Sarx is a term used by Paul in many of his writings in the New Testament. It appears to have a multiplicity of meanings, but at its core seems to somehow be related to humankind’s inclination toward sin.
In many modern translations, it is generally translated as “flesh,” however it has appeared in other guises as well, such as “human limitation,” and “the weakness of our natural selves.”
Because of the varied nature of its faces, it seems as if Paul doesn’t use the term in a uniform fashion.
However, theologian James Dunn offers insight into Paul’s usage to help us better understand what is truly at the root of this term.
Dunn divides Paul’s usage of this term into three general categories:
1. Sarx appears to be neutral, simply referring to the literal, physical flesh of the human body. An example of this is Romans 11:14, “..In the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people [sarx] to envy and save some of them.” Paul is using sarx to simply refer to the Jewish people.
2. Sarx appears to be associated with limitation. The limitation does not by necessity involve moral or sinful overtones.
An example of this is Romans 6:19, “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves [sarx].” The limitation Paul is referring to is not one of depravity, but one of cognition and mental capacity. His audience has difficulty understanding spiritual truths, so he tones down the complexity.
3. Sarx also appears to be explicitly associated with sin and moral shortcoming. For example, Romans 7:5, “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature [sarx], the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.”
Another example offered is Romans 8:6-7, “The mind of sinful man [sarx] is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind [sarx] is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.”
Here the term is explicitly criminal. Corrupt passions exist at this place.
This is where Dunn offers a sort of theological rosetta stone that helps decode Paul’s various uses of sarx.
In 1 Corinthians 15:35-50, Paul explains to the Corinthians that Christians’ resurrected state will be bodily, or physical, in nature. It is important to note that when Paul references this fleshy aspect of the resurrected state, he uses the term soma, rather than sarx. Paul writes that each “natural body [soma]” will change into a “spiritual body [soma].” In Paul’s theology, the soma/body will be sustained in the resurrection, but the sarx will be left behind.
Verse 50 helps us understand Paul’s thinking further, “flesh [sarx] and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Here, sarx is connected with the notion of perishability, or mortality. In the resurrection, we don’t escape our soma/bodies, rather our soma/bodies shed our sarx/mortality.
This relationship between sarx and mortality/perishability is what gives sarx a uniform meaning throughout Paul’s usage.
Dunn elaborates, “[Sarx denotes] what we might describe as human mortality. It is the continuum of human mortality, the person characterized and conditioned by human frailty, which gives sarx its spectrum of meaning and which provides the link between Paul’s different uses of the term.”
As Paul writes in Romans 7, where he explicitly expounds on his struggle with sin, “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” the whole idea appears to be that as human beings, we are less wicked than we are fragile, weak, and mortal. Our mortality, our fear of death, is what causes our immorality (see Hebrews 2:14-15). Our issue as human beings is mortal in nature, not, at root, moral.
All in all, Paul seems to be suggesting that it is our perishability, our mortal nature, that leads us to sin, rather than a depraved nature that leads us to die.
This idea of “Ancestral Sin,” fits quite nicely with Christus Victor atonement theology, and, to this writer, seems to compliment the Biblical witness much better than a belief in Original Sin.
Beck, Richard. The Slavery of Death
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death
Dunn, James. The Theology of Paul the Apostle