THE EXISTENCE OF THE FLESH
We need to realize that even though we can put to death the flesh and cause it to be annulled (original Greek meaning for "destroyed" in Rom. 6:6 [KJV]), it nevertheless still exists. A very great mistake that people make is that they think that they have extinguished the existence of sin and have uprooted the flesh from within them. This kind of doctrine leads people astray. The regenerated life does not change the flesh. The crucifixion together with Christ does not cause the flesh to disappear. The Holy Spirit who indwells our spirit does not force people to not walk according to the flesh. Whether it is the flesh or "the fleshly nature" as people have called it, it always exists within the believer. Whenever the believer fulfills the condition for it to work, it operates right away.
We have seen how much man’s body is associated with the flesh. Therefore, before we are separated from this body, we can never be separated from our flesh such that it has no possibility to operate again. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. Before the transfiguration of our body, which we received by birth from Adam’s corruption, we shall by no means have the flesh eradicated from within us. Our body has not been redeemed yet (Rom. 8:23). We have to wait until the Lord’s second coming to have this redemption (1 Cor. 15:22-23, 42-44, 51-56; 1 Thes. 4:14-18; Phil. 3:20-21). Therefore, as long as we are in this body for one day, for one day we cannot avoid watching and guarding against all the activities of the flesh in the body.
We should know that our walking may, at most, be like Paul’s. He said, "For though we walk in flesh, we do not war according to flesh" (2 Cor. 10:3). Because he still had the body, he still walked in the flesh. But, due to the corruption and wretchedness of the flesh and its nature, he did not "war according to flesh." Although he walked in the flesh, he did not "walk according to the flesh" (Rom. 8:4). Before the believer is separated from his body, he can by no means be separated from the flesh. Physically speaking, he lives in the flesh (Gal. 2:20). Spiritually speaking, he does "not war according to flesh." If Paul still had the flesh according to which he might war (only he did not do that), who would dare to say that he did not have "flesh"? Therefore, both the cross and the Holy Spirit are needed at all times.
Because of the great importance of this point, we cannot be inattentive. Otherwise, believers will fall into hypocrisy or idleness, thinking that their flesh is gone, that they are therefore perfectly holy, and that there is no need of watchfulness. Herein is a fact: children born of regenerated and sanctified parents are also fleshly and need to be regenerated even as the worldly people. No one can say that the children born of sanctified believers are not fleshly and have no need of regeneration. The Lord Jesus said, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh" (John 3:6). If what is born is flesh, this proves that the one who begets it is also flesh! This is because flesh only gives birth to flesh. Therefore, the children’s being fleshly proves that the parents are not yet free from the flesh. The reason saints pass the fallen nature on to their children is that they had this fallen nature originally. They are not able to pass on to them the divine nature which they received in regeneration, because this divine nature is not their own but is obtained by each one through grace from God. The reason that the believers’ children have a sinful nature is that the believers have a sinful nature and have passed it on to them. This obvious fact proves that the sinful nature in the believers exists.
In view of this, we know that a person who is a new creation in Christ is not recovered in this life to the position of Adam before his fall, simply because of, not to mention other things, the fact that his body has not been redeemed (Rom. 8:23). Even a man in the new creation still has a sinful nature and still has the flesh. Sometimes his feelings and his desire are not perfect and are mostly more base than those of Adam when he was sinless. Unless man’s flesh has been rooted out from within man, he can never have the perfect feeling, desire, and love. Man can never reach the position of having no possibility of sinning because the flesh still exists. If a believer does not walk according to the Holy Spirit and still gives ground to the flesh, the flesh will exercise its dominion again. However, we should not despise the salvation which Christ has accomplished. There are many places in the Bible which tell us that whatever is born of God cannot sin. This means that whoever is born of God and filled with God has no inclination to sin. It does not mean that there is no possibility of sinning. When we say wood cannot sink, it means that wood has no tendency to sink rather than that wood has absolutely no possibility of sinking, because if wood is soaked in water for many days, it may sink. The hand of a child may also cause it to sink. But the nature of wood is that it does not sink. In the same way, God saves us to the degree that we have no inclination to sin but does not save us to the degree that we have no possibility of sinning. If the believer is still filled with the intention to incline to sin, this proves that he is still fleshly and has not obtained full salvation. The Lord Jesus will cause us not to incline to sin. Meanwhile, we still need to be watchful because, if we are contaminated by the world or tempted by Satan, there is still the possibility of sinning.
