Sowing to the Flesh, Part 2

We religious folk of a Christian persuasion are fixated on life and death, heaven and hell.  Jesus was fixated on fulfilling the Scriptures.  How then would the scriptures that say it must happen this way be fulfilled?[1] (πληρωθῶσιν, a form of πληρόω) He asked rhetorically when Peter took up arms to defend Him.  Up to that moment Jesus’ disciples were willing to follow Him, even to death.  But upon his insistence to submit quietly to death to fulfill the Scriptures they fled.

I do not know the man![2] Peter declared.

Jesus was not the Messiah his religion taught him to expect.  Even after his resurrection Jesus’ disciples wanted Him to conform to their religious image: Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?[3] they asked.  Tracey R. Rich expressed both a modern and an ancient understanding of this in two very succinct paragraphs.[4]

Jews do not believe that Jesus was the mashiach. Assuming that he existed, and assuming that the Christian scriptures are accurate in describing him (both matters that are debatable), he simply did not fulfill the mission of the mashiach as it is described in the biblical passages cited above [Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:2-5, 10, 11-12; 42:1; Jeremiah 23:5, 8; 30:3; 33:15, 18; Hosea 3:4-5; Micah 4:2-3; Zephaniah 3:13; Zechariah 14:9]. Jesus did not do any of the things that the scriptures said the messiah would do.

On the contrary, another Jew born about a century later came far closer to fulfilling the messianic ideal than Jesus did. His name was Shimeon ben Kosiba, known as Bar Kokhba (son of a star), and he was a charismatic, brilliant, but brutal warlord. Rabbi Akiba, one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history, believed that Bar Kokhba was the mashiach. Bar Kokhba fought a war against the Roman Empire, catching the Tenth Legion by surprise and retaking Jerusalem. He resumed sacrifices at the site of the Temple and made plans to rebuild the Temple. He established a provisional government and began to issue coins in its name. This is what the Jewish people were looking for in a mashiach; Jesus clearly does not fit into this mold. Ultimately, however, the Roman Empire crushed his revolt and killed Bar Kokhba. After his death, all acknowledged that he was not the mashiach.

Rather than frustration with his disciples’ failure to know Him Jesus exhibited supreme confidence in his own Holy Spirit (John 16:12-14): You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority, He said.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.[5]

Enter through the narrow gate, Jesus said, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction (ἀπώλειαν, a form of ἀπώλεια), and there are many who enter through it.  But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.[6]  What happens if I approach this with Jesus’ fixation rather than my ownDo not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, He said.  I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill (πληρῶσαι, another form of πληρόω) them.[7]  What if ἀπώλειαν meant a destruction of corruption—being completely severed from the righteousness Jesus has provided us here and now through his death and resurrection and the power of his Holy Spirit—rather than an eternal sojourn in a lake of fire?

Instead of an immutable prophecy of his relative failure to accomplish his Father’s mission—For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him[8]—we have Jesus’ warning that the church will do a less than stellar job of imparting the Gospel of his grace.  But this understanding is only evident back in context (Matthew 7:11-16a NET):

If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!  [Luke was explicit that these good gifts are the Holy Spirit.]  In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills (ἐστιν, a form of ἐστί; literally, is) the law and the prophets.  Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to [corruption] (ἀπώλειαν, a form of ἀπώλεια), and there are many who enter through it.  But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.  Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruit.

None of this is to wag my finger at pastors, priests and Bible teachers, but to appreciate Jesus’ saying: Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God![9]  I feel terribly inept at explaining what it’s like to live by the Spirit.  I stumbled over progressive sanctification.  The knowledge enshrined in churches as doctrine, however, was not the issue.  A table of quotes from Presbyterian, Baptist and Christian & Missionary Alliance perspectives on progressive sanctification follows.

