Spirit, Flesh, and Christian Schizophrenia

Posted by on October 4, 2007 in Dual Citizens, Eschatology, Galatians, Ordo Salutis | 0 comments

The locus classicus of the flesh/Spirit battle is found in Galatians 5:17ff. Before anything is positively said about this passage, we must beware of interpreting this text in the light of our individual experience. Our existential concurrence with the “struggle” we perceive in this verse notwithstanding, it is exegesis, not experience, that must guide our hermeneutics. Gordon Fee writes:

“The flesh-Spirit contrast in Paul never appears in a context in which the issue has to do with ‘how to live the Christian life’; rather, it appears in this case in an argument with those who have entered into the new eschatological life of the Spirit, but who are being seduced to return to the old aeon, to live on the basis of Torah observance, which for Paul is finally but another form of life ‘according to the flesh’ (cf. Gal. 3:3; 5:17-18; Phil. 3:3-6).”

In this semi-eschatological context in which Torah has expired and is no longer operative, Paul argues, the “law of the Spirit of life” is sufficient for holy living. “Flesh” versus “Spirit,” therefore, do not refer to an internal/external or spirit/matter dualism, but an eschatological dualism between this age and that which is to come. Michael Horton writes:

“It becomes clear that this two-age model is concerned not with two worlds or realms, but with two ages, one inferior to the other not for any necessary or ontological reasons but for situational and ethical ones…. To be ‘in the Spirit’ is not to be ontologically spiritual as opposed to physical, but to be ‘in Christ’ rather than ‘in Adam,’ to belong ‘to the age to come’ rather than to ‘this present evil age,’ to be ‘children of the resurrection’ of whom Jesus Christ is the ‘firstfruits.’ The age of the Spirit is not contrasted with that of the flesh, says Ridderbos, ‘first and foremost as an individual experience… but as the new way of existence which became present time with the coming of Christ…. This being in the Spirit is not a mystical, but an eschatological, redemptive-historical, category.'”

The crux of Paul’s flesh/Spirit contrast, therefore, is not that there exists within the individual believer an unceasing battle between his good and bad natures (rendering him somewhat of a spiritual schizophrenic), but that the believer, who is pneumatikos (spiritual), is called to live according to his spiritual identity and heavenly citizenship. This is new covenant sanctification, and is given the apostolic designation of “walk[ing] by the Spirit, and [not gratifying] the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16)

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