The Law and the Flesh
According to Paul, the plight of the “wretched man” (Rom. 7:14-25) is said to be coterminous with his living “in the flesh” and serving God “according to the old way of the letter” (7:5-6). Just to make sure you didn’t miss that, I’ll say it another way: For Paul, living “in the flesh” is connected with life “under the law.”
Apparently the NIV is wrong, and being “in the flesh” is not simply acting according to our “sinful natures.” Or, just as “under the law” is redemptive-historical rather than existential, so is “in the flesh.”
The Hebrew word ba?ar (flesh) refers to the flesh of bodies (Gen. 2:21, 23). By extension it came to connote humanity, and more specifically, human frailty (Gen. 6:12; Ps. 78:39).
The Pauline appearances of “flesh” (sarx), however, rarely denote flesh in its physical form, but usually carry the extended notion of humanity (hence his use of “Israel” or “Abraham” “according to the flesh,” meaning according to human genealogy, I Cor. 10:18; Rom. 4:1). Where Paul’s employment of the flesh/Spirit motif is unique, however, is in its eschatological formulation. For Paul, the work of Christ and the subsequent gift of the Spirit signaled the entrance into this age of the life and dynamic of the age to come. The primary element of heaven is the Spirit, whose proper domain is in glory. Hence the apostle’s most commonly used description of holy living as walking “according to the Spirit,” or, according to the coming eschatological age. In contrast to this is life lived “according to the flesh,” i.e. existence that is in accordance with this present evil age that is passing away. Thus Paul’s use of “flesh” is unique in that it highlights the progression from denoting anthropological creatureliness (humanity) to theological creatureliness (sinful humanity), and finally to eschatological existence (life in keeping with this age).
This means that neither Romans 7:14-25 nor Galatians 5:16-26 are describing a struggle between the “good” and “bad” sides of our personalities. Don’t get me wrong, a struggle is surely involved in both passages. The former, however, is between nomos (law) and ego (I), while the latter is between sarx (flesh) and pneuma (Spirit).
And both are eschatological rather than existential.