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Life according to the flesh and justification in Christ

51 (of 129) - Catechesis by John Paul II on the Theology of the Body
General Audience, Wednesday 17 December 1980 - in Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"1. "The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh." Today we wish to study further these words of St. Paul in Galatians (5:17), with which we ended our reflections last week on the correct meaning of purity. Paul has in mind the tension existing within man, precisely in his heart. It is not a question here only of the body (matter) and of the spirit (the soul), as of two essentially different anthropological elements which constitute from the beginning the essence of man. But it presupposes that disposition of forces formed in man with original sin, in which every historical man participates. In this disposition, formed within man, the body opposes the spirit and easily prevails over it.(1) The Pauline terminology, however, means something more. Here the prevalence of the flesh seems almost to coincide with the threefold lust "of the world," according to Johannine terminology. In the language of St. Paul's letters,(2) the flesh indicates not only the "exterior" man, but also the man who is "interiorly" subjected to the "world."(3) He is closed, in a way, in the area of those values that belong only to the world and of those ends that it is capable of imposing on man—values, therefore, to which man as flesh is sensitive. Thus Paul's language seems to link with the essential contents of John. The language of both denotes what is defined by various terms of modern ethics and anthropology, such as humanistic autarchy, secularism or also, in a general sense, sensualism. The man who lives according to the flesh is ready only for what is of the world. He is the man of the senses, the man of the threefold lust. His actions confirm this, as we shall say shortly.

2. This man lives almost at the opposite pole as compared with what the Spirit wants. The Spirit of God wants a different reality from the one desired by the flesh. He aspires to a reality different from the one which the flesh aspires to, and that already within man, already at the interior source of man's aspirations and actions—"to prevent you from doing what you would" (Gal 5, 17).

Paul expresses that in an even more explicit way. Elsewhere he writes of the evil he did, though he did not want to do it, and of the impossibility—or rather the limited possibility—of carrying out the good he wants (cf. Rom 7:19). Without going into the problems of a detailed exegesis of this text, it could be said that the tension between the flesh and the spirit is immanent, even if it is not reduced to this level. It is manifested in his heart as a fight between good and evil. That desire of which Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5:27-28), although it is an interior act,  is certainly—according to Pauline language—a manifestation of life according to the flesh. At the same time, that desire enables us to see how, within man, life according to the flesh is opposed to life according to the Spirit. We see how the latter, in man's present state, in view of his hereditary sinfulness, is constantly exposed to the weakness and insufficiency of the former, to which it often yields, if it is not strengthened interiorly to do precisely what "the Spirit wants." We can deduce from this that Paul's words, which deal with life according to the flesh and according to the Spirit, are at the same time a synthesis and a program. It is necessary to understand them in this key.

3. We find the same opposition of life according to the flesh and life according to the Spirit in Romans. Here too, as in Galatians, it is placed in the context of the Pauline doctrine on justification by means of faith, that is, by the power of Christ himself operating within man by the Holy Spirit. In this context Paul takes that opposition to its extreme consequences when he writes: "Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh. You are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness " (Rom 8:5-10).

4. The horizons that Paul delineates in this text can clearly be seen. He goes back to the "beginning"—that is, in this case, to the first sin from which life according to the flesh originated. It created in man the heritage of a predisposition to live only such a life, together with the legacy of death. At the same time Paul anticipates the final victory over sin and death. The resurrection of Christ is a sign and announcement of this: "He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you" (Rom 8:11). In this eschatological perspective, St. Paul stresses justification in Christ. This is already intended for historical man, for every man of "yesterday, today and tomorrow" in the history of the world and also in the history of salvation. This justification is essential for the interior man. It is destined precisely for that heart to which Christ appealed, when speaking of purity and impurity in the moral sense. This justification by faith is not just a dimension of the divine plan for our salvation and sanctification, but according to St. Paul, is a real power that operates in man and is revealed and asserts itself in his actions.