Progressive Sanctification

Presbyterian Baptist


“Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” What God has begun in regeneration He will work to continue without interruption throughout the believer’s life. All Christians understand first the first reality: that Christ’s blood has atoned for their sins and they no longer need to fear eternal separation from God. But most Christians do not understand or experience the second reality—the fullness of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
“The Lord Jesus has undertaken everything that His people’s souls require; not only to deliver them from the guilt of their sins by His atoning death, but from the dominion of their sins by placing in their hearts the Holy Spirit; not only to justify them, but to sanctify them.” It involves our availability to the Holy Spirit, our separation from sin, and our growth in the likeness of Christ. Every Christian is a sanctified person, belonging to Christ, and therefore should keep from immorality (1 Cor. 6:13-14; 2 Cor. 7:1). We are involved in a lifetime struggle against sin and a moment-by-moment submission to the Holy Spirit for victory. The New Testament clearly teaches that there are two kinds of Christians. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul talks about Christians who are “spiritual” and contrasts them with those who are “worldly,” or “carnal.” In Romans 7 and 8, the comparison is between those believers who are self-propelled and those who are Spirit driven. In Ephesians 5:18, he implies that some are “filled” and some are “not filled.”
The Lord has given to us His Spirit, and by Him communicates His own life to the justified believer. Holiness is divinely wrought within Christians. Christ enables us to walk in holiness. It [to “present your bodies a living sacrifice”] is a choice we make as believers. No one else can make that choice for us. It is self-determined and is repeated often. The opportunity to experience the two realities of sanctification is available to every believer. The path to the Spirit-filled life requires taking faith-filled risks, which always involves change.
As we look at Christ we are changed into the image of Christ, by the work of the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit indwells the believer for the purpose of enabling us to overcome sin and conform us to the likeness of Christ. When we “walk by the Spirit” we do not carry out the deeds of the flesh, but produce “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16, 22). Surrender We can’t make ourselves holy any more than we can make ourselves saved—we become holy only by realizing that we haven’t got what it takes to be holy (Romans 6:11; Romans 12:1-2).

Accept Christ is our Sanctifier in the same way that He is our Savior (Colossians 2:6; Galatians 2:20).

Abide We maintain a continuous relationship with Jesus through obedience to His Word (John 15:1-11).

Our dependence upon the Holy Spirit is not something that is attained once for all, but is the result of a daily struggle and a constantly renewed commitment.

God will not give up on His goal of making you become like Christ. He will not give up on you until the day He presents you complete, perfect, and mature to the Father in heaven.

These were my religious influences growing up.  I have nothing but minor quibbles over words (obedience, for instance) with any of these statements individually and appreciate all of them together.  I even checked the Catholic catechism.  Sanctification was a subcategory of justification there rather than a separate topic but still I have no serious objection to anything in it.  Oddly enough, I found words closer to my own misunderstanding in the Catholic catechism under the heading III. MERIT, line 2010:

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

In my misunderstanding I thought positional sanctification was God’s work in Christ and progressive sanctification[10] was up to me to accomplish.  I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood but I never read the catechism.  Besides, line 2011 is fairly clear on this:

The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.

The charity of Christ is ἀγάπη in the New Testament, the love that is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, the love that is the fulfillment of the law.  The relative failure of the church to impart the Gospel of grace was not a lack of knowledge.  So is it in the execution, the way that knowledge is imparted?  Here I’m reminded of an observation that made little sense to me until this very moment: Churchmen liked me better when I was striving on my own to keep rules than when I began to try to live by the Spirit.

My use of churchmen requires some explanation.  I don’t necessarily mean clergy.  And I don’t mean men exclusively.  The best explanation I can imagine is a profile.  Churchmen aren’t believers in the sense that they have any awareness of a crisis moment that marks a difference in their lives between unbelief and belief.  They are probably the children or grandchildren of believers.  Christianity seems natural to them and they have never strayed far from it.  But fitting a profile doesn’t necessarily mean that one did the “crime.”  The “crime” in this case is too facile an identification with the local church in which one takes a leading role: “My church is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through my church.”  But the real crime was that I idolized churchmen and coveted their status.

Churches as institutions have their own agendas.  I fit into those agendas better when I obey their rules.  In other words, churchmen are institutionally biased to favor compliant hypocrites, actors.  This is not to say that they are necessarily hypocrites themselves.  It is to say that they have little experience with any struggle to live by the Spirit.  Their instruction to those of us who do have trouble takes the form of platitudes—”sin is just bad habits which can be overcome by good habits”—techniques for inculcating said good habits and rules to prohibit bad ones, as opposed to faith in Jesus by his Holy Spirit.

Rules are neat and orderly.  Living by the Spirit is messy: When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation.[11]  Churchmen (I will say for the sake of argument) decided long ago that we should sit silently in neat rows, stand when we were told to stand, sing what we were told to sing and listen to the lesson the church wanted us to hear.  My church allowed revelations, I suppose, during testimony time.  (I thought testimonies were about all the good things God did for people who were good and “obedient,” you know, churchmen.)  Tongues and interpretations?  Forget about it!

