In two previous posts we’ve considered why we often struggle to win the battle with sin in our lives. Why is it that living a holy life is so hard?
Romans 7 gives a big part of the answer: It points to “the flesh.”
In my last post, I highlighted the truth that the flesh is part of a Christian, but not the heart of a Christian. But that answer still leaves us asking, “Well, exactly what part of me is it?” The answer to that question is the second thing you and I need to know about the flesh.
The flesh is the leftover mindset and muscle memory from your old life
In Romans 7 (and 8), we learn that the flesh refers to the leftovers from our old life before we were “in Christ.” Specifically, the leftovers include both a sinful mindset and sinful muscle memory. To our old pattern of thinking (mindset) and acting (muscle memory).
The flesh includes a mindset that is slanted away from God and towards sin. Paul goes on to describe this sinful mindset in chapter 8. Listen to what he says in Romans 8:5-8.
5 For 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. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Notice the link between the flesh and a sinful mindset. The mind set on the flesh sees in as appealing and righteousness as repugnant.
Everyone of us was born “in the flesh” (7:5) with a fleshly mindset. Our default way of thinking was oriented towards self and drawn to sin. Our natural outlook was one that “has at its center our fallen human perspective, which displaces God and his truth from the world, and which makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange” (David Wells). So even if you became a Christian at a young age, even if you’ve always been a basically good person, you still were born with a mindset that instinctively revolves around self and gravitates towards sin. As Paul explained back in Romans 5, all of us were born as sons and daughters of Adam. We inherited a spiritual DNA that is fleshly. As Dave Roper puts it, we all were thrown into the world as a curve, and the break is always down and away—down towards sin and away from God.
When you became a Christian you were given a new heart, but you still carry forward some of your old ways of thinking, many of which are unconscious. This is why Paul will call us to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:1-2). Even as new creations, we can think in old patterns. It takes time to get a renewed mind.
If you are married, you know that on your wedding day, your identity changed. You were now singing a duet, not a solo. You now were joined to another person in a deep, lasting way. But you probably still had to learn to adjust your thinking to your new reality. You had been used to thinking of “me” and now you had to think “we.” It took time for you to take on a married mindset.
The same thing is true when you linked your life to Jesus by faith. In a moment, your identity changed. Instead of being “in Adam” you were now “in Christ.” Instead of being enslaved to sin, you now “belonged to another, to him who has been raised from the dead” (7:4). But you still carried the old patterns of thinking into your new life in Christ. The leftovers from your self-oriented, sinful mindset are part of what Paul means when he talks about “the flesh.”
Leftover Muscle Memory
But there’s more to the flesh than just a sinful mindset. The flesh also refers to sinful muscle memory. It’s instructive that Paul speaks of sin actually “dwelling” in his physical body: “sin that dwells in my members” (7:23). Paul doesn’t mean our bodies are innately sinful; rather, he is saying sin still has a hold on our bodies.
I find it helpful to think of flesh has having a kind of a spiritual muscle memory. By muscle memory I’m referring to the kind of procedural memory our brains allows us to do certain tasks without thinking. Take riding a bike. If you’ve learned to ride a bike, your body remembers how do it, even if you don’t get on one for a long time. When you do, it’s like your body knows what to do. Almost unconsciously you balance yourself and pedal away effortlessly. How can you do this? Muscle memory.
The flesh is a kind of spiritual muscle memory that makes sinning seem effortless. Your brain develops a procedural memory that kicks in and makes it easy to sin. Like riding a bike. Way too easy!
I hope this is starting to make sense of the struggle you face with winning the battle with sin. But there’s still one more thing you need to know about the flesh. It’s actually the worst news of all. We’ll talk about that one in an upcoming post.