What does the Bible Say About the Flesh?

The flesh is one of the most confusing words in the Bible. What does it mean? And is the flesh good or bad?

Why did Paul say he was alive in the flesh but then say he had crucified the flesh? Why does he say the body of the flesh has been circumcised (so it’s gone, right), then say he served sin with his flesh (no wait, it’s back!).

It doesn’t make sense.

Nor does it help when some Bibles mistranslate the original word for flesh (sarx) as sinful nature. (I’m looking at you New International Version.)

Fear not. The flesh is not hard to understand. Below is everything you need to know about the flesh. For a full list of scripture references and explanatory notes check out my entry for “The Flesh” in the Grace Glossary.

Everything You Need to Know about the Flesh

The flesh can refer to: (1) our physical bodies, (2) people, or (3) worldly unspiritual things.

To be “in the flesh” means (1) being alive “in the body” or (2) an unbeliever living disconnected from God and living solely from their connection to the physical world. It is walking by sight instead of faith. You are not in the flesh, if the Spirit of God dwells in you.

The lusts/desires of flesh include wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, and wanting to appear important. In a word, the flesh craves control.

To walk according the flesh or sow to the flesh or carry out the desires of the flesh is to live without regard for the things of God. It’s trusting in yourself (your abilities, your understanding) and living solely from the basis of your earthly experience (what you see, hear, touch, know, etc.). Like a butterfly who acts as a caterpillar, walking after the old ways of the flesh is abnormal for a believer.

The desires of the flesh give rise to the deeds of the flesh or the deeds of the body. These include selfishness, sexual immorality, materialism, manipulation, resentment, quarrels, unrestrained ambition, temper tantrums, drunkenness, being envious, and so forth. Fleshly works also include law-keeping, self-denial, long-winded praying and other activities done to curry favor with God.

The things of the flesh are those things that are valued in the world such as human effort, reputation and accomplishments. They can be contrasted with the unseen and eternal things of the Spirit.

A mind set on the flesh is focused on self-preservation and the things of the flesh. An obsession with self leads inevitably to conflict, dissension and death. In contrast, a mind set on the spirit puts God at the center and looks to him to supply our needs. Being led by the spirit leads to everlasting life and peace.

To have weak flesh means my unspiritual body is incapable of living the life that God desires for me.

The flesh profits nothing because flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. We all need to be born of the Spirit.

The body of the flesh is another name for your old self.

Having crucified the flesh with its passions and desires means I am done with that inferior and unspiritual way of life. I make no provision for the flesh because I am not a debtor to the flesh. The flesh holds no appeal for me because I am walking according to the new and better way of spirit.

Image source.

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“Know your flesh types.” In the bonus materials for this article, I list 25 ways your flesh reacts to pressure. Available now on Patreon.

30 Comments on What does the Bible Say About the Flesh?

  1. Hey Paul,

    Thanks for this comment, people get (myself included) get so confused about this issue. Translating flesh as sinful nature is quite misleading as well. Those that are in the flesh (unbelief) cannot please God. It is quite possible to create a religious persona and not believe the gospel. I read a story by Mattisyahu, who is or was aJewish orthodox musician, he went to visit a very respected rabbi. When he visited his home he noted several areas where the rabbi was not observing Orthodox traditions. The rabbi ended up admitting to the artist that he was an atheist. Long story short stop judging by outward appearances (the flesh).

  2. Can we describe flesh as EGO aswell?! 🙂

  3. Having crucified the flesh with its passions and desires but, why do we still sin for all these passions and desires”?

    • Sin doesn’t just happen. Sin is a fruit, not a root. Sin is what happens when we stop resting in Christ, we forget who we are, and we allow ourselves to be taken in by the lies and deceptions of the world. We basically resurrect the old self when that happens. This is why we are exhorted to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. More here.

  4. saraisa613 // March 17, 2022 at 6:37 am // Reply

    This is confusing to me, from the above it looks like common sense, working hard and pride in one’s work are works of the flesh.

    • It depends on the context. No one worked harder than the apostle Paul. Are you working for earthly things or spiritual things? Are you working with your own resources or are you depending on the Lord? To dig deeper, I would encourage you to check out the entry for The Flesh in the Grace Glossary.

    • Do we keep trying to crucify our flesh by trying to control our sin or do we trust and rest in the forgiveness of Christ who lives in us in the midst of our sinning”?

  5. There is a life that God gives to us freely as gift if we will allow Him, called Eternal Life. It is a God quality of life of love, joy, and peace, and it is an everlasting life. Flesh is human effort to earn or produce this life, which is also the true nature of sin, and actually produces death. These things cleared up a lot of confusion in my life.

    • That is a very neat distinction, LJP.

    • Thank you Paul. I think that once we finally accept the fact that our God no longer holds our sins against us anymore, then we can truly trust and rest in our true identity in Christ as born again children of God completely forgiven and when we finally grasp this truth the works of the flesh will diminish and our rest and trust in our God will continue to grow.

