War in the Flesh and in the Spirit

Besides light and darkness, there is also a clear exposition in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles on the relationship between the flesh and the spirit. However, this is not as simple a division between two kingdoms as it may seem.

Flesh and Spirit as Enemies

On the one hand, some teachings imply that the flesh is the enemy of the spirit, and often this is how the division is taught. Some examples suggest that kind of clear distinction. In Matthew 26:41 (also Mark 14:38), Jesus says, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” In John 3:6, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” John 6:63: “the spirit makes alive, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” The Apostle Paul also discusses the dichotomy between flesh and spirit. In Romans 8:1, he states: “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”

Spirit is Able to Cleanse the Flesh

But on the other hand, flesh participates in salvation and receives the spirit in itself. Luke 3:6 illustrates: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” In Luke 24:39, Jesus says: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see me have.” And in John 1:14 he confirms a positive aspect of the flesh: “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Finally, the flesh of Jesus is able to purify the spirit of those who receive it. John 6:51–56 states: “‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven: if any eats of this bread, he shall live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ The Jews argued among themselves, asking, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ To which Jesus replied, ‘Truly I say, except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat, indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me, and I in him.’” This is the institution of Holy Communion, the meal of thanksgiving or Eucharist.

Flesh and Spirit Reconciled

Paul seems to untie the knot in this riddle in Romans 8:3–5. “What the law could not do, in its weakness through the flesh, God, by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for [the sake of] sin, condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For those who are born of the flesh are always mindful of the things of the flesh; but those who are born of the Spirit are mindful of the things of the Spirit.”

discussion question

Is war inevitable?

There will always be wars between the lusts of the flesh, and those parties in the human community who find their glory in the flesh on one side; and the ineffable freedom of God's spirit renewing our flesh, and those parties that want the glory of the human race to be their risen King.

Verses 8–9 say: “So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit if the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if any man does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” And finally, verse 12–13 state: “Therefore, brothers, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live after the flesh, for if you live after the flesh, you shall die: but if you through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.”


The Christian mindset is not to be set against “flesh.” Christianity is not a dualism like some strands of Gnosticism, which hold that matter is profane, bound, and binding, and the spirit is holy, free, and freeing. Christians believe Christ came to make the flesh holy. In taking his flesh into our own, we begin renewing our bodies into spiritual bodies. In the resurrection, our flesh is raised to new life:“Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see me have.”

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