The Fight Against the Flesh

The Fight Against
The Flesh

By: Martin Luther (Edited by: Matthew Henry)

Abstain from fleshly lusts,
which war against the soul.
1 Peter 2:11

I will not determine here whether Peter speaks of outward impurity, or like Paul does, of all that is called fleshly — that is, whatever man does without faith, while he is in the body and in a fleshly life. I hold however that Peter had a different mode of expression, yet I do not think he uses the word soul, as Paul does, for spirit; but Peter has held more to the common Greek word than Paul. Yet much stress is not to be laid upon this; let it be understood of all kinds of lust, or all kinds of fleshly desire or impurity. But this at least he would teach us, that no saint on earth can be fully perfect and pure.Too many have trodden this passage under their feet, and they do not understand it; they think it is said only of sinners, as though the saints had no wicked lust remaining in them. But whoever will study carefully the Scriptures must note a distinction. The prophets sometimes speak of the saints in a manner, as though they were indeed perfectly holy in every respect; while on the other hand they speak also of them as having evil lusts and being troubled with sins. In regard to these two distinctions those persons cannot judge. Therefore understand it thus: that Christians are divided into two parts; into an inward nature which is faith, and an outward nature which is the flesh. If we look upon a Christian as respects faith, then he is pure and entirely holy; for the Word of God has nothing impure in it, and wherever it enters the heart that depends upon it, it will make that also pure; because, in respect to faith all things are perfect. But since faith exists in the flesh, and we still live on the earth, we feel at times evil tendencies, such as impatience and fear of death. These are all the fault of the sin nature, for faith is not yet mature and has not attained full control over the flesh.

Therefore I say, when you read in the Scriptures of the saints, that they were perfect, understand that as to faith they were entirely pure and without sin, but the flesh still remained and that could not have been entirely holy. Therefore Christians desire and pray that the body or the flesh be mortified, that they may be entirely pure. Therefore Peter says here, as ye would be pure and have complete sanctification, continue to contend with your evil lusts. So also Christ says in the gospel of John 13:10: “Whoever is washed, must also wash his feet.” It is not enough that his head and hands be clean; therefore, he would yet have them wash their feet.

But what does Peter mean in that he says, abstain from the lusts that war against the soul? This is what he would say: You are not to imagine that you can succeed by entertainment and sleep. Sin is indeed taken away by faith, but you have still the flesh which is impulsive and inconsiderate; therefore take good care, that ye overcome it. By strong effort it must be done; you are to restrain and subdue lust, and the greater your faith is, the greater will the conflict be. Therefore you should be prepared and armed, and you should incessantly contend with it. For it will assault you in mass and would take you captive.

Hence Paul also says: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man; but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity” (Rom 7:22, 23), so that I do what I would not. As though he had said, I fight indeed against it, but it will not finally yield. Therefore I would gladly be free, but in spite of my good will it cannot come to pass. What then am I to do? “Wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24). In this same manner all the saints cry out. But people without faith the devil leads in such a way that he permits them only to enter on a sinful course, and he follows them, but does not destroy them entirely by sin. But as to the others, he thinks, I have already taken them captive by unbelief. I will permit them to go so far only, as to do no great sin and have no great assault, and be kept from swearing and evil schemes. But believers have always opposition enough; they must ever stand in the attitude of struggle. Those who are without faith and have not the Spirit, do not feel this nor do they have such an experience. They break away and follow their wicked lusts. But as soon as the Spirit and faith enter our hearts, we become so weak that we think we cannot beat down the least imaginations and sparks of temptation, and we see nothing but sin in ourselves from the crown of the head even to the foot. For before we believed, we walked according to our own lusts, but now the Spirit has come and would purify us, and a conflict arises when the devil, the flesh, and the world oppose faith.

Therefore Peter now means that the strife does not take place in sinners, but in believers, and he gives us the consolation that we may check evil lusts thus, namely, by warring against them. If you then have wicked thoughts, you should not on this account despair; only be on your guard, that you are not taken prisoner by them. Understand, if you are a Christian, that you must experience all kinds of opposition and wicked tendencies in the flesh. For wherever faith exists, there come a hundred evil thoughts, a hundred struggles more than before. Only see to it that you act like a man and not allow yourself to be taken captive. Continue to resist and say, I will not, I will not! (Lord Christ you have said: “Ask and ye shall receive.” Help, dear Lord, against all temptations.)

That may still be called a truly Christian life which is never at perfect rest, and has not advanced so far that we feel not sin, but that we indeed feel sin, only we do not allow it control. Thus we are to fast, pray, and labor to weaken and suppress lust. Since flesh and blood continue as long as sin remains; therefore we are to constantly war against it. Whoever has not learned this by his own experience must not boast that he is a Christian.  It is a lasting conflict, in which you are to do all you can to strike down the devil by the Word of God. We must therefore ever offer resistance, and call on God for help, and not trust in any of human powers.

Reprinted from Luther’s Commentary of Peter and Jude

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