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Abstract:

Possessing a helpful explanation of the slowness of spiritual change can be encouraging to Christians who are not growing spiritually as quickly or consistently as they might have hoped. While the classic Christian obstacles of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” provide general categories for explaining the slowness of change, this article proposes a relational understanding of “the flesh” as resistance to the Holy Spirit that offers an explanatory framework for the gradual nature of sanctification.

Both Scripture and Christian experience testify that spiritual transformation in Christ can be, and often is, a lengthy process. While physical healing and demonic deliverance may occur instantaneously, character change—the emerging fruit of the Spirit—is typically slow in coming.1 That spiritual change occurs over time can be seen in Jesus’ call to make disciples of himself “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20; cf. 7:24; 11:29).2 Paul testifies that he has “learned to be content in whatever circumstances” (Phil 4:11 NASB) and that we all “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18; cf. Col 3:5; Rom 6:19; 2 Cor 7:1; Eph 4:22, 31; Phil 3:12–14). And Peter indicates this progressive process by urging his audience to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control . . . . For if these qualities are yours and are increasing . . .” (2 Pet 1:5–8).

Of course, most Christians are experientially attuned to the gradual nature of spiritual change and have often come to peace with it, one way or another. For many of us ongoing struggle with sins of commission looms large in our experience, and there is often a striking lack of change when it comes to sins of omission—for instance, the lack of joy, peace, patience, and love. Those outside the church often infer from the apparent spiritual immaturity of Christians that Christianity itself does not possess any unique resources for moral or spiritual development. For instance, Friedrich Nietzsche poignantly addressed the Christians of his day, “if your belief makes you blessed then appear to be blessed! Your faces have always been more injurious to your belief than our objections have! If these glad tidings of your Bible were written on your faces, you would not need to insist so obstinately on the authority of that book.”3

The question that arises is “Why?” Why is spiritual change so slow? Or to put it the other way around, why are longtime saints often recalcitrant to change? This question is especially troubling for those who sincerely desire change and who are regularly engaged in the means of grace prescribed within their Christian communities. When one is doing what one has been taught to do and yet joy, peace, and freedom from sin do not consistently follow, there is often confusion and frustration as well as disenchantment and cynicism (either with one’s particular church or one’s theological tradition or with Christianity altogether). If not confusion, frustration, disenchantment, and cynicism, perhaps worse is pretense and self-deception as a means to deal with the apparent lack of growth. Given the existential fall-out from the experience of the gradual nature of sanctification, an honest and realistic explanation of the slow nature of growth is pastorally crucial.4

1. The Easy Answer: Sin

Of course, the easy explanation as to why Christians struggle to make progress in holiness is sin. The trouble with this bald answer is that it leaves many believers thinking that the real culprit behind their lack of growth is their own personal sins, understood as willful disobedience, and therefore, that the solution is increased willpower on their own part. “Why don’t I grow?” Answer: “I need to try harder.” While effort of a sort is certainly called for in the Christian life (e.g., 2 Pet 1:5), this superficial diagnosis of the sin-problem results in effort directed at the attempt to curb mere behavioral disobedience by means of willpower alone.5 This places persons on a trajectory leading away from deeper dependence on God’s grace and the Spirit’s sanctifying work. Indeed, from this point of view sanctification by the Spirit is reduced to Aristotelian virtue formation.6 That is, the way to make progress in the Christian life is merely to attempt to behave in virtuous manners and refrain from vicious, or sinful, behavior in hopes that one’s inner life will eventually align itself with one’s behavioral choices. Such autonomous formation either leads to self-righteousness (for those who can pump up the requisite willpower) or self-condemnation and despair (for those with less stamina to get their wills going in the right direction).

2. A More Complex Answer: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

A more complex analysis of the situation is to say that the obstacle to the Spirit’s sanctifying work is not sin simpliciter but the world, the flesh, and the devil understood as three distinct manifestations of sin each of which functions as a barrier to spiritual progress.7 For our purposes here, we might think of the “world” as institutions, societal structures, values and beliefs of our fallen human order that distract, distort, and discourage spiritual transformation. We might think of the “devil” as representing the “fiery darts” and “schemes” of the demonic realm that seek to spiritually debilitate Christ-followers. And we might think of the flesh as human dispositions to sin. It is important to note that this understanding of flesh (σάρξ) does not see the physical body itself as inherently sinful. Rather, this is what has been called an “ethical” understanding of Paul’s usage of σάρξ and therefore refers to the ingrained tendencies of fallen persons to sin that remain after conversion.

When it comes to explaining the difficulty of spiritual growth, having the world, the flesh, and the demonic as part of one’s explanatory repertoire aids in providing a deeper analysis of the challenge Christians face in their spiritual progress and helps do away with the tendency to reduce sin to mere behavioral disobedience. This is true especially if one takes seriously the way in which these three manifestations of sin interrelate and become entangled within individual and corporate life.8 No doubt many Christ-followers are stuck in their sanctification due to deeply ingrained sinful dispositions—their flesh—that are regularly enticed by the world and affirmed by the demonic.

