Romans 8:12-14 “Flesh and Spirit”. Do the translators understand?
Discerning the Worldview of the Translators…?
The Bible talks about “the flesh” and “the spirit”. Various translations treat these concepts in subtly different ways, and in those differences there can be substantial theological impact.
Irrespective of what we want it to say, it is important to comprehend what the original author meant by these terms, and how the original audience was to receive them. In the case of Romans 8:12-14, this requires no small amount of unravelling, after centuries of interpretation has loaded up the language with additional meaning.
Same Scripture, Different Day
I admit some level of frustration with the New International Version’s shifting translation over time, from “flesh” in the King James Version, to “sinful nature” in the 1984 edition of the NIV, and back to “flesh” in the 2011 edition, for the Greek word, “σαρξ” (which is literally, “flesh”). Overall, I suspect that this indicates that those translators do not understand Paul’s meaning in the same way that I do. My understanding of Paul’s intention and his own personal conception of salvation requires none of the nuances that the NIV translators insert, and in fact they are in danger of at least obfuscating, and potentially contradicting that understanding.
This is the passage I’m talking about, taken from the 1984, and the 2011 editions of the New International Version:
Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
– Romans 8:12-14 NIV1984
In the 1984 footnote, the translators advise: “Or the flesh“…
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.
– Romans 8:12-14 NIV2011
In the 2011 footnote, the translators advise: “In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit”
Why does it matter?
It matters because the use of the term, “sinful” artificially loads meaning into the text, which Paul never intended to be there.
Although Paul would agree that our “flesh” is indeed a “nature” and is “sinful”, Paul’s writings are sufficient for us to draw that conclusion without our translators doing it for us. In fact, when the translators insert a term like “sinful”, which for Paul is a technical term, they load-up the term with a nuance from our vernacular which is an emotive and qualitative term.
In this part of this passage, when Paul chooses the word, “flesh” he is not deeming it to be either good or bad by the choice of the word. He does that sufficiently elsewhere by using full sentences, like “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18 KJV). Likewise in this passage from Romans 8, the term “σαρξ” (“flesh”) does not require pre-loading with the nuance of “sinful”.
* Stop Press: See Rod Decker’s note on this matter in Themelios
Details, verse by verse
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it.
– Romans 8:12 NIV2011
The first word, “therefore” is an indication that this passage is the result of the previous one, and draws on the ideas presented in the earlier portion. The earlier section of Romans 8 features a discussion of “flesh” and “spirit” as being two diametrically opposed sources of motivation, inspiration, or influence over our life. In this sense, the 2011 footnote is understandable.
It is worth noting, however, that “dualism” of flesh and spirit as two distinct realms in the universe, which is a Greek philosophical proposition and not a Judeo-Christian one, is not what is being discussed here. We do not have Paul suggesting that there are two existences – one in the flesh realm and the other in the spirit realm! Such ideas developed into heresies like Docetism in the early church, but were foreign to Jewish thinkers like Paul.
The newer, 2011 NIV translation of verse 8, makes it seem that this dualism is precisely what we are talking about. In 1984 it was rendered, “Those controlled by the sinful nature”, but the 2011 edition translates the Greek, “ὁι … ἐν σαρκι”, as, “Those who are in the realm of the flesh”. Literally the Greek phrase means, “those in the flesh”. The NIV2011 rendering is very unhelpful because anyone who was harbouring dualist, docetic thoughts about flesh and spirit realms would automatically understand that to be its meaning. The word “realm” is entirely unnecessary.
Paul’s picture of humanity is one of wholeness, I would suggest, drawn from Genesis 2:7 in which the flesh (the man whom God formed from the dust) is brought to life by the imparting of spirit (the “breath of life”), resulting in one complete, integrated “living soul” (I am aware of the range of interpretations of that verse. I offer this one as being the one I believe Paul would approve). In Paul’s representation then, the “flesh” and the “spirit” are not two distinct “bits”. The human “soul” is “flesh”, made alive by a phenomenon called “spirit”. It is this “spirit” by which the Holy Spirit interacts with us (for example, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” – Romans 8:16), whereas the “flesh” can potentially be used by Satan to communicate with us (for example, “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan” – 2 Cor 12:7). This leaves Paul, and us, with a clear dichotomy: “the flesh”, which is “of the world” and susceptible to Satanic temptation on one hand, and our spirit, which is now “of God”, because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand. This is expressed very clearly by Paul in Galatians:
the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other.
