N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
(Rom. 8:3-4 ESV) 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for [a sin offering], he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement [verdict of innocence] of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
We’ve already considered Paul’s treatment of the crucifixion as a sin offering and God’s condemning of sin in the flesh of Jesus. We’ve also considered that the “righteous requirement of the law” refers to the verdict of “innocent” that the Torah demands and which is met thanks to the crucifixion.
What we haven’t yet covered is “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Anyone who’s read much of the Bible knows that “walk” is a conventional Hebrew idiom for one’s manner of life. How we live our lives is how we “walk.” After all, the First Century, horses were for the military and the very wealthy. Most people traveled by walking. If you went to market, to your job, to visit relatives, or even across three Roman provinces to be counted in a census, you walked — and so tying one’s daily life to walking made sense in those days.
In Paul, “the flesh” generally refers to our fallen, sinful natures, that is, our inability to live without sin. The meaning can change with context, even in Paul, but that’s what “flesh” means most of the time in Paul’s writings and what it means here.
So to “walk not according to the flesh” means to live sinlessly or, more exactly, not driven by our moral weakness. The flesh may still get in the way, but it’s no longer in the driver’s seat (to mix a metaphor). Rather than living as though the flesh were the only way to live (as Paul described back in Rom 1, 2, and 7), we live as the Spirit would have us live. In fact, the use of “flesh” here is a direct reference back to such passages as —
(Rom. 7:5 ESV) 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.
(Rom. 7:14 ESV) 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
(Rom. 7:18 ESV) 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.
(Rom. 7:25-8:1 ESV) 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.
Notice the dominant theme of futility. Even if one desperately wants to serve God, the flesh is in control, leading to death (the loss of immortality). For the Jews, this meant Exile. For the Gentiles, it meant living dissolute lives contrary to nature.
But God has provided a solution, it’s bigger than atonement. Atonement results in forgiveness but not obedience. Not by itself. That is, if Jesus were to show up and grant me forgiveness of sins, I’d be forgiven for a fact but I’d still be dominated by my fleshly nature. I wouldn’t be able to live up to the blessing received from Jesus. I would return to wallowing in the mire (2 Pet 2:22).
Therefore, God grants a blessing beyond atonement: the indwelling Spirit. By receiving the Spirit, I’m enabled to walk according to the Spirit — God the Spirit — rather than the flesh.
That is, God didn’t solve the problem of Sin and Death with forgiveness and a better law. He solved it with forgiveness and by giving me a better heart by the power of the Spirit in me. That also happens to change the law in important ways, but it’s not the change in law that saves. It’s the receipt of the Spirit.
Now I graduated high school in 1972 and attended David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). This was the height of the Pentecostal controversy in the Churches of Christ. You see, it was assumed by many of our preachers that either “the Spirit” refers to a new, better law of Christ or else we’d all be speaking in tongues and, worse yet, claiming that every utterance is just as inspired as scripture. We had studied our Bibles so poorly that we could imagine only a replacement legal system or the belief that every Christian would claim apostolic authority.
The result was that many left the Churches of Christ because, with the publication of the NIV and NASB translations, our members could easily read the Holy Spirit texts for themselves, and they found the “word only” position to clearly violate scripture. And many, knowing no better alternative, joined Pentecostal denominations.
Today, a generation later, many Churches of Christ continue to deny a personal indwelling. It’s routine for some to show up here at the blog and argue that to “walk according to the Spirit” means to live based on the “law of Christ,” being a body of law inferred from the silences of the NT, replacing one letter with another letter, one code of laws with another code of laws — and that entirely misses the point.
No, Paul says that God will give us his Spirit so that we walk according to the Spirit rather than the flesh. “Flesh” does not mean “the Law of Moses.” He’s not talking about replacing one law with another. He’s talking about replacing the flesh with the Spirit.
The “word only” teaching in the Churches of Christ is a bad reading of Romans, and an even worse reading of the Bible as a whole. You see, Paul is paraphrasing Ezekiel —
(Ezek. 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Notice that the Spirit will cause God’s people to “walk” in God’s statutes and to obey God’s rules. Our obedience — impossible under a code of law — will be accomplished by the Spirit changing our hearts.
PS — Sharp-eyed readers will notice that Ezekiel and Paul use “flesh” in two very different senses. This is the nature of metaphors. Ezekiel means by “flesh” a soft heart that responds to God’s commands, in contrast to a heart of stone. He probably has in mind “flesh” as used in Gen 2 to refer to the bodies of Adam and Eve before sin entered the world. Hence, to replace a heart of stone with a heart of flesh is to restore us to right relationship with God as things were before Adam’s sin.
But Ezekiel wrote in Hebrew to Jews in Babylon. Paul is writing Greek to the Jews and Gentiles in Rome — a very different audience separated by 500 years. We have to read each metaphor in its own context.
PPS — Both biblical Hebrew and biblical Greek have far fewer words than modern English. There are about 5,500 Greek root words and 8674 Hebrew root words, according to Strong’s Concordance. Modern English has roughly 1,000,000 words. Hence, the ancients used the same word for multiple meanings more than modern English speakers do (and we do it quite a lot ourselves). In Hebrew, the multiple uses tend to be metaphorical, so that “walk” refers to manner of living as well as transportation via one’s own feet. “Stubborn” typically translates “stiff necked,” which anyone who’s ever plowed using a mule or donkey would understand.