Romans 7: The Flesh Test

By: Paul Ellis

Romans 7: The Flesh Test

Have you seen the pearl of wisdom hidden in Romans 7? Many miss it because they view the chapter as “not written for me” or as a mere prelude to chapter 8. This is a shame because if you can grasp what Paul says in Romans 7, it will save you a world of hurt. “Just remind me, what’s Romans 7 about?” I hear you ask. Romans 7 is where Paul says this:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. (Rm 7:15)

We’ve all been there. But before you pat yourself on the back and say, that’s how I used to be, before I met Christ, let me ask you this: Is Paul describing his old life as a sinner or is he describing struggles he’s faced as a believer? This question divides opinion but my view is that he is describing anyone who is walking after the flesh. In other words, his message is relevant for everyone.

Walking after the flesh

Walking after the flesh is what you do when you attempt to get your needs met independently of God. It’s leaning on your own understanding, relying on your own strength, and drawing from your own resources. Sinners do this routinely but Christians can act this way as well. In either case, the results are disastrous (Rms 8:13). Live solely on the basis of your own will-power and understanding and you will sow death into your relationships, your ministry, your finances, even your health:

There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. (Pro 14:12)

“But Paul, doesn’t Romans 8:9 say, ‘you are not in the flesh but in the spirit’?” It does. But there’s a difference between being in the flesh and walking after the flesh. When Paul says, “we were in the flesh” (Rm 7:5), he is referring to our state before we were born again. We were in the flesh but now we are in the spirit.

But you are not in the flesh but in the spirit, (Rms 8:9a, NKJV).

We are not in the spirit because of the way we walk – flesh cannot give birth to spirit (Jn 6:6). But even though you are in the spirit you can still walk after the flesh. Even though you are in Christ, you can still act as though you were in Adam. Capiche?

So how do we know when we’re walking after the flesh? The New Testament is full of examples contrasting walking after the flesh (bad!) with walking after the spirit (good!). But sometimes what we need is a quick test to tell us whether we’re doing one or the other. Romans 7 provides just such a test.

The flesh test

“Am I walking after the flesh, yes or no?” In Romans 7, Paul shows that your answer to that question may be found by asking this pair of questions:

1.    Am I doing what I hate to do?
2.    Is this making me wretched and miserable?

If your answer to both of these questions is “yes,” then you’re walking after the flesh. The problem may not be what you’re doing so much as how you’re doing it. If you’re acting on the basis of your own might – your own resolve, understanding, and strength – then you’re walking after the flesh and God will have nothing to do with it. In Paul’s case he was trying to reform his sinful behavior by keeping the law. Yet no matter how hard he tried, he ended up doing the very thing that he hated. Doing what you don’t want to do is, for the Christian, a classic symptom of walking after the flesh:

For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. (Gal 5:17, NKJV)

Okay, so what about the sinner? Does Paul’s flesh test apply to him as well? I believe it does because anyone who tries to get their needs met apart from God will, from time to time, feel wretched and miserable. Why? Because God made us that way. He created us with a whole bunch of needs so that we would look to Him to fulfill those needs. We weren’t designed to live independently of Him. When we do we can experience intense frustration and heartache. On the surface we may think we’re hurting because someone let us down or things didn’t turn out as expected. But the reality is we’re feeling like that because we were looking to someone or something other than God to get our needs met. We don’t live on the basis of our feelings, but if you’re feeling wretched then your flesh may be trying to tell you something. Your flesh test may be giving you a positive result. That’s good, for it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do!

Wretchedness and frustration are symptoms of walking after the flesh. You will not experience these feelings when you are walking after the spirit. I’m not saying everything’s going to come up roses. I am saying if you are able to stay focused on Jesus, then even in the face of hardship you will experience peace such as the world does not know:

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. (Rms 8:6, NKJV)

I got a positive test result – now what?

Okay, so you’ve taken the flesh test and discovered that, “Yes, even though I’m in the spirit I’m walking after the flesh. I’m trying to make something happen, it’s not happening, and I’m miserable. Now what?”  Well the answer to that question is not a What but a Who, as we will see in the coming posts. But let me leave you with a quick suggestion by telling you what I am learning to do when I get a positive flesh test result: I go and lie down.

Lying down is not something I like to do. My flesh was built to be driven hard and I think sleeping is a waste of time. However, I often push myself too hard and this can lead to suffering and wretchedness. But by the grace of God I am learning. And one of the things I am discovering about myself is that I am less susceptible to the distractions of the flesh, and more in tune with the spirit, when I am horizontal.

Just this week, for example, I was banging my head against the wall and feeling frustrated about a project that was not turning out the way it was supposed to. Work harder, screamed my brain. I did, but to no avail. “I hate this,” said I. “It’s making me miserable.” Then revelation came. “Aha! I’m walking after the flesh. I’m trying to make something happen.” I immediately stopped. I pushed back from the desk and went and lay down on the rug in my office. (Believe me, this is hard for me!) Then I prayed a deep theological prayer that went like this: “Lord, I give up. I give up trying to make this happen. I give up leaning on my ability. This is not even my problem anymore – it’s Yours! Do whatever seems good to You.”

You have to understand that there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. But when you’re walking after the flesh even doing good can be bad for you. So I quit trying to make it happen and as soon as I did freedom came. My mind was instantly filled with life and peace and inspiration and creativity and solutions I had never dreamed of.

No cordless Christians

“Oh, so you were just recharging your batteries then.” Absolutely not! We don’t run on batteries and there are no cordless Christians! Christ is our life (Col 3:4). I was being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I was saying no to the flesh and yes to the spirit (Rm 8:5). I was setting my mind on things above and fixing my eyes back on Jesus. On this occasion He gave me a solution to my problem; on another occasion He might’ve suggested I drop the project and go play with the kids. Or He might’ve suggested something completely different. In any case I would’ve found life and peace by trusting Him.

Christ_is_your_life

If you’ve been feeling frustrated with the way things are turning out, then recognize the death-dealing work of the flesh. The best thing you can do is “put off” whatever it is that you’re doing and fix your eyes back on Jesus. You got distracted there for a bit but thank God for that wonderful flesh test of Romans 7 that has brought you back to your senses and back to Christ who is your life.

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