3. The Priority of the Flesh

While dealing with the interrelated nature of the world, the flesh, and the demonic is an important project, understanding the nature of the flesh is fundamental to that discussion. There is good reason to think that the influence the world and the demonic have on human persons is ultimately dependent on persons’ characterological vulnerability (i.e., the flesh) to worldly and demonic influences. For instance, Christians are to present themselves as living sacrifices, not conformed to the pattern of this world, but instead being transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom 12:2; cf. John 16:33). It would appear that a mind that is being renewed would aid one in resisting spiritually destructive, worldly patterns, which suggests that dealing with the flesh is in some sense fundamental to resisting the world. For example, the destructive, materialistic consumerism rampant in Western culture will only conform one to that pattern if one is already open to finding one’s identity and meaning outside of Christ. Another way of thinking of this is that it is difficult to conceive of someone who has made “no provision for the flesh in regards to its lusts” (Rom 13:14) but who nevertheless struggles mightily with the consumerism and materialism of current Western society. Alternatively, it is easy to conceive of a Christian who has isolated himself from the spiritually destructive influences of contemporary society, but who nevertheless still struggles mightily with ingrained sinful dispositions. Indeed, the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries testified that fleeing the city did not extinguish inner temptation. The flesh undergirds and makes possible struggles with the world in a way that struggles with the world do not necessarily undergird and make possible struggles with the flesh.

The same priority of the flesh holds true when it comes to the demonic. In Eph 6, putting on the “full armor of God” is the means to “stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph 6:11; cf. Jas 4:7). To “put on” truth, righteousness, faith, and the like would mean that the Christian is having some success in making no provision for the flesh (Rom 13:14). In other words, it appears that if the flesh is being dealt with successfully, the world and the demonic get little traction in the Christian’s life. One reason that Jesus, for instance, was ultimately unencumbered by the world and the devil is that he did not walk according to the flesh.9 So while our fleshly inclinations are often entangled with and influenced by the world and the demonic, there appears to be a practical priority to dealing with the flesh as a means of undermining the influence of the world and the demonic.

4. A First Take on Flesh: The Inclination-to-Sin View

If the flesh is prior to the world and the devil in this sort of way, then getting clear on the nature and dynamics of the flesh becomes even more crucial for Christian sanctification. The difficulty, of course, is that σάρξ is “one of the most challenging words in Paul’s theological vocabulary.”10 Of the 91 times the term appears in the Pauline materials, there is a range of usage spanning various neutral senses of the term (e.g., the physical body as in 1 Cor 15:39) to morally negative senses (e.g., Gal 5:16–17).11 This negative or “ethical” usage of σάρξ occurs anywhere from 25 to 30 times in Paul’s letters depending on how one interprets several difficult passages.12 While there has been considerable controversy regarding how best to understand the ethical use of σάρξ, one straightforward understanding is that σάρξ involves a habituated tendency to sin. Let us call this initial view of σάρξ the inclination-to-sin view. On the inclination-to-sin view, σάρξ is simply understood as the human inclination to sin behaviorally that has been ingrained in a person’s character and that continues to exert an influence after conversion.13 For instance, David Clark defines σάρξ as “the aspect or quality of corruption in fallen human nature that impels each person toward committing sin” and that “inclines all humans toward sinful acts.”14 Similarly, in addressing the conflict between the Spirit and the flesh in Gal 5, Douglas Moo writes, “it is a conflict between God’s Spirit and the impulse to sin, an impulse that no longer rules in the believer but still exerts influence that must be resisted.”15

It is important to note that these scholars do not maintain that σάρξ is nothing but an inclination or impulse to sin. For example, Moo writes elsewhere, “σάρξ is placed in opposition to the Spirit, and their relationship is described in terms of a struggle between two powers (see 5:17 esp.).”16 Indeed, it is this more relational dimension of σάρξ as opposition to the Spirit that this article seeks to develop. For without this deeper level of analysis, one’s understanding of σάρξ can easily be left at the overly simplified inclination-to-sin view. A chief problem with leaving our view of σάρξ at such a level of analysis is that it does not allow a penetrating explanation of the slowness in overcoming sin. For if σάρξ is merely deeply habituated desires and inclinations to sin, then it would seem that the righteous desires produced by the indwelling Spirit of God would easily overpower fleshly desires. Since they often do not, some additional explanation is required. But without a deeper analysis of σάρξ, it appears the only solution to overcoming fleshly desire is to avail one’s self more fully of the Spirit’s empowerment through the means of grace and/or to utilize that empowerment more effectively in making choices to refrain from sin. In other words, the answer to the question of why Christians are not growing more readily is that they are not trying hard enough. They are not turning frequently enough to the Spirit (sowing to the Spirit), and they are not refraining intensely enough from giving into the flesh (sowing to the flesh). On the view that σάρξ is the mere inclination-to-sin, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the slowness of spiritual change is due to ingrained habit and therefore a lack of willpower to break those habits. While habit and the utilization of willpower is certainly a significant part of spiritual growth, understanding human inclination to sin (i.e., σάρξ) as ultimately rooted in relational resistance to the Spirit provides a more penetrating explanation of the gradual nature of sanctification.

