The word SARX takes on more of a theological meaning in Paul’s epistles where the life of the flesh is contrasted with the life of the Spirit. In these passages, Paul’s usage of the word SARX signifies a lifestyle that makes decisions ungoverned by the Spirit solely to gratify the desires of SARX.
In the Hellenistic world, SARX is seen as the nest of emotions and more specifically, desire./1 Desire comes from SARX itself (specifically, from the belly, KOILIA, see Romans 16:18 and esp. Philippians 3:18-19) and if there is an opportunity to satisfy SARX, the life of SARX makes the choice to pursue SARX. In this sense, the word SARX doesn’t mean so much “flesh” in the physical sense, but rather, a profligate lifestyle unrestrained by authority where SARX acts as a catalyst for decision-making. Such a lifestyle is contrasted with the life of the Spirit (see Romans 8:1-13 and Galatians 5:16-26) which is a lifestyle based upon authority where SARX is placed in appropriate subjection to spirit and where SARX doesn’t act as the catalyst for decision-making.
Some translations have opted to translate SARX by the expression “sinful nature” (the NIV for example), but this is an over-simplification in a limited effort to communicate only one perception of its significance. It is also misleading because it conveys the idea that the concept of which Paul is speaking is genetically innate, or natural, within humanity. If such were the case, then Jesus would have had to have experienced such a condition as well since he was made like unto his brethren (Hebrews 2:17) yet we know that His nature was not sinful, hence, such an appellation could never apply to him, though, He was created SARX (John 1:14). Using the definition also has the additional un-pleasantry of granting to the Gnostics one of their premises, namely, that SARX is inherently sinful. Such need not be conceded at all. The word SARX can be translated by the English word “flesh” and still convey, in those contexts, the meaning that Paul intended.
What is that significance? The contexts in which Paul uses the word SARX are metaphorical. That is, it isn’t the literal flesh of skin, sinew, muscle, and blood concerning which Paul has reference, but rather, an unrestrained and ungoverned lifestyle dominated by satisfying the desires of SARX. This is a much more complicated concept than “sinful nature.” One may certainly have a fleshly desire yet not be dominated by a decision-making process that comes only from SARX. In other words, the satisfaction of a fleshly desire isn’t inherently sinful (which would have to be the case if SARX were equivalent with “sinful nature”), but solely when such desires are acted upon outside of the guidance of the spirit. Only without such restraint, i.e. in the absence of the direction of the spirit, can such a lifestyle along with its desires be categorized as being directed by SARX.
For example, in Galatians 5:19-21 the works of the flesh include such things as sexual sin, false worship, and division. It is clear, however, that not all sex is sinful such as sex in a marriage relationship (Hebrews 12:4), nor is all worship sinful (John 4:24), nor is all division sinful (consider Luke 12:51). When the spirit appropriately directs such desires, SARX becomes subservient to the spirit. It is the pursuit of the desires of SARX outside the boundaries set by the spirit that is sinful. In other words, SARX seeks satisfaction by fulfilling itself in ways unrestrained by authority (2 Peter 2:10). The ultimate authority is, of course, God. Hence, SARX does not seek to live by the law of God, but in defiance of it (Romans 7:25). That makes SARX not necessarily the mere desires of SARX, but the desires of SARX unfettered by God’s Spirit. Once the Spirit of God restrains SARX (by means of His word and the individual’s spirit), then SARX no longer has dominion (Romans 7:5-6), but the Spirit, and one no longer lives the life of SARX, but the life of the Spirit (Romans 8:1). The Christian is thus urged to walk according to the Spirit and not according to SARX (Galatians 5:16).
SARX is without a doubt a complicated concept in the New Testament. I hope that in the brief time we’ve spent discussing it, we’ve been able to help clarify its role both in its literal sense, its physical yet non-literal senses and its metaphorical senses as well. Let’s remember that SARX in and of itself is not sinful, but rather, it is a lifestyle dominated by decision-making based upon satisfying the desires of SARX that is sinful. Our life for Christ is certainly lived in the flesh (Galatians 2:20) but it doesn’t have to be lived for the flesh.
1. TDNT, vol. VII, pp. 101-102.
The Greek word SARX, or flesh, is used metaphorically to mean desire, and also decision-making unrestrained by the law of God.