Theologians usually identify three major obstacles to spiritual growth when they discuss the Christian life. The first of these is the world, whose sinful customs hold great sway over us both consciously and unconsciously. If we are to overcome them, we must work to conform our minds to Christ (Rom. 12:2).
The flesh constitutes the second leading hurdle to spiritual maturity. Today’s passage is but one of many texts in the New Testament where we are exhorted not to set our minds on the flesh but to walk by the Spirit.
First, let us address a common misunderstanding about the flesh in the church. Throughout history, people have thought that Paul is talking about the physical when he refers to the flesh, leading to the assumption that our spirits are good and our bodies are evil. This idea, however, reflects Greek philosophical teachings that deny the goodness of the physical, created world, which is not the biblical worldview. Scripture asserts the original goodness of the physical world (Gen. 1:31). Yes, the whole created order was cursed and corrupted in the fall (3:17–19), but it is not inherently evil. God is redeeming all of creation (Rom. 8:18–25), and the physical world is no less important than the spiritual realm.
According to the Bible, the war between flesh and spirit is not a war between body and soul. Instead, it is a struggle within ourselves — a war between the new life granted to us by the Holy Spirit and our sin nature, which will remain until our glorification (Rom. 7:7–25; 1 John 3:2–3).
We are freed from our bondage to sin when we trust Jesus alone and are enabled to follow His will by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:2; Gal. 5:16). Yet as we have said, our fallenness is not eradicated upon conversion. Sin rules us no longer, but at times it raises its head to stand in the way of the Spirit so that we do not obey Jesus, the life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45), each and every time.
Until we see Christ in glory, the remnant of sin within us, otherwise called the “flesh” in the New Testament, will seek to take charge of us once more. Thus we are ordered to fight against the flesh, putting it to death in order that we would keep in step with the Spirit (Col. 3:1–17).