Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Greek Word You Should Know

sarx
(flesh)

Throughout the Bible, “sarx” is used as a way of describing humanity. We are flesh, as in “flesh and blood.” As beings of flesh (sarx) we are to be distinguished from God, who is spirit (pneuma). However, especially in the writings of Paul, sarx/flesh takes on a new meaning: it becomes a shorthand way of referring to fallen man’s natural rebellion against God, of which we are all guilty.

Here’s a little quiz for you. It’s multiple choice, and only one question. If you get it wrong, no one’s going to fail you or throw rocks at you or anything:

Out of the four following statements, three are paraphrases of Scripture, and one is a line from a stupid song that is sung in a stupid little cartoon movie that kids love. Can you pick out the line that is not Biblical at all?

1. Men cannot follow their natural tendencies and manage to please God.

2. The imagination of your heart is only evil continually.

3. No good thing dwells in me naturally.

4. Your dreams will fly on magical wings, if you follow your heart.

Okay, let’s see how you did. Number 1 is a paraphrase of Romans 8:8, which says, “So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” Number 2 is an application of God’s own assessment of fallen humanity, from Genesis 6:5: “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” As for Number 3, it comes from this verse, Paul’s confession of his own spiritual state without the indwelling presence of Christ: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing...” (Romans 7:18). The answer is #4. That line is from the movie Thumbelina.

I don’t mean to pick on Thumbelina. It’s no more stupid than any other cartoon that’s ever urged the same advice on kids. That advice is very warm and fuzzy sounding, but it is utter foolishness. “Just follow your heart.”

Okay, just to prove I’m not picking on Thumbelina, I’ll give you a quote that is just as stupid from my favorite movie of all time, Braveheart. At the beginning of the show, young William Wallace has a dream in which his dead father says to him, “You’re heart is free. Have the courage to follow it.” Gag me.

We hear this stuff all the time in our culture. And we hear other wonderful sounding stuff that is just as ignorant of the Truth of the Word of God. How many times for this one: “There’s good in everybody,” or this one, “People are basically good.”

Now, if it shocks you that I list those things as stupid, untruthful lies (which I do) then here is my bet: I bet you’ve never put much effort into reading the Bible. Hey, nothing to get offended about. But if you had, none of this would shock you.

The Bible simply does not teach that all people are basically good. It doesn’t: I’m sorry. Wouldn’t it be nice if it did, and we could all put on our rose-colored glasses and think nice thoughts about each other? But we can’t, because the truth is

God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God.

Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
- Psalm 53:2-3

Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, the human race has been a race of sinful people. Including me. And including you. Again: I’m sorry. I’m not thrilled about being the one to have to tell you this. But that’s the truth.

Hear again God’s own pronouncement about the natural state of mankind, from Genesis 6:5.

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Right there is the reason why Thumbelina and Braveheart are dead wrong. They’d tell you, follow your heart and your dreams will come true. Follow your heart, for it is free! But God tells you that the heart is “only evil continually.” I wonder what you’ll wind up with after a lifetime of following something that is only evil continually?

Okay, okay, someone will say. That verse you’re quoting is from right before the Flood of Noah, when the earth had grown especially wicked and God wiped it out. That was then, this is now.

Well, that was then, and this is now, but the human heart has ever remained the same. The prophet Jeremiah wrote (thousands of years after the Flood) that, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9) The implied answer is, only God can know it.

Wow. That’s amazing isn’t it? “Deceitful above all things.” “Only evil continually.” “Desperately wicked.” At least we can’t accuse the Word of God of beating around the bush!

Let me ask you something. If you were going to try and communicate to someone that something was as bad as bad can be, could you use any stronger language than Scripture has used to describe your own heart?

So, you might ask, what does all of this have to do with the Greek word, “sarx?” Just this: Paul uses sarx, or “flesh,” as a shorthand way of referring to everything we’ve just looked at. Especially in Romans, chapters 7 and 8 (a couple of enormously important chapters as touching the central truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ) when Paul uses “flesh,” the stuff in this chapter is what he’s talking about. Flesh means the corrupt, natural human way of doing things, of talking, and of acting, both toward God and one another.

[We need to make an important pit-stop here to clarify something. The Bible does not teach that there is anything inherently evil or sinful about the physical material out of which our bodies our made. Our physical, flesh and blood bodies are not what’s being talked about when the Scripture uses “flesh” this way. In fact, on the day that God gave Adam and Eve physical bodies made of bones and blood and tissues and sinews... “flesh”....He pronounced the work of that day to be “very good.” Some ancient false teachers of the first century plagued the true church severely with their false doctrine, called “Gnosticism.” One of the tenets of Gnosticism is to believe that physical matter is evil, while all things “spiritual” or immaterial are good. To this way of thinking, then, the only way a human could be good was to be liberated from his physical body. Okay, that is not Christianity. Evil does not live in your physical tissues. It lives in your thoughts, your desires, your motivations, your words and deeds, etc.]