5. A Second Take on Flesh: The Relational Resistance View

The relational resistance view maintains that σάρξ is not simply ingrained inclinations to behaviorally sin, but more fundamentally ingrained inclinations to resist the Spirit of God and to live autonomously from his life-giving presence. Christ-followers do not come into the Christian life with merely habituated sinful desires, dispositions, and their resultant sinful behaviors (the deeds of the flesh), but more profoundly Christ-followers bring with them the habituated, idolatrous proclivities of their pre- and post-conversion attempts to live autonomously from God. So, this view is sensitive to the fact that while Christians do need to turn more frequently to the Spirit’s empowerment and thereby refrain from sin, such acts of submission to the Spirit are complicated by habituated relational resistance to the Spirit. To put the point another way, what stands in the way of progress in holiness is not merely σάρξ understood as the Christian’s habituated desire to sin, but σάρξ understood as the Christian’s habituated desire to be one’s own god. To make no provision for the flesh, then, is to put to death ingrained attempts to utilize one’s natural resources to live apart from God and instead to engage in practices of deepening dependence on the nourishment available by the Spirit, which brings forth the fruit of the Spirit. This means that the choice to “stop” rebelling and “start” depending is not ultimately a willpower issue. Rather, it is an interpersonal issue. In particular, it is an issue that involves coming to a greater trust/faith in the love and goodness of God as well as despairing of the attempt to find life apart from God.

So, the central claim of this article is that, at bottom, σάρξ is human resistance to the empowering, transformational presence of the Holy Spirit. Such resistance brings about desires to find life outside of God from which emerges, when those desires are acted upon, sinful deeds that reinforce the entire sin dynamic. Resistance to the empowering, transformational presence of the Holy Spirit presupposes that the Spirit’s presence is meant to be empowering and transformational (i.e., sanctifying) and that the human agent has the capacity to either receive or resist (i.e., quench or grieve) the Holy Spirit.17 While these two assumptions will be largely taken for granted in this article, I try to state them in a more formal way below. For now, it is important to make the case that σάρξ includes the notion of human resistance to the empowering, transformational presence of the Spirit. Four passages that express this relational dimension of σάρξ are Gal 3:1–3; 5:16–21; Rom 8:1–16; and 1 Cor 3:1–5. While a detailed exposition of each of these passages is not possible here, a brief overview of each will provide some credence for the relational view of σάρξ.

5.1. Galatians 3:1–3

First, in Gal 3:1–3 Paul’s juxtaposition of Spirit and flesh is a juxtaposition of trust in or dependence on the Spirit’s resources (“having begun by the Spirit”) versus a trust in or dependence on one’s own autonomous, natural resources (“are you now being perfected by the flesh?”). As James Thompson notes regarding this passage, σάρξ is “the locus of natural human desire” and “refers to the natural human condition apart from the empowering work of God’s Spirit.”18 In other words, σάρξ—one’s natural, autonomous, merely human resources—is all that one has apart from the advent of the new era in Christ and the Spirit. Paul exhorts the Galatians to choose to live in accordance with the empowerment of this new era and to “not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (5:1). On this view, σάρξ is not inherently evil in that σάρξ is the God-given, albeit severely limited, natural human resources that are available to finite human persons. What becomes spiritually problematic about these limited human resources is that prior to conversion persons put their confidence in them rather than in God, which is to be enslaved to sin (cf. Eph 2:1; Phil 3:2–11). In Gal 3, even after conversion, Christians can return in some measure to putting confidence in their own merely human attempts—as if unregenerate—to find life outside of God.19 What needs to be noticed here is that σάρξ is the attempt to find life (perfection) on one’s own apart from dependence on the Spirit.

