Opposition between the flesh and the Spirit

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.

Dearest Brothers in the Episcopate, in the Priesthood, Brothers and Sisters in Religious Life, and all you dearest brothers and sisters:

After the pause due to the recent feasts, we resume today our Wednesday meetings. We still carry in our hearts the serene joy of the mystery of Christ's birth which the Church's liturgy in this period had led us to celebrate and put into effect in our lives. Jesus of Nazareth, the Child cradled in the manger of Bethlehem, is the Eternal Word of God who became Incarnate for love of man (Jn 1:14). This is the great truth to which the Christian adheres with profound faith. With the faith of Mary most holy, who, in the glory of her intact virginity conceived and brought forth the Son of God made man. With the faith of St Joseph who guarded and protected him with immense dedication of love. With the faith of the shepherds who hastened immediately to the cave of the Nativity. With the faith of the Magi who glimpsed him in the sign of the star, and who, after a long search, were able to contemplate and adore him in the arms of the Virgin Mary.

May the new year be lived by all under the sign of this great interior joy, the fruit of the certainty that God has so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son, that he who believes in him should not die but should have eternal life.

That is the wish which I address to all of you present at this first General Audience of 1981, and to all your dear ones.

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, of which the Gospel speaks. However, the author of the Letter to the Galatians opens up before us, in this regard, even wider horizons. In this contrast between the “flesh” and the Spirit (Spirit of God), and between life “according to the flesh” and life “according to the Spirit”, there is contained the Pauline theology about justification, that 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 “redemption of the body”. According to the Letter to the Romans 8:23, the “redemption of the body” has also a “cosmic” dimension (referred to the whole of creation), but at its centre 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 (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 Paul, speaking of the “works of the flesh” (cf. Gal 5:19-21), mentions not only “fornication, impurity, licentiousness... drunkenness, carousing”—therefore 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—but he names other sins too, to which we would not be inclined to attribute also 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” of man, 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, 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 with which Christ explains 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. As “impure works” in the same sense, there are defined not only “adultery” and “fornication”, and so the “sins of the flesh” in the strict sense, but also “evil thoughts... theft, false witness, slander”. Christ, as we have already been able to note, uses here both the general and the specific meaning of “impurity” (and therefore 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 is in contrast with “life according to the Spirit”. What is considered, in conformity with our linguistic convention (which is, moreover, partially justified), 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”, and, in this sense, 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. Paul, when he speaks of the necessity of putting to death the deeds of the body with the help of the Spirit, 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, in fact, “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 the Letters to the Romans and to the Galatians the Apostle continually widens the horizon of “sin-death”, both towards the “beginning” of man's history, and towards its end. And 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 Christ and 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 is a manifestation of life and behaviour according to the Spirit, Paul sees at once the manifestation of that freedom for which Christ “has set us free” (Gal 5:1). In fact he writes precisely: “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 neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:13-14). As we already pointed out previously, the opposition “body/Spirit”, life “according to the flesh”/life “according to the Spirit”, deeply permeates the whole Pauline doctrine on justification. The Apostle of the Gentiles, with exceptional force of conviction, proclaims that man's 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”. He therefore exhorts the recipients of his Letter to free themselves of 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, therefore, 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”.

L'Osservatore Romano January 12, 1981
Reprinted with permission