Humanity doesn’t come with a colored picture on the box cover.
Understanding how God describes our humanity is important to a right view of self as well as an accurate grasp of what we experience in this life. The Bible reveals several specific details about how God identifies different aspects of a human. This is what can be found within the pages of holy writ:
- Humans, unique in all creation, are made in the image of God. This speaks of both purpose and function. Our identity is defined in terms different from animals, angels, and everything else. We were created for an overall purpose to reflect the image of God. In addition to our purpose, it is also something that reveals something special about how we were designed to operate—how we function—by designing things with artistic expression as an example, expresses qualities that resemble those found in God and no where else.
- Humans have been granted life—a spot in history with an existence in time and space that expresses independence and self-recognition.
- Humans have a temporal body. Our biology is of the dust of the ground and is bound in a temporary structure and exists for a limited time.
- Humans have a spirit-of-man that is different from the spirit in animals. This is not biological or genetic, but a spirit that conveys all the aspects of humanity, like a mind, soul, life, and a connection to God. This spirit defines our humanity.
- Humans have a soul. Although Scripture appears to interchange soul and spirit at times, when speaking more generally of a human, it does give distinctions that help explain some of the difference. A soul is a non-material part of the spirit-of-man that seems to contain the specific individual record and uniqueness of each individual, whereas the spirit is common to all humanity. In this way, the soul is about the inherited identity and development of each specific person and the spirit is about being human. This soul defines our individuality.
- Humans have a mind. They can think, reason, communicate, and operate by independent choices. This too is an extension of the human spirit and not something bound simply to the biology of a brain.
- Humans are designed to need relationships. As individuals, people are capable of biological existence on their own, but can only operate fully as intended when bound as one in relationship with another human. This is what marriage is designed to provide—the intimate relationship that resolves the aloneness of a person which God announced was not good. It is also the foreshadow of completing unity intended for humanity in their relationship connection with their Creator.
- Humans are divided into two genders, male and female. All of humanity will represent one or the other sex. Handicaps and distortions to not change this original design of humanity being established in two representatives.
- Humans have desires. There is a part of us that has yet to be satisfied and which drives us toward fulfillment, relief, and satisfaction. We were created whole in our biology and able to exist for a season, but not complete to the overall plan and purpose of God who set this whole earthly life in motion. We were created to desire what God set out ahead of us, but did not yet place within humanity. These desires produce a condition—a measurement of our link to God. This condition is not a substance, like a body or a spirit, but rather a penchant, a leaning, a natural preference to perpetuate the same sin of independent self-will chosen by Adam and Eve. Our condition resulting from pursuit of our desires is more than just a status, because this tendency actually contributes to propelling us toward our own restless wants and away from God. We are not sin, but we all have a very real sinful condition that infects our humanity. In contrast, the condition of Christ, who had no sin, is that of righteousness—that is the measurement of his desire for and link to God.
- Humans all have a second life. Each person, without exception, will die once and then be raise back to life to face judgment. For some this will be the transition into eternal life with an upgraded body and healed condition, for others it will culminate in their second death.
These are the distinct aspects or parts to every human as revealed in Scripture. Inspired writers of Scripture speak of the above with different terms, analogies, or cultural references, but everything that can be addressed about humanity should fit into one of the above revealed aspects.
It is important to understand, that although the above distinctions can be made as a way to relate to our humanity, they cannot be separated from the person. All the above parts are integral to what it means to be human at this point. For example, individuals do not exist separate from their body, or absent of a spirit-of-man. Those teachings that suggest that a person’s body can die, but they remain alive, are teaching contrary to what the Bible says. From what has been revealed in Scripture, humans will never exist outside of a body, nor will they be alive between the death of their body, and the return of Christ to grant salvation and a new body to those who have, as he phrased it: “fallen asleep”.
We do not exist within the parts; rather, the parts are what describe the whole of the person, and each are necessary to the existence of the person: body, soul, mind and spirit, and the other revealed distinctions above that Scripture shows are universal to what it means to be human.
Some have taken exception to the translations that replace the biblical word flesh with the phrase human nature. This is unfortunate and comes from a misunderstanding of what Scripture reveals about humanity. It is true that the Bible does not use the phrase “human nature”, and so translations that maintain the word “flesh” are certainly more careful in their wording. However, that carefulness to the wording does not necessarily translate into better accuracy to what the writer meant, and it is the teaching of truth that we are expected to seek, not simply the preservation of language.
Those who teach that the flesh is bad, and who emphasize the inherent evilness of material things, and who suggest that God will destroy the evil body but save the good spirit, and who try to separate a human into two competing parts of flesh/spirit (as if we could exist in one and not the other), follow a heretical pattern that was common in paganism, like represented in Manachaism and Gnosticism. God created man in the flesh and announced that it was “very good”. Sin attacks the soul, not the skin. Humans need to be saved and healed in their entirety, not just in their body.
Our primary understanding of the meaning of the term flesh should come from how it is presented in Scripture and not from cultural norms or theological traditions. One of the foundational teachings on God’s meaning in this, comes from Jesus’ teaching of Nicodemus about being born again, when he declared that “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (Jn 3:5). The Lord is not referring to flesh in the limits of materialism or specifically to the biological vessel of our bodies–he is speaking about the entirety of the human being. In other words, his use of the term flesh includes body, mind, soul, and spirit, as an entire package.
The contrast here between flesh and spirit he defines as: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” This demonstrates that his meaning of flesh is about source and basis and representation, not about biology or structure or form. By Jesus own words, flesh here means “of earth”, whereas spirit here means “of heaven”. This fits with the understanding of considering a persons’ nature–are they naturally of this earth or naturally of God, without reference to their physiology reality at that moment.