5.2. Galatians 5:16–21

Galatians 5:16–24 brings further insight to this dynamic by indicating that the choice between dependent trust (“walking in the Spirit”) and independent distrust (“gratify the desire of the flesh”) is rooted in opposing desires (5:17). We need not see these opposing desires as a conflict of two dimensions of the individual person—one dimension that desires to sin and another dimension that desires not to sin. Rather, Paul clearly identifies one side of the conflict as what the Spirit desires.20 The Spirit meaningfully indwells the Christian as a testifying presence (e.g., Gal 4:6) and thereby desires to strengthen and fill the individual Christian with his presence resulting in transformation (cf. Eph 3:14–19; 5:18). So the Spirit desires to empower the Christian for fruitful living, and yet, this desire of the Spirit is in opposition to the fleshly desire of the Christian to find life independently of the Spirit. Thomas Schreiner writes regarding 5:17, “the desires of the flesh are implacably opposed to the things of the Spirit. Nonetheless, the continuing desires of the flesh are not the whole story. Believers are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit within them impels them to righteousness, so that believers have powerful desires for goodness as well.”21 No doubt believers have “powerful desires for goodness” because the indwelling Spirit “impels them to righteousness.” But it is more to the point to say that Paul has in view that the Spirit has his own desire that the believer become fruitful, and it is this desire of the Spirit that is in opposition to the Christian’s fleshly desire. As Schreiner clarifies, “the flesh and the Spirit are diametrically opposed to one another.”22 Since the Christian still desires to attempt to live in autonomy from the Spirit (Gal 3:3; 5:16), trusting in his or her own resources (i.e., gratifying the desire of the flesh), it is evident that what the Spirit desires is in opposition to the person’s fleshly desire to live in autonomy.23 And, as Paul makes clear, it goes the other direction as well: the person’s fleshly desire is in hostile opposition to the desire of the Spirit. The conflict is not as simple as a dimension of one’s self that desires to be righteous and a dimension of one’s self that desires to sin. Such an analysis sets us on the track of seeing a lack of willpower as the culprit behind meager growth. Rather, there is a dimension of one’s self that is opposed to the Spirit’s presence and work in one’s life. And the Spirit is opposed to this dimension of one’s self that desires autonomy from the Spirit. Richard Longenecker writes, “[B]ehind the individual believer Paul sees two ethical forces that seek to control a person’s thought and activity: the one, the personal Spirit of God; the other, the personified ‘flesh.’”24 Hence, the conflict for the Christian in Gal 5 is not a conflict of his desires to sin as opposed to his desires not to sin. Rather, it is a relational conflict between trusting the Spirit with his intention to bring about fruit (i.e., walking in the Spirit) and trusting in one’s autonomous desire to find life apart from the Spirit. In this vein, Robert Jewett defines σάρξ in Gal 5 as “Paul’s term for everything aside from God in which one places his final trust.”25 Or, as Oliver O’Donovan puts it, “Whether it appears as law or as license, the ultimate fact about life according to the flesh is that it is a refusal of life in the Spirit.”26 So, we see here that σάρξ—or the desire of the flesh—is fundamentally a relational resistance to the Spirit.27

5.3. Romans 8:1–16

This understanding of σάρξ as relational resistance coheres well with Paul’s discussion in Rom 8. As Rom 8:6–7 has it, “For to set the mind on the flesh [φρόνημα τῆς σαρκός] is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”28 In Rom 8, σάρξ is an orientation of the mind that is opposed to submission to God. R. J. Erickson understands the sense of σάρξ surfaced here as “rebellious human nature.”29 Erickson writes,

[Paul’s peculiar use of σάρξ] is a dualism between flesh and spirit in the sense of flesh as an independent reliance on one’s own accomplishments over against a spirit of dependence on God and submission to his rule (see esp. Rom 8). . . . Dependence upon human value systems and institutions for securing power and position, as well as libertinistic self-indulgence as a means of attaining “life” (Jewett), are likewise manifestations of a rebellious independence from God’s promised provision of life and personal worth through faith in Christ. Ironically, then, by trusting in the “flesh” one attains not life but death.30

This “independent reliance” on one’s own resources in the place of “dependence on God and submission to his rule” expresses the idolatrous nature of σάρξ—“the flesh is hostile to God” (Rom 8:7).31

For the Christian, to put “confidence in the flesh” is at the most profound level a refusal to place one’s confidence in the Spirit and receive life from him. As Paul makes clear, the Christian is no longer “in the flesh” but “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9). Nonetheless, according to verses 13–15, the choice to live according to the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body, is not automatic for the Christian. Commenting on this passage, I. Howard Marshall writes,

Just as sin can control people and make people to do wrong, so also the Spirit can control people and make them do what is right and good. . . . Despite all this believers still sin—as they know from personal experience! So what is wrong? Evidently the control of the Spirit is not automatic. Paul has to remind believers not to live in obedience to their sinful nature but to kill their sinful desires by the Spirit. It seems that believers have some kind of freedom to decide which master they will follow; the Spirit sets them free to live by the Spirit, but they must make the decision to submit to the Spirit.32

This “freedom to decide which master they will follow” emphasizes the relational nature of σάρξ in that it is not a choice regarding whether to behaviorally sin or not, but a choice regarding whether to submit to or resist the Spirit. The σάρξ does not identify those dimensions of myself that merely want to behaviorally sin, but those dimensions of myself that want little or nothing to do with God.33

5.4. 1 Corinthians 3:1–5

This is where 1 Cor 3:1–5 sheds a helpful light on how σάρξ functions when it comes to spiritual growth:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh [σαρκίνοις], as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh [σαρκικοί]. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh [σαρκικοί] and behaving only in a human way [“walking like mere men” NIV]? For when one says, I follow Paul, and another, I follow Apollos, are you not being merely human?34

