(Draft of a sermon on the doctrine of the “flesh” in the NT):
Romans 7:14–25 (ESV)
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Mark Twain attacked slavery and racism and plain foolishness in his brutal and kind and sad and funny novel Huckleberry Finn. When story opens, Huckleberry Finn, the son of the town drunk has become quite rich by finding a treasure. The rich and kind widow Douglas takes the poor, uncivilized Huckleberry Finn to live in her home. She provides him food and clothes and an education – which Huckleberry recognizes as kindness, but her kindness does not always fit comfortably. On occasion he returns to his former life for a night or two – his old ways seem more comfortable and fitting; his filthy clothes and foul food suit him at times. This back-and-forth between worlds continues until his Pa shows up and to retrieve the newly rich Huckleberry. Eventually, Pa kidnaps Huckleberry and locks him in a cabin in the forest – until Huckleberry manages to escape down the river.
The picture is not perfect, but it helps. You Christian escape your former life, but your former life does not leave. At times you flirt with your old life – innocently it seems. But then the vicious drunken Flesh shows up in your bedroom demands servitude. Sometimes the Flesh even seems to get the upper hand and you find yourself locked in a prison. Then you repent and escape. But however far you run, Flesh turns up again – sometimes to tempt, sometime to drive – but always to move you to fresh sin and sorrow and shame. When you repent, returning to sin seems an impossibility! Yet, when Flesh wraps a greedy hand about your wrist ….
Such a wearisome labor; such driving forward and falling back! Such hope and shame.
Do you know that – at all? Do you ever look at your hands and think, Jesus is right – it would be better to cut these off. Do you ever wish your eyes could be gone from your body? Do you ever peer in your heart and sink in sorrow for the unending belch of sin welling up from the dark, deathly deep?
When you read in Romans 6:7 that you have been freed from, do you wonder if Paul has lied? Have you read 1 John from front to back and thought, it must be that I do not know him – for I so fail to keep his commandments. What do you think, when you read the Savior’s words of John 15:10
If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love ….
Do you ever cry to God in despair:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
If you call yourself a Christian and yet have not known a sorrow and shame for sin; if you do not know the struggle with flesh, then I wonder at your claim. The New Testament constantly warns and instructs us concerning a conflict with the Flesh:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:11 (ESV)
Not just Peter, but John warns against the flesh:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 1 John 2:15–17 (ESV)
Paul most famously raises the war of the flesh:
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. Galatians 5:16–17 (ESV)
Now if we do not understand what the Bible teaches about the flesh, we will have no idea how to respond. We live like a solider in Afghanistan who patrols a village in which he cannot know who is villager and who the enemy solider.
Christian books and Christian lore give all sorts of direction and advice concerning the “flesh”. I have been told that I have two natures – I have an old nature and a new nature. I have been told that I still have a sin nature. I have been told my “flesh” is my physical body. I have been told my flesh consists of my old habits. And so my “sin nature” makes me sin. Or my body makes me sin. Or my old habits make me sin.
The problem comes from failing to pay attention to what the Bible says about such things. It is true that sometimes – particularly in the Old Testament, the word translated in English as “flesh” refers to your physical body. There are places where flesh seems related to ways of thinking – like habits. There are places where your flesh almost seems like someone else. If we are not careful with our reading, we will make a mess of this idea. If we get the concept of “flesh” wrong, we will have all sorts of problems in understanding our sin.
To understand the doctrine of the flesh, we will need to search our Bibles from back to front. To keep you from being overwhelmed with the number of texts, I am going to post my sermon notes in case you would like to review the matter at more length.
Let’s consider two texts which help clarify our thinking. Turn to John 3, this is the famous passage where Jesus explains to Nicodemus that we must be born again to see and enter the Kingdom of God. Start reading in verse 6:
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ John 3:6–7 (ESV)
To be born of flesh merely means to be born – it is our natural state: we all begin as “flesh”. The necessary rebirth comes of the Spirit. If you read a text like that you might think that “flesh” means your physical body. But Jesus did not say that – the words “physical” or “body” are not in the text. Lay this text alongside Romans 8 verse 9:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. Romans 8:9 (ESV)
If “flesh” means your body, then Paul says that when the Spirit of God dwells in you, you lose your physical body. That is self-evidently untrue.
Paul is making a logical argument: He explains that you have the Spirit or you do not. If you have the Spirit, you are not in the flesh. Which implies that if you do not have the Spirit, you are in the flesh: That is very similar to what Jesus told Nicodemus.
