This wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t for words called homonyms. A homonym is when two words have the exact same spelling, but really have different meanings entirely. For example, the word “cleave” can either mean “to cut” or it can mean “to hang on.” Sometimes no harm comes from mixing up two words like this, but—but just imagine the man who misunderstood the biblical injunction for a man to “leave father and mother, and cleave to his wife!”
As funny as it sounds, it’s no laughing matter when people misunderstand what the Bible says. But sometimes the Bible can be confusing. For example, in the New Testament, the word flesh can have two different meanings. Often, it can mean the body or skin. But many times, it doesn’t mean that at all. Often, when the Bible refers to the flesh, it has nothing to do with meat and muscle, but with the sinful nature. For thousands of years, many Christians have misunderstood what the Bible has to say about flesh, believing that anything that has to do with the spirit is good, and that anything related to the body is evil. This is why believers throughout the centuries have abused their bodies, believing that somehow it will strengthen the spirit. This is not what we mean when we talk about the conflict between spirit and flesh. We do not mean that the spirit is opposed to the body, but that the spirit is opposed to the sinful nature. Romans 8 talks about this struggle, and it begins with our relationship to the Law:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (vv.:2-4 NASB).
As we’ve been studying sin and salvation, we learned that Sin is more than the breaking of a rule. Individual sins are misdeeds, acts of rebellion, and the omission of good deeds—but they are symptoms of the disease of Sin, which is the power of spiritual corruption at work in us. The Greek word sarx means “flesh,” but it also means “sinful nature,” and the disease of Sin. The Law identified the disease in the human heart, but was unable to eradicate it. So God sent His Son to show us God’s grace, heal us of the disease, forgive and alleviate the symptoms. Because of what Jesus does for us, Romans 8:1 (NASB) says, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This salvation comes by the forgiveness of sin for everyone who believes. Former sinners are fully acquitted of their rebellious actions, and are made right with God.
But Jesus didn’t come just to transfer us from the realm of darkness to the realm of light; He came to transform us into His image and glory. Romans 12:2a (NASB) says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” 1 Corinthians 2:16 (NASB) says, “We have the mind of Christ.” In that forgiveness, Jesus not only makes it so that we are cleansed by Jesus—He also makes it so that we can live more pleasing lives for Him. This is because the mind of Christ, dwelling in us, transforms our minds.
So then, life in the Spirit means transformation. In the following verses, understand the word flesh to mean not the body, but the sinful nature. Replace that phrase every time you read the word flesh.
For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him (vv. 5-9 NASB).
What does it mean to have your mind set on the things of the flesh? What is this behavior that can put you in such peril? It can’t mean that any Christian who has ever had a sinful thought is without salvation—that would negate the grace and unconditional love of God. So what does it mean? There are many “Christians” who still have their minds set on the sinful nature. This means that they still believe that the flesh controls them—they still see themselves as evil, corrupt, and sinful to the core. They say that they are “sinners, saved by grace,” yet by saying so, they have just identified themselves as sinners rather than the saints that they are. Christians who continue to see themselves this way have not been transformed—they have not truly received the saving grace of Christ. Intellectually they understand that Jesus died for them, but spiritually they still haven’t let that truth change them. They are not truly united with Christ.
The book of Hosea is about God’s faithfulness to His people, despite their continued unfaithfulness. Illustrative of this, the prophet Hosea’s wife Gomer takes to prostitution, but he forgives and redeems her. She then has a choice. She can either focus her mind on her renewed marriage, or she can continually beat herself up for her former unfaithfulness. She can define herself as a new woman, or she can define herself as just a harlot whose husband for some reason still loves her. To set her mind on the things of the flesh means to feel so guilty that she refuses to receive her husband’s grace, and refuses to forgive herself. To set her mind on her marriage is life and peace. So every Christian needs to fully embrace the grace of God, and no longer define themselves according to the sinful nature, the flesh. Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” When we fully grasp this, our minds will be set on the Spirit—and that is life and peace.