Here Paul utilizes the metaphor of an infant’s digestive system to illustrate the impact of the flesh on spiritual maturity (cf. Heb 5:11–15). The idea is that just as an infant is not “yet able to receive” (1 Cor 3:2 NASB) solid nourishment and must sustain growth on milk, so too the Corinthian Christian who is “still of the flesh” is not yet able to receive the solid nourishment by the Spirit (i.e., words taught by the Spirit, 1 Cor 2:13) and must sustain her growth on a sort of nourishment fit only for spiritual infancy.35 The problem with this picture is that the Corinthian Christians need to move beyond their infancy and yet the only way to mature is to be able to receive deeper nourishment from the Spirit. What Paul makes clear is that σάρξ stands in the way of the Corinthians’ reception of this deeper nourishment and here again σάρξ amounts to the attempt to live in a “merely human” manner apart from God’s resources. Specifically, the example Paul addresses is the Corinthians’ attempt to find value, meaning, and significance through comparing themselves to one another based on whom they follow (Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or even Christ, 1 Cor 1:11–12). Paul’s diagnosis of the Corinthians’ problem is that they were trusting in the “wisdom of men” instead of the power of God (2:5). Again, there is nothing wrong with trusting in the wisdom of human persons unless one is doing so as a replacement for trust in God. It is an idolatrous, relational resistance to the Spirit that leads to the lack of receptivity to the Spirit’s transformational resources. The Corinthians are attempting to be “perfected by the flesh,” to use Paul’s Galatians’ terminology (Gal 3:3).

Based on these brief treatments of Galatians 3 and 5, Romans 8, and 1 Corinthians 3, at the most fundamental level σάρξ operates on a relational plane.36 As George Ladd put it, flesh refers to “humanity as a whole, seen in its fallenness, opposed to God.”37 The temptation to return to σάρξ and the experience of the desires of σάρξ are ultimately the temptation to return to strategies to live as if one is one’s own god and the subsequent experience of desiring to fill one’s self apart from God.38 Of course, this relational resistance to God and the desires to live apart from him become habituated and reinforced by the idolatrous deeds they manifest. Indeed, the deeds of the flesh can become so ingrained in an individual or community’s lifestyle that the underlying relational resistance recedes into the background. Nonetheless, on this understanding of σάρξ every behavioral sin is ultimately rooted in a lack of trust in God’s love and goodness.

6. Four Theses of Sanctification and the Role of the Flesh

Where does this view of σάρξ leave us regarding our initial question: Why is spiritual growth so slow? In order to put forward an answer to this question, it will be helpful to situate this relational view of σάρξ in the following four theses of sanctification:

Thesis 1. The Spirit transforms persons by bringing his loving presence and meaning to bear on the structures of human personality (beliefs, affections, desires, etc.).

Thesis 2. The flesh is at bottom resistance to the Spirit through the refusal to “receive” the Spirit’s loving presence and meaning and instead put one’s confidence in one’s own autonomous resources.

Thesis 3. This fleshly resistance becomes deeply embedded in embodied humans, reinforced by cultural practices, and promoted by the demonic such that to “put to death” fleshly patterns of life is terrifyingly difficult.

Thesis 4. Since the Spirit’s transforming power is his loving presence and meaning, he does not force himself or coerce persons but waits for their resistance to resign (cf. 1 Cor 13:4–5: “love is patient, love is kind. . . . It does not insist on its own way”).

While I do not have the space to argue for each of these theses, I take it that at least theses 2 and 3 have been adequately defended in this paper. In the absence of the required defense of each of these theses, allow me to quote at length from Abraham Kuyper’s The Work of the Holy Spirit, in which he nicely summarizes a view of sanctification (and the flesh) that is consonant with these four theses:

And, dwelling in the elect, He [the Spirit] does not slumber, nor does He keep an eternal Sabbath, in idleness shutting Himself up in their hearts; but as divine Worker He seeks from within to fill their individual persons, pouring the stream of His divine brightness through every space. But we should not imagine that every believer is instantly filled and permeated. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit finds him filled with all manner of evil and treachery. . . . His method of procedure is not with divine power to force a man as though he were a stock or block, but by the power of love and compassion so to influence and energize the impulses of the feeble will that it feels the effect, is inclined, and finally consents to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. . . . This operation is different in each person. In one it proceeds with marvelous rapidity; in another, progress is exceedingly slow, being checked by serious reaction which in some rare cases is overcome only with the last breath. There are scarcely two men in whom this gracious operation is completely the same. It may not be denied that the Holy Spirit often meets serious opposition on the part of the saint. . . . And the Holy Spirit bears all this resistance with infinite pity, and overcomes it and casts it out with eternal mercy. Who that is not a stranger to his own heart does not remember how many years it took before he would yield a certain point of resistance; how he always avoided facing it; restlessly opposed it, at last thought to end the matter by arranging for a sort of modus vivendi between himself and the Holy Spirit? But the Holy Spirit did not cease, gave him no rest; again and again that familiar knock was heard, the calling in his heart of that familiar voice. And after years of resistance he could not but yield in the end . . . .39

There is much to appreciate, it seems to me, about Kuyper’s statement. What is most interesting for the subject matter of this paper is Kuyper’s comment regarding “exceedingly slow” spiritual progress, which he attributes to the Holy Spirit often meeting “serious opposition on the part of the saint.” Kuyper maintains that since Christians resist the Spirit’s work and since the Spirit does not force his transforming presence on them, the result is that sanctification is slowed. My claim is that understanding σάρξ as relational resistance, a view that Kuyper appears to share, is what ultimately explains why sanctification is often slow in coming.

