, somehow, mysteriously, by faith his very life replaces mine before God--his obedience, his sonship, his place in the Father's love.

So I can go on living in the flesh, a stinkin' mess of sin and brokenness, knowing and trusting in Jesus.  The gospel is good news indeed.

*Paul's argument in Galatians 2:17ff. goes something like this: Because Paul and his company are sinners, people are accusing them of using Jesus' grace as an excuse for sin: When people have Jesus, they don't need to be law-keepers to earn God's favor, so Jesus is a "servant of sin."  But Paul denies this, saying rather that they were "found to be sinners," people who by very nature cannot keep the law wholly and so cannot earn a right standing with God through it.  Rather, Paul sees how the law shows him his own sin and then how Jesus fufilled it for him, so that he can say "through the law I died to the law."  That is, the law itself showed him the law was useless but that Christ was faithful in every way Paul himself had failed.


Halfmom said...

Well said! However, I don't think you're a "bigger sinner" than you were 11 years ago - or that this is what Paul meant. I think it's more a matter of more clearly seeing just how sinful we are that makes you feel that way. However, 2Cor4:16 says that inwardly we are being renewed, day by day.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I wonder about this one, Andrew. Sarx has a number of meanings depending on context, not just the one you cite here. And we are told in Romans 8 that we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of Christ lives in us. Not to say we don't struggle at all with the flesh, along with the world and the devil. Yes indeed, we can live in Romans 7 as if we were under the law rather than under grace, and without the Spirit. And in some sense we will to some degree since we still do sin, I suppose. But what sense does the teaching that Romans 7 is part of the normal Christian life make when considered with Romans 6 and 8? The NIV is right, I think on this one, and the ESV is fine as well. The meaning of sarx depends on context, not always meaning the same thing in the New Testament.

Ted M. Gossard said...

link referred to above

Andrew said...

I agree that neither Paul nor I are more sinful now than before Christ.

But we continue to sin every day, and so in some sense increase our debt to God, if you want to think of it that way. I know that sins only proceed from us because we are by nature sinners--the very thing Paul admits to (v. 17)--but our continuing in sin even when we're united to Christ is almost a worse thing and simply shows our continually "increasing" need.

Andrew said...


You're right that "sarx" has many connotations. In Galatians it can often mean our human striving to find acceptance through our own deeds rather than receiving God's declaration of acceptance by grace. Hence in 3:2-3 it's translated in the NIV (1984) as "human effort." It's anything we think and do apart from God's Spirit.

I am well aware of the view of Romans 7 as describing the life of a person (chiefly a Jew) under the law prior to receiving the Spirit, and I think there is much to commend that interpretation. But ultimately I think it falls short of convincing me for several reasons.

First, Paul is writing in the present tense and in a personal letter, indicating to his readers without any rhetorical shift that he is explaining his former life or any person's hypothetical life. His readers would naturally read this as Paul explaining his own present experience.

Second, every believer resonates with Paul's angst in Romans 7. We honestly know that those words fit our lives as justified believers. It's precisely the fact that by the Spirit's regenerating work we do "delight in the law" and see it as holy and good that we find our old sinful selves so rotten and perplexing. I don't want to say that nonbelievers don't wrestle with conscience, but this fits the struggles of someone who has seen the light of Christ and nonetheless feels the infirmities of his own "body of death" every day.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks, Andrew. Well put.

I have caught some study on this which better explains it (rhetorical device, as I recall) from an early church father.

I (ha) would at this time (and for some time now) disagree with the NIV's translation in Galatians 3. Flesh there pertains to holding on to what was now a thing of the past due to Christ coming and fulfilling the old. So if they insisted on living as if Christ had not come, they would be living in the realm of the flesh. Something like that.

My position at this time would be that in Romans 7 Paul is referring to life under the law apart from grace without the Spirit, therefore in the flesh. Romans 6 says sin shall not be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. And all else in Romans 6. And in Romans 8 we read that if by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body, we will live, and that by the Spirit we actually fulfill the requirement of the law.

However there is the tension of "not yet." Yes, we still do sin, and we groan in our weakness and the in anticipation of the completion of our redemption, the redemption of our bodies. In some sense, then, we do easily fall prey to the old way as in Romans 7, though if that is a pattern of life, then I would question whether I'm in the faith, whether Christ is in me (I can't do good, but can only do evil? see 1 John 3). But your view has on its side the thought that the man, Paul, in Romans 7 delighted in the law of God in his inner being.

The older I get, the less I care about all these controversies. Except in this case I think some Christians believe they can't get victory over a sin, or over sin in this life, whereas the testimony of scripture seems to indicate we can, in and through Christ, that we are indeed to throw off the sin that so easily entangles us. The man in Romans 7 cannot do that.

So much more to say, but my comment is too long. Thanks for your good comment. And the post. I do want to understand other views better. Usually I think that helps us see many points in which we agree. I certainly agree that we are still in a struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil in this life, though we can overcome, and grow in the victory that is ours in Christ.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Andrew, How about this, toward a possible mediating position? We in Christ can live in Romans 6 and 8 as we recognize and acknowledge Romans 7. That is, I think for many of us, as we get older, we recognize more and more how needy we are, and bankrupt in ourselves. Luther's last words: "We are beggars--that is true," testify to this. So that as I know more and more my complete dependence on God in and through Jesus by the Spirit, and my interdependence on Christ's Body, the church, I can live more and more in the victory of God in Jesus, even as I realize more and more my own emptiness and sin apart from this new life in love, in and through God in Christ.

Would like to try to word this better and spend more time on it, but this exchange got me to thinking.