Opposition Between the Flesh and the Spirit

Author: Pope John Paul II

Opposition Between the Flesh and the Spirit

Pope John Paul II


On Wednesday, 7 January, the Holy Father resumed his weekly audiences which had been suspended because of the Christmas holidays. Continuing his catechesis on the Christian concept of the world, John Paul II delivered the following message....

Pauline theology of justification

1. What does the statement mean: "The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" (Gal 5:17)? This question seems important, even fundamental, in the context of our reflections on purity of heart, which the Gospel speaks of. However, in this regard the author of Galatians opens before us even wider horizons. This contrast between the flesh and the Spirit (Spirit of God), and between life according to the flesh and life according to the Spirit, contains the Pauline theology about justification. This is the expression of faith in the anthropological and ethical realism of the redemption carried out by Christ, which Paul, in the context already known to us, also calls the redemption of the body. According to Romans 8:23, the "redemption of the body" also has a "cosmic" dimension (referred to the whole of creation), but at its center, there is man: man constituted in the personal unity of spirit and body. It is precisely in this man, in his heart, and consequently in all his behavior, that Christ's redemption bears fruit, thanks to those powers of the Spirit which bring about justification, that is, which enable justice to abound in man, as is inculcated in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5:20), that is, to abound to the extent that God himself willed and which he expects.

Effects of the lust of the flesh

2. It is significant that speaking of the "works of the flesh" (cf. Gal 5:19-21), Paul mentions not only "fornication, impurity, licentiousness...drunkenness, carousing." This is everything that, according to an objective way of understanding, takes on the character of carnal sins and of the sensual enjoyment connected with the flesh. He names other sins too, to which we would not be inclined to also attribute a carnal and sensual character: "idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy..." (Gal 5:20-21). According to our anthropological (and ethical) categories, we would rather be inclined to call all the works listed here sins of the spirit, rather than sins of the flesh. Not without reason we might have glimpsed in them the effects of the lust of the eyes or of the pride of life, rather than the effects of the lust of the flesh. However, Paul describes them all as works of the flesh. That is intended exclusively against the background of that wider meaning (in a way a metonymical one), which the term flesh assumes in the Pauline letters. It is opposed not only and not so much to the human spirit as to the Holy Spirit who works in man's soul (spirit).

Purity comes from the heart

3. There exists, therefore, a significant analogy between what Paul defines as works of the flesh and the words Christ used to explain to his disciples what he had previously said to the Pharisees about ritual purity and impurity (cf. Mt 15:2-20). According to Christ's words, real purity (as also impurity) in the moral sense is in the heart and comes from the heart of man. Impure works in the same sense are defined not only as adultery and fornication, and so the sins of the flesh in the strict sense, but also "evil thoughts...theft, false witness, slander." As we have already noted, Christ uses here both the general and the specific meaning of impurity (and, indirectly also of purity). St. Paul expresses himself in a similar way. The works of the flesh are understood in the Pauline text both in the general and in the specific sense. All sins are an expression of life according to the flesh, which contrasts with life according to the Spirit. In conformity with our linguistic convention (which is partially justified), what is considered as a sin of the flesh is, in Paul's list, one of the many manifestations (or species) of what he calls works of the flesh. In this sense, it is one of the symptoms, that is, actualizations of life according to the flesh, and not according to the Spirit.

Two meanings of death

4. Paul's words written to the Romans: "So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh; for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live" (Rom 8:12-13)—introduce us again into the rich and differentiated sphere of the meanings which the terms "body" and Spirit have for him. However, the definitive meaning of that enunciation is advisory, exhortative, and so valid for the evangelical ethos. When he speaks of the necessity of putting to death the deeds of the body with the help of the Spirit, Paul expresses precisely what Christ spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount, appealing to the human heart and exhorting it to control desires, even those expressed in a man's look at a woman for the purpose of satisfying the lust of the flesh. This mastery, or as Paul writes, "putting to death the works of the body with the help of the Spirit," is an indispensable condition of life according to the Spirit, that is, of the life which is an antithesis of the death spoken about in the same context. Life according to the flesh has death as its fruit. That is, it involves as its effect the "death" of the spirit.

So the term "death" does not mean only the death of the body, but also sin, which moral theology will call "mortal." In Romans and Galatians, the Apostle continually widens the horizon of "sin-death," both toward the beginning of human history, and toward its end. Therefore, after listing the multiform works of the flesh, he affirms that "those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:21). Elsewhere he will write with similar firmness: "Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of God" (Eph 5:5). In this case, too, the works that exclude inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God—that is, the works of the flesh—are listed as an example and with general value, although sins against purity in the specific sense are at the top of the list here (cf. Eph 5:3-7).

To set us free

5. To complete the picture of the opposition between the body and the fruit of the Spirit—it should be observed that in everything that manifests life and behavior according to the Spirit, Paul sees at once the manifestation of that freedom for which Christ "has set us free" (Gal 5:1). He writes: "For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal 5:13-14). As we have already pointed out, the opposition body/Spirit, life according to the flesh/ life according to the Spirit, deeply permeates the whole Pauline doctrine on justification. With exceptional force of conviction, the Apostle of the Gentiles proclaims that justification is carried out in Christ and through Christ. Man obtains justification in "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6), and not only by means of the observance of the individual prescriptions of Old Testament law (in particular, that of circumcision). Justification comes therefore "from the Spirit" (of God) and not "from the flesh." Paul exhorts the recipients of his letter to free themselves from the erroneous carnal concept of justification, to follow the true one, that is, the spiritual one. In this sense he exhorts them to consider themselves free from the law, and even more to be free with the freedom for which Christ "has set us free."

In this way, following the Apostle's thought, we should consider and above all realize evangelical purity, that is, the purity of the heart, according to the measure of that freedom for which Christ "has set us free."

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 January 1981, page 3

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069