We’ve said all of this in order to get to the point of asking a few questions. You don’t need to tell anyone your answers...but God knows.

1) Have you ever figured that you would go to heaven because, “I’m basically a good person.” ?

- If so, you need to ask yourself who is right in their judgment of you. Is it you, or is it God? God has already called you “flesh.”

2) Have you ever figured that you would go to heaven because, “I’m a better person than most other people, even religious people.” ?

- You may in fact be better than most people, even the religious ones. Thing is, both you and they are “flesh.” Both you and they have hearts that are “desperately wicked.” To say you’re a better person than them is like saying you’ve got the best seat on the crowded bus...and the whole bus is headed off the cliff.

3) Have you ever figured that you would go to heaven because, “God knows I’m doing my best.” ?

-> Is “doing your best” anything similar to “trying with all your heart?” And would that be your “deceitful” heart, that is “only evil continually?”

4) Have you ever figured that you would go to heaven if you could do more good deeds than evil deeds?

- > If, as a person of “flesh,” your heart is continually evil, let me ask you, when in that continuous evil do you think you might manage to do enough good to tip the scales?


I think the apostle Paul must have asked himself these same questions, or some similar, and very honestly realized that his answers didn’t hold any water. He realized that he had no reason to put any “confidence in the flesh” for his going to heaven. (Philippians 3:2-7) He realized that as a man of “flesh” he simply couldn’t do enough good things to make himself right with God (Galatians 2:16).

Finally, he realized that what he couldn’t do, as a fleshly man, God did for Him, by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Jesus lived as a human being the perfect, good, and holy life that none of us can, due to the weakness of our “flesh.” (Romans 8:3)

Friend, this is the truth. If your life up until the point was the service that you were performing for God as an employee, the only thing you’d deserve to be paid is destruction. When you looked at your pay stub, in the box where it says, “Net pay due this period,” instead of a dollar amount, it would simply say, “Death.” As flesh, that’s all you can earn.

But right now, even as you read these words, God is making you an offer. Trade in what you have earned, in exchange for what Jesus alone has earned, eternal life with God in heaven. Christ died to pay for your sins, and rose from the dead to offer you everlasting life in Him.

God has “made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

Right now, you can make the first step toward real freedom, freedom from the continuously evil desires of your heart and mind. Your sins, the works of your flesh, can be cleansed through the blood of Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of God can come to dwell within you, so that from now on, you will have a new power with which to overcome your sinful nature.

Just stop right now. Right where you are, just bow your head and let God know that’s what you want. There are no “right words” that you need to say. However you express it will work, as long as you do so believing that what you’ve seen here is right and that God can and will make a change in you through Christ. Just let God know.

7 comments:

Deviant Monk said...

We hear this stuff all the time in our culture. And we hear other wonderful sounding stuff that is just as ignorant of the Truth of the Word of God. How many times for this one: “There’s good in everybody,” or this one, “People are basically good.”

The thing is, both of these statements are both, on some level, truthful and biblical.

If one is inclined to believe the scriptures, then one would affirm that humanity is created in the image of God; God Godself in fact declared that such a creation and an imageness is 'good.'

That means that the underlying, basic essence of humanity is the image of God, which ultimately is goodness. To say that the fall completely effaced the image of God from humanity (meaning there is no good in humanity) does several things:

1. It makes sin something that is able to completely undo the creative act of God, which would completely eradicate the human person as a being capable of relationally interacting with God, either in friendship or enmity

2. Would seem to contradict James who speaks about people still retaining the image of God

3. Completely ignores the experiential reality that even those who are at enmity with God still have the capacity for good- after all, even Jesus hints at this when he speaks about those who are wicked still knowing how to give good gifts to their children, thus operating on some level out of love, which is a good.

Gordan said...

DM, thanks for your comments.

I think we miss each other on this one because we are holding to different ideas of what "good" is. I believe our concept of "good" must be in line with the analogical use of language. I have two cats who don't jump on the counters and always use the litter box. They are good. But this is not the same as the goodness that God requires in His image-bearers, and not the goodness of God Himself.

I'm wondering what you do with Biblical statements on Man like, "There is none good, no not one." And this one, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Your argument is elegant and lovely, but has these rather large speed bumps in its path.