When the “flesh” is used as source of sin, it is typically put in contrast to the Holy Spirit. This will give us a basic definition of “flesh”: it means a human being without the Spirit. We will develop that definition a bit as we examine the appropriate texts.
There is a second element: It is not the “flesh” by itself which leads to sin. It is the way in which we relate to flesh that leads to sin. Peter writes about the “desires” of the “lusts” of the flesh. John writes about the “lusts” of the flesh. Paul in Romans 8 explains that it is a mind set on the flesh that leads to sin. In Galatians 5, Paul writes that sin comes from walking according to the flesh.
Here is our basic doctrine: Sin flows from the believer walking according to the flesh – Sin results from living independently of the Spirit. This is found in Romans 8:-8:
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 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. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Romans 8:5–8 (ESV)
From that doctrine, we draw this conclusion: We cannot kill sin by our own efforts. In fact it is trying to live from our own effort that leads to sin. Rather, the Holy Spirit working in us puts sin to death. We see this doctrine stated plainly in Romans 8:13:
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
This doctrine works like one of the great cables that runs from the beginning to the end of the Bible and holds the parts together. The question of “flesh” starts in the Garden and runs through resurrection and New Creation. It relates to sin and justification and sanctification and glorification. It has to do with how we treat our family, how we do our work, what we eat and drink. It concerns our worship and our sin. Therefore, when you leave this morning, there will be more unsaid than said on the topic.
I have a modest goal: To show some of what the Bible means by “flesh” and how we can use that knowledge to grow in godliness.
This will a story of sorts with three basic parts:
Part One: First, How did human beings come to be something called “the flesh”? Or, What Went Wrong. Here is a subtitle How We Fell From Genesis 2 to Romans 1
God makes Adam. God puts Adam into a Garden. Adam is a priest and a king. He speaks directly to God. God speaks directly to Adam. Heaven is not far away from earth. Adam rules over all the creation as God has commanded. God gives Adam a wife. God says that it is all very good.
God gives Adam one command:
16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:16–17 (ESV)
To live, Adam must respond with faith and obedience: True faith always entails obedience – indeed, what we believe to be true will always control behavior. Sin in practice always stems from sin in unbelief.
We don’t need to speculate about the tree and its fruit. The matter is plain: the fruit of the tree conveys some knowledge – which God calls “good and evil”. To eat of it produces death.
In an almost comically contrary manner, the Devil appears and denies that they will die:
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. Genesis 3:5 (ESV)
Consider carefully the proposition, because it lies at the heart of what this concept of flesh: The human beings wanted to live independently of their Creator.
Write this down:
They wanted knowledge and life without God.
And so they lose knowledge of God and life in an instant. Humanity becomes alienated, separated from the life of God. That is the flesh. When we live without knowledge of God and subject to death we will sin. A fish without water, a fire without air, a man without God will all die.
Thus, the tragedy of human history: God forced Adam and Eve from the Garden. God sentenced them to death, and death now hangs over the entire human race. To be born is to be born under a curse. To breathe is to be an enemy of God. It live is to live without hope.
Such a dungeon is the great globe. We are born into a cemetery.
We cannot turn to God, for he is our enemy. And the devil – the ruler of the prince of the air, as Paul calls him; the lords over mankind. Hebrews 2:15 explains the devil keeps men in lifelong slavery through fear of death. Oh, to be ignorant of God is to be subject to death – and to be subject to such ignorance and fear is to wallow in sin.
This is the state of “flesh”. The flesh is the human being without the life-giving word of God. To be alienated from the knowledge of God is to be alienated from the life of God. Human beings separated from God are filled with wickedness and then they die. As Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 9:3:
Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. Ecclesiastes 9:3 (ESV)
The madness of the human heart, the blindness and stupidity and death which make up human history all comes out of the rejection of God.
