At first glance, almost without being taught by anyone, most come to the conclusion that to put to death the deeds of the body means to literally pin down and conquer all weaknesses of the flesh. But does the context surrounding this verse warrant such interpretation? The Bible is replete with examples of folks using their flesh not as instruments for sin, but as means to draw near to God, which is the real focus of Paul’s writing. I hope that this article helps those who struggle with the traditional view of the deeds of the flesh find relief in the contextual view proposed in this article, and walk with lighter steps toward the day they meet God with full confidence.
For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:13)
The two views of the flesh and its deeds
What is your first impression upon an encounter with such words as flesh and its deeds? The most common interpretation of these terms is that the flesh has to do with the sinful part of a person, and its deeds are those things performed by such bad parts, namely sinful activities. This article proposes perhaps a more accurate view of these terms. It asserts that Paul was warning against the attempt to live out the Christian faith by the strength of the flesh—this attempt is the foundation of all religions except the gospel of Jesus Christ as it should be. For ease of discussion, let us call the generally accepted view the "traditional view," and the other one the "contextual view."
The traditional view
If the traditional view holds true, what hopes are there for Christians? Who doesn’t live after the flesh? How does an average Christian know whether, or how much, he’s able to not living after the flesh?
I’ve spent the first 30 years since coming to Christ trying not to walk after the flesh. Sermons after sermons, and decades had gone by without any hope that the flesh will be slain any time soon. Revival meetings may stir up a dying amber but only for a short while much like the fading glory upon Moses’ face when he left God’s presence. Sometimes I relied quietly on the feedback of others to get a certain amount of assurance that I was spiritual enough, at other times I relied on some feelings based on self assessment that I had lived up to some random expectation. But this sort of living is contrary to the certainty expressed in Hebrews 11:1.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
We just try our best
Some may say: Yes, though we may not be able to completely put to death the deeds of our flesh, we should try our best. But this is a self-delusion at best, because Romans 8:13 says it clearly that if you live after the flesh you will die. Even a little flesh here and a little flesh there, a little now and a little then, will disqualify you for the kingdom of God, as it is written in James 2:10: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” You must put to death all the deeds of your flesh.
Additionally your best isn’t good enough, because if it was, Jesus wouldn’t have had to go to the cross. It took the Son of the living God to loosen the grip of your flesh upon you so you may serve and worship Him. But even then the loosening of the death grip upon you is only in relation to eternal life, not for this very flesh that you have to endure until you inherit the incorruptible. If it is required of you to put to death all the deeds of your flesh in the sense that it cannot sin anymore, you have no hope of heaven.
My question to folks who hold the traditional view is why do you hold on to a belief system that guarantees that you will be rejected at heaven’s gate?
What do Bible commentaries say?
Virtually all commentaries teach that since now we’re empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have the power to put to death the deeds of the flesh—sinful deeds, according to the traditional view.
Let us consider a few commentaries which hold the traditional view on Romans 8:13.
If any habitually live according to corrupt lustings, they will certainly perish in their sins, whatever they profess. And what can a worldly life present, worthy for a moment to be put against this noble prize of our high calling? Let us then, by the Spirit, endeavour more and more to mortify the flesh.
Gill wrote a very long winded exposition on this verse, but the bottom line is it is based on the premise of the traditional view of the flesh in this verse.
The apostle is not satisfied with assuring them that they are under no obligations to the flesh, to hearken to its suggestions, without reminding them where it will end if they do; and he uses the word “mortify” (put to death) as a kind of play upon the word “die” just before. “If ye do not kill sin, it will kill you.”
My thought: can you really kill sin? The only one who can kill sin is Christ. Jesus taught us that though a person may resist committing a physical act of adultery, he cannot rid his heart of lustful thoughts (Matthew 5:28). What kills you is not the act, its your fallen nature. Can you kill your fallen nature?
If under the influence of the Spirit you reduce to a condition of deadness and atrophy all those practices to which the impulses of your material nature would prompt you.
Spurious argument at best. What is a condition of deadness and atrophy? By whose standard? Your own arbitrary perception of deadness and atrophy? Romans 8:13 doesn’t say you can reduce it to a certain amount, it says put it to death, completely, absolutely.
If you live to indulge your carnal propensities, you will sink to eternal death … The deeds of the body - The corrupt inclinations and passions; called deeds of the body, because they are supposed to have their origin in the fleshly appetites.
Didn’t this commentator read Colossians 2:16-23?
The godly themselves need this caution; they must not think, that because they are elected and justified, &c., that therefore they may do and live as they list.
The tone of Romans 8:13 is much more serious. If it is based on the traditional view, no flesh will be saved, Christ would have died in vain.
put to death; an antithesis to the “death” just mentioned as the result of sin. The verb is in the present tense, and indicates a continued process of resistance and self-denial. … This passage, and the parallels, shew how fully St Paul recognized the element of sinfulness as present still in the regenerate—so present as to call for intense resistance.