5. Here again are the words of Galatians: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like..." (5:19-21). "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control..." (5:22-23). In the Pauline doctrine, life according to the flesh is opposed to life according to the Spirit. This is not only within man, in his heart, but, as can be seen, it finds an ample and differentiated field to express itself in works. Paul speaks of the works which spring from the flesh—it could be said, from the works in which the man who lives according to the flesh is manifested. He also speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, that is of the actions,(4) of the ways of behaving, of the virtues, in which the man who lives according to the Spirit is manifested. In the first case we are dealing with man abandoned to the threefold lust, which John said is "of the world." In the second case we have before us what we have already called the ethos of redemption. Only now are we able to clarify fully the nature and structure of that ethos. It is expressed and affirmed through what in man, in all his "operating," in actions and in behavior, is the fruit of dominion over the threefold lust—of the flesh, of the eyes, and of the pride of life (of all that the human heart can rightly be "accused" of, and which man and his interiority can continually be suspected of).

6. If mastery in the sphere of ethos is manifested and realized as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control"—as we read in the Letter to the Galatians—then behind each of these realizations, these ways of behaving, these moral virtues, there is a specific choice, that is, an effort of the will, the fruit of the human spirit permeated by the Spirit of God, which is manifested in choosing good. Speaking with the language of Paul, "The desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" (Gal 5:17). In these desires the Spirit shows himself to be stronger than the flesh and the desires brought forth by the threefold lust. In this struggle between good and evil, man proves himself stronger, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, who, operating within man's spirit, causes his desires to bear fruit in good. Therefore, these are not only—and not so much—"works" of man, as "fruit," that is, the effect of the action of the Spirit in man. Therefore Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, intending this word with a capital letter.

Without penetrating the structures of human interiority by means of the subtle differentiations furnished to us by systematic theology (especially from Thomas Aquinas), we limit ourselves to a summary exposition of the biblical doctrine. This enables us to understand, in an essential and sufficient way, the distinction and the opposition of the flesh and the Spirit.

We have pointed out that among the fruits of the Spirit the Apostle also puts self-control. This must not be forgotten, because in our further reflections we will take up this subject again to deal with it in a more detailed way."

After the catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages:

A numerosi sacerdoti e religiosi presenti

Un saluto particolarmente affettuoso rivolgo ora a due gruppi particolari: ai Sacerdoti impegnati a vivere lo spirito di unità del Movimento dei Focolari presso il Centro Mariapoli di Rocca di Papa, e ai Religiosi appartenenti a vari Istituti, che operano nei territori di Missione.

Carissimi, siate benvenuti a questo incontro col Papa. Valga esso a rinsaldare i vincoli della vostra fede in Cristo, che ogni giorno rendete presente, nel sacrificio eucaristico, in mezzo alle comunità cristiane, e, in pari tempo, vi serva a stimolare ancora di più quella carità sacerdotale che già prodigate verso i fratelli affidati alle vostre sollecitudini. Vi sia di conforto e di sostegno la mia speciale Benedizione.

Agli appartenenti al Movimento romano Gruppo Servizi Anziani

Una parola di saluto e di compiacimento va ora al migliaio di persone appartenenti al Movimento romano Gruppi Servizi Anziani, e presenti a questa Udienza per iniziativa dell’Opera Diocesana di Assistenza.

So che siete venuti per porgermi gli auguri di Buon Natale: vi ringrazio sinceramente per il gesto delicato, che contraccambio di vero cuore, invocando per voi dal Salvatore divino pienezza di grazie e di consolazioni. Il mistero del Natale, ormai imminente, col lieto annuncio degli angeli e con le care tradizioni religiose, vi riempia il cuore di gioia e vi faccia sentire meno soli, ma circondati più del solito dall’affetto dei vostri familiari e di quanti si prodigano in vostro favore. A questo fine vi benedico con grande effusione di affetto.