Since God has become the enemy of humanity, humanity has stuffed its ears will not hear the word of God. Listen as Paul explains in Romans 1:18:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Get this plainly: God is the enemy of human beings. God has plainly revealed his existence – and God has made plain his wrath. Rather than fleeing from the wrath to come, rather than fleeing to salvation in Jesus Christ human beings suppress the knowledge of God:
4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. Romans 2:4–5 (ESV)
Human culture, civilization, politics is all designed to protect us from the sin which flows directly from rebellion against God. Would we need police officers, if everyone loved their neighbor? Would we need armies, if all men and women were subject to Christ as King? No, rather than reconcile to God, run and hide from God. We suppress the knowledge of God. But this suppression is little better than some 12 year old boys who decided to spend the evening in a cemetery. They claim no fear, but they are in abject terror. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his sermon “Fig Leaves” on Genesis 3:7-9 explains:
And the whole tragedy of the human race today is that is in this contradictory position. We say we are not afraid, and yet we are terrified. We say we do not believe in sin and in God, but we have a sense of condemnation. We have a voice within us that accuses us and condemns us. We are filled with a sense of shame. We are unhappy. …The stolen fruit is not a pleasant as we had thought. A kind of spiritual indigestion follows the eating of it. Somehow we cannot get away it with. If we could, of course, we would not need any psychologists (53).
When Adam sinned, we turned from God in terror. We continually suppress the knowledge of God. We must manage our guilt and shame before God. We need to manage knowledge about God, because we are faced with death.
The Devil promised knowledge and life – yet by sin we got ignorance and death. In fact, by seeking to force God out of our hearts and minds, we find ourselves subject to even greater corruption and ignorance. As Paul explains in the remainder of chapter one, the suppression of the knowledge of God leads to sin and death. Follow with me as I read Romans 1, 21-25, 28 & 32:
21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. Romans 1:21–25 (ESV)
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
There is the flesh, my friends: By suppressing the knowledge of God and by refusing to acknowledge God rightly, the thinking of man because futile and the heart becomes darkened. This is the same as what Paul writes in Ephesians 4:17-18:
17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. Ephesians 4:17–18 (ESV)
You must see the connection: Willful ignorance of God results in a corrupt mind and heart. Human beings were built to live in dependence upon God, in relationship with God. When that relationship breaks, nothing else can work correctly. Plants are built to grow in the sunshine. When you put them into a basement, they die. Fish are built to live in the water. Drag a fish onto shore and it will die. Human beings were built to worship God. When you cut them off from God, they fall into futility, death and sin.
The human being all alone, without true knowledge of God, without the life of God – the foolish human being, worshiping the creature and subject to death is what Paul means by the word “flesh”. When you understand that “flesh” does not mean your physical body, but it really means you as a creature, your body and soul, your heart and mind as a creature living independently of the Creator, you will better understand why we can continue to sin – even after we become a Christian.
If I would put our problem in a nutshell, I would call it a lack of faith – we do not trust God, we do not hear God – and so lacking the life giving words of God, we die.
Part Two: Faith Leads to Life
Our trouble is not that God has not spoken – it is that we have not heard. Our hearts of stone – which is another image used by the Bible – cannot, will not receive the word of God. Yet, when the Spirit casts the seed into our heart and causes it to grow we come to life. Listen to how Peter combines the image of the word of God and dying flesh:
23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. 1 Peter 1:23–25 (ESV)
The flesh is nothing – it withers and falls. But the word of God in the heart of men and women comes to life and remains forever. The word preached, as Peter also writes, is by the “Holy Spirit sent from heaven”. As the Savior says,
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. John 6:63 (ESV)
The flesh alone can do nothing: it cannot hear the words of God. Indeed, it suppresses the word of God. But the Spirit takes the words and brings life. The Spirit operates faith in the heart, it opens the eyes of the heart and the heart receives the words.
Do you see that this process is precisely the opposite of Adam’s sin? Adam rejected the words of God – he disbelieved and disobeyed – which resulted in death. Thereafter, Adam’s children rejected the word of God – they actually suppressed the word of God. When disbelief was coupled to death and the fear of death, the result was sin.
The Holy Spirit reverses that operation: The word God is received and believed. God conveys life and the result is godliness. In fact, the “command” of God is eternal life:
44 And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 47 If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” John 12:44–50 (ESV)
When the Holy Spirit renews us, we receive the words of God, become reconciled to God and receive eternal life. Receiving the words of God into our heart is called faith. The reconciliation and life we receive is called grace. Faith and grace is called salvation:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV)
5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:5–6 (ESV)
That light of God shines into our hearts when we hear the proclamation of the Gospel. That light comes into our heart and belief the words of God. God pours the grace of life and reconciliation into our heart – we become transformed, we become new! God is no longer our enemy, now God is our Father:
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:14–17 (ESV)
Consider this matter carefully:
Human beings are born in rebellion against God. We cannot see or understand God rightly. Since we are cut off from the life of God in Jesus Christ, we have darkened hearts and minds, we are filled with sin and given over to our sinful desires. Even our best behavior is sinful. The prime sin is not this or that behavior. Our real fault is unbelief. We refuse to receive God as God. We still seek to live independently of the Creator.
