One of the great gifts that the Apostle Paul gave to the universal Church, through his writings, was to explain the difference between true spirituality and carnal life. This area of his teaching has often been misinterpreted (in multiple ways) or simply rejected. Yet the more I have delved into learning the way of Christ the more precious his teaching to the churches on this has become to me. Thanks be to God for his servants who have tread the path of holiness in Christ!
At my home in the backyard we had a tree that we had severely trimmed back a couple years ago. Several months ago it became obvious to my wife and I that it was necessary to cut this tree down to a stump. (This was quite fun for me because we rented a chain saw and I got to cut it down!) We thought that would be the end of our project with this tree. However, we discovered that the roots are alive and are seeking to grow back—both on the stump itself and as far away as 6 feet from the stump.
So based upon advice we received we tried to kill the roots of this tree before it damages the brick patio in the yard or the foundation of the house. This is indeed an interesting problem to have! For in its natural ordered state, as designed by God, this tree will expand from the roots in order to reproduce itself. This action is built into the nature of the tree as organic life. And so the only way to prevent that new rebounding growth is to kill the tree at the roots.
We who believe on the Lord Jesus, sooner or later, come to a point of self-awareness in which we recognize that carnal life (or as Paul also calls it, the “old person” or “old self”) is still very much alive and that it can grow back into prominence within us. Even after many years of dedicated service to God, born of genuine faith, the “flesh” (Greek: sarx) can assert itself if we chose to feed into it by not daily living by faith in the Lord Jesus. It seems to me that this observation from our experience is plainly illustrated in Paul’s contrast between the “deeds of the flesh” and the “fruit [singular] of the Spirit” and his exhortation to “sow to the Spirit.” (see Galatians 5 & 6)
This point of life experience parallels the explicit teaching of the apostle Paul and gives me further confirmation of what I was taught as a kid—that the Scripture is completely trustworthy and it is wise to heed what it says. For example, Paul argues that the “flesh” (sarx) manipulates the demands of the law of God and thus retains a state of lawlessness by asserting itself as an adequate source for the individual to act to please God. Thus even as one comes to understand what God’s word affirms and what God has declared regarding what he wants, it is possible for him or her to become deluded into thinking that God’s good will can be accomplished through “works.” For what is not seen (or intentionally ignored?) is the stubborn inclination of the heart to turn toward spiritual darkness. For “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7-8, NRSV)
Such has been the case for me and I have observed it in many others around me. And the greatest irony is that there are at least several different ways that one can be deceived into maintaining this lie! I suggest the following as some examples.
One is to simply define God’s standard (and thus sin) in a way that is primarily based on formal behavior that can be more or less mastered through discipline. The Pharisees of the Lord’s day (and those around today) would fit this pattern. This form of spiritual delusion will always be exposed because these persons will show evidence of arrogance (usually by being unteachable) and be quite ready to condemn other people who do not conform to their understanding of faith and practice of piety. The believers in Corinth fit this pattern well (see 1 Corinthians 1-4). For as Paul noted they were, as their behavior indicated, “still of the flesh.” (1 Corinthians 3:3, NRSV) This is carnal life.
Another is to hold onto moral standards that are more or less rigorous but inconsistent; that is, we adopt high moral standards for most of our behavior but make exceptions for certain kinds of behaviors that we want to retain. This starts with “bending” of God’s standards to fit one’s selfish desires, adding a veneer of piety, and expecting God not to notice–and even give his blessing! This effectively divides up into sections the lifestyle and personality of a person who lives this way. If this is maintained long enough the inner self will become divided against itself and these “two spheres” of thought and action will act independently of each other; as though there were two persons living in the same body and manifesting different kind of behavior. At this stage the choice to live a double life (retaining a selective affirmation of faith on the one hand while retaining some pattern of sin on the other) will result in spiritual death unless that person confesses sin to other believers and seeks the Lord’s supernatural healing (James 5).