And, frankly, I intend all of this more as a metaphor for imparting the Gospel of grace.  I don’t really care how a church service is organized as much as I care whether someone who doesn’t know how to be led by the Spirit of God can learn that there.  And here I return to Martin Luther.

He lived in a created cosmos where it is hard to enter the kingdom of God.  He grew up in a religious system partially corrupted by false teachers and false prophets.  (The alternative—Jesus killed all the false teachers and false prophets and sent them to hell before they had any influence on anyone else—is untenable to me.)  Martin Luther, by the Holy Spirit, recognized some of the corrupting influences that plagued him and wrote to correct them.  But was Martin Luther perfect and totally free of error himself?

The Luther/Graebner commentary on the fruit of the Spirit[12] follows:

The Apostle does not speak of the works of the Spirit as he spoke of the works of the flesh, but he attaches to these Christian virtues a better name. He calls them the fruits of the Spirit.


It would have been enough to mention only the single fruit of love, for love embraces all the fruits of the Spirit. In I Corinthians 13, Paul attributes to love all the fruits of the Spirit: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind,” etc. Here he lets love stand by itself among other fruits of the Spirit to remind the Christians to love one another, “in honor preferring one another,” to esteem others more than themselves because they have Christ and the Holy Ghost within them.


Joy means sweet thoughts of Christ, melodious hymns and psalms, praises and thanksgiving, with which Christians instruct, inspire, and refresh themselves. God does not like doubt and dejection. He hates dreary doctrine, gloomy and melancholy thought. God likes cheerful hearts. He did not send His Son to fill us with sadness, but to gladden our hearts. For this reason the prophets, apostles, and Christ Himself urge, yes, command us to rejoice and be glad. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee.” (Zech. 9:9.) In the Psalms we are repeatedly told to be “joyful in the Lord.” Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Christ says: “Rejoice, for your names are written in heaven.”


Peace towards God and men. Christians are to be peaceful and quiet. Not argumentative, not hateful, but thoughtful and patient. There can be no peace without longsuffering, and therefore Paul lists this virtue next.


Longsuffering is that quality which enables a person to bear adversity, injury, reproach, and makes them patient to wait for the improvement of those who have done him wrong. When the devil finds that he cannot overcome certain persons by force he tries to overcome them in the long run. He knows that we are weak and cannot stand anything long. Therefore he repeats his temptation time and again until he succeeds. To withstand his continued assaults we must be longsuffering and patiently wait for the devil to get tired of his game.


Gentleness in conduct and life. True followers of the Gospel must not be sharp and bitter, but gentle, mild, courteous, and soft-spoken, which should encourage others to seek their company. Gentleness can overlook other people’s faults and cover them up. Gentleness is always glad to give in to others. Gentleness can get along with forward and difficult persons, according to the old pagan saying: “You must know the manners of your friends, but you must not hate them.” Such a gentle person was our Savior Jesus Christ, as the Gospel portrays Him. Of Peter it is recorded that he wept whenever he remembered the sweet gentleness of Christ in His daily contact with people. Gentleness is an excellent virtue and very useful in every walk of life.


A person is good when he is willing to help others in their need.


In listing faith among the fruits of the Spirit, Paul obviously does not mean faith in Christ, but faith in men. Such faith is not suspicious of people but believes the best. Naturally the possessor of such faith will be deceived, but he lets it pass. He is ready to believe all men, but he will not trust all men. Where this virtue is lacking men are suspicious, forward, and wayward and will believe nothing nor yield to anybody. No matter how well a person says or does anything, they will find fault with it, and if you do not humor them you can never please them. It is quite impossible to get along with them. Such faith in people therefore, is quite necessary. What kind of life would this be if one person could not believe another person?


A person is meek when he is not quick to get angry. Many things occur in daily life to provoke a person’s anger, but the Christian gets over his anger by meekness.


Christians are to lead sober and chaste lives. They should not be adulterers, fornicators, or sensualists. They should not be quarrelers or drunkards. In the first and second chapters of the Epistle to Titus, the Apostle admonishes bishops, young women, and married folks to be chaste and pure.

