The Self-Life Unveiled
By Jessie Penn-Lewis
“I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7:18).
Conybeare tells us that by the word “flesh,” Paul generally denotes that which is earthly in man as opposed to that which is spiritual, and “no better practical and popular equivalent for such ‘flesh’ is to be found than the familiar word ‘self’.” (Moule)
When Adam fell, he came under the power of the flesh, of the life of earth, instead of being dominated as he was before by the Spirit and the life of God. Therefore God said: “My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh” (Gen. 6:3).
It is most important for us to understand what are the characteristics of the self-life, and how impossible it is, when under its sway, to live a spiritual life and wield spiritual weapons in the service of God. It is useless exhorting the flesh to be spiritual, and yet the flesh seeking to live a spiritual life and calling itself spiritual, is the meaning of the discrepancy in so many Christian lives today.
We get light in our minds, spiritual phrases on our tongues, call our work spiritual, while we ourselves live after the flesh in greater or lesser degree all the time.
Let us then take the Scripture and ask that the sword of the Spirit may pierce to the joints and marrow, dividing soul and spirit, so that we may know where we actually stand in the sight of God.
In our natural birth we are born after the flesh. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). Therefore it cannot be anything else but flesh; neither can the flesh be changed into spirit by effort or culture or prayer.
The flesh is antagonistic to the Holy Spirit. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other” (Gal. 5:17).
What are the main characteristics of the flesh?
It is by its nature at enmity with God. “The carnal mind is enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7).
It cannot submit to God because it is contrary to Him. “It is not subject [Gr. not able to submit] to the law of God” (Rom. 8:7).
It minds earthly things because it is of the earth. “They that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh” (Rom. 8:5).
All its outcome ends in death. “To be carnally minded is death” (Rom. 8:6).
The child of God may be “yet carnal.” “I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). “Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).
“There is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal?” (1 Cor. 3:3), said Paul to the Corinthians, while in his letter to the Galatians he classes “variance, emulations, strife and such like” with the grossest manifestations of the flesh, showing the one source of all.
Moreover, how true children of God have mourned over rebellion they cannot help. They are conscious of a want of submission. They know they mind the things of earth, and are most in their element among them. They know it, grieve over it, fight against it, yet they cannot change themselves. Some make resolutions, re-double every effort and try every plan they can think of to make themselves more spiritual. They consecrate and re-consecrate themselves to God, yet apparently in vain. Some think that others more spiritual must have some special gift, while they continue to mourn over their own coldness of heart and lack of Christ-likeness.
Rebellion, disobedience, earthliness, powerlessness – these are the characteristics of the life after the flesh, but there are still more subtle ones laid bare in the Word of God.
Subtle Works of the Flesh
1. Judging after the flesh (that is, the judging after the outward appearance). “Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man. And yet if I judge, My judgment is true” (John 8:15-16). (Compare Isa. 11:3).
2. Purposing after the flesh. “The things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yea yea, and nay nay?” (2 Cor. 1:17).
3. Glorying after the flesh. “Many glory after the flesh” (2 Cor. 11:18).
4. Loving a fair show in the flesh. “Many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh… only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12).
5. Fighting for God after the flesh. “We do not war after the flesh…the weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (2 Cor. 10:3-4).
6. Friendships in the flesh. “Henceforth know we no man after the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16).
7. Knowing Christ after the flesh. “Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more” (2 Cor. 5:16).
As children of God we may have been delivered from the more gross manifestations of the flesh, and yet these subtle ones remain.
Let us look at the list and prove our own selves. The judging after the sight of the eyes, according to earthly ideas rather than from the standpoint of God; the changeability which characterizes so many in the Master’s service; the broken promises and broken engagements, so lightly thought of, instead of the steadfast faithfulness after the pattern of Him who changes not; the glorying over visible results; the gauging of the work of the Spirit of God by the multitude of converts, and measuring everything by outward appearance; caring how things look to others rather than the single eye toward God; valuing the applause of the Christian world while failing in hidden service, and in the things which are least; fighting for God and often against each other, instead of with God against the power of darkness; and depending upon earthly methods of winning the world to Christ.
