When our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem, He died as a voluntary substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. By His death once and for all He accomplished eternal salvation for those who would believe in Him. But He not only died FOR sinners, He died WITH sinners in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 53:12). He was numbered with the transgressors in the persons of the two criminals who were crucified on either side.
As there were three crosses on the hill that day, we discover in Galatians 5:24 that there are three crosses in the hearts of those who belong to Christ by faith. Paul writes that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires”. The tense of the verb he employs strongly emphasizes that this crucifixion is a fact. It is a gospel indicative that takes the crucifixion of the flesh out of the realm of conjecture, dispute, and mere possibility and establishes it as a “fait accompli”, an irreversible accomplished fact. Christ accomplished it for His people on that central cross on the hill. The Spirit applied it to our hearts the moment we believed. The flesh has been crucified with its passions and desires on either side.
It is vital that Paul’s use of the term flesh is rightly understood. Flesh can have different nuances in Scripture but generally there are three main meanings. One, it can refer to material human nature, our flesh and bones bodies that we inhabit, for example, the circumcision of the flesh that he speaks of in Gal. 6:12,13. Second, it can mean mortal human nature, this frail and fleeting existence under the curse of sin that will inevitably end in death. For example, Isaiah reminds us, “All flesh is grass and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades” (Isa. 40:6,7). And third, the use that is before us, namely malignant human nature, the flesh which is thoroughly evil, the factory of sin in our hearts.
The flesh is a dangerous and relentless foe. Galatians 5:17 declares that “the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh and these are contrary (opposed) to one another”. The flesh cannot be cleaned up or improved. It cannot be reformed. It cannot be fenced in by legalism or beaten into submission by asceticism. It is an internal rebel enemy that seeks to dominate and control our lives. And it does not operate alone. It has partners in crime. On the one hand, the flesh has passions that aid and abet it. These are carnal feelings such as pride, envy, anger, bitterness, hatred, and so forth that our natural self loves to coddle and pamper and to dwell on. These are feelings that are never satisfied but constantly cry out from within, “Feed me. Flatter me. Fulfil me”. Then the flesh has another accomplice, its desires, those lusts that draw us into sin. James tells us that “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed, that when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full grown, brings forth death (James 1:14, 15). The things that the flesh desires to conceive are adultery, uncleanness, idolatry, murders, drunkenness, and so on, sinful practices that are marks of a life untouched by the Spirit of God. Consequently, the enemy within is a three-headed monster , the flesh with its passions and its pursuits.
The only answer to such a monster is to slay it, and the good news is that the flesh has already been crucified in the hearts of those who belong to Christ. Romans 6:6 says, “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin”. Paul adds, “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). In other words, the answer to the flesh and the foundation for growth in holiness is our union with Christ in His death. He died not only to save us initially but to drive us on in the process of sanctification, that process of becoming less and less like our sinful selves and more and more like Christ. The message of Galatians is that Jesus is not only our righteousness, He is our sanctification.
Does this mean that the believer can just slip his or her life into cruise control, passively sit back and assume because one’s flesh has been crucified, growth and victory is automatic? Not at all! This is why Paul underlines our part. “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh”. As we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as crucified (Gal. 3:1), we then by the Spirit live out what we know to be true (Gal.5:25). Jonathan Edwards wrote that we act out what Christ has authored. * If we attempt to mortify the deeds of the flesh apart from the cross of Christ, we are in fact seeking to be our own saviours, we are disregarding our union with Him, and are heading for despair and defeat. But knowing that the flesh has been crucified thanks to Christ, the Spirit energizes us to act it out, to thrust the monster through with the weapons of the Word and fervent prayer. The promise is, “Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). Instead of the ugly fleshly passions and desires dominating us, there will be the attractive fruit of Christlikeness (Gal. 5:22,23). Our union with Christ in His death does not contradict nor negate our necessary crucifixion of the flesh. Rather it creates it. It enables it. It guarantees its success.
*p.131 Acting the Miracle – Edited by John Piper and David Mathis