Flesh and Spirit in Conflict

Editor’s Note:  How marvelous it is to make the transition from Romans 7 to Romans 8.   Try not to get bogged down any longer than necessary playing tug of war in the labyrinth of the egoic mind.  Better to enter into life, here and now!  But if your state of mind is such that you must dwell on it, the following discussion may shed some light on the process.  God bless you as you continue to look for that which is hidden in plain sight!


To say that moral or spiritual conflict within ourselves, as individual human beings, is quite common is an understatement.  It is most intense, perhaps, when the ideal that we are pursuing is understood to be not merely our own, but God’s; and to pertain not merely to something which is of finite and temporary significance, but to the ultimate and eternal wellbeing of our souls. Some classic texts on this type of conflict are to be found in the letters of St. Paul in the New Testament — in Romans 7, for example, and in Galatians 5:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

“what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want” (Galatians 5:17).

Anyone who has experienced such conflict first hand has probably struggled to understand it–and, indeed, most if not all Christians seem to struggle in this way from time to time.   What are we to make of these texts?  And what are we to make of ourselves in the face of such inner conflict?  Is there a way in which we can understand the texts that will help us to better understand ourselves and, per chance, to resolve the conflict?

The bulleted items, below, offer a provisional understanding which we can put to the test– theoretically –as we work our way through a close reading of these (and related) texts.   If this understanding seems to hold up theoretically, readers may (at their own discretion) explore its practical implications and apply it as they see fit.  The provisional understanding is as follows:

• The conflict described in Romans 7 is different from that described in Galatians 5.
• The conflict in Romans 7 can and must be transcended through faith in Christ (as documented in Romans 8).
• The conflict in Galatians 5 is not entirely transcended in this life (or may not be).
• The conflict in Galatians 5 is not inconsistent with the deliverance described in Romans 8.

In other words, when the conflict in Romans 7 is transcended, by grace through faith, it gives way to a different kind of conflict that in no way diminishes or detracts from the deliverance which is described Romans 8.   We can distinguish between these two types of conflict as follows:

1.  Romans 7 describes a kind of “tug of war” between the “flesh” and the “spirit” (small “s”).

2.  Galatians 5 describes a kind of oscillation between the “flesh” and the “Spirit” (capital “S”).

A Closer Look at Romans 7 & 8

St. Paul documents the first of these conflicts – the tug of war – and the way in which it can and must be transcended in Romans 7 & 8. But it is not at all easy to determine how, precisely, the transition between the struggle (described in Romans 7) and the apparent deliverance (described Romans 8) unfolds, and what, in the final analysis, is the relationship between the two.   However, the following seems be the case:

• The struggle described Romans 7, under the law, is in some sense necessary but not sufficient to give rise to the standpoint of grace described in Romans 8.
• Those who struggle in this way fail to live up to God’s standard through their own efforts.
• Those who struggle in this way must in some sense “die” and then be “raised” in newness of life.

The dynamic being discussed, here, is very complex, and there is much room for confusion and misunderstanding. What seems to be the case, however, is that Romans 7 portrays a man who conceives of himself as a separate and discrete individual attempting to fulfill an ideal of righteousness by dent of his own efforts and according to his own understanding of that which the law demands. It becomes clear, however, by the end of the chapter, that his efforts are doomed to failure and he is without hope before God.  Indeed, in verse 24 he seems to throw up his hands in despair, crying:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? . . . So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25).

The question in verse 24 is worth a closer look:

“Who will rescue me from this body of death? . . . ” (7:24).

The excised phrase indicated by the ellipsis offers a response to the question which may strike us as rather vague (or attenuated) or perhaps a bit premature given it’s positioning in the text:

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25).

In an effort to clarify it, let us risk paraphrasing it – very slightly — as follows:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God [who will rescue me] through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24,25).

This fits rather nicely with the first two verses of chapter 8:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:1-2).

If this line of thought is warranted, the entire passage can be paraphrased as follows:

“Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God [who will rescue me] through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin [until I am rescued through faith in Jesus Christ]” (Romans 7:24-25).

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For [having been rescued through faith] the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death [so that you are no longer a slave to the law of sin]” (Romans 8:1-2).

This reading seems extremely plausible for the following reasons:

1. It is rather obvious that he is thanking God because God is the one “who will rescue” him “from the body of this death” (7:24-25).

2. It is reasonable to assume that he is no longer “a slave to the law of sin” (7:25) after he is “set free from the law of sin” by “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ” (8:1-2).

If we proceed, then, on the basis of this rather conservative reading of the text, there are still many questions that remain unanswered. For example: What is the nature of this deliverance? What all is involved in our rescue? What are its practical implications?

As we attempt to answer these questions, we need to look even more closely at the “tug of war” in Romans 7.

Editor’s Note:  The material above is a slight reworking of the opening pages of a longer and somewhat more personal version of the same discussion.  In addition to the sections above, the original essay is further subdivided as follows:

  • The Pre-Crucifixion Conflict: “flesh” vs. “spirit”
  • The Essential Elements of the Conflict
  • The Point of Transition: The Cross of Christ
  • The Post-Crucifixion Conflict: “flesh” vs. “Spirit”
  • Not Under Law ≠ A License to Sin
  • The “flesh” and the “Spirit” in Oscillation — Keeping our eyes on the Lord
  • Conclusion

–>  Download PDF of the original essay in its entirety…
(this essay fully explores the basic problem)

Follow up essays:

tug of war

4 Responses to Flesh and Spirit in Conflict

  1. Apparently you believe this describes some universal, ahistorical situation totally separable from the national narrative of Israel. What if, as I am sure is the case, this entire passage refers explicitly and uniquely to the position of Israel in regards to the coming of the Gospel and the Messiah.

    • yeshua21 says:

      Christians have, historically, interpreted these texts as applying (also) to themselves (not simply to observant Jews or the nation of Israel). Such historical and– for many of us, very personal –interaction with these texts cannot simply be disregarded because a new interpretive framework is suggested (however compelling and fruitful that framework may become to subsequent generations). If someone has experienced the conflict described in Romans 7– or feels that they have –is it really your place to tell them they haven’t or that they shouldn’t? Other than that, I have no problem entertaining alternative points of view and don’t doubt that a more enlightened, historical approach is possible. Feel free to point us to resources that you have found helpful in this regard.

  2. You’ve shared a sublime way of reading this text, for which I thank you. (Whatever it may have meant anciently is of little interest to me; but its present utility is deeply engaging.) I especially like the liberty that derives from your boldness of “reading between the lines.” And we might remind ourselves that condemnation comes from ha satan, (the accuser). Violation of law (Torah) invites self-condemnation. And Paul is awakening from this condition. His new awareness has liberated him from the old strife, and he (along with us!) is able to rejoice in a fresh new simplicity of his original innocence. He has caught the vision of how Jesus sees us – as children of God!

    • yeshua21 says:

      Perhaps the distinction between the law written on tablets of stone vs. the Law written on the fleshy tables of our hearts is applicable here (aka the distinction between the letter and the Spirit; or the word and the Word). In any event, thanks for the feedback!

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