Do you see why good works are so worthless a reed? Do you see why your conduct cannot deliver you from sin? Good works are nothing more than trying to stand our own efforts.
I heard of a man convicted of murder. After the jury found him guilty, the jury had to decide on sentence of death or a sentence of life in prison. The murderer had to come up with some reason not to give him death, so he made some origami animals. When you throw out your good works, you are like the murderer who tries to buy off the jury with a paper fish and a paper duck.
The real problem of the human being is that we raise our – Self up as king and God. Thomas Manton called it “the great Idol, Self”. We want to live in rebellion against God. When God calls us to judgment, we think we will be able to fold some paper and show God our help in Sunday School, our donation to flood relief and a volunteer day at the AIDS walk and God will become so overwhelmed with our service and in so doing overlook the murder of his Son.
Think of this carefully: Jesus died on the cross to carry the wrath of God in our place. When we offer good works and avoid the cross, we deny the wrath of God. We deny the work of Christ. To rely on good works to save our soul is to suppress the knowledge of God. Good works are a supreme demonstration of the flesh – they are a great claim of the idol Self.
The real problem people have is that they want to be reconciled to God without Jesus Christ. Murder and adultery are not the reason people go to Hell. People are condemned by because they will not believe:
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. John 3:16–18 (ESV)
Our rebellion against God – the rebellion begun by Adam, but a war in which we all have played a willing part – is so wicked, so vile, so hateful that nothing in all Creation could satisfy wrath of God. Romans 1:18 is deadly truth: God is filled with vengeance for rebellion – his wrath is unimaginable. Thus, to save us from our rebellion, the Father sent the Son to become a man – to come in the likeness of sinful flesh – like us, to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law and to bear the full fury of God’s wrath upon the Cross: To bear the weight and guilt and shame of sin, to hold back the eternal hatred of God against sin and so to provide a means of escape.
Jesus came as our champion, and he alone is sufficient to save us from sin, and death, and hell.
Repent and believe: Admit that you have rebelled against God. Admit that you cannot satisfy the justice and judgment of God. Admit that God is God and that Jesus is Lord. Believe and set your faith solely upon Jesus Christ and you will be saved:
6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” Romans 10:6–11 (ESV)
If you want to understand the salvation which is to be had in Jesus Christ, then stop someone and ask. Anyone who knows Jesus already can lead you to him. He is not far, not difficult to find. Ask the person near you, grab an usher, someone in the choir, and ask.
Now to you how know the Lord, I have a question – If salvation is a matter of grace and faith, then why is holiness so difficult? If we have been freed from sin, why do we still sin?
Part Three: Faith, Hope and Love
At the time of salvation, God grants you a divine and supernatural light. You gain an ability to see Jesus Christ. You receive the Holy Spirit, and so you can receive and understand the word of God.
You are given faith.
As a result of your faith you receive grace and mercy. You are reconciled to the Father. You receive the Spirit. You are granted eternal life.
However, your former life does not disappear: You do not lose your memory or your body or your family. God adds to your life. You become a strange sort of already but not yet. You have a new ability to see, but the old world has not disappeared. When we come to Christ, we find ourselves between the Cross and the Second Coming. We have the promises of the age to come, but we still live within this present evil age (Gal. 1:4).
This will help explain why we still sin even though we have been set free from sin. Before faith, we could only sin. Now we have the Spirit, we have the promise of the age to come, and so we have the ability to not sin – but the flesh is still present with us.
How then will we live?
Earlier I explained that the “flesh” turns us to sin when we set on minds upon the things of the flesh, or we follow the desires of the flesh, or we walk according to the flesh. The remedy is thus, faith, hope and love.
First, we must grow in faith.
When we set our minds upon the flesh, we have set our faith upon the flesh. We look to the things of this life and we believe that this will make us happy – that it will satisfy our soul. The remedy is to set out mind on the things of the Spirit – this is known as “faith”.
In Galatia, the Christians sincerely desired to grow in godliness. Yet Paul rebuked them sharply: he said they had lost their minds and were acting like someone bewitched. They had gone wildly astray because they were seeking perfection from their own efforts – in short, they were not living by faith:
3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— Galatians 3:3–5 (ESV)
In Romans 14:23, Paul writes:
Whatever is not from faith is sin.
