In Peter Leithart’s book Delivered From the Elements of the World he discusses the meaning of the word “flesh” as it is presented in scripture. Leithart’s conclusion about the meaning of flesh is that “flesh” means mortal, and what the Bible calls “life according to the flesh” is life under the reign of mortality, which really means life under the fear of death. It is life in the flesh that then leads to sin, as the flesh looks for mortal or fleshly ways to evade death, which are all artificial means of grabbing at glory and immortality. What fleshly pursuits of glory and immortality look like are pride, self-centeredness, hatred, murder, adultery, etc.
Under the rule of mortal flesh then, death is seen as a failure. Death is falling into obscurity, it is anti-glory. Under the rule of flesh one must do everything they can to in some sense live on. They must be themselves glorious. They must leave their mark by which some part of them goes on forever. This can look like a charitable foundation or a dictatorship. Fleshly glory can be attained by giving to the poor or stealing from the poor. What makes the difference is where one puts their faith. If someone gives to the poor, and they love the pats on the back, then they give to the poor as an act of faith that charity will get them glory from man, they gave according to the flesh; as a mortal pursuit of glory.
This is contrasted with the hope of glory promised in scripture, which is not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. This glory was accomplished by Jesus and frees from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). The reason why glory according to the Spirit frees from the fear of death is because this glory requires death, this glory requires the death of flesh. By the Spirit the deeds of the body must be put to death, and if the corruptible body is put to death, then it will be raised incorruptible. Obedience by the Spirit is the justice of God in putting sinful flesh to death.
What this means practically is that fear, death and failure are interconnected. The fear of death is the the fear of failing to attain to glory and immortality. How this plays out in a sinful world is through artificial means of pursuing glory and immortality, which will always be self-seeking by definition. What this means for the Christian is something very different than what it means for those who have no hope. The glory promised in the gospel isn’t just for the bodily resurrection, but in baptism we are raised with Christ to newness of life (see Romans 6), and eternal life isn’t simply a future reality, but believers have eternal life in the present. In John 5:24 eternal life is referred to in the present tense: “Truly, truly, I tell you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment. Indeed, he has crossed over from death to life” [Emphasis added].
Yet the fear of death remains, even in Christians. Believers can be afraid of failure, afraid of going for glory and instead getting shame. Yet, if the Christian is raised with Christ in baptism, then there is a guarantee of glory. This glory however doesn’t look like the glory of fame and fortune, it looks like dying. The glory of this life for the Christian is the glory of putting the flesh to death, the glory of the justice of God here and now in destroying sinful flesh by the power of the Spirit. The fear of gloryless death is conquered by the hope of glory by death. What holds Christians back is the fear of man. Since Christians are still warring against the flesh and its desires for glory, the fear of failing when people are watching can be crippling. Many Christians don’t go all in because they know they have an audience, and they’re afraid they wont get any applause should they fail.
Knowing this about the flesh is helpful in beating it. If a Christian is afraid to do something, there are two questions to ask. First, how is this putting the flesh to death? Second, if there is any fear of going ahead with it, how much of that fear (if not all of it), is related to the fear of failing while people are watching? The freeing truth of the gospel, that lets Christians go ahead with good pursuits, is the rejection of pursuing fleshly glory, knowing that whatever the outcome, God is pleased with Spirit empowered pursuits that put the flesh to death. A Christian who has death as their goal is a fearless Christian, and when they are shamed by the world for what looks like failure, they are exalted by the God who promises resurrection glory to everyone who’s flesh has been slain by the sword of Spirit. Crucified Christians are destined for glory, and that is the only true medicine for fear.