7. Why Is Spiritual Growth So Slow?

The question we come to, then, is how this understanding of σάρξ aids in the explanation of the slowness of spiritual change. What follows are three concluding implications of a relational view of σάρξ for the gradual nature of sanctification.

First, understanding σάρξ as relational resistance places the locus of spiritual change in the category of personal trust or distrust of God rather than behavioral obedience or disobedience to God. Or, to put it differently, behavioral obedience or disobedience is always at bottom an issue of relational trust or distrust (cf. John 15:10). What makes spiritual growth challenging—and therefore, often slow—is that it requires persons to learn to trust, love, and depend on God in ways that they have previously learned to trust, love, and depend on themselves. Learning to trust, love, and draw life from another person—especially God—is far more complex than learning various strategies of strengthening one’s willpower. It is analogous to growth in a marriage relationship. If it were merely a matter of consistently engaging one’s spouse in certain ways (e.g., date nights, clear communication, sacrificial service) and refraining from activities that undermine the relationship (e.g., deception, workaholism, outbursts of anger), marital growth could, in principle, come about quite easily and rapidly. The problem is that a husband (or wife) can be consistently engaging his spouse in the right sort of ways and refraining from activities that undermine the marriage and nonetheless still lack trust, love, and dependence on his spouse. Just as we cannot reduce a marriage relationship to the activities that foster marital growth, we cannot reduce relationship with God to the willpower necessary to consistently engage the means of grace and refrain from sin.

Second, part of the reason why growing in trust is such a challenge is that relational resistance to the Spirit has been operating in humans up until the time of conversion and to varying degrees post-conversion. This means that the ways humans have learned to depend on their own autonomous resources apart from God have been deeply habituated. Perhaps most significant is that the earliest years of human life, during which time relational patterns are deeply embedded in the human personality, were all spent in idolatrous resistance to the Spirit.40 The doctrine of original sin entails that even in the womb human persons are seeking to find comfort, pleasure, soothing, nurture, etc. apart from God’s loving presence and, in some sense, in place of his presence. Walking according to the σάρξ—understood as dependence on one’s own autonomous resources apart from the Spirit—has been a long-term strategy for Christ-followers (cf. Eph 2:1–2). Moreover, this strategy has, in its own limited way, worked for persons such that to let go of it and trust in something else is terrifyingly difficult. This makes some sense of why Christ-followers are going to have to die to the very ways of being that helped them survive before coming to Christ (cf. Col 3:5; Gal 5:24; 6:8; Rom 8:13; 13:14). Erickson writes, “But the “death of the flesh” is abhorrent to a person and can only be endured by virtue of God’s promise to have already endowed humanity with resurrection life in Christ (cf. Rom 5:12–21). To die this death, and to “put on” Christ, is to place oneself again, as once in Eden, under the protection and provision of God, to become dependent and trusting.”41

Lastly, understanding σάρξ as relational resistance opens the door to the psychological fact that we can relationally resist another person even while apparently seeking out that other person. For example, it is quite easy to “listen” to someone speak affirming words to you while thinking of something else you would rather be doing or negating the meaning of the person’s words through self-talk that undermines what the person is communicating. In either case, the relational presence of the other—the meaning of the other—does not have its impact even though there is some sort of interpersonal exchange. In an analogous way, Christ-followers can draw near to the Spirit—through prayer, worship, Scripture, communion, and other means of grace—and nevertheless fail to receive all of what the Spirit has on offer. We are, like the Corinthians, “not yet able to receive it” (1 Cor 3:2 NASB). This helps explain why spiritual growth is slow even when one is partaking of the prescribed means of grace. C. S. Lewis poignantly writes,

I say my prayers, I read a book of devotion, I prepare for, or receive, the Sacrament. But while I do these things, there is, so to speak, a voice inside me that urges caution. It tells me to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats. I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerably inconvenient when I have come out again into my “ordinary” life. I don’t want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall afterwards regret. For I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast; I don’t want anything to happen to me at the altar which will run up too big a bill to pay then.42

Lewis articulates the push and pull of relational dependence which further complicates the Christian’s growth in dependence on God.

8. Conclusion

Some Christians find themselves discouraged in their Christian lives due to the slowness of change. Non-Christians often decry the truth of Christianity due to the perceived lack of maturity on the part of Christians. It has been argued here that one resource to help explain the slowness and lack of growth is a relational view of σάρξ that takes seriously the relational dynamics that exist between the human person and the indwelling Spirit of God. On this view of σάρξ, it turns out that sanctification is not fundamentally a matter of increased willpower in engaging the means of grace, but rather, choices to place one’s self in positions of growing trust in and dependence on the person of God. While such choices certainly involve willpower, the intentionality of the choice is attuned to the need to die to autonomy and to grow in greater trust and dependence. Christians come to their spiritual lives with long-standing and complicated stratagems to depend on self-rule rather than God’s rule, and these stratagems are deeply embedded in their characters such that even when Christians draw near to God through prayer, worship, meditation on Scripture, and other disciplines there is, as Lewis puts it, “a voice inside me that urges caution.” This means that while there is a way forward in Christian growth, this way forward will often take a fair amount of time. As Kuyper wrote, “It may not be denied that the Holy Spirit often meets serious opposition on the part of the saint.”43 Or, as Paul puts it, “I am in the pains of labor until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19).