– Galatians 5:17.
Paul goes on to highlight that we do, in fact, have an obligation. He has been describing our “freedom” (from sin), in verse 2, for example, and now he is tempering that with a qualification. We have an obligation, but not the one we previously had – to “the flesh”, which equated to an obligation to the phenomenon of “sin and death”. It is from that phenomenon that we are saved (if we enter into our salvation according to the next couple of verses).
For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
– Romans 8:13 NIV2011
In a rather stark statement, Paul categorically states that salvation is not acquired by those who live “according to the flesh”, saying, “you will die”. The counterpoint is that there is a way to “live”, which can only be understood to mean “enter salvation” in this context. The way to live is to “put to death the [
mis]deeds of the body”.
Again, the NIV translations can be misleading here, as to Paul’s original intent. Paul used the word “πραξεις”, from which we get the English “praxis”, or “deeds”, or “actions”. The NIV translators have again added a nuance by changing this to “misdeeds”, and even the latest 2011 edition does not revert this gloss.
“Misdeeds” was simply not Paul’s intent at all!
Earlier, Paul says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Verse 8). It is in this sense that he is referring to the “deeds of the flesh” in verse 13. It is not important to Paul, in this particular passage, what the “deeds” actually are. What is important is by what inspiration those deeds came to be performed. Either they have arisen from the “flesh”, in which case they “cannot please God” (even if they are noble and admirable), or they have arisen from the “Spirit”, in which case they are the actions of a “child of God” (verse 14), implying God’s forbearance or forgiveness at a minimum (for “misdeeds”), and otherwise God’s pleasure (for all other deeds).
The method of “putting to death” the deeds of the body is, “by the power of the Spirit”. It is difficult for Translators sometimes to determine when Biblical authors are referring to a man’s own spirit, and when they are referring to the Holy Spirit. The Greek has no provision for capital letters as English does, when denoting proper nouns. To add to the complexity, it could even sometimes be that Paul is referring to the man’s spirit joined with the Holy Spirit, as part of Paul’s own vernacular around the nature of Salvation. In this passage though, it is amply clear that Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit, because in verse 14, “the Spirit of God” is clearly referring to the same “Spirit” which features in verse 13.
For an example of man’s spirit (for which the NIV uses the lower-case, “spirit”), and the Holy Spirit (which the NIV capitalises, “Spirit”), see verse 16 in which the two are represented as distinct from one another.
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
– Romans 8:16 NIV
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.
– Romans 8:14 NIV
The conclusion is that, to “be led by the Spirit”, as distinct from, “live according to the flesh”, is “life”, rather than “death”. This “life” is equivalent to being “children of God”, which is, precisely, “Salvation”. To “die”, then, is understood at least to be missing out on Salvation.
|led by the spirit||life||Salvation|
|live according to the flesh||death||not Salvation|
The “ESV” translation prides itself on being more literal, where possible, in its translation. Often this is very helpful, and only sometimes does it present other problems. In this case, I believe the ESV translates the passage in a way that best reflects what Paul was actually saying:
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
– Romans 8:12-14 ESV
Incidentally, the NIV2011 has focussed on creating gender-neutral language, and therefore does not use “brothers” and “sons”. But in Greek, as it was in English a couple of generations ago, those masculine terms are inclusive of women when used in a general way like this. No Greek reader would imagine that women are excluded by this reading.
This rather more literal understanding of Paul’s meaning is reflected in my own experience. I have found that literally fasting from food is a most effective way to encounter this “flesh” phenomenon. Having done so, we are better equipped to discern the voice of the flesh, and we therefore also develop an attentiveness to the voice of God’s Spirit. That is my experience, and I have guided others through it, to their great benefit.
That type of experience allows us to enter into Pauls’ actual perspective, and to experience the very same faith worldview of the apostle. Having done so, I find the NIV translators’ struggles over this text to be very revealing: Apparently they have not had that experience.