(originally posted on January 1, 2004)
Unmasking A Seldom Suspected Culprit
In the Bible, the word “flesh” can refer to a number of things. In some places it is used to describe the physical body. “Flesh” is also used to denote the condition man was left in after the Fall. Flesh is what Man became because of sin as opposed to what God originally created. Man was created a spiritual being with a nature that corresponded to God. Adam and Eve had the desire and the capacity to fellowship with God. But when sin entered the race, everything changed. Man’s essential character had been altered. God forewarned Adam that disobedience would bring death. And the day he sinned, he entered into the condition of spiritual death. Adam was now a fallen creature in a fallen world with a carnal nature that was opposed to God. In going astray Man became flesh.
The flesh can manifest itself in two ways: unrighteousness or self-righteousness. For the most part, Christians associate the flesh with the grosser, sensual sins such as adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, and drunkenness. But the flesh may display itself in a less obvious and more acceptable manner. Hostility, wrangling, jealousy, wrath, strife, dissension, and spite are also works of the flesh. These self-righteous expressions of the flesh are just as offensive to God as the unrighteous manifestations. I understand that saved people are technically not in the flesh , but who would deny that it is in the realm of possibility for saved people to walk after the flesh?
In politics and theology you have conservatives and liberals — right-wingers and left-wingers. Even so, the flesh may expose itself at either end of the spectrum. For our current purposes, let’s look at a few facets of right-wing flesh.
Right-Wing Flesh Is Pharisaical
The Sadducees were the liberals in Jesus’ day. They only accepted the Pentateuch as inspired and did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. On the other hand, the Pharisees were the conservatives. They accepted the entire Old Testament as the Word of God and firmly held to a literal resurrection in the afterlife.
But the Pharisees focused on the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law. They were preoccupied with outward appearances instead of the inner attitudes of the heart. Though they had right views of the Bible as to its inspiration, they held wrong views as to its application.
Time and time again Jesus blasted the Pharisees. He rebuked them for their hypocrisy, their neglect of the weightier matters of the law, and their misguided zeal. They were sticklers on minor points and made major points of the things that were man-made instead of God-ordained. If the Sadducees did not go far enough on the essentials, the Pharisees went too far on the unessential! There are two ways to destroy God’s absolutes: make everything relative, or go beyond the Scripture by making absolutes out of preferences. Either way the Word of God is distorted.
Properly held positions, coupled with arrogance and contempt, are no better than wrongly held positions. We have all heard that it is never right to do wrong in order to do right. Moreover, it is never right to be correct on the matter if we are wrong in the manner. Never forget that while men look on the outward appearance, God looks on our hearts.
Remember the Pharisee who evaluated himself purely from a performance-based mindset. He evaluated his life on an “I don’t” . . . “I do” mentality. He compared himself with adulterers, extortionists, and the repentant publican. In so doing he boasted in the fact that he was “not like other men.” He went on to justify himself by reminding God that he fasted twice during the week and gave tithes of all he possessed.
The heart of Pharisaism is an unwise comparison. When this man compared himself with other men, he rated fairly well. But if he had chosen God as his standard of comparison, he would have joined the publican on his knees in broken contrition. The Pharisee is the personification of rightwing flesh.
Right-Wing Flesh Is Proud
There is no spirit in man more opposed to the Spirit of God than the spirit of pride. Pride displays itself in three basic ways: pride of virtue; pride of knowledge; and pride of power. Virtuous pride glories, “I am cleaner than you.” Intellectual pride boasts, “I am smarter than you.” Dominating pride gloats, “I am stronger than you.” But Paul said the only thing worthy of glorying in was the Cross of Christ.
The Pharisees came to Christ dragging a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. This was merely a ploy to trap Christ into contradicting the Law of Moses. Jesus quietly wrote in the sand and her accusers hung their heads in shame and walked out one by one. Maybe Jesus wrote the names of the women these men had been with, or the names of those with whom they would like to commit adultery. Whatever He wrote smote their consciences severely. Their pretended moral superiority was a sham.
An advanced moralism can be a cover for a hidden immorality. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, uncleanness (impurity), and iniquity (See Matthew 23:27-28). All of their meticulous dictates and practices were but a smokescreen to camouflage their sin.
For the Pharisees their “system” had overshadowed the substance. Their tradition-bound ideology had become an end in itself. Rigidity and inflexibility can provide a security barrier for the flesh to hide behind. The Law commanded Israel to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Their “do no work guidelines” stipulated that no “burdens” were to be lifted on the Sabbath. The Rabbis painstakingly defined a burden as: milk enough for a gulp; oil enough to anoint the small toe of a day-old infant; ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet; anything that weighs as much as two fried eggs; or a pebble big enough to throw at a bird. The whole intent of the command had been lost in a systemic legalism which enabled them to check off the blocks and look good in their own eyes.