  6. Helen Kearney // March 17, 2022 at 9:15 am // Reply

    This was sooo helpful! Thanks Paul

  7. This flesh business is so slippery, we cannot at all tackle it or be or get on top of it cope handle or deal with it at all by ourselves and thank God we were never meant to we were always meant to rely on Holy Spiritthat God sent for us after Jesus ascended ,the longer I am being a believer the more I realise and understand with the Lords help and insight just how “ unrighteous” the “ flesh” is and that I cannot and do not have any power against it I need His divine righteous power and this dawning realisation is being very humbling because when I was a younger believer I thought this task of “ subduing and understanding the flesh and self would be easy and my job as a believer but it’s not it’s impossible only He can do this for me in me

  8. Excellent article, for years as a Christian, I was told by misguided religious leaders that “flesh” = worldly desires. I have to crucify my flesh (dreams, ambitions), take up the cross and deny my self. Usually that means doing a bunch of religious works in order to justify their religious ideas.

    • Thanks Julian. We’ve really been sold a con when it comes to our desires, and by that I mean the deepest desires of our hearts, the ones placed there by our Creator as clues to our destiny. We’ve been told they are wrong, they must be resisted, or they must be repurposed to suit some vain religious quest. But that’s a subject for another day. 🙂

  9. Paul ,I do not think that calling the flesh sinful nature, is mistranslation. becos, in the context even if translators did not add sinful to it. Those passages are still discribing man’s falling nature, that is dead, in sins, and uncircumcised. which God had to do away with.
    calling the flesh sinful nature is describing it based on it’s working, character, which is separate, different from God, opposed to God. Aside from that, What ever is not of faith is sin remember, and nothing of the flesh is of faith, thus it’s sinful, in it’s nature.
    The confusions comes when people take the word flesh to mean different things other than seeing it the way God sees it, or as presented in the Bible.
    It comes from trying to separate the flesh from flesh . The Bible teaches separating the Spirit from the flesh. What ever the flesh refers to non of it is the believer. So I really do not see any point in taking the word flesh to mean different things other than seeing it the way God sees it.

    God is very much against the flesh because He knows the actual condition of the flesh. God’s purpose is that the believers would be completely free of the old creation and enter completely into the new creation in experience. Whether good or evil, the flesh belongs to the old creation. There is a big difference between the good that the flesh does and the good that comes out of the new life. The goodness of the flesh which centers on the self is always evil in the eyes of God because it does not issue from the life of Christ

    • It is a mistranslation because the word which is translated as flesh (sarx) does not mean either sinful or nature. God made the flesh and everything he made is good. It would be more accurate to say that walking after the flesh or the lusts of the flesh are equivalent to human nature or a sinful nature. The word flesh means flesh and nothing more. The moment we start adding adjectives such as sinful, we are adding to the Bible. Thanks for the comment.

      • Paul I still insist it means sinful nature, here is why, let’s look at the word sarx the definition. It says the body as opposed to the soul (or spirit) or as the symbol of what is external or as the means of kindred or by implication human nature with it’s fraities (physically or moraly) and passions or a human being as such canally
        minded. The flesh(sarx) is opposed to the spirit, it can’t please God. As Human nature with it’s fraities physically or moraly, is sinful becos it is focus on self, canally minded. The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, . Hostile in mind, engages in evil deeds.
        Fraity means the fallen nature of man., weakness in character and morals. A symbol of what’s external refers to life outside Christ which is dead.
        The flesh(sarx) refers to human nature, (Adamic) with all that it is, without distinction, earthy,canal, external, fleshly, sinful, fallen, weak, opposed to God. they work collectively, they are related. Everything God made is good, but that goodness was marred by the sin of Adam and Eve. Subsequently, the entire human race fell victim to the sin nature.
        But our faith is in redeemption not creation becos creation fell. The good news is that at the moment when a person trusts in Christ, he receives a new nature.

      • The Bible doesn’t say the flesh cannot please God but “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8). And those who are in the flesh are those who do not have the Spirit of God within them (Rom. 8:9). Unbelievers, in other words.

        Whatever definition of sarx that you adopt, I think you will agree it needs to be consistent with its use in scripture. In the Bible the word sarx literally means flesh as in our earthly bodies (Matt. 26:41, Acts 2:31, 2 Cor. 4:11, Col. 2:1,5, 1 Pet. 3:18, 4:1). The word can also imply people (Matt. 24:22), humanity (Luke 3:6, Acts 2:17), a marriage union (Mark 10:8), our forebears (Rom. 4:1) and kinsmen (Rom. 9:3), our earthly lives (Php. 1:22, 24, 1 Pet. 4:2) and whole species (1 Cor. 15:39).

        Are marriages a sinful nature? Are ancestors a sinful nature? No modern Bible translates sarx as sinful nature because that is not what the word means. It means flesh. To walk after the flesh or to indulge the lusts of the flesh is sinful, but flesh itself is not sinful. God made your body.

