People in the churches can’t seem to make up their minds about whether or not physical things are important. Here are a few examples that came to mind. They’re all specific to the church I grew up in, but I’m sure the basic idea can apply to other groups.
- We say it’s better to have a printed Bible than just read off an electronic device because holding a physical book connects you to scripture more, but we think kissing a Torah scroll at a Messianic congregation is borderline idolatry.
- We teach physical things from the Old Testament/Judaism like tassels on our garments and prayer shawls are done away with under the New Covenant, but heaven forbid a man stand up to speak without wearing a suit and tie.
- We say it’s important to preach the gospel and do good works in the world, but many groups refuse to purchase or rent church buildings that we can put a sign out in front of, or to have any sort of physical presence in our communities.
What’s going on here? If the spiritual is all that matters, why do we hang on to certain physical aspects of faith? If the spiritual and physical both matter, which I believe is the case, why are we so contradictory in how we approach that truth?
What Are We?
Jesus told us, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). That tells us, at least on a basic level, what God is. But what are we?
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thes 5:23)
In the Greek, the word translated “body” simply refers to our physical bodies, “soul” refers to the life-essence we have in common with animals, and “spirit” is the part of us that makes us human and which is able to communicate with God’s spirit.
The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16)
Now, in this human life, we have a natural body that contains a spirit. After Christ’s return when we are resurrected or changed, we shall be like God and have a spiritual body with a spirit. We are “sown a natural body,” and “raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44).
The part of ourselves that is enduring is our spirits. When God “looks on the heart,” He is checking the state of our spirits. He is concerned most with the condition of the inner man. That does not, however, mean God doesn’t care about the part of us that’s physical.
Romans 7 Analysis
In Romans, Paul discusses how our spirits are related to keeping God’s law. He tells us that the law in the Old Testament was not enough by itself ot lead to eternal life. Rather, since everyone has sinned (Rom. 3:23) and the law gives knowledge of sin (Rom. 7:7), we end up dead as an indirect result of knowing the law.
But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. (Rom. 7:8-10)
If we could keep the law perfectly, it would lead to life. But we can’t keep the law perfectly, and so we incur the death penalty for breaking God’s laws. That is how a law and commandment that is “holy and just and good” can result in our deaths (Rom. 7:12). That’s why we need Christ’s sacrifice to supply what was missing in the Old Covenant — a way for our sins to be removed and the penalty to be paid (Rom. 8:3-4).
For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. (Rom. 7:5-6)
Serving in the spirit doesn’t mean we ignore the law, though. Even when we’ve been cleansed by Jesus and our spirits are in communication with God’s Spirit, we are still human and still capable of sin. To be righteous in the spirit, we have to obey God by rejecting sin on both a spiritual and a physical level (Rom. 6:14-23).
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Rom. 7:14-17)
This isn’t Paul shirking responsibility for his actions. He’s telling us that, while his spirit recognizes and agrees with the law, his fleshly human nature is still slipping away from perfection. There’s a war going on between our spirits and our sinful desires.
For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. (Rom. 7:22-8:2)
The only way we can win the war between our two natures is through Christ. His sacrifice removes our death penalty, His strength makes it possible for us to keep the law, and His grace covers us when we make mistakes. With His help, we can serve the law of God with our minds and spirits, and also keep the laws God gave us as a guide for how to behave as a physical being.
Some Concluding Thoughts
The New Covenant doesn’t take away from the laws and commandments — it adds an additional spiritual dimension (Matt. 5:17-30). What we choose to do physically is not less important now. We could say it’s actually more important, because it is indicative of the state of our hearts. We are already in trouble if we intend to sin in our minds — actually going through with it adds the sin of hurting others on top of the damage sin does to us on the inside. We will be judged by how well we keep the law, and we must take this seriously (James 2:8-13).
I don’t think we can separate the physical and the spiritual, nor should we. It is true that God is chiefly concerned with the state of our inner man, but if the inside is right then it will show on the outside. We need to support our spiritual lives with our physical selves by actively doing good and keeping the commandments. As humans, we still have physical bodies and even inside us we have human nature struggling with God’s spirit. Keeping God’s laws is a physical reminder of how important the spiritual is.
In the churches of God that I’ve grown up in, we teach that one of the reasons God still expects us to keep His annual Holy Days and weekly Sabbath is because humans tend to forget things without something to physically remind them on a regular basis. This general idea is also related to my praise and worship series, since I think that if we take physical expressions of praise out of our church services we’re refusing to involve part of who we are in our woship of God. To keep on track with God, we need something to do as well as something to think about.