The quest for an air-tight systematic theology can breed a stifling intellectual pride. Jeremy Taylor said, “To be proud of learning is the greatest ignorance.”
When logic replaces the theologic as the guiding principle, beware of haughtiness. Warmness of heart will invariably vanish when proselytizing others to a particular point of view becomes primary. As someone said, “Pride is the only disease that makes everybody sick except the person who has it!”
Right-Wing Flesh Is Pugnacious
A combative and quarrelsome disposition is the meaning of the word pugnacious. Peevishness and a bent toward provocation are the insignia of right-wing flesh. But Scripture warns us, “Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:26). On the contrary, charity is the trademark of a Spirit-filled man.
Sedition, one of the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5, means disunion, dissension, or division. Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their fleshliness, “For whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3). Have you considered that unnecessary divisions may be just as damaging to Christ’s cause as a moral scandal?
“Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). Charles Spurgeon said, “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.” Spurgeon, for conscience sake, had to withdraw from the Baptist Union. This was only after repeated pleas and appeals to his brethren to amend their ways. He was brokenhearted at the accommodations within his group and the consequent position he was forced to take. He walked as far as he could with the Baptist Union, but ultimately it became clear he could no longer identify with the wayward direction of his group. Detachment was the last resort for Spurgeon and he experienced profound grief because of it. The spirit in which he approached that situation is a model to be emulated if it unhappily becomes necessary.
The name Pharisee means separatist. Their strong stands and inflexibility were of such a nature that their hearts were closed to the Messiah. Their institutional rules and regulations became an end in themselves instead of an expression of their devotion to God. Think about it, those who held the highest possible view of Scripture rejected God’s Son!
Biblical separation is always balanced. Someone said, “Conviction with compassion equals communication. Compassion minus conviction equals compromise. Conviction minus compassion produces contention.” Those who are always eager to cast the first stone should first check their heart motives. A combative, belligerent spirit is another way right-wing flesh expresses itself.
Right-Wing Flesh Is Prayerless
The engine of an intense spirituality must always be the driving force of any movement which avoids the overreaching tentacles of the flesh. Vital reality with God can only be maintained in the place of prayer because this is the only place where the flesh can be subdued. Well disciplined people can work tirelessly and continuously “for” God. One pastor from a foreign country commented how impressed he was with how much American Christians could do — without God!
Prayerlessness is the very first sign of pride. The flesh is prayerless because the flesh is proud by nature. Lack of dependency on God is one of the surest evidences of a self-sufficient, flesh-based ministry. On the contrary, prayer is a Declaration of Dependence upon God.
Orthodoxy without spiritual vigor is perversion. An orthodox iceberg can do no more to genuinely warm hearts than the false-fire of left-wing progressivism. Truth on ice is not the truth at all! As strange as it may seem, as paradoxical as it may be, it is possible to take a stand for truth and yet be void of its power.
Because of its predominance, many have grown accustomed to prayerless study, prayerless ministry, dead services, and dead sermons. They would never in their wildest imagination consider this style of ministry just as fleshly as the sensual charlatan on the religious television network! Guarded restraint or wild exuberance yields the same net result unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.
When you depend on education, you get what education can do. When you depend on men, you get what man can do. When you depend on prayer, you get what God can do!
Right-Wing Flesh Is Profitless
Jesus said the flesh profits nothing — it is the Spirit that gives life (John 6:63). What good is it to have a lot of irons in the fire if the fire is going out? Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “One of the greatest dangers in the spiritual life is to live on your own activities. In other words, the activity is not in its right place as something which you do, but has become something that keeps you going.” When zeal for the cause supercedes fellowship with Christ, how can any eternal benefit be realized? What advantage is it to dwell in Jerusalem if you never see the face of the King?
We read in the Old Testament that the Ark of God was being carried on unsanctified shoulders just before the glory departed from Israel. Priestly work was being done by perverse men. Religious work done by unspiritual men brought judgment upon the nation. They forsook the Lord and the Lord forsook them. Self-righteous flesh is just as counterproductive to the Kingdom Cause as unrighteous flesh. The letter alone kills — it is the Spirit which gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6). God’s work cannot be promoted merely by human effort — “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.”
The remedy for the flesh, regardless of its expression, is the cross of Christ. “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Galatians 5:24). The flesh could not be satisfied; it had to be crucified. God’s purpose in redemption was to get us out of the flesh and into Christ .
We are not in the flesh, but the flesh is still in us. Since we are not yet in our glorified bodies, we still have the capacity for fleshly activity. But saved people have the power to overcome the lusts of the flesh — even right-wing flesh!