      • That definition of sarx is from strong concordance. The explanation is taken from scriptures. the flesh as earthly bodies was included, no separation. About earthly bodies, the Bible says the body is dead becos of sin, but the Spirit of God who lives in us gives life to our mortal bodies. And through the Spirit we mortify the deeds of the body, Romans 8:10-11 & 13.
        earthly body is not separate from man that is fallen, be it phycally as in mortal body with blood,or morally as in behavior, nature, way of life, doing things. Which you will agree with me that the way men do things is not the way God does. The world is fallen nothing is the way God intended it to be in this world except in Christ. The earthly body is dead, the degree to which you experience life in it, depends on wether you even have the life, before you can talk of experience. Marriage is not done the way God intended either, the degree to which you enjoy marriage depends on knowing Jesus(life). About kinsmen , ancestors, in Christ your true kinsmen, ancestor, family is the church. The Bible says we have been redeemed from the empty life we inherited from our ancestors by the precious blood of Jesus. 1peter 1:18.
        Those in the flesh can’t please God becos THE FLESH(sarx) can’t please God. Jesus Himself said, that which is born of the flesh(sarx) is flesh(sarx). And what’s born of spirit is spirit. One is born flesh which nature is sinful. And one is born spirit who’s nature is righteous

      • You don’t seem convinced so I will try one more time. Paul said, “If I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me” (Php. 1:22). Flesh means body, not sinful nature. “To remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (Php. 1:24). Why would Paul want to remain in a sinful nature?

        Jesus was revealed “in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus is the Son of God “come in the flesh” is not from God (1 John 4:2). Jesus did not have a sinful nature, but he had flesh. It is incorrect to equate sarx with sinful nature. It’s like saying water is drowning or fire is arson.

        Look up the meaning of the word sarx in Strongs or Thayers (another good lexicon) and you will not find sinful nature. Nor will you find it in any modern Bible translation. It is not what the word means.

      • But I got the definition from strong Paul. You ask, why would Paul want to remain in a sinful nature?
        We don’t get saved and then taken out of the body(flesh). It’s there but we know that’s not who we are. If you are saved and don’t renew your mind, you will behave the same way unbelievers do(sin). Christ atonement provided for us physically but your body has not yet been saved. Its been purchased but not yet redeemed, 1 Cor 15:53. When Paul talked about living in the flesh, it didn’t change the fact of what the physical world, earthly bodies is, fallen. Paul knew the flesh, was not who he was. He knew the earthly body was a clothing, but Paul longed for his new clothing, look what he said- We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord 2Cor 5. Not at home means it’s not who we are, we live by faith, it is by faith that you live your true life here in this earthly body.
        .Jesus came in the flesh, He took on what we were,Heb 2:14-15. he came in the likeness of sinful flesh, Romans 8:3. Becos the man from Adam has sinful flesh. Adam was not sinful flesh before the fall it was after the fall. if you are saying the flesh is not sinful then you are saying Adam didn’t fall. Jesus came in the state Adam was, sinless, before the fall, but became, was made sin, what man became after the fall.

      • I don’t buy into this idea of partial salvations. The notion that part of us is saved but part remains unsaved is not found in the Bible. Either you are born again or you need to be. Paul never says his body his sinful. Rather, he says we should present our bodies as holy and living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1).

        You seem to equate sinful nature with mortal flesh. The Bible speaks of mortal flesh and mortal bodies (Rom 8:11, 2 Cor. 4:11), because death is the consequence of Adam’s fall (Rom 5. 12). The flesh dies. But this does not mean the flesh = sinful nature. As I say, the flesh is a tool that can be used for righteous or unrighteous purposes (Rom. 6:13, 19).

        To come in “the likeness of sinful flesh” means Jesus was not a sinful son of Adam, but he came to earth disguised as one (Rom. 8:3). The virgin-born man from heaven entered the prison of sin dressed like any other prisoner. Jesus was not subject to the law of sin and death which is why he was able to lay down his life for us. Again, nothing to do with sinful nature.

        We are probably not going to agree. Time to move on. Peace.

  10. Erick Garing // March 18, 2022 at 4:47 pm // Reply

    Thanks Sir Paul..

  11. I agree Paul God made our bodies and He declared our bodies good like everything else He made, then we fell WE, so the fallen nature is a very slippery sucker, I am no intellect by far all I know is from experience is I tend to rely more on myself than Holy Spirit like we all fall into as we cannot help it I am very good at. “conning” myself and being “conned“ even when I think I am safe and immune from deception I am not and why is that ? purely my fallen self,nature o wretched woman that I am who can save me from myself,?! Thank you ABBA God for my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who through His Holy Spirit here on Earth keeps me safe so long as I allow Him to do His job for me and even when I forget or take over He lovingly helps me back to Him

  12. What does repent really mean?

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