This is all I gathered in one Internet query. I presume the rest of commentaries commit the same isogesis as those we’ve read.
The Bible commentators are guilty of asking others to do what they themselves cannot do. Didn’t Jesus say something about this concerning the teachers of the law? But it doesn’t matter what the commentaries say, each one of us is accountable for making sure we’re not in error in approaching this important concept because it profoundly affects our relationship with God.
Who can verify that someone’s flesh is indeed mortified? Can each one who holds the traditional view verify for himself if he fully passes the mortification test?
Running without aim
So far we have presented the case that there is no hope of heaven for those who hold the traditional view. The first part of Romans 8:13 which says “if you live after the flesh you will die” virtually condemned all of mankind because all who inherit fallen humanity live after the flesh. Here’s what the Bible say about your ability to have mastery over your flesh:
All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23)
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:10-18)
So we must be deluding ourselves if we think we can put to death the deeds of the flesh according to the traditional view. Are we like folks who try to finish the race knowing that we can’t win? The appalling thing is pulpits all over the world is preaching the traditional view as if it is the main purpose of Christianity. It is converting folks to embark on a quest to a country surrounded with barbed wire fences no one can enter.
Who wrestles with dead flesh?
If indeed the deeds of the flesh could be put to death, then there would be no longer any struggles in the lives of Christians, wouldn’t there? And who would want to wrestle with something that is dead? And if the flesh can be put to death physically, then Paul wouldn’t have written:
21So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 23But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. (Romans 7:21-23)
The context-based view
What is the Bible about? Is it a book of morality to deal with Man’s countless vices? Or is it one to bridge the impossible chasm between God and Man? Indeed though it started out showing Man’s utter depravity by showing their uncountable acts that came from the deepest parts of their fallen humanity, it moved on to the triumphant declaration, not of anyone of flesh and blood, but of the Son of God as their Savior.
The Bible, in the part we called the Old Testament, gave mankind for a limited time a chance to go through a test, through the Old Covenant with the Ten Commandments and statutes, with the ultimate goal of bringing them to a place where they’re on their knees realizing that no matter how much they try with their flesh, by doing something, or avoid doing something else, by using the Ten Commandments and various Mosaic laws and statutes as their moral yardsticks, they would still fall far short of God’s standard of righteousness.
And after a time of letting Man exhaust all their resources, after they failed miserably in trying to keep the commandments, God ushered in a new era that no longer allows Man to try to test their worth through their self effort, their flesh. This new era is recorded in the New Testament in which faith is now the sole instrument through which men can receive the gift of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life free to anyone who asks.
Jesus had come two thousand years ago as foretold by prophets long ago, but most importantly He came to end all sacrifices (Hebrews 10:12;10:26), and claimed supremacy as the sole Savior of mankind. His sacrifice will end all sacrifices. He is the gospel, the Word of God, with nothing to be added or taken away from it.
Mankind is expected to stop all their trying, because the time has passed for them to try with their own self effort, because they had been proven incapable of saving themselves, now they must surrender and express their trust completely on Jesus who came as their Savior. No longer are they allowed to use the power of their flesh to prove their worth before God, which really is no more than filthy rags. But we shall see that their pride is great, and they will try with all their might to prove once again they are “like God, knowing good and evil.” And Paul was tasked with the job of writing to the churches to tell them that now is the time for faith, no longer for works. This is the deeds of the flesh that they must put to death; it is this kind of deeds that compete with the cross of Christ in the salvation of their souls. The sinful deeds of their flesh can be forgiven, but these cross-defying deeds from their flesh is an abomination to the Lord.
Let’s learn some Greek
The word “deeds” in this Romans 8:13 verse is keyed to the Strong number 4234:
4234: praxis prax’-is from 4238; practice, i.e. (concretely) an act; by extension, a function:–deed, office, work. see GREEK for 4238
with a corresponding verb with Strong number 4238:
4238: 4238 prasso pras’-so a primary verb; to “practise”, i.e. perform repeatedly or habitually (thus differing from 4160, which properly refers to a single act); by implication, to execute, accomplish, etc.; specially, to collect (dues), fare (personally):–commit, deeds, do, exact, keep, require, use arts.
A survey of the Greek word number 4238 through various uses of it in the Bible shows its neutral meaning, of actions that are not necessarily good or bad, of action, performance, execution, accomplishment, etc. depending on context.
We tend to associate the “deeds of the flesh” to sinful actions, but we fail to see it in context of the whole reason why Paul writes this letter, he writes about the use of the flesh in trying to excel spiritually.
The Cross wasn’t enough
Soon after Jesus was resurrected and went to sit at the right hand of God to bestow righteousness upon those who called on His name, and soon after the first church of Jesus Christ was established as recorded in the book of Acts, the Christians of this first church retreated back to the old way. So much so that Paul had to begin to write profusely many letters to call them to stay true to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
To the church in Colosse
Paul started out chapter 2 of Colossians with a wish that
“2their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; 3In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:2-3)
Paul reminded them that whatever they needed for godliness and contentment is hidden in Christ. It’s evident in succeeding passages where we will soon read that they try to find them within themselves—the deeds of their flesh.
6Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him and firm in your faith just as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.(Colossians 2:6-7)
He assured them that the simple gospel they received in the beginning as expressed in John 3:16 is the same one for them to live by.
8Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
Paul continued with further warning about people with convincing arguments urging them to add their flesh works based on human traditions. In other words, they minimize the saving power of the cross of Christ.
In him you also were circumcised - not, however, with a circumcision performed by human hands, but by the removal of the fleshly body, that is, through the circumcision done by Christ. (Colossians 2:11)
One deed of the flesh that the Colossians must put to death is their reliance on the circumcision of their flesh. It is in direct competition with the circumcision in the heart by Christ.
20If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world? 21“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” 22These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. 23Even though they have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility achieved by an unsparing treatment of the body - a wisdom with no true value - they in reality result in fleshly indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)
The elemental spirits of the world has a lot to do with encouraging the deeds of the flesh as pseudo-spiritualism; looks and sounds so noble, embraced by all the venerable commentators I listed above, and by major denominations with their well learned leaders of advanced theological degrees. How can these great men commit such egregious error in Bible interpretation? It is not about using the flesh for sinning, it’s about using the flesh for supposedly noble spiritual purpose.
Note also that the Cambridge commentary quoted above expressed the virtue of “intense resistence and self denial” which in reality produced “fleshly indulgence” as we read in Colossians 2:23. These are deeds of the flesh cloaked in noble sounding pious platitude.
To the church in Galatia
Paul expressed this doctrine in a different form when he wrote to the Galatians who tied circumcision to their salvation:
1For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. 2Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! 3And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! 5For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight - the only thing that matters is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)
Paul wrote the entire book of Galatians with the express purpose of calling them to stop relating to God through legalistic lawkeeping which has much to do with the flesh. Galatians 5:1-6 quoted above demonstrate the real meaning of the “deeds of the flesh” in the form of circumcision which Paul denounced with no uncertain terms: “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all!” and “You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace!”. This deed of the flesh of trying to achieve God’s righteousness through the work of the flesh is the unforgivable sin.
To the church in Rome
1Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God on behalf of my fellow Israelites is for their salvation. 2For I can testify that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not in line with the truth. 3For ignoring the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking instead to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4)
Where else but from the flesh that self righteousness came? This is a sin not of human frailty but of pride. The kind of deeds that are not commonly preached against from pulpits, but those that oftentimes inhabit the hearts of the very handlers of the Word of God, of great theologians who failed at the very basic rule of reasoning.
Letter to the Hebrews
In chapter 8, the author of the book of Hebrews, after carefully laying the foundation, began to introduce Jesus as the minister of a superior ministry of a better covenant.
But now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)
The old and inferior covenant was based entirely on the deeds, or works, of the flesh, but the new and superior covenant is based on faith (Galatians 3:12).
Nicodemus and the deeds of the flesh
When Jesus declared this truth to Nicodemus: “You must be born again (John 3:1-21),” he, Nicodemus, could not help but thinking in flesh terms: should I be born again by going back into my mother’s womb? Of course, this thought came only as a response to Jesus’ puzzling statement, because Nicodemus was more familiar with other deeds of the flesh similar to those of the Colossians or the Galatians, or any Hebrews who were steeped in the Old Covenant.
The vain glory of the lawkeepers
As a matter of fact, this walking after the flesh may even be considered noble and praiseworthy. The natural outworking of fallen flesh resulting in sinful actions is obvious and doesn’t need great spiritual insight to identify, but the use of the flesh to attain spiritual perfection, or to achieve God’s righteousness, is universally attractive and ultimately embraced by many. Most folks fail to grasp this warning by Paul and are consequently driven toward the very thing they should avoid: using their flesh to serve God.
Hopefully at this point, the reader sees that the traditional view of the “deeds of the flesh” does not hold in the context of Romans 8:13, because if it really was what Paul had in mind, no Christian will be saved, because all of mankind produce works of the flesh to varying degrees. Even so, the cross of Christ is more than able to cover all of them for all eternity.
However what the blood of Christ does not cover is the attempt to rely on something other than the cross of Christ as means for salvation. All religions of the world use their “deeds of the flesh” with the hope of achieving spiritual perfection. The Old Covenant was provided by God for a time to bring mankind to a place where they have to acknowledge Christ as their Savior. During this time God showed them their “deeds of the flesh” would not restore the lost righteousness.
There is one “deed,” the work of faith, that God allowed and provided for through the sacrifice of His only begotten Son.
28Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” 29Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
Have you ever thought that “faith” is the greatest “work” in and of itself? Jesus said it, and I believe it.
- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen
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