“…and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Jdg 17:6)
Since most of us have grown up with a works-based view of salvation, we tend to think of sin as doing bad things. If we avoid doing bad things we’ll avoid sin. But the Bible has a different definition of sin. “Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Rm 14:23).
Instead of judging everything in terms of good or bad works, it is more helpful to think in terms of flesh versus spirit. To illustrate this, below is a list of 12 of the most infamous examples of walking after the flesh found in the Bible. This is a list of carnal choices that, in some cases, led to terrible suffering.
There are two surprising things about this list. First, it contains both wicked deeds and choices that we might think were harmless, even good. If you think you can please God by doing good works and avoiding bad ones, then this is really going to mess you’re your theology.
Second, the fleshly works on this list were done by both godly and ungodly people and both groups suffered as a result of their choices. Whether you’re in Adam or in Christ, if you sow to the flesh you will reap bad things (Gal 6:8). I am not referring to eternal consequences – what is born of the spirit cannot be undone by the flesh. But the consequences of carnal choices affect everyone, saved and unsaved.
This, then, is a list of good and bad people doing good and bad things. So what’s the common thread? As you read the list, see if you can identify it. I will give you the answer below.
12 Infamous works of the flesh
1. Adam eats the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:6). The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not a bad tree; God doesn’t do bad trees (Gen 1:31). Everything in the world was good so the serpent had to tempt Eve with something that was “good and pleasing” (Gen 3:6). Compared to the manifest works of the flesh in Galatians 5, eating a piece of fruit might not seem that big a deal. But the consequences of this one act were substantial.
2. Abraham sleeps with the maid (Gen 16). God promised him a son but God was taking too long. Yet another work of the flesh that we’re still paying for.
3. Moses defends a Hebrew slave (Ex 2:12). Prince Moses, “mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22), perhaps saw himself as a deliverer of Israel. Forty years growing old in obscurity killed off that idea.
4. The Israelites refuse to enter the Promised Land (Num 14). It’s natural to be afraid of giants – especially if you’ve got small children – but God had told them he would be with them. Who’s bigger? Giants or God? The Israelites’ fear meant missing an opportunity to see God do mighty exploits. It also meant wasting their lives in the wilderness.
5. Saul saves the best for God (1 Sam 15:15). God wanted the Amalekites dead, down to the last donkey. Saul had a better idea. Bye bye House of Saul.
6. In a moment of faithless insecurity David counts his soldiers (1 Chr 21), and 70,000 men die as a result.
7. Elijah runs like a chicken (1 Kgs 19). A scary lady said some nasty things, Elijah got spooked and not even God could lift him out of his funk. It cost Elijah his ministry.
8. James and John want to toast the Samaritans (Luk 9:54). “Well Elijah did it and he didn’t get in trouble.” However, Jesus has a different spirit.
9. Jesus tells the disciples he has to die and Peter says that’s a bad idea (Mt 16:22). For this Peter receives the most famous rebuke in the Bible (Mt 16:23). Nice one Peter. You could’ve ruined everything.
10. Saul the Pharisee persecutes Christians. Saul was so zealous for God that he was instrumental in the jailing and killing of Christians (Acts 26:10). For this he later calls himself the Chief of Sinners.
11. The Judaizers preach a little bit of law (Acts 15:1). “All we’re asking for is a snip of the tip.” No wonder the men of Antioch were glad when James said “No” (Acts 15:31).
12. In fear of their foreignness, Peter draws back from the Gentiles (Gal 2:11). And this after he’d had that vision from the Lord (Acts 10). Paul gets in his face telling him he’s “clearly wrong” – not misguided, not confused, but “I’m putting this in the Bible so everyone knows about it,” wrong. Ouch.
What is the common thread running through these good and bad deeds done by godly and ungodly people? I gave you a pretty big hint at the top of this post: In each case the person involved did what seemed right to them at the time. This is the hallmark of flesh-based living. It is independent living or walking by sight.
When you walk by sight and without any regard for the Lord, you put yourself in harm’s way. Again, I am not talking about your salvation. We’re not saved or unsaved on the basis of works. But leave the Giver of Life out of your choices and you’ll reap death. This is why our ventures sometimes resemble Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. We’ve tried to bring something to life and only the Spirit can do that (Jn 6:63).
There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. (Pro 14:12)
Creation is still waiting for the mature sons of God to be revealed and we don’t reveal our true selves by walking in the old ways of the flesh. These stories are in the Bible for our edification, to teach us how not to live. Again, it’s not what we’re doing that’s particularly important, but how we’re doing it. Are we trusting in the dead hand of the flesh or are we relying on the life-giving might of the Spirit?