To hear most Christians talk about it, you’d think that sins are something we should actively avoid committing. When the street preachers here in Toronto give their sermons, the focus is always on sin and how our sinful actions will send us to an afterlife realm called hell to suffer in without end if we don’t get our sin dealt with by “getting saved” in the manner the preachers believe one needs to do so in (completely missing the fact that Christ’s death for our sins in the Gospel is a proclamation, not a proposition, and that sin has already been taken care of for everyone whether they believe it or not). And if you talk to them one-on-one you’ll discover they believe that, even after we ”get saved,” we still need to do our best to avoid certain actions the preachers consider to be sinful (as well as do certain things they consider to be commanded of us). Following rules is basically the foundation of their entire religion, and so when they attempt to interpret passages such as the following ones, they’ll tell you Paul was explaining how we need to try to do good, spiritual acts while trying to avoid fleshly, sinful acts:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For 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. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. – Romans 8:1-10
This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. – Galatians 5:16-25
While Paul is indeed telling his readers they shouldn’t be walking after the flesh — and what the consequences of doing so might be — in those verses, that he isn’t telling people to try to actively avoid sinning should be very obvious to anyone who considers the context of the passages. Unfortunately, most Christians are so obsessed with religious rules that they’ve actually made sin their lord, which keeps them from being able to grasp what Paul actually taught about the topic of sin at all.
So what was Paul talking about in those passages? Well, if you ask any Christian who has studied Paul’s epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, they should be able to tell you that a large part of both books is about how we’re not under the law, and how we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be placed under it at all. The problem is, when they get to passages that talk about ”the flesh,” most Christians immediately forget this fact and proceed to completely ignore the context of the passages, reading their love of religious rules into the passages instead. Following religious rules isn’t even close to what Paul was talking about when he wrote warnings about walking after the flesh, however. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Even though the context of those passages should make it obvious, it can help to read an entirely different passage written by Paul, one which can serve as the key to understanding the other times he writes about the flesh. In Philippians 3:1-11, Paul is warning his readers against having confidence in their flesh — by which he means trying to be righteous by following rules — telling them they should instead be trusting in the faith of Christ for their righteousness rather than in their own actions.
This, along with the context of not being under the law (and the fact that Paul compares walking after the spirit with not following the law), should make it clear that Paul was actually telling people to stop trying to follow (and enforce) any religious rules at all, because trying to follow religious rules is what it actually means to walk after the flesh. (This includes the 10 Commandments, by the way, which are indeed a part of the Mosaic law, as Paul made clear by referencing the 10th commandment when he wrote Romans 7:7-9 as a part of his teaching that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be placed under any parts of the law.) So if you are actively trying to avoid (or even do) specific actions in order to please God, you’re actually walking after the flesh. He then contrasts the concept of walking after the flesh with the concept of walking after the spirit. But what does it mean to walk after the spirit? Well, if walking after the flesh means trying to follow religious rules, walking after the spirit must necessarily mean we aren’t trying to follow religious rules. Those who are walking after the spirit are instead trusting that Christ will live the life He wants us to live through us, and will end up doing the things God wants us to do and avoiding the things God wants us to avoid Himself through us. It’s only when we start walking after the flesh, meaning we start worrying about religion and trying to follow rules and prohibitions, that we begin doing the very things that God doesn’t want us to do, because trying to follow religious rules (be it the Mosaic law, or any other form of religious rules) only leads to more sin.
At this point most Christians will protest and say that, while we aren’t under the Mosaic law itself, there are still other rules in the Bible we need to follow, but in making such claims they’re ignoring everything Paul taught throughout his epistles. You see, the reason we don’t follow the Mosaic law isn’t because there’s anything wrong with the specific rules in the law themselves. The commandment which says “thou shalt not kill” is not a bad rule. Which means that it isn’t simply the specific rules in the Mosaic law we aren’t supposed to follow, but rather it’s trying to follow religious rules in general that we aren’t supposed to do.
Which brings us to the next protestation most Christians will make. “What about the long list of sins Paul mentioned in the passage in Galatians? Wasn’t he telling his readers to do their best to avoid those specific actions?” The answer to this will shock most people, but no, he most certainly wasn’t. If walking after the flesh means trying to follow religious rules, how could Paul possibly then turn around and say, ”but make sure you don’t break these specific religious rules, okay?” Instead, if you look at the context, it becomes clear that he’s warning his readers what will happen if they try to avoid sinning. Instead of becoming the holy, righteous people they hope that avoiding those specific actions will make them, those actions are instead exactly what they’ll end up doing. Just as positive attributes like love, joy, and peace are the fruit of walking after the spirit, the various negative actions Paul listed there are the fruit of walking after the flesh, meaning those actions are the fruit that will come forth from trying to follow religious rules.
And so, Paul’s condemnation in Romans 10:2-3 can equally be applied to Christians today: “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”