[1] Wesley thought that “entire sanctification” could occur at the moment of conversion but often was delayed until a crisis moment later in the believer’s life. See, for instance, Melvin Dieter, “Wesleyan View,” in Five Views on Sanctification (ed. Stan Gundry; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 9–46. Many in the holiness movement taught that sanctification had both instantaneous and progressive aspects. See Edith L. Blumhofer, The Assemblies of God: A Chapter in the Story of American Pentecostalism, Volume 1 (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1989), 42–43.

[2] All Scripture citations ESV unless otherwise noted.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (trans. R. J. Hollingdale; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 235.

[4] The need for an explanation is pressed when it is not just the explanation of one’s own lack of sanctity but also the lack of sanctity within one’s Christian community.

[5] See John Coe, “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation: Opening to Spiritual Formation in the Cross and Spirit,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 1:1 (2008), 54–78.

[6] N. T. Wright discusses some of the differences between Aristotelian virtue formation and Christian virtue formation in After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012).

[7] For a helpful primer on the world, the flesh, the devil, and their interconnectedness, see Clint E. Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 32–37.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] This is not to deny that Jesus was incarnate in a real human body. It is instead to deny that Jesus experienced sinful tendencies as habituated character traits.

[10] Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 343.

[11] For an overview of Paul’s usage of σάρξ, see L&N, xiv–xv; Eduard Schweizer, Friedrich Baumgartel, and Rudolf Meyer, “sarx, sarkikos, sarkinos,” in TDNT 7:98–151; James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 62–70; I. Howard Marshall, “Living in the ‘Flesh,’” BSac 159 (2002): 387–403. For a succinct overview of Paul’s different uses as well as some discussion of the disagreements of how to categorize those uses, see Douglas J. Moo, “‘Flesh’ in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World (ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Mark L. Strauss, and Steven M. Voth; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 366–72.

[12] This count is claimed by Moo, “‘Flesh’ in Romans,” 367.

[13] In this paper I will largely stay clear of the debates regarding whether or not regenerate Christians still have sarx. It seems obvious that there is a sense in which Scripture makes clear that sarx has been crucified and another sense in which sarx needs to be “put to death” (Col 3:5; Gal 5:24; 6:8; Rom 8:13; 13:14). On this issue, Richard J. Erickson writes, “This in fact is an apocalyptic dualism which proleptically views the regenerate Christian as already ‘in the Spirit’ and under the rule of God by faith while still living a ‘fleshly’ existence in this present age. The solution to the tension thus created is the continual putting to death of the flesh and its works” (“Flesh,” DPL 306). For the alternative view, see Walter Russell, “Does the Christian have the Flesh?” JETS 36 (1993): 179–87.

[14] David K. Clark, “Interpreting the Biblical Words for Self,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 18 (1990), 312, 315. Clark concludes his paper by defining flesh as “the inclination to sin per se” (316). In this article I argue not that σάρξ does not include an inclination to sin, but that inclinations to sin are ultimately inclinations to find life in one’s own power apart from God. Again, the critique is that such a view of σάρξ needs to be taken further, not that the view is incorrect as it stands.

[15] Moo, Galatians, 354.

[16] Ibid., 344.

[17] For a helpful treatment of this interpersonal model, see William P. Alston, “The Indwelling of the Spirit,” in Divine Nature and Human Language (ed. William P. Alston; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 121–150.

[18] James W. Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 143.

[19] This interpretation of σάρξ is consistent with Gordon Fee’s view, though Fee seems to overly downplay the continued struggle with the “mortally wounded” σάρξ after conversion. See Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 126–39. Thomas Schreiner also takes this interpretation: “The term ‘flesh’ here is used in the technical Pauline sense, referring to reliance on the old Adam, the unregenerate person” (Galatians [ZECNT; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010], 184).

[20] It is assumed here that the verb ἐπιθυμεῖ in the first clause of Gal 5:17 is implied in the second clause of verse 17. For arguments to this effect, see Moo, Galatians, 354 and Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (rev. ed.; NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 249.

[21] Schreiner, Galatians, 343.

[22] Ibid., 340 (see also, 343–44, 352–52).

[23] It is significant that the “desire of the flesh” in Gal 5:16 is a singular desire (ἐπιθυμίαν). Moo writes, “The somewhat unexpected singular ἐπιθυμίαν focuses attention on the single basic direction that characterizes the ‘desire’ or ‘intent’ of the flesh” (Galatians, 353).

