Let’s go back to the beginning –the Bible’s first chapter– to find the way out of the battle where the flesh and the spirit are entrenched in opposition ().
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’” (from Genesis 1:26). Absolutely, we are not God –yet He designed us such that our earthly whole-living-bodies and motivations (bone and flesh) directly correlate to His divine image and likeness (in that order).
Just as the whole-living-body is made up of an earthly physical body, a soul and a spirit, God has a heavenly, eternal body (Jesus unveiled it while He was here), 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. (It’s His character, His nature.) 1 Corinthians chapter two explains that He wants us to thoroughly understand Him, His deepest thoughts, His ways. That’s why He put His Spirit in us –and gave us the mind of the One who lived among us.
The final resolution to our current situation –the flesh in conflict with the spirit– is found in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. Paul was speaking about the resurrection of the dead when he contrasted animals and people. There he said that both have flesh and earthly physical bodies –and they will perish. But believers will be resurrected with spiritual bodies –to live eternally with God. We will have new eternal, incorruptible houses for our souls and spirits –and we’ll share in Christ’s motivation.
When we accepted God’s gift of eternal life, the Holy Spirit formed an inseparable bond with us. We were born-again –“born of the Spirit” (from ). Something more took place at that new birth. Yes, the term does bring up unpleasant imagery, but 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. In it are the self-serving rules for navigating through daily-life –the biased standards for judging good and evil –the ever-changing core principles, values and beliefs of what is right and wrong.
The Holy Spirit has circumcised our hearts –separating them from our souls and spirits– severing the tie to our dominating flesh. Certainly our physical bodies will be with us until they return to dust –it is the earthly dwelling for our soul, our spirit …and our flesh. But we’ve been cut loose from the kingdom of death. Our souls aren’t constrained to trust what the flesh professes anymore. Our minds are free to meditate on God’s ways, our wills can be led by the Spirit and our emotions can reflect His peace, patience, kindness…joy.
Moses described this circumcision in Deuteronomy chapters 29 and 30. There he laid out Israel’s then-future 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 to escape death so that life would be possible –God would circumcise their hearts.
Later, Ezekiel was talking about this transformation in regard to Israel (in his chapter 36). God was going to wash them clean and change what motivated their conduct and their actions. 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 crux of Hebrews chapter six.)
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). Paul amplified his insight in Colossians chapter two…
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)
This is another view of Paul’s survey in Romans chapter three where he talked about two journeys –two walks of faith. One is faith in ourselves (the flesh) –apart from God –trusting that we can accomplish whatever we need. The other is faith in Him and everything that He has accomplished through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection –including the reconciliation (the total forgiveness) of every repulsive deed of our flesh.
In Galatians chapter five, Paul argued that the Jewish religious practice of physical circumcision was a continuation of depending on their Law to keep themselves on good terms with God. Only two chapters earlier he told them that the Law was like a tutor (a set of pictures or dramas) to lead them to Christ so that they would then live by faith and leave that old way behind ().
The soul has only two sources for counsel: the human 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.
There in that chapter he called them “foolish” for allowing themselves to be enslaved again after starting to live by faith (). To prove the point he explained that following any part of the Law –without keeping it all– was useless. At least if they tried to do absolutely everything that was written –and do it perfectly– then they would realize (like he did) that they were dead in their failures.
Our flesh does continue with us until the day we leave these earthly bodies. But as born-again, spiritual beings we’re no longer controlled by it –we’re not anchored to it. We have another source for our minds to listen to –the Holy Spirit (through our spirits). We certainly aren’t held accountable to the Law of Moses since it (in concert with our flesh) led us to Jesus. We’ve been freed from that barren existence.
There are two lists in Galatians chapter three –and in many other books of the Bible. One characterizes the results of what the flesh naturally does (it’s the fruit from the tree of death). The other is the results of letting the Holy Spirit doing the leading (it’s the fruit from the tree of life –the fruit of the Spirit). Jesus is the One who fulfilled the Law –it’s His biography. He became the single acceptable sacrifice for us. Now we can let Him –who is alive in our bodies– love others ( ).
“Crucify the flesh,” “die daily,” “pick up your cross.” –These are pleadings to trust that God has circumcised your heart. Your eternal spiritual being has been freed from your untrusting, naturally independent flesh. And remember that trying to obediently do good gives power back to the rebellious flesh.