Humans have an earthly nature, but Jesus tells us that he is “not of this earth”. He is not suggesting that he is not physical or not fully human or not really existing in a fleshly body; rather, his origin, source, basis, and natural orientation comes from God and is not sourced from or dependent upon this created world. In this sense, Jesus came in the flesh, but was not of the flesh.
The Holy Spirit that inspires Scripture hasn’t changed his meaning when the Gospel writers record the words of Jesus, or when he inspires others to write Scripture. The context often shows that the term flesh means: that which is based in this life and reflects what is commonly and naturally limited to human desires.
The question being raised is whether we represent Adam, self, or even the god of this world Satan; or, whether we have been saved from that natural condition to now represent the Second Adam, the things of heaven, and the will of God. This is how the Bible uses the contrast between flesh and spirit to indicate the natural orientation, rather than to speak specifically of substances. Those who try to shift the biblical meaning of flesh to just the biological entity–like saying that it is only the body of flesh that dies, and people are eternal–distort the truth by promoting beliefs that have a long and pagan heritage.
When writers, like Paul, speak of not living according to the flesh, the context makes it evident that they are not speaking of human biology or of the epidermis skin layer. Rather, they are using the concept of the fleshly biology to instruct on the condition of humanity that powerfully inclines a person toward sin and away from God.
who put no confidence in the flesh–though I myself have reasons for such confidence…a Pharisee…persecuting the church…faultless.” and “their mind is on earthly things.” (Phi 3:3-6, 19)
Notice that Paul defines his own meaning of the term flesh with aspects that have nothing to do with physiology, but rather with things that attach to and put our focus toward this physical life, like status, position, choices, and efforts at doing good. John speaks of this distinction as the “love of this world”, which focuses on desires that we crave after, lusts of what we want, and bragging about the amazing things we can do:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man [flesh], the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 Jn 2:15-16)
In this way the term flesh is used to provide the distinction between two competing foundations upon which a person lives—flesh or spirit. Neither flesh nor spirit here are speaking of the above aspects of humanity, rather the flesh is a reference to the basis of natural choices toward sin which we crave after to our own hurt, and spirit is a reference to the basis of godly desires enabled through the Holy Spirit which honor the will of God.
Notice how Paul defines the context and meaning of his own words:
“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Eph 2:3-5) [NIV ’84]
“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” [NIV new]
The NIV changed its initial usage of “human nature” back to the more literal wording of “flesh” (in its most updated translation), but the context still supports both the original word and descriptive meaning. We are taught here that our cravings, desires, and thoughts propelled us toward gratifying what came naturally. The word here for “by nature”, which is translated this way in both of the above translations, comes from the Greek word: phusis. It means natural production, native disposition, and natural constitution or usage. It is the same base word for the phrase-word: man-kind.
The human “native disposition” since the fall in the Garden is to choose our own path in determining what is good and desirable—to default to our education, our abilities, our reasoning, our wisdom and knowledge, our preferences and desires—rather than to remain dependent upon God for such direction and satisfaction. Paul specifically tells us that this is our natural human craving which has resulted in our human condition of being “dead in transgressions” and “by nature deserving of wrath”.
This meaning is the reason Paul describes his own natural struggles as a faithful Christian in wanting what is right, but seemingly to be continually struggling with this pull toward selfishness:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, It is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature [flesh]. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Rom 7:15-20)
Sin is not a substance that is possessing Paul and making him do bad things. He is speaking about the common struggle that we all face in wanting to do what is right before God, but actually choosing sin at times. As a Christian, he belongs to Christ, so it is not the new person who is causing this, but rather the ongoing natural presence of this sinful condition that still infects Christians who have yet to be fully transformed this side of the return of Christ.
In the above text, Paul personifies sin—he describes it in an artistic manner that makes it sound like it is alive and human. Back in verse 5, he speaks about this internal struggle as being “controlled by the sinful nature” or flesh. Our biology does not force us to do anything. He is not speaking about our nervous system getting out of control. He defines this as “the sinful passions” that all people have. Those are our desires which propel us toward finding satisfaction in our own way. It is so real and so powerful, even overwhelming our own mind and will at times, that he speaks here of this passion to sin as if it were a real person, when in reality it is something very real inside of us that we remain responsible for.
He concludes this section by speaking about himself as both a mental slave to God’s law while simultaneously a fleshly slave to the rule of sin. The beauty of this whole discourse is that God is fully aware of this internal tension, and through faith in Christ we have a way through it: by constantly coming to him to be forgiven and cleansed, so that in spite of this internal struggle, we can be counted free from condemnation by God.
At least, that is the promised shift in how God will view such a person, if they increasingly live by the Spirit and not by continuing to sin according to the natural fleshly pattern.
“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature [flesh], to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature [flesh], you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Rom 8:12-14)
In other words, our natural condition remains dire and sinful, and also temporary, but our eternal condition that already applies to a faithful believer is grounded not upon our natural flesh condition but upon the righteousness of Christ through his Spirit. We are not separated from our fleshly condition; we are counted as righteous because of the blood-covering of Christ. Just like the blood on the doorposts for Israelites in Egypt protected them from the death angel who was sent to kill all firstborn humans and animals in that area, so long as they obeyed by painting their doorposts and also remained within their homes, so it foreshadows that Christians are also protected as we obediently “remain in Christ”.
And so, the most significant aspect to humanity is our created purpose to image God. That has been made possible through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross to remove this hateful condition and begin instilling within each believer the holy desire to do the will of God.
Those who seek first his kingdom rule and his condition of righteousness, rather than seeking their own ways, will, and natural desires, are promised to be granted increasing relief from this internal struggle and increasingly be fully satisfied beyond anything that could be experienced or even imagined through body, mind, soul, spirit, or this life.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!