The Meaning of the Term Flesh as used by Christ and St. Paul
by Joseph D. McPherson
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2011. Volume 29.
Posted Aug., 2011

Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God; that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:5-6).

It is supposed by many that when Jesus assured Nicodemus that that which is born of the flesh is flesh, He was referring only to the birth of the human body. Richard Watson, that great theologian of early Methodism convincingly shows, however, that Christ use of this term flesh in John 3:6 carries a much deeper and more profound meaning. The following is an edited summary of his remarks.

Throughout the New Testament, it may be observed, writes Watson, that when [the terms] flesh and spirit are, in a moral sense, opposed to each other, flesh means the corrupt nature and habits of men that has not been sanctified by the Gospel. The term spirit, on the other hand is found to carry the meaning of ither the principle ... of holiness in good men, or the Holy Spirit himself, who imparts, and continually nurtures them. The true meanings of these two terms may be better understood when closely considering the following New Testament passages cited by Watson.

I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing (Rom. 7:18). I myself with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh, the law of sin (Rom. 7:25). There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 8:1). They that are after the flesh, do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you (Rom. 8:5-9).

In the last quoted passage Paul was writing to believers who were very much alive physically, while at the same time affirming that they were no longer in the flesh. Although they were yet living in physical bodies, they were no longer in a moral state characterized by a fallen and corrupt nature.

Watson assures us that these passages from the Apostle Paul writings clearly mix the meaning of the terms flesh and spirit, as used by the Jews, and as they occur in the discourse of our Lord with Nicodemus. In fact the above passages of St. Paul a re so exactly parallel to Jesus use of the same terms that we understand Him to be assuring Nicodemus that man is by nature corrupt and sinful, and because of his corrupt and sinful nature, unfit, [for] the kingdom of heaven. In fact so totally is man gone from original righteousness [that righteousness enjoyed by our first parents before the fall] that all attempts to change himself for the better are vain. There must be that supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit which produces a new birth or regeneration. Both the words of the Apostle Paul and the words of Jesus make it clear that he natural state of man is fleshly. He is, in other words, morally corrupt. Both Jesus and the apostle assert that there is no remedy for this corruption within man himself. Rather, they both attribute principles of holiness to a supernatural agency, the agency of the Spirit of God himself.

In conclusion, we see that St. Paul describes the state of man before he comes under the quickening and renewing influence of the Spirit, as being in the flesh in which state we cannot please God; as having a carnal mind which is not, and cannot be, subject to the law of God. Our Lord, in like manner, writes Watson, describes the state of the flesh, this condition of entire unfitness for the kingdom of heaven as our natural state. To enforce this truth more strongly, Christ defers this unfitness for heaven not to our acquired habits, but to the state in which we are born. Therefore, the very reason which he gives for the necessity of a new birth is, that hat which is born of the flesh is flesh, and therefore we must be born again. Only by being born of the Spirit can we experience that moral change from a corrupt and sinful state to that of entrance into the pathway of holiness.

Richard Watson, Theological Institutes (2 vols.; New York: Phillips & Hunt. Cincinnati: Granston & Stowe, nd), vol. II, pp. 72-73.