Spiritual Formation and the Warfare Between the Flesh and the Human Spirit

Dallas Willard

Originally published in Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care

ABSTRACT: In response to the common assumption of perpetual moral and spiritual failure in human life, this article offers a view of personal transformation and, in particular, of the role of the human will in such formation, that clears a way forward in progressive conformity to the character of Christ. Drawing from St. Paul’s understanding of the “flesh” and the human “spirit,” distinctions are made between the impulsive, the reflective, and the embodied will. It is the embodied/reflective will of the person that is captured by Christ through inner transformation, such that the crucifixion of the flesh and walking by the Spirit brings about routine, easy obedience to Christ, from the inside out.



“Do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:12-14)1

Spiritual formation in Christ is the process through which disciples or apprentices of Jesus take on the qualities or characteristics of Christ himself, in every essential dimension of human personality. The overall orientation of their will, the kinds of thoughts and feelings that occupy them, the “automatic” inclinations and “readinesses” of their body in action, the prevailing posture of their relations toward others, and the harmonious wholeness of their soul—these all, through the formative processes undergone by his disciples, increasingly come to resemble the personal dimensions of their Master. “A pupil is not above his teacher,” Jesus said, “but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

This holistic transformation is what Paul means by “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14), and by “Lay aside the old self…and put on the new self” (Eph. 4:22-24). His are not just pretty words, but the practical directions of an intelligent and divinely inspired man who knew by personal experience the reality and truth of what he was talking about. Routine, easy obedience to Christ with reference to specific actions, then, is the natural outcome of the transformation of the essential dimensions of our personality into Christlikeness. But such obedience is neither the direct aim nor the standard of discipleship. And any idea that we can achieve such obedience to perfection or that we can do it in our own strength alone is emphatically ruled out by the New Testament writers. Very well. But is such obedience then possible at all?

Today there is the wide spread conviction—and corresponding levels of practice—that sin wins. Certain statements also made by Paul, or elsewhere in the Bible, are wrongly understood and applied to the life of the disciple, and are taken to mean that we must remain in perpetual spiritual and moral defeat. In short, spiritual formation in Christlikeness is impossible. The power of sin and its penetration into fallen human nature requires, it is thought, that the ideals of transformation and obedience clearly set forth in many parts of the Bible, and especially in the New Testament, cannot be realized. Goodbye to the Sermon on the Mount, I Corinthians 13, Ephesians 4 & 5, etc. etc. Goodbye even to “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) We just can’t have such a life, according to this view, but must live in constant moral failure and spiritual defeat.

It may seem like that is certainly the New Testament view, if you choose your verses carefully. Paul says that “the flesh sets its desire against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you wish.” (Gal. 5:17—That sounds so grim that we suddenly forget the previous verse, where he tells us, precisely, how to foil the flesh. More on this later.) And then there is Paul’s most famous statement on this point: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom.7:19 KJV). This can easily be made to sound like a declaration of the perpetual human condition. And did not Jesus himself say, when confronted with a peculiarly poignant case of human failure, that “the human spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”? (Matt. 26:41) And then there is Jeremiah: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9).

The problem that confronts us here is not, we should note, one that is peculiar to Christians. It is a severe difficulty at the heart of humanity. It is the problem of not doing the good that you would sincerely say you intend to do, that you clearly wish you would do, and that you grieve over and regret not having done. It is a fundamental problem for all who see life clearly and think deeply about it. Greek thought and civilization (such as it was) eventually failed in its attempts to solve the problem of how to do and bring others to do, what they knew to be right. Socrates, famously, insisted that if you really knew what was good and right you would do it. Such “moral optimism” clearly puts too much weight on knowledge or on our cognitive faculties. Aristotle struggles with the problem at lengths under the heading of “weakness of will,” in Book VII of his Nicomachean Ethics. Although he regards Socrates’ position as simplistic, he still locates the essential factors of failure at the level of cognition. But the Apostle Paul had a deeper view of the dynamics of human action. He understood sin as a condition of the human self with which the Greek thinkers never came to grips. And he knew how to deal with it.

People today rarely do justice to Paul as a great thinker and one who, as a slave of Jesus Christ, laid the foundations of the millennia-long Western understanding of human life