A believer should realize that, on the one hand, he is a new creation in Christ, having the Holy Spirit dwelling in his spirit, having the death of Jesus working in him, and having the sanctifying life, but that, on the other hand, he still has the sinful flesh and can still sense the existence of the flesh and its filthiness. He has the sanctifying life because he, by the Holy Spirit with the death of the cross, puts to death the practices of his members so that the flesh cannot act, not because he has no flesh. After seeing the fact that a believer passes on his sinful nature to his children, we know that what we have obtained is not the natural perfection of Adam when he was sinless. We also know that the existence of the flesh does not cause the believers to become no more sanctified.
All the believers should admit that even those believers who are the most holy also have times of weakness. Sinful thoughts may enter into their mind unintentionally, words may come out of their mouth unconsciously, they may feel that it is hard to surrender their will to the Lord, and they may have confidence in themselves. All these are works of the flesh. If a believer is under the control of Christ and does not make provision for the flesh, he will have a lasting experience of overcoming the flesh. Therefore, a believer should know that the flesh may regain its power at any moment. The flesh has not been eradicated from the body, but, because we have presented ourselves to the Lord (Rom. 6:13), the body has left the control of the flesh and has come under the control of the Lord. If a believer walks according to the Holy Spirit (this refers to the attitude of not letting sin reign in our body—v. 12), no matter what sin devises, it cannot cause the believer to stumble. Rather he is always free. In this way the body is not reigned over by the sinful nature and is free to be the temple of the Holy Spirit and to do the holy work of God. The way the believer obtains his freedom is the way he keeps his freedom. Because the believers answer God with the vital "yes" and answer the flesh with the vital "no," accepting the Lord’s death, they obtain freedom. Therefore in this life, before the separation from the body, this "yes" to God and "no" to the flesh have to always continue. Not one believer at this time can reach a position of not being tempted. Therefore, good discernment, watchfulness, prayer, and sometimes fasting are necessary that he may know how to walk according to the Holy Spirit.
However, the believer should not lower God’s purpose and his own expectation. It is possible for the believer to sin, but he must not sin. The Lord Jesus has died for us and has crucified our flesh with Him on the cross, and the Holy Spirit has indwelt us in order to manifest in us the reality of what the Lord Jesus has accomplished. We have the absolute possibility of not being under the control of the flesh. Its existence is to call us to be watchful but not to make us surrender. The cross has completely crucified the flesh. If we are now willing to put to death the practices of our body by the Holy Spirit, we will experience the accomplishment of the cross. "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 must die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the practices of the body, you will live" (Rom. 8:12-13). Since God has such grace and such a way of salvation, if we make the mistake of still living according to the flesh, it our responsibility. Since we have such a salvation, it is no longer as though we are debtors to the flesh and are obliged to pay it. Now we do not have to. If we still live according to the flesh, it is because we want to, not because we ought to.
Among many matured saints, there is a long period of complete victory. The flesh exists, but its effect amounts to zero. Its life, nature, and activity have been put to death by the believers with the Lord’s death through the Holy Spirit so that the flesh is in the position of existing yet as if not existing. Because the work of putting to death is so deep and so real and because the believer is so faithful in following the Holy Spirit in a lasting way, the flesh, although it exists, is made powerless to resist, and it even seems difficult to have it come again to excite the believer. Such a complete victory over the flesh is attainable to every believer.
Now here is a warning: "For if you live according to the flesh, you must die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the practices of the body, you will live." Because salvation is complete, there is no excuse for rejecting this salvation. All that matters here hinges on the two "ifs." God, on His side, can no longer do anything; He has accomplished all. Now it is only up to man, on his side, how he will deal with God’s work. Although you have been regenerated, "if you live according to the flesh, you must die." You will lose your spiritual life; you will be living yet will be as dead. "If by the Spirit" you live, you also must die, but die in the death of Christ. If by the death of Christ you put to death all the practices of the flesh, that is real death. However, if you do not die in this way, you will die the other way. Either way, you must die. Which death, then, do you want? When the flesh lives, the Holy Spirit (in reality) cannot live. Which one, then, do you want to live? What God has arranged for you is to put all the ability and activity of your flesh under the power of the death of the Lord Jesus’ cross. What you are lacking now is nothing but death. You should talk less about life and talk first about death, because if there is no death, there is no resurrection. Are you willing to obey the will of God? Are you willing to let the cross of Christ be experiential in your life? If so, you should, through the Holy Spirit, put to death all the practices of the body.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 12: The Spiritual Man (1), Chapter 8, by Watchman Nee)