The faith of a Christian is informed, supplied and directed by the word of God:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Holiness and godliness are not a matter of doing and don’ting. True holiness is devotion to God. If I do not lie out of pride, then my not lying is sin. Godliness is a by-product of faith, of dependence upon God
Thus, the first step in “walking by the Spirit” – as Paul calls it in Galatians 5:16 — or setting on minds on the things of the Spirit – as Paul calls it in Romans 8:6 – is to have head and heart full of the word of God.
Psalm 1:2 describes the blessed man:
but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
In Colossians 3:1-2 Paul instructs:
1 If then you have beenraised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
In Colossians 3:16 Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly.” The Bible everywhere emphasizes this necessary dependence upon the word of God. In Romans 12:23 and Ephesians 4:23, Paul explains that since we have become new, since we have received the Spirit, we must renew our minds – lest we become conformed to this world.
When God creates the universe, he speaks. When God creates a people in the wilderness, he speaks from the Mountain. When God seeks to redeem his people, he sends us Christ, his Son – the word of God. When the Holy Spirit builds the church on Pentecost, Peter preaches. When the Lord seeks to correct the sin in the church, the apostles of the Lord send letters.
When Paul, that great servant of the Lord, waits to be murdered by Nero, he writes to Timothy one last time. He does not prescribe a political campaign. He does not contemplate a jail break. He doesn’t tell Timothy to move to the hills and live off the grid because persecution is coming:
1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 2 Timothy 4:1–2 (ESV)
There is nothing so vital for the Christian as drawing the Word of the Lord. No Christian can have too much preaching and teaching of the word of God. In fact, the most mature, hopeful, joyous, loving Christians I have met are the ones who drink in the greatest depths of God word. I have heard it said by some that they receive enough teaching. I do not believe it.
The word of God, which sets forth Christ before our eyes, is the great means by which the Holy Spirit transforms our life:
18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)
As we look into the word of God, we become changed into the image of Christ. For when the word of God is rightly taught and received by faith, it flows through the heart and returns of hope and love. Let me show you:
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4 (ESV)
The Scripture flows into the heart, produces hope and flows out as holiness. Listen to how Peter begins with preaching and moves through hope to holiness:
12 It was revealed to them [that is the prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. 13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:12–16 (ESV)
Think of it: Faith undoes the rebellion of Adam and Eve. Faith is the willing submission to the word of God. Hope, too, undoes the Fall. Not only did Adam and Eve lose the word of God, they also lost the life of God. Without God, life has no life, it is a hopeless misery. But when we receive the words of life, our life turns to hope.
When we live in hope, we will necessarily walk in the Spirit. The roots of sin sink down into hopeless despair – the dread of death gives birth to sin. But hope – hope of eternal life – rips up sin by the root:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Romans 15:13 (ESV)
So by faith, we receive the word of God which springs up as hope. But that is not all. Faith and hope flower as love – and no sin can stand before love.
When Paul rebukes the Galatians on the ground that they have sought to live without faith, he particularly rebukes them on living without love. He warns them to not bite and devour one-another (Gal. 5:13-15). When Paul corrects the Corinthians for being fleshly, he rebukes them for dissolving into factions, one of Paul and another of Apollos (1 Cor. 3:1-4).
Do not dishonor God, but devolving into factions.
Factions, slandering, gossiping, complaining, such murmuring sound is the devil’s music played upon the fiddle of flesh.
But love destroys all sin. As Paul writes in Romans 13:10, love fulfills the law. In Galatians 5:22, love is the prime fruit of the Spirit. When the word of God by the Spirit of God flows into the heart, it raises hope which flows out in love – and it is that love which perfects holiness:
12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:12–13 (ESV)
How does God establish your heart as blameless? By causing it to abound in love. What is the law of God? What is that God seeks above all things? Love – love for God and love for one-another. Love undoes the fall: Faith and hope are steps to love.
The more I have studied the matter, the more I have grown to see that holiness in its depth is love. When we look upon the things of the flesh, when our mind is set on the flesh, we will fall into sin. We will see that move first in our tongue, in our complaints, in our discontent. When you hear the sharp, bitter word, when you mind raises in selfishness flee to the cross for you are in grave danger. But when we fill our heart with the words of God, when by faith we receive Christ preached, our hearts will abound in hope and hope will pour forth in love and love will bring us to a haven far beyond sin and fear and death. The age to come is the age of love when flesh shall be put far away, and death shall be destroyed. But until then, may we hold our hope and assurance dear and prove our passport with hearts filled with unity and love.