A Commentary by John Stott
What must we do to control the lusts of the flesh and to bear the fruit of the Spirit? The brief answer is this: We must maintain towards each the proper Christian attitude. In the apostle’s own words, we must ‘crucify’ the flesh and ‘walk by’ the Spirit.
a). We must crucify the flesh.
The phrase occurs in verse 24: *Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires*. This verse is frequently misunderstood. Please note that the ‘crucifixion’ of the flesh described here is something that is done not *to* us but *by* us. It is we ourselves who are said to ‘have crucified the flesh’. Perhaps I can best expose the popular misconception by saying that Galatians 5:24 does not teach the same truth as Galatians 2:20 or Romans 6:6. In those verses we are told that by faith-union with Christ ‘we have been crucified with him’. But here it is we who have taken action. We ‘have crucified’ our old nature. It is not now a ‘dying’ which we have experienced through union with Christ; it is rather a deliberate ‘putting to death’.
What does it mean? Paul borrows the image of crucifixion, of course, from Christ himself who said: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mk. 8:34). To ‘take up the cross was our Lord’s vivid figure of speech for self-denial. Every follower of Christ is to behave like a condemned criminal and carry his cross to the place of execution. Now Paul takes the metaphor to its logical conclusion. We must not only take up our cross and walk with it, but actually see that the execution takes place. We are actually to take the flesh, our wilful and wayward self, and (metaphorically speaking) nail it to the cross. This is Paul’s graphic description of repentance, of turning our back on the old life of selfishness and sin, repudiating it finally and utterly.
The fact that ‘crucifixion’ is to be the fate of the flesh is very significant. It is always perilous to argue from analogy, but I suggest that the following points, far from being fanciful, belong to the notion of crucifixion and cannot be separated from it.
First, a Christian rejection of his old nature is to be *pitiless*. Crucifixion in the Graeco-Roman world was not a pleasant form of execution, nor was it administered to nice or refined people; it was reserved for the worst criminals, which is why it was such a shameful thing for Jesus Christ to be crucified. If, therefore, we are to ‘crucify our flesh, it is plain that the flesh is not something respectable to be treated with courtesy and deference, but something so evil that it deserves no better fate than to be crucified.
Secondly, our rejection of the old nature will be *painful*. Crucifixion was a form of execution ‘attended with intense pain’ (Grimm-Thayer). And which of us does not know the acute pain of inner conflict when ‘the fleeting pleasures of sin’ (Heb.11:25) are renounced?
Thirdly, the rejection of our old nature is to be *decisive*. Although death by crucifixion was a lingering death, it was a certain death. Criminals who were nailed to a cross did not survive. John Brown draws out the significance of this fact for us: ‘Crucifixion…produced death not suddenly but gradually…True Christians…do not succeed in completely destroying it (that is, the flesh) while here below; but they have fixed it to the cross, and they are determined to keep it there till it expire. Once a criminal had been nailed to the cross, he was left there to die. Soldiers were placed at the scene of execution to guard the victim. Their duty was to prevent anyone from taking him down from the cross, at least until he was dead. Now ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus’, Paul says, ‘have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’. The Greek verb is in the aorist tense, indicting that this is something we did decisively at the moment of conversion. When we came to Jesus Christ, we repented. We ‘crucified’ everything we knew to be wrong. We took our old self-centred nature, with all its sinful passions and desires, and nailed it to the cross. And this repentance of ours was decisive, as decisive as a crucifixion. So, Paul says, if we crucified the flesh, we must leave it there to die. We must renew every day this attitude towards sin of ruthless and uncompromising rejection. In the language of Jesus, as Luke records it, every Christian must ‘take up his cross *daily*’ (Lk. 9:23).
So widely is this biblical teaching neglected, that it needs to be further enforced. The first great secret of holiness lies in the degree and the decisiveness of our repentance. If besetting sins persistently plague us, it is either because we have never truly repented, or because, having repented, we have not maintained our repentance. It is as if, having nailed our old nature to the cross, we keep wistfully returning to the scene of its execution. We begin to fondle it, to caress it, to long for its release, even to try to take it down again from the cross. We need to learn to leave it there. When some jealous, or proud, or malicious, or impure thought invades our mind we must kick it out at once. It is fatal to begin to examine it and consider whether we are gong to give in to it or not. We have declared war on it; we are not going to resume negotiations. We have settled the issue for good; we are not going to re-open it. We have crucified the flesh; we are never going to draw the nails.