God frustrated His creation to bring about our salvation . . . that’s what Romans chapter eight describes. And to grow our faith in Him, His Spirit is confronting us with choices of whom to trust: our frustrated flesh that wants to be in control . . . or Him.
Let’s go back to the beginning, the Bible’s first chapter, to see how this battle can be won.
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’” (from Genesis 1:26). Absolutely, we are not God . . . still, He designed us such that our whole living bodies and natural motivations (bone and flesh) directly correlate to His divine image and likeness (in that order). He formed us such that we are physically-limited representations of His spiritual Self.
Just as our whole living body is made up of an earthly physical body, a soul and a spirit, God has a heavenly, eternal body (Jesus gave a glimpse of it at the transfiguration and after His resurrection), God has a soul (His mind, will and emotions are expressed throughout the Bible and are typically attributed to being those of the Father) and God has a spirit (the Holy Spirit).
And just as we have earthly motivations for what we do, God has divine motivations for what He does. (They’re displayed in His character, His nature.) In chapter two of First Corinthians, Paul explained that God wants us to thoroughly understand Him, His deepest thoughts, His ways . . . so He put His Spirit within us and gave us the mind of Christ.
Paul hinted about the final resolution for our situation later, in chapter 15 (of First Corinthians). There he said that both animals and people have flesh (instincts that motivate) and they have earthly physical bodies . . . and those all will perish. Then he made the sublime contrast: a believer will be resurrected with an imperishable, incorruptible spiritual body.
When we accepted God’s gift of eternal life, He gave us the Holy Spirit as evidence (proof-of-life) that we will live with Jesus forever in His kingdom. Yet something more took place. Yes, the term does bring up unpleasant imagery, however it’s essential to take in the concept of the circumcision of the heart.
The heart is the vault where the law of the flesh is kept. It’s our self-serving rules for navigating through daily-life; our biased standards for judging good and evil; our ever-changing core principles, values and beliefs of what is right and wrong.
In a moment we’ll look at some significant Scripture passages talking about this circumcision. But for now, here’s a simplistic overview of what happens . . .
Whenever we had choices to make, we relied on our laws . . . the gold-standards that we started with at birth and have continued to develop ever since. We used them as guides and for justifying everything that we did. Those laws of the flesh served us well . . . until we realized how futile this life is apart from God. That’s what Solomon wrote about in Ecclesiastes, saying “everything is vanity;” there’s no lasting satisfaction or purpose to be found in this life . . . it’s empty.
Then, at salvation, the Holy Spirit performed a spiritual surgery to separate our hearts from our minds . . . not taking them away but putting distance between them. Our laws don’t have a direct, unimpeded pathway to our souls anymore . . .they don’t command the respect from us that they once did. Our flesh has less swagger and now our spirit, our communicator with the Holy Spirit, can offer guidance with even greater influence.
This isn’t just a New Testament concept. Moses described it in Deuteronomy chapters 29 and 30. There he predicted Israel’s failures of following the Law, the failures of their flesh. Just before saying “Today I set before you life and death, choose life” (from Deuteronomy 30:19) he told them how escaping death and entering that life would be possible . . . God would circumcise their hearts.
Later, Ezekiel talked about this transformation in his chapter 36. God was going to wash them clean and change what motivated them. He was going to take away their heart of stone . . . it was dead, separated from Him. In its place He would put a heart of flesh . . . one that could turn them to a dependence upon Him (for salvation). And to those who trusted Him, He would give a new spirit . . . new life with the Holy Spirit living within them. (That’s also the thrust of Hebrews chapter six.)
Understanding that your flesh has lost its prominence is critical for being a secure believer. It’s the basis for saying “I know that God isn’t finished with me yet.”
In Romans, Paul continued the explanation by differentiating between Jews by heritage . . . and Jews by the Spirit. “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:29).
He amplified this in his letter to the Colossians . . .
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;
and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Colossians 2:8-14)
And when He wrote to the Galatians, Paul contended that the Jewish practice of physical circumcision was a continuation of dependence on their flesh to keep the Law . . . to stay on good terms with God. Only two chapters earlier he asked them why they were being so “foolish” . . . returning to what was supposed to be a tutor to lead them out of the Law and into faith in Christ by the Spirit ().
The soul has only two sources for guidance: the spirit and the flesh. As the governor of the body, the soul must choose, one moment at a time, which one to listen to and then act upon.
Certainly our flesh, along with its selfish beliefs and values, will be with us until these earthly bodies return to dust. But as born-again, spiritual beings, our souls now hear the Spirit . . . they don’t depend on the flesh.
As we mature and trust Him more, we find that our minds are free to meditate on God’s ways, our wills can be led by His Spirit and our emotions can reflect His peace, patience, kindness . . . joy. If we let Him, He will change us, step-by-step, on our journey with Him.