Yes, even our friendships – our Christian friendships – may be in the flesh, for how little we know of deepened and purified affection, with God between us and our dearest! Our very knowledge of Christ may have been mental or intellectual light. We may know all about Him, hold clear views, and know well the letter of the written Word, but the Christ who is the Living Word we may not really know.
It is written “the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63). Though we speak like angels – nothing! Though we understand all mysteries – nothing! Though we have all knowledge and faith to move mountains – nothing! Yea, though we give all our possessions away, even sacrificing our bodies to be burned, it all profits nothing unless these actions are from the source of the life of God in us – the Life of Him who is Love.
God’s Way of Deliverance
God’s way of deliverance is through the death of Christ. “One died for all, then were all dead…that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him” (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
The deliverance from the life after the flesh is through the finished work of the Redeemer upon Calvary’s cross, and until our eyes are opened to see our death with Christ, as well as His death for us, we must remain “in the flesh,” and walk “after the flesh” in some degree…
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to apply the deliverance of the cross. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh…they that are of Christ’s have crucified the flesh” (Gal. 5:17, 24).
These verses show that the pardoned sinner is not left alone in this battle, for the Holy Spirit whom He made to dwell in us when He gave us the gift of eternal life, yearns over us with jealous envy. The blessed Spirit evermore seeks to bring to the cross the flesh against which He fights with strong desire.
In actual experience, when we have apprehended our deliverance through death with Christ, the self-life often appears more “alive” than ever! Just here God would have us stand firm upon His written Word. The increasing revelation proves the surrender to the cross to be real, because the Holy Spirit takes us at our word, and reveals all that He has seen lying underneath – reveals it that it may be dealt with at the cross.
Our part is to yield our wills, and take God’s side against ourselves, while the Holy Spirit applies the death of Christ to all that is contrary to Him, that it may be really true that we who are of Christ have crucified the flesh with all its desires.
Our Attitude to the Self-life
“Make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts [desires] thereof” (Rom. 13:14). It is absolutely necessary that we account ourselves crucified, and do not take the flesh into consideration or provide for its likes and dislikes.
“Use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). It must be given no opportunity to speak, no quarter whatever, for one degree of yielding will strengthen its life.
“Have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). We must not rely upon it in anything, nor allow ourselves to admit a thought that we can do this or that. Let us be willing to be as fools rather than that the flesh shall gain any glory.
Hate “the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 23). Let us seek that God may give us such a sight of the corruption of the self-hood, that we shall dread it, and fear it most under its most beautiful aspect.
The Life in the Spirit
“Ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you” (Rom. 8:9). Just so far as the Eternal Spirit has room in us, so far we are “in the Spirit.” God’s purpose is that the Spirit should possess us wholly, so that we may not only live by the Spirit, but walk each day step by step in the Spirit, not fulfilling the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:25).
As we apprehend the deliverance of the cross and the Holy Spirit manifests in us the glorious liberty of the children of God, we shall now know in truth:
The Spirit-leading as a little child (Rom. 8:14).
The Spirit-cry of “Father” to the Father’s heart (Rom. 8:15).
The Spirit-witness of the child position (Rom. 8:16).
The Spirit-intercession in the will of God (Rom 8:26).
Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be the glory. Amen.
Being Made Conformable
By faith you “reckon” that you have died with Christ, and as you thus “reckon,” the Holy Spirit applies that death to you, as you obey the ever-increasing light He throws on your life and actions. The objective and subjective must be kept in balance. If you take Romans 6 as absolute in experience as well as in judicial position, without other Scriptures to interpret and supplement it, you will be in danger of not calling sin “sin.” You will close the door of your mind to the Holy Spirit’s light upon deeper knowledge of yourself and God. You would be shut up to the simple maintaining of a position, with no open vista of deeper experimental knowledge of Calvary and what Galatians 2:20 means.
You “have been crucified with Christ” – yes – but every part of your whole being must be made “conformable to His death” – this includes the self-life as well as sin. This will take the whole of the lifetime, and the work will not be completed subjectively until even the body of our humiliation is “conformed to the body of His glory” (Phil. 3:21).