“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:1-3)
Biblically, there are three enemies to our pursuit and consistent acquisition of being holy as the Lord is holy (I Peter 1:13-16). The first of the three that we will examine is our remaining sinful flesh. Within this context, the flesh refers to the earthbound, mortal, and still incarcerated sinful humanness. As believers in Christ, we are no longer in the flesh. However, until glorification, the remnant of our sinful flesh remains in us.
James describes how this remaining remnant of the flesh within believers in Christ can manifest itself in unholy behavior within the church. Fights and quarrels arise from within the church due to hedonistic passions or lusts which arise from within the soul of individuals. If this remains unchecked, it can lead to devastating consequences.
The Apostle Paul knew well of this battle for holiness against the flesh. He documented it in Romans 7:14-25. Some have interpreted the apostle’s self-description as pertaining to his pre-converted life. However, Paul was describing the believer’s inner conflict of desiring to obey God’s law while at the same time realizing how far they fall short.
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
The Apostle Peter also acknowledged the believer’s internal battle for holiness. I Peter 2:11-12 says, “11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
Dr. John Walvoord explains, “Understanding the conflict in personal sanctification involves seeing the relationship between a believer and his indwelling sin.”
Dr. R. C. Sproul states that, “The war between flesh and spirit depicted in Scripture (Galatians 5:16-26) is not a war between body and soul but rather a war within ourselves — a war of our desires. We have new life from the Spirit, and our remaining sin, that part of our Adamic heritage that we have not yet fully cast aside, hates this new life (John 3:1–8; Rom. 7:7–25; Eph. 4:17–24). Of course, having trusted in Christ alone, we have been set free from enslavement to sin and enabled to live according to His commandments. Our sinful flesh, however, remains present until we are glorified, and until then it rises up and strives to quench and grieve the Holy Spirit’s influence (Eph. 4:30; 1 John 1:8–9). Until we are glorified, we are commanded to put our fleshly nature to death so that we will keep in step with the Spirit (Col. 3:5). This is achieved through taking up God’s armor against our flesh. And through the defeat of the flesh, we defeat the Devil, who entices our flesh to rise up against the Lord (Eph. 6:10–20).”
J.C. Ryle writes, “He (the Christian) must fight the flesh. Even after conversion he carries within him a nature prone to evil and a heart weak and unstable as water. that heart will never be free from imperfection in this world, and it is a miserable delusion to expect it. To keep that heart from going astray, the Lord Jesus bids us to, ‘Watch and pray.’ ” See Mark 14:38; I Corinthians 9:24-27; Colossians 3:5.
This is why the pursuit of holiness is so crucial for the believer. It is only as the Christian is pursuing holiness that they will obey the Lord and consequently have consistent victory over the flesh.
Soli deo Gloria!