The problem with arguing from the Imago Dei to the inherent goodness of man is that the Bible never defines what that image is. So then your argument necessarily has this nebulous, undefined concept at it base.

Additionally, I don't (and I'm not aware of any Reformed who do) say that the unregenerate are not capable of performing some acts that are "good" on some level. Two guys once helped me push my mail truck out of a mud puddle. I thought that was a good thing. But they are drug-users and gang-bangers and headed to hell if they don't repent. That "good" act (for which I am thankful) was/is of no use when it comes to their standing before God. The Reformed view is that fallen man can do no "good" act which prepares him or qualifies him for salvation.

And, I don't, by the way, say the Fall completely effaced or erased God's image in mankind. (After the Flood, this Imago Dei is referenced as the reason why murder is bad, for instance.)But I do believe that sin has corrupted it, not because of the inherent power of sin to destroy God's creation, but because of God's curse on that sin. The corruption is itself a judgment that comes from God. God is not foiled by the corruption: He instituted it as a punishment.

Rhett said...

Well stated Gordan.

Deviant Monk said...

I'm wondering what you do with Biblical statements on Man like, "There is none good, no not one." And this one, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Your argument is elegant and lovely, but has these rather large speed bumps in its path.

From my theological perspective, this isn't necessarily a speed bump. I take the approach that one defines 'good' ultimately in relation to God, or ontological relativity. Also, I see sin not as an ontological reality, but as a privation of good.

That being said, to be wicked or sinful isn't a positive state or mode of being; that is, we don't have a sinful nature added to our essential nature. To be 'sinful' is the privation of union with God, union with the source of the fullness of being, the fullness of good.

Therefore, since all of our being is derived from God, and is therefore necessarily good, humanity (by sheer virtue of its existence) would then seemingly still retain some of its original goodness. However, there is even within this fragment of goodness a deep disconnect with God, one so deep that humanity cannot relate properly to God, even though it still retains some of its goodness. In this fragmentation comes inability, hence the need for the Incarnation through which God would reconcile the universe back to Godself.

I don't presume to think that the biblical authors had anything in mind re:good beyond moral terminology when they speak about no one being good and people being only wicked; however, that doesn't necessarily limit thinking about human nature in only a moral sense in regards to good.

The problem with arguing from the Imago Dei to the inherent goodness of man is that the Bible never defines what that image is. So then your argument necessarily has this nebulous, undefined concept at it base.

That doesn't seem to nullify the fact that James speaks of humanity(presumably even those who are fallen) as being made in God's image. Thus, regardless of the 'location', so to speak, of the imago dei, it is presumably good and therefore presumably still retained in some sense by humanity.

Additionally, I don't (and I'm not aware of any Reformed who do) say that the unregenerate are not capable of performing some acts that are "good" on some level.

My mistake. I have talked with many reformed persons who do feel this way. They usually point me to the W. Confession which states:

From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good,[8] and wholly inclined to all evil,[9] do proceed all actual transgressions.[10]

Being wholly inclined to all evil and made opposite to all good would seem to mitigate against performing any good on any level whatsoever.

However, since you disagree with this, I apologize for lumping you in with this kind of thinking. I will attempt to not make such unwarranted generalizations in the future.

And, I don't, by the way, say the Fall completely effaced or erased God's image in mankind.

I was less articulate than I should have been. I didn't necessarily mean to imply that you thought this. Categorical ambiguity on my part- I was arguing that since good is ultimately ontology, to say that there is no goodness left in humanity would necessitate the effacing of the imago dei, whereas you are speaking of goodness in the more limited moral sense. Sorry.

Gordan said...

To clarify on the Westminster quote you gave: I do wholly agree with that, but we must be careful not to read into it something that it doesn't say. It says our natural corruption makes us inclined to evil and opposite to all good. That is a statement about the sort of being that fallen man is: it says nothing about what he does. Total Depravity is not a claim that fallen man is as evil as it's possible to be. There is always room for deprovement. Rather, it means that we are aimed completely in the wrong direction, leaving "righteousness" in our rear view mirrors. That fact, that we are not as evil as it's possible to be at all times, is to be attributed to God's restraining grace, as are the "good deeds" that a fallen man performs.

Is there anything at all in the Bible that you would point to in support of your definition of sin as the privation of good? Or maybe you could explain the Fall in the Garden of Evil, according to your view. As I try to understand what you're saying, it seems to conflict with the inspired record, in that sin is always an active thing, a positive thing in the wrong direction.

Gordan said...

Garden of Eden, not Evil. Category error :)

Robert said...

Well said.

It sounds like someones been reading the scriptures!!! :)

Nicely done.