Is there anything here that indicated that the Holy Spirit produces this fruit in us, or does it read like a list of ideals to pursue or rules to obey?  I see two things that may hint at the Holy Spirit’s involvement: 1) “There can be no peace without longsuffering” and, 2) “the Christian gets over his anger by meekness.”  While I appreciate the connection of the fruit of the Spirit and the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13, nothing here would have turned me from viewing that definition as a list of rules to obey to prove I was a Christian.  In fact, the explanation given for “a walk in the Spirit”[13] seems both mystical and works oriented to me:

They crucify the flesh with its evil desires and lusts by fasting and exercise and, above all, by a walk in the Spirit. To resist the flesh in this manner is to nail it to the Cross. Although the flesh is still alive it cannot very well act upon its desires because it is bound and nailed to the Cross.

Granted, failing at the effort to love like Jesus by turning Paul’s definition of love into rules, prompted me to look for something else—something like the fruit of the Spirit.  But I wonder about Martin Luther.

If Theodore Graebner’s translation carries anything of Luther’s own thinking on the fruit of the Spirit, this alone could account for the pridefulness on which Joe Heschmeyer commented.  If Luther let go of the rule-based righteousness of the monastery yet didn’t fully embrace the righteousness of God in the fruit of the Spirit as he fought for his life to believe in justification by “faith alone” against a stronger adversary than any of us know as the Roman Catholic Church—both pridefulness and a general lack of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control make sense to me.

Every boy growing up in my church knew that “sowing to the flesh” meant viewing pornography.  While that may well be an example of “sowing to the flesh” in one area of human life, rejecting the righteousness of God (Romans 3:21, 22) that is given new every morning—the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that flows from his Holy Spirit—to do it somehow on one’s own is sowing to the flesh in every area of human life (Galatians 6:7-8 NET).

Do not be deceived.  God will not be made a fool.  For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption (φθοράν, a form of φθορά) from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Luther/Graebner commented[14] literally if superficially[15] on this:

This simile of sowing and reaping also refers to the proper support of ministers. “He that soweth to the Spirit,” i.e., he that honors the ministers of God is doing a spiritual thing and will reap everlasting life. “He that soweth to the flesh,” i.e., he that has nothing left for the ministers of God, but only thinks of himself, that person will reap of the flesh corruption, not only in this life but also in the life to come. The Apostle wants to stir up his readers to be generous to their pastors.

While sharing all good things with the one who teaches[16] the word is a good thing (Galatins 6:9, 10) that flows from the goodness (ἀγαθωσύνη) of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, bribing one’s teacher will not help anyone live righteously here and now—unless one is also led by the Spirit of God.  Here I’ll turn to Peter to explain Paul (Acts 8:17-20 NET):

Then Peter and John placed their hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Now Simon, when he saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, offered them money, saying, “Give me this power too, so that everyone I place my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit.”  But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish (ἀπώλειαν, a form of ἀπώλεια) with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money!”

If your teacher is not even trying to teach you how to be led by the Spirit of God, find another to share all good things with the one who teaches.  Better yet, cry out to Jesus and study the Scriptures with Him.  He loves the Scriptures.  He died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and will return again to make them so.

[1] Matthew 26:54 (NET)

[2] Matthew 26:72b (NET)

[3] Acts 1:6b (NET)

[4] Tracey R. Rich, Mashiach: The Messiah, Judaism 101

[5] Acts 1:7, 8 (NET)

[6] Matthew 7:13, 14 (NET)

[7] Matthew 5:17 (NET)

[8] John 3:17 (NET)

[9] Mark 10:24b (NET)

[10] Some think that progressive sanctification is so tainted with self-righteousness that it is heresy. I’m sensitive to this criticism, having lived and breathed that heresy, but will wait to consider it in another essay.

[11] 1 Corinthians 14:26b (NET)

[12] Commentary on Galatians 5:22, 23

[13] Commentary on Galatians 5:24

[14] Commentary on Galatians 6:8

[15] Therefore they will eat from the fruit of their way, and they will be stuffed full of their own counsel (Proverbs 1:31 NET).  The one who sows iniquity will reap trouble (Proverbs 22:8a NET)…  But you have plowed wickedness; you have reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of deception.  Because you have depended on your chariots; you have relied on your many warriors (Hosea 10:13 NET).  See:

[16] Galatians 6:6 (NET)