The flesh in God’s view, is not just your sinfulness. A lot of people think that the flesh refers to the sinfulness, so if you are walking in the flesh, you are walking after the lusts and doing “bad things”. It is true that the flesh has lusts. However, what the flesh desires is not only “evil” things. The Law says, “thou shalt not covet.” Covetousness is a desire for things to add to your life that gives you glory. That can include religious attainment.
The flesh lusts for sinful things, but it also lusts after righteousness and godliness, if you can believe that! This is because by such things, the flesh hopes to merit a position before God so that it does not have to be condemned and to obtain a position before men by which it will be praised (Rom 7:7-8).
When you are in that realm of trying to strive to be righteous by what the law describes, you are in the flesh. However, sin disguises itself in the desire to “be good” and to “do good.” When you are walking in the flesh, the “motions of sin,” which are by the law (Rom 7:5), are stirred up to bring you into all kinds of covetousness and evil desires that you think are even good! This is what was operating in the Pharisees when the Lord said that they did their works to be seen of men and praised by them (Mt 23:5). It was also the same thing operating in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican when the Pharisee said, “I thank you Lord that I am not like other men” (Luke 18). This self-righteousness is rooted in covetousness.
That is one of the reasons we get into legalistic environments. By pursuing the “good” with my mind and serving the law, we are led into an environment where the demands get stricter and stricter. This is God’s leading because He knows the crisis it will produce. As I am brought into legalism, idealism, perfectionism, and seeking after that kind of righteousness, eventually, I am brought into deeper ruin. You may have a few years of good-looking striving where everyone says, “Wow, that guy is holy and righteous. He is so spiritual! He reads his bible all the time.”
Eventually, though, the sins will start to come out. First envy, pride, hating other people, judging them, thinking you are better than others, thinking you are more spiritual, more righteous. That is the beginning of a decline if you do not judge it. Eventually, you may be delivered over to other things. Lusts start creeping up, and you start giving yourself a “pass” because you think you are doing well spiritually. You allow your heart to entertain things and you are not so vigilant. Over time those lusts give birth to things that you do and which bring death. Before you know it, perhaps you are looking at porn, and then down the road, you are flirting with someone. Whatever it is, it gets worse and worse. It is a little bit at a time. It is a decline until all of the other works of the flesh begin to be manifested.
You are looking for a position before God, and you do not see that you are complete in Christ and you have everything you need, so you become jealous. Then, the hatred comes out and the self-justification. That is the realm that the Galatians were in as they tried to curry the favor of the Judaizers.
Paul warned them that the flesh is capable of all of the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21). They are manifested in this way – heresy, division, strife, adultery, witchcraft, fornication, all of those evil things are latent in the flesh. It’s all there, and if you walk according to the flesh and sow to it, you’re going to reap corruption (Gal 6:8), and your life is going to get worse and worse and worse until you go down the “Romans 7 road”.
In the laboratory of your experience, you discover that you can be brought so low and say, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” This is where God eventually wants you. He will bring you through this experience and show you the truth in the Word. He will say, “I crucified you. I dropped all my expectations on you, and I buried you and put you out of my sight and your sins out of my sight. Now, if you are willing to believe (or accept) it, I also put your righteousness out of my sight. I am not looking for it either. I’m looking for your faith in Christ.” This, incidentally is what Paul calls the “offense” of the cross.
So “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit”. We are speaking of the inward state. He just asked, “Who can deliver me from the body of this death? Who can deliver me from this wretched state? I am wanting to do good. I can’t stop wanting to do good, and every time I do, evil is present and I keep getting worse and worse until I just want to die!” Well, that condemnation does not happen unless you are walking in the flesh.
Flesh starts out in the Christian religious life as a performance mindset. “I was alive once, but the law came, and sin revived, and I died” (Rom 7:9). When I was first saved, I had a sense of blessing. I preached the gospel, I loved to read the Bible and I loved to pray, and I was so happy the Lord had saved me. Then someone came along and said, “How much do you read your Bible every day? You need to read it X amount of times. Genesis in the morning, Psalms and Proverbs at Lunch, New Testament in the Evening.” Then they might ask, “are you going to a Church? Are you tithing? You need to give back to God if you want Him to bless you.” Then, “are you witnessing?” “Well, not the kind you are talking about.” “Have you gone on a church mission trip with the church? You need to come do it the way we do it.” Then perhaps you go and do a bad job because you cannot figure out how to do it like they are doing it and they do not like the way you’re doing it. They start saying, “you really need to be transformed and grow. You need to stop talking about your Bible knowledge and be quiet until you get transformed.”
This is the law creeping up on you! This causes you to go down a path. “I was alive once; I was doing fine!” Then people came and tried to help you out and bring you under law and performance. You may try to do that for quite awhile and may even seem to get good at it. But eventually, sin revives, and you died. That is what happened to the Galatians. He asked them, “Where is the sense of blessing that you once had?” He told them when that everything was fine, and they were “running well” but then they took this yoke upon themselves. Now they were walking in the flesh.
That is how the flesh is strengthened in religion. Paul asks them, “having begun in the spirit are you now going to be perfected in the flesh?” The Spirit is supplied by faith, not law-keeping and performance. If you try by law-keeping and performance to please God and live the Christian life, you are in the flesh. It will manifest both good and bad, but all of it is death!