Al Consiglio dell’Associazione Nazionale Vittime Civili di Guerra

Mi è caro porgere un cordiale saluto ed esprimere il mio apprezzamento ai componenti il Consiglio dell’Associazione Nazionale Vittime Civili di Guerra per l’opera svolta a sollievo delle tante sofferenze provocate dal secondo conflitto mondiale. Carissimi figli, la fede cristiana vi ispiri sempre più sentimenti di fraterna solidarietà verso quanti altri hanno bisogno di aiuto, specialmente gli umili ed i meno provveduti. Con la mia Benedizione Apostolica.

Ai giovani

E ora un cordiale saluto ai giovani presenti a questa Udienza. La giovinezza è il sinonimo di entusiasmo, di generosità, di desiderio di costruire e di donare: non posso non citare al riguardo lo slancio delle migliaia di giovani che sono spontaneamente accorsi da ogni parte d’Italia nelle zone sconvolte dal terremoto, per offrire le loro energie a favore delle popolazioni colpite.

Tenete sempre aperto questo vostro entusiasmo a Cristo Signore: Egli vi darà motivo di sentirvi spinti a migliorare quando assumerete nella società le vostre responsabilità.

Per questo vi ricordo nella preghiera e vi benedico.

Agli ammalati

A voi, cari ammalati qui presenti, che rappresentate i tanti che soffrono, nel corpo come nello spirito, nelle loro case, nei luoghi di cura, negli ospedali.

Voi avete costantemente un posto particolare nel cuore del Papa, poiché in voi c’è l’immagine di Cristo sofferente che redime il mondo e gli offre in tale modo il germe della speranza.

Il Signore vi ricolmi, insieme con tutti quelli che vi aiutano e vi assistono, dell’abbondanza dei suoi favori celesti e vi conceda di vivere un natale lieto e santo.

Alle coppie di sposi novelli

Infine, come sempre, un pensiero ed una parola ai novelli sposi, che sono venuti a Roma per attingere alla Cattedra di S. Pietro quegli insegnamenti che illuminano il cammino a due iniziato di recente davanti all’altare.

Io vi sono vicino con la mia preghiera perché i propositi che avete manifestato davanti all’altare rimangano sempre saldi: propositi di volervi sempre bene, nella prosperità e nelle difficoltà, consapevoli di essere collaboratori di Dio nel compito sublime della trasmissione della vita.

Per questo vi accompagni la mia Apostolica Benedizione.


1) "Paul never, like the Greeks, identified 'sinful flesh' with the physical body....
Flesh, then, in Paul is not to be identified with sex or with the physical body. It is closer to the Hebrew thought of the physical personality—the self including physical and psychical elements as vehicles of the outward life and the lower levels of experience. It is man in his humanness with all the limitations, moral weakness, vulnerability, creatureliness and morality, which being human implies....
Man is vulnerable both to evil and to God; he is a vehicle, a channel, a dwelling place, a temple, a battlefield (Paul uses each metaphor) for good and evil. Which shall possess, indwell, master him—whether sin, evil, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience, or Christ, the Holy Spirit, faith, grace—it is for each man to choose.
That he can so choose brings to view the other side of Paul's conception of human nature, man's conscience and the human spirit (R. E. O. White, Biblical Ethics [Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1979], pp. 135-138).

