How the Words “Flesh” and “Spirit” are to be Understood in Scripture

Taken, adapted, and transliterated into modern English from, “The Flesh and the Spirit”
Written by, John Bradford

the heart of the matter

For your better understanding of the scriptures, especially of the new Testament, and for the forearming of yourself against errors…

…which, through the ignorance or by different exceptions might happen in the taking of terms or words used and written by the holy apostles, which are for your consolation in the conflicts you are cumbered with in this present life; I am purposed, my dearly beloved, to write unto you some general things (as God shall lend me his grace, the same for which I ask, for his Christ’s sake, now and forever). Take it in good part, I pray you, at least for my good will’s sake towards you in Christ.

In reading the scriptures, and especially Paul’s epistles, we very often do see these words, “flesh” and “spirit.” Now this word “flesh” is set against or opposed to “the spirit,” and they are seen as being contrary to the other, as in Galatians chapter 5, and almost everywhere else, so then must we know that these words encompasses all and defines every natural power, gift, and quality of man. Yes, it encompasses all that is ever in man, whatever it is, (Note: the “sanctification of the Spirit,” which none have but the elect and justified, is the only exception). But this word “spirit,” when it is opposed or set against the “flesh,” signifies all that which is in man that the Holy Ghost has purged from evil and sanctified to righteousness.

This is the word “Spirit” which Paul sometimes calls “the mind,” sometimes “the inward man,” sometimes “the new man,” and sometimes “a new creature,” which he sets apart. So that the word “flesh,” as I have earlier mentioned, may be sometimes called “the old man,” sometimes “the outward man,” sometimes “the body.”

Now the words that truly apply to the soul that is regenerated, are called “the spirit,” “the mind,” “the new man,” “the inward man,” “a new creature.” And the words that apply to the soul that is unregenerate, or bear the natural affections of man, it are called “flesh,” “the old man,” “the outward man,” “the body.” I bring these words to your attentions so that you may see that in these terms encompass whole man, both soul and body, and are to be considered either according to regeneration and to the sanctifying of God’s Spirit, or else according to all that ever he is or hath by fallen nature, by any means, inwardly or outwardly.

While we live here, there is a fight and strife inside each of us who are the elect and the children of God. For “the flesh,” the “outward man,” body, and “old man,” is always striving against “the spirit,” of the inward man, “new man,” and “new creature.” That is, to the degree that we are regenerate and endued with God’s Spirit, we will be striving and fighting against all the powers of our fleshy souls and bodies. And though we shall retain the natural and corrupt affections that is in us, and that we shall have so long as we live, we will always strive to bring them as much as may be possible into obedience to the Spirit; –at the least to bridle them, that they bear not dominion or rule in us.

This battle and strife none will have but the elect “children of God:” and those that have it are the elect “children of God” (“in Christ before the beginning of the world”), whose salvation is as certain and sure as is God himself; for they are given to Christ, a faithful Shepherd, who hath so prayed for them lest they should perish, that we know his prayer is heard: — yes, he promises so to keep them that “they shall not perish.” And therefore they ought to rejoice, and comfort themselves in their conflicts, which are testimonials, and most true, that they are the elect and dear “children of God;” for else they could not, nor should not feel any such strife in them.

But you might say, that the wicked have strife also in themselves, and are often grieved with themselves because they have done such a sin; and therefore this is no such certain demonstration of election. To this I answer, that indeed the wicked and reprobate have sometimes, as you say, internal strife’s and conflicts; as in Saul we may see it against David, and in Antiochus. But the strife in them is not a strife or battle betwixt “the spirit and the flesh;” as you shall see if you mark the differences to discern these battles, which now I will give unto you.

When man is displeased with himself for anything he has done amiss, and strives against himself with respect to that fault which he sees that displeases God his Father and Lord, and displeases Christ, etc., then that is the strife of a good man, of one elected and that is the dear child of God: and the same man so displeased with himself may assure himself that he hath the “good Spirit” of God, which hath wrought in him that affection. Let him therefore call to God and cry, ‘Abba, dear Father,’ and ask grace and mercy, which assuredly he shall find.

But when one is merely displeased with himself, and strives to amend any fault, with respect to civil honesty, of men, shame, beauty, bodily health, profit, hurt, friendship, etc., and does it not in respect to God’s displeasure and favor; then that is the same as sorrowing after the world, for it is not after God.

