This one’s a little Bible study on one of the most misunderstood concepts in the New Testament.
Yup, pretty mysterious. You probably haven’t heard a sermon on that passage recently.
For one thing, if Christ or God (translations vary) was manifested — revealed, made clear, displayed — in the flesh, what was there to justify? Isn’t revealing Christ in a human life supposed to prove the reality and the benefits of God and his power and prove the person as God’s faithful child? What’s wrong with that and who could possibly challenge it?
And why manifested “in the flesh”, but justified “in the spirit”? How do you justify something in the spirit?
Romans Chapter 7 is the key…
What kind of flesh? The kind where “nothing good dwells.” Whatever Paul meant by “flesh” (I take it to mean the physically oriented/attached, damaged aspects of our psyches — the imprints that appear to be the story until we dig deeper and find their root causes) he didn’t like what was in it. And instead of owning it, he divorced it from him: “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” Sounds like an excuse, doesn’t it?
“It’s not my fault, I couldn’t help myself! It’s all sin’s fault!” LOL
Except that wasn’t his attitude.
“For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” Hating it is not the same as excusing it.
“O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” That doesn’t sound like someone trying to wriggle out of responsibility for his shit, does it?
I once heard someone explain it this way: Paul set out to do good things, but then in hindsight realized that he’d missed the mark unwittingly, even unconsciously. So, he wasn’t culpable in God’s eyes for what he did. It was just an oversight or something he hadn’t understood yet. As soon as he saw it and saw that it was wrong, he dealt with it and never did it again.
Not only is that highly unlikely, it misses Paul’s whole point. He wasn’t in agony over the “the evil I will not to do, [but] that I practice” because of self-concern for his own welfare or spiritual status. Is that the love that God inspires? Love isn’t concerned with our culpability — it’s focused on our beloved in a way that we disappear. It’s about others. He was torn up that he hurt other people by doing evil that he hated, and he didn’t understand, to start with, how this could result from trying to do them good. But he came to a resolution.
“Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
“So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
When Paul manifested Christ in his flesh, he found “a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.” That’s why justification is needed even after we manifest Christ in our flesh. Others see both the good and the evil we did. And, if they are not perceptive enough to understand where we’re coming from, the evil that’s present with us sullies the Christ we just manifested, as far as they’re concerned. It’s a contagion reflex. Christ in an angel or a vision or a dream? Cool! Amazing stories about saintly people who said and did incredibly pious things under duress in difficult situations? Awesome! Inspiring! Evil present in the flesh never comes to view that way. However, manifest Christ in the flesh, not in some disembodied way but in your flesh and my flesh just as it is, evil present in it, right before their eyes? No, that they cannot and will not accept, because it undermines their trust. They can’t tell what came from where. It either must be all good or all must be rejected. It takes love to see deeper and sort it out.
That’s why the justification Paul told Timothy about has to come “in the spirit.” It’s about intention and motivation, not behavior and its consequences, which are the jurisdiction of law — and typically the chief concern of our critics. Paul willed to do good, agreed with the law about what was good, delighted in the law of God “according to the inward man” — according to the true spirit of what he attempted — and he still experienced, “but how to perform what is good I do not find.” He failed to perform, in that he practiced “the evil I will not to do.” There is no way to justify that “according to the flesh” — according to what law has jurisdiction over. And there’s no way to avoid it, because the “law” of the flesh is “warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin.” Because evil always comes along with the good we do, and people see it, so there’s no honest way to deny it.
To see Paul — the real Paul, the one who served the law of God with his mind, not his flesh that served the law of sin — people had to look deeper. They had to understand his mind, his will, his heart, his intentions, and his motivation. They had to spend time with him. They had to try to understand the person behind the actions instead of judging him by snapshots of actions and consequences. Then they could tell the difference between him and the “sin that dwells in me.” That’s being justified in the spirit. We do it all the time for people we love and trust, and yet we’re loathe to confidently declare that it is no longer we who do those things we hate, but the sin which dwells in us. But that is the faith that Paul said, in Chapter 8, places us “in Christ Jesus.”
After two thousand years of wrangling, schisms, politicking, and flat out wars, this hasn’t even been discussed in Christian theology, let alone preached from the pulpit. On the contrary, the church would immediately reject it as heresy. Why? Because of the very next thing that Paul wrote. And notice how the chapter break interferes with the fact that he says Romans 8:1-4 because of Romans 7:15-25.
Without condemnation — the threat of God’s displeasure, the church’s censure, rejection by your fellow churchgoers, the prospect of judgment and hell, being told week in and week out that you are a sinner, fall short, are unworthy, in constant need of spiritual help — what power would the church hold over people who were happily listening to God, experiencing his pleasure with them, doing their best to serve him, tolerating and forgiving and appreciating each other? Just what would be left for the church to do? Where would its “glory” and profits come from? Mother church has long been guilty of spiritual Munchausen by proxy.
“Walk according to the flesh”? That’s to judge and decide and act on third-person views of our behavior and its consequences — you know, like you picture in your head when you worry about what the neighbors or the authorities or your friends or family will think.
Walk “according to the spirit”? That’s to judge and decide and act on the truth that you know about your own intentions, motivations, and heart before God. That’s part of what it means to be “in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation. Fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law, because it’s written on our hearts and minds, down deep where we love it like Paul did. What we do, we do for that reason, not some other one.
Judged according to the flesh — behaviorally, from an outsider’s point of view, which is the only perspective that law is capable of — laws can still find fault. Friends, family, and society at large can still find fault. That is what the “reproach of Christ” is about. (Hebrews 11:26 and 13:13) That’s what the sufferings of Christ are about; not “self-mortification,” but the fact that, as long as others judge us superficially, we’ll look like fools, wrongdoers, idiots, even evil tools of the devil — just like they accused Jesus of being — doing exactly what we willed to be good that yet turned out evil when we performed it.
The church teaches the opposite: until we perform the good, we can’t truly say that we willed to do good. At least not willed “purely” and “whole-heartedly” enough to pull it off. This is not Christ manifested in the flesh. This is a fable about Christ revealed in a fictional flesh that neither we nor church leaders have — in spite of their inordinate and ornate, whitewashed facades of piety. We refuse to deny the truth for the sake of appearance that they obsess about and cow to their demands that we hypocritically spruce up externals so that they can feel better about us in their blindness. Then they declare us heretics or subversives or downright wicked. This attitude is antichrist, not Christ manifested in the flesh.
Even way back then, the lies that eventually became the Christian church had already started circulating.
Those who are in Christ Jesus see through all that shit and see us for who we are. They love and care about us first, not our impact on them — because they know that we love and care for them first, not their impact on us — and all of us have been forgiven much by God and people. Our impact on each other matters tremendously, and Jesus said plenty and plenty was written in the epistles about how to deal with that in love. But none of it makes a whit of difference and none of it works a bit unless we walk in the Spirit, according to the truth of the spirit, recognizing each other’s hearts, intentions, and motivations. And, contrary to the lies of the Christian church, those who walk in the spirit are children of God, not those who proclaim themselves children of God by doctrinal confession or church affiliation while walking according to the flesh.
How do we “put to death the deeds of the body?” The way Paul did: disown them.
“…it is no longer I who do it.”
Choose who you are and who you identify with.
“So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
When you get a grasp on this, you’ll see what Paul meant by “then you will live.” You’ll see what receiving the Spirit of adoption feels like and cry out “Abba, Father” yourself — aka, Daddy!
What church do they teach that in?