2) The interpretation of the Greek word sarx (flesh) in Paul's letters depends on the context of the letter. In Galatians, for example, at least two distinct meanings of sarx can be specified.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul was fighting two dangers which threatened the young Christian community.
On the one hand, converts from Judaism were trying to convince converts from paganism to accept circumcision, which was obligatory in Judaism. Paul reproaches them with "wanting to make a good showing in the flesh," that is, of restoring hope in the circumcision of the flesh. So "flesh" in this context (Gal 3:1-5, 12; 6:12-18) means "circumcision," as the symbol of a new submission to the laws of Judaism.
The second danger in the young Galatian Church came from the influence of the "Pneumatics" who understood the work of the Holy Spirit as the divinization of man rather than as a power operating in an ethical sense. That led them to underestimate moral principles. Writing to them, Paul calls "flesh" everything that brings man closer to the object of his lust and entices him with the tempting promise of a life that is apparently fuller (cf. Gal 5:13; 6:10).
Sarx, therefore, "makes a good showing" of the "Law" as well as of its infraction, and in both cases promises what it cannot fulfill.
Paul distinguishes explicitly between the object of the action and sarx. The center of the decision is not in the flesh: "Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Gal 5:16).
Man falls into the slavery of the flesh when he trusts in the flesh and in what it promises (in the sense of the "Law" or of infraction of the law). (Cf. F. Mussner, Der Galaterbrief, Herders Theolog. Kommentar zum NT, IX [Freiburg: Herder, 1974), p. 367; R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms, A Study of Their Use in Conflict Settings, Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchistentums, X [Leiden: Brill, 1971], pp. 95-106).

3) In his letters Paul stresses the dramatic character of what is going on in the world. Since men, through their fault, have forgotten God, "therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity" (Rom 1:24), from which there also comes all moral disorder, which distorts both sexual life (cf. Rom 1:24-27), the operation of social and economic life (cf. Rom 1:29-32) and even cultural life; in fact, "though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them" (Rom 1:32).
From the moment that, through one man, sin came into the world (cf. Rom 5:12), "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Cor 4:4). Therefore too "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth" (Rom 1:1).
Therefore "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God...because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:19-21), that liberty for which "Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1).
The concept of "world" in St. John has various meanings: in his first Letter, the world is the place in which the threefold lust is manifested (cf. 1 Jn 2:15-16) and in which the false prophets and adversaries of Christ try to seduce the faithful. But Christians defeat the world thanks to their faith (cf. 1 Jn 5:4). The world, in fact, passes away with its lust, and he who does the will of God lives forever (cf. 1 Jn 2:17).
(Cf. P. Grelot, "Monde," Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, Ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, fascicules 68-69, Beauchesne, p. 1628ff. Furthermore, J. Mateos J. Barreto, Vocabulario teologico del Evangelio de Juan [Madrid: Edic. Cristianidad, 1980], pp. 211-215).

4) Exegetes point out that, although for Paul the concept of "fruit" is sometimes applied also to the "works of the flesh" (e.g., Rom 6:21; 7:5), yet "the fruit of the Spirit" is never called "work."
For Paul, "works" are the specific acts of man (or that in which Israel lays hope, without a reason), for which he will be answerable before God.
Paul also avoids the term "virtue," arete; it is found only once, in a very general sense, in Phil 4:8. In the Greek world this word had a too anthropocentric meaning; the Stoics especially stressed the self-sufficiency or autarchy of virtue.
On the other hand, the term "fruit of the Spirit" emphasizes God's action in man. This "fruit" grows in him like the gift of a life whose only Author is God. Man can, at most, promote suitable conditions, in order that the fruit may grow and ripen.
The fruit of the Spirit, in the singular form, corresponds in some way to the "justice" of the Old Testament, which embraces the whole of life in conformity with God's will; it also corresponds, in a certain sense, to the "virtue" of the Stoics, which was indivisible. We see this, for example, in Eph 5:9-11: "The fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.... Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness...."
However, "the fruit of the Spirit" is different both from "justice" and from "virtue," because "in all its manifestations and differentiations which are seen in the lists of virtues" it contains the effect of the action of the Spirit, which, in the Church, is the foundation and fulfillment of the Christian's life.
Cf. H. Schlier, "Der Brief an die Galater," Meyer's Kommentar (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck-Ruprecht, 1971-5), pp. 255-264; O. Bauernfeind, "Arete," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1, ed. G. Kittel, G. Bromley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978-9), p. 460; W. Tatarkiewicz, Historia Filozofii (Warszawa: PWN, 1970), p. 121; E. Kamlah, "Die Form der katalogischen Paränese im Neuen Testament," Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 7 (Tübingen: Mhr, 1964), p. 14.

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