This is the same strife or battle between the flesh and the flesh, for it is not a strife that the Godly have between “the spirit and the flesh.” Such battles have the wicked, as Saul had, in respect of worldly honesty, shame, civil justice, etc. The wicked have not God’s Spirit of sanctification and regeneration to sanctify and regenerate them, though they might have it concerning other gifts: and though they want the affections of God’s holy elect, the “children of God” and the affections of the regenerated, –and although they have other affections by the which they are not discerned from the ungodly, –they are not taken for holy in God’s sight.

As you can see, the doctrine of election as described in this battle is not a casting of the bridle over the horse’s neck, or an overly strait curbing of the horse; for it neither occasions licentiousness nor despair, but it provokes the regenerate heart to battle against sin; and not hypocritically, but as it should be in God’s sight and for God’s sake, (for they shall feel not their election that so fight not;) but it shall be both a comfort and also a cross, and you shall battle with it most comfortably, with comforts that never can be taken away: for what a comfort is it to see my sorrow and fight to be a demonstration of mine election! Wherein is true rejoicing, as Christ said, “Rejoice in this, that your names are written in the ‘Book of Life.’”

If any man would alter the natural course of any water to run in a different way, he shall never be able to do it with dams: for a time he may well stop it; but when the dam is full, it will either burst the dam or overflow it, and the water shall with more rage run stronger than ever it did before. Even so, if any man would have the streams of his nature and will altered, to run after the will and nature of God, the same shall never be able to do it by making of dams; nor all the world for him. For you cannot really change the streams of the natural man by telling and teaching how that we should do, speak, and think otherwise than we do naturally. For a time the streams of our affections may be stopped by telling and teaching, and other bodily exercise; yet these very affections will “weasel” out now and then, and at length, will break down all our dams and devices, or else so overflow them that “the latter end will be worse than the beginning.” Therefore the alteration hereof must be at the head-spring by the making of other water ways, and rivers of incorruption for our will and our nature to run in.

But who can do this? The spring itself? Nay, God himself, and him alone, who works this in whom, when, and howsoever, it pleases him for his own good will’s sake. And they in whom he works this are his elect children “before the beginning of the world;” who may and should feel their election by loving the good and striving against that which is evil, although in great imperfection: whereas the hypocrites have a thousand parts more show of holiness, but in deeds less love to God and hatred to evil, yes, in deeds none at all as it is pleasing in God’s sight.

Wherefore let us pray for the daily increase of “regeneration,” which is nothing else but the Divine alteration of our natural streams. For our natural streams which we have received from Adam, we have received running naturally contrary to his will.  May we therefore receive from Christ, the second Adam, his “good, Spirit” to draw and lead us in all things after the through-ways of his good will: which he grants to us for his mercy’s sake! Amen.


Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage: John Bradford, 1510-1555.  John Bradford was born in 1510 and received a good education in a grammar school in Manchester. He was able to earn a good living serving under John Harrington, paymaster to the English forces during the wars of Henry the 8th. For a time he studied law but through the influence of a fellow student he was converted to Protestant Christian faith. Because of this he left the study of law and began his study of theology at Cambridge.

Though he would only live seven more years he was often referred to as “holy Bradford” not in derision, but from respect to his unselfish service to God and those around him. In 1550, during the reign of Edward the 6th, he was ordained by Bishop Ridley to be a “roving chaplain”. Following Edward’s early death, England was ruled by Mary Tudor who was zealous to bring back the Roman Catholic religion and to discipline “heretics.”

Before Mary’s reign was a month old John was arrested on a trivial charge and confined to the Tower of London, never to be a free man again. His time in prison was not wasted as he continued to preach to all that would listen and to write letters and treatises that would encourage fellow believers. During his two-year imprisonment he was cast for a time into a single cell with three fellow reformers, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. Their time together was spent encouraging one another and in careful study of the New Testament. All three were to become martyrs.

Finally on January 31st, 1555 Bradford was brought to the notorious Newgate Prison to be burned at the stake as a heretic. Though the burning was scheduled for 4 AM, there was a great crowd, made up of many who admired Bradford, who had come to witness the execution. He was chained to the stake with another young martyr, John Leaf. After begging forgiveness of any he might have wronged and freely forgiving those who had wronged him, he turned to fellow-martyr, John Leaf, with these words, “Be of good comfort brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night!”


One thought on “How the Words “Flesh” and “Spirit” are to be Understood in Scripture

  1. Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.

Comments are closed.