“Flesh” (Sarx) in Paul’s Epistles

Fallen: A Theology of Sin (Theology in Community) The Greek word ‘sarx’ (flesh) is often a difficult word to translate and define in Paul’s epistles.  Most Bible translations use more than a few English words for the Greek word ‘sarx.’  For example, some translations use “human body,” “body,” “person,” “sinful flesh,” “earthly,” “physical,” “natural,” or other similar words to translate ‘sarx.’  So what does this word mean?  It is a long answer, I suppose, since the term has various meanings depending on context.  I appreciate Douglas Moo’s summary of this term in his article, “Sin in Paul.”  Here’s how Moo summarizes the meanings of ‘sarx.’

1) The most basic meaning of sarx, and the most common in secular Greek, is ‘the material that covers the bones of an animal or human body.’  Paul occasionally uses the word with this sense (cf. 1 Cor. 15:39, Eph, 2:11, Col. 2:13, Gal. 6:13).

2) Following precedents in secular Greek, Paul also applies sarx to the human body as a whole (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1, Gal. 4:13, Eph. 5:31).

3) But more often, Paul uses sarx to refer not to the human body narrowly but the human being generally (cf. 1 Cor. 1:28-29, Gal. 1:16, 2:16).

4) This #3 meaning merges almost imperceptibly into a bit broader concept, namely, the human state or condition.  While debated, 1 Cor. 10:18 probably falls into this category.  This is what some call the ‘neutral’ use of sarx.  [Although some scholars say] a certain negative nuance often clings to sarx even when Paul uses it in apparently neutral senses (cf. Rom. 1:3-4, 9:5).

5) Finally, sarx can designate the human condition in its fallenness (Gal. 5:16-17).  This is what some call the ‘ethical’ use of sarx.  This sense of sarx is quite common in Paul.

[As a side, this reminds me of Ridderbos’ explanation of ‘sarx’: “On the one hand, ‘flesh’ has for [Paul] the significance of what is human in its weakness, dependence on God, and perishableness in itself; on the other hand, ‘flesh’ is the pregnant and very specific description of man in his sin, and the coinciding of being human and being a sinner is therefore expressed in it” (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 93).  It seems like Ridderbos is also working with a “neutral” and “ethical” sense of the word ‘sarx.’]

While there is more to this discussion, and while this may not answer all the questions about the term ‘sarx,’ it is a helpful outline to consider when thinking about this word in Paul’s epistles.

The above outline (which I’ve edited slightly) is found in Moo’s article in Fallen: A Theology of Sin.

shane lems
hammond, wi

The Augsburg Confession (1530) and the NPP

I find article 20 of the Augsburg Confession anticipating the NPP in a very real way.  Notice the first sentences below (from art. 20).  I’ve bolded the words that caught my attention:

        And lest any one should craftily say that a new interpretation
        of Paul has been devised by us
, this entire matter is
        supported by the testimonies of the Fathers. For Augustine, in
        many volumes, defends grace and the righteousness of faith,
        over against the merits of works. And Ambrose, in his De
        Vocatione Gentium
, and elsewhere, teaches to like effect. For
        in his De Vocatione Gentium he says as follows: “Redemption by
        the blood of Christ would become of little value, neither
        would the preeminence of man’s works be superseded by the
        mercy of God, if justification, which is wrought through
        grace, were due to the merits going before, so as to be, not
        the free gift of a donor, but the reward due to the laborer.”
        But, although this doctrine is despised by the inexperienced,
        nevertheless God-fearing and anxious consciences find by
        experience that it brings the greatest consolation, because
        consciences cannot be set at rest through any works, but only
        by faith, when they take the sure ground that for Christ’s
        sake they have a reconciled God. As Paul teaches Rom. 5, 1:
        “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” This whole
        doctrine is to be referred to that conflict of the terrified
        conscience, neither can it be understood apart from that
        conflict. Therefore inexperienced and profane men judge ill
        concerning this matter, who dream that Christian righteousness
        is nothing but civil and philosophical righteousness. 
        Heretofore consciences were plagued with the doctrine of
        works, they did not hear the consolation from the Gospel. Some
        persons were driven by conscience into the desert, into
        monasteries hoping there to merit grace by a monastic life.
        Some also devised other works whereby to merit grace and make
        satisfaction for sins. Hence there was very great need to
        treat of, and renew, this doctrine of faith in Christ, to the
        end that anxious consciences should not be without consolation
        but that they might know that grace and forgiveness of sins
        and justification are apprehended by faith in Christ. 


sunnyside wa