THE UNREGENERATED MAN
The Lord Jesus has said that every unregenerated man, born but once of man, is flesh and is in the realm of the flesh.
During the time of unregeneration, men live in the lusts of their flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the thoughts, and are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3) for "it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God" (Rom. 9:8). The soul is subjected to the allurements of the lusts of the body and in pursuit thereof commits many unspeakable sins. But since at this time man is dead unto God (Eph. 2:1), being dead in his offenses and in the uncircumcision of his flesh (Col. 2:13), he is not in the least conscious of his being in sin and is perhaps still proud of himself, thinking that he is still better than others. Indeed, when man is in the flesh, the passions for sins, which act through the law, operate in his members to bear fruit to death (Rom. 7:5). So, it is because he is "fleshy, sold under sin" (v. 14) that he serves "with the flesh, the law of sin" (v. 25).
Because the strength of the flesh is exceedingly weak (although it is extremely strong in committing sins and fulfilling the desires of the mind), it cannot satisfy God in fulfilling any of His requirements. This is because the flesh is weak and cannot keep the law (Rom. 8:3). Not only is the flesh unable to fulfill the law of God, but it cannot even be subject to it, "because the mind set on the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, for neither can it be" (v. 7). However, this is not to say that the flesh will indulge itself in any way it pleases and altogether ignore the things of God. As a matter of fact, there are fleshly men who have tried their best to keep the law. The Bible does not say that those who are in the flesh do not walk after the law, but rather it affirms that "out of the works of law no flesh will be justified" (Gal. 2:16). That those who are of the flesh do not keep the law is, of course, not unusual; it shows that they are of the flesh. However, what God has ordained is that a man is not justified by the law but by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:28). Therefore, even if a fleshly person tries to keep the law, this only serves to demonstrate that he submits himself not unto God but unto his own will, going about to establish another righteousness apart from the righteousness of God (10:3). It shows even more that he is fleshy. Anyway, "those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (8:8). The three cannots (that is, the flesh cannot keep the law, cannot subject itself to the law, and cannot please God) judge all fleshly men as to their sins.
In God’s view the "flesh" is absolutely corrupt. Since the flesh is closely linked with lusts, the Bible often speaks of the "lusts of the flesh" (2 Pet. 2:18). Although the power of God is great, God is not able to change the nature of "the flesh" into something pleasing to Him. God Himself says, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh" (Gen. 6:3). The corruption of the flesh is beyond the power of God; it is something which God is unable to change. Neither is the Holy Spirit by striving against the flesh able to make it no more the flesh. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. Yet men do not understand God’s Word and intend to reform and improve the flesh. However, God’s Word holds true forever. Because the flesh is in such a deplorable state before God, He warns His saints to hate "even the inner garment spotted from the flesh" (Jude 23).
God knows the actual condition of the flesh. He therefore knows that the flesh cannot be changed. He who intends to improve his own flesh, working through the process of self-denial so as to help the flesh to change for the better, is bound to fail. God knows that the flesh is incapable of change, improvement, or reform. So, although He wants to save the world, He does not set out with the task of changing the flesh, for even if He had undertaken this task, He would not have achieved it. God does not change the flesh of man but, instead, gives man a new life so that it may cooperate with Him to bring the flesh into death. The flesh must die—this is the way of salvation.
Romans 8:3 says, "For that which the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh...." This represents the true condition of the morally minded who constitute a portion of fleshy men. They may perhaps be willing enough to devote themselves to the keeping of the law, but they are fleshy. Being weak, they are incapable of keeping the whole law. These people come under one category. There is yet another category of men who do not keep the law of God at all. Their mind is the "mind set on the flesh" which is "enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, for neither can it be" (v. 7). However, the law decrees that he who keeps the law lives by the law, and he who does not keep it shall be condemned unto perdition. How much of the law must then be kept? The answer is the whole law, for "whoever keeps the whole law yet stumbles in one point has become guilty of all" (James 2:10). "Because out of the works of the law no flesh shall be justified before Him; for through the law is the clear knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). So the more man strives to keep the law, the more conscious he is of his being full of sins, incapable of keeping the law of God. Therefore, the first part of Romans 8:3 points out to us the condition of man and how sinful he is.
Since all men are sinful, God prepared to save them, and His way of salvation was by "sending His own Son in the likeness of the flesh of sin." His Son is without sin, so He alone is able to save. "In the likeness of the flesh of sin" refers to the birth of the Lord Jesus on earth, in which He took on a human body and identified Himself with humanity. God’s own Son as the "Word" came "in the likeness of the flesh of sin," that is, He became flesh. This verse, therefore, speaks of incarnation. The important point contained herein is that He is the Son of God and He is without sin. The text does not say He was made "sinful flesh" but rather "in the likeness of the flesh of sin;" that is to say, He became flesh, having the likeness of the sinful body of man. Although He became flesh, He is still the Son of God and thus is still without sin. But as He also has the likeness of the sinful flesh of man, He is very intimately affiliated with sinners of the flesh in the world.
What was the purpose of the Lord’s incarnation? It was to be made "a sacrifice for sin" (Rom. 8:3, Darby, margin); this is the work of the cross. God’s Son is for the redemption of sin. Those who are fleshy sin against the law and cannot fulfill the righteousness of God, so they must perish and suffer the punishment for sin. However, the Lord came to the world, took on the likeness of the flesh of sin, and wholly identified Himself with all fleshly men. So, when He died on the cross, all fleshy men were judged to have received punishment for their sins in Him. He is sinless and need not have suffered punishment, but when He received the punishment, He had the likeness of sinful flesh. Accordingly, as the Head of a new race, He included all sinners in Him in suffering the punishment. This is insofar as punishment is concerned.
The fleshly men who were to receive the punishment now have in Him a sacrifice for sin. But what is to be done about the flesh that is filled with sins? He "condemned sin in the flesh." It was for sin that He died; thus God made the Sinless become sin on our behalf. When the Lord Jesus died, He died in the flesh, "being put to death in the flesh" (1 Pet. 3:18). When He died in the flesh, the sins borne by His flesh were crucified with Him. This is what is meant by "condemned sin in the flesh." In other words, it is "to judge sin in the flesh" or "to convict sin in the flesh." To condemn means to judge or to punish. The judgment and punishment for sin is death. What is meant here is that He put sin to death in the flesh. It can therefore be seen that when the Lord Jesus died, He not only died as a sacrifice for sin, suffering the punishment on behalf of men, but He also brought sin under punishment. As sin was condemned in the Lord’s body at the time of His death, so is sin condemned in the flesh of him who is joined to the Lord’s death; sin no longer has the power to harm him.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 12: The Spiritual Man (1), Chapter 6, by Watchman Nee)