[24] Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (WBC 41; Dallas: Word, 1990), 245. Longenecker understands “to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal 5:17) as “the flesh opposes the Spirit with the desire that people not do what they want to do when guided by the Spirit, and the Spirit opposes the flesh with the desire that people not do what they want to do when guided by the flesh” (246). For a similar interpretation, see Dunn, Theology, 481–82. For a listing of other interpretative options, see Moo, Galatians, 354–56.

[25] Robert Jewett, Paul’s Anthropological Terms: A Study of Their Use in Conflict Settings (AGJU 10; Leiden: Brill, 1971), 103.

[26] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 13.

[27] Moreover, Gal 5 demonstrates that the deeds of the flesh stem from the desires of the flesh. That is, Christians sin because they desire to sin. Sin is not to be analyzed as mere behavioral disobedience, but rather a behavioral disobedience that stems from the desire to find life outside of God. But it is fair to ask one’s self, “Why do I desire to find life outside of God? What do I think I will find outside of him?” It looks like Christians are looking for something—pleasure, comfort, control, escape—on their own apart from God. Thus, the flesh at bottom is a trusting in our own ability to make life work rather than a trust in God that he is faithful to care for us according to our true needs. This view can be located in Longenecker, Galatians, 244–48 and Fung, Galatians, 248–52.

[28] John Owen has a helpful treatment of enmity towards God in his On the Mortification of Sin in Believers in Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor, eds., Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 41–140.

[29] See Erickson, “Flesh,” 303–6.

[30] Ibid., 306.

[31] Craig Keener defends a similar reading of Romans 8 from a consideration of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. See his “‘Fleshly’ Versus Spirit Perspectives in Romans 8:5–8,” in Paul as Jew, Greek, and Roman (ed. Stan E. Porter; Pauline Studies 5; Leiden: Brill, 2009), 211–30.

[32] I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 321. In reference to the Spirit-flesh dynamic of Rom 8, Dunn writes, “these two powers remain competing realities within the experience of the believer’s current embodiment” (Theology, 480; cf. 478–80).

[33] Moo writes of Romans 8, “The natural human condition is to be ‘in the flesh,’ that is, to be fundamentally determined by the perspective of this world in contrast to the world to come . . . Christians, because they are still in this world, must strive to avoid falling into such patterns of thought and activity (8:12:13; 13:14) . . . As long as we live in unredeemed bodies (cf. 8:10–11), the flesh will remain an aspect of being human that will seek to pull Christians back into the sinful habits of the old realm” (“‘Flesh’ in Romans,” 372–73). The point here is to stress that “the sinful habits of the old realm” are habits of life that arise in opposition to God—as replacements for life in him. So, the “pull back” is not just a pull to former behaviors but also a pull to an orientation of the self that seeks to find life outside of God.

[34] Paul’s usage of σαρκίνοις and σαρκικοί in 1 Cor 3 is morally negative, according to Dunn, Theology, 65.

[35] As Morna Hooker puts it, the Corinthians do not grow as “the result of their own inability to digest what he is offering them.” Quoted in Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 126.

[36] For another helpful statement of this view, see Wilber T. Dayton, “The New Testament Conception of the Flesh,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 2 (1967): 15–16.

[37] George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (ed. Donald A. Hagner; 2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 515.

[38] Thompson is helpful here: “While Paul assumes that those who belong to the old aeon, including those who want to return to it, are enslaved to the power of desire, his imperatives indicate that the community has been rescued from evil powers and now has the potential to choose an alternative power. Accompanying this rescue is the gift of the Spirit (3:2; 4:4–6), which empowers the community to keep the moral demands. . . . Thus Paul does not speak of virtue when he lists the attributes of believers, but the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22). This view corresponds to comments elsewhere about the divine agency at work in believers (cf. Phil. 2:12–13). Believers must nevertheless ‘walk in the Spirit’ (5:16), be ‘led by the Spirit’ (5:18), and crucify the flesh with its desires (5:24). The role of the Spirit in the moral life and the insistence that the community live by the Spirit continue a theme from the earliest catechesis (cf. 1 Thess. 4:8). Only those who have the Spirit are capable of overcoming the passions. When they yield to the divine empowerment, they ‘do the good to all, especially those of the household of faith’ (Gal. 6:10).” Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul, 143; cf. 152–53.

[39] Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (trans. by Henri De Vries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 529–30, italics original.

[40] For a helpful discussion of this point, see John H. Coe and Todd W. Hall, Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), 285–87. It is also worth noting that while there are many ways that humans seek to find life outside of God, one of the primary ways humans learn to live without God is through both healthy and unhealthy attachments to significant human others. The earliest of these human relationships are also the context in which persons first learn to trust and depend on others to meet vital human needs. How this attachment process goes for human persons in childhood has been shown to influence how one will experience their later attachment to God. Hence, another complicating factor in the Christian’s growth in dependence on God is one’s early relational history. See ibid., 234–60.

[41] Erickson, “Flesh,” 306.

[42] C. S. Lewis, “A Slip of the Tongue,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 185–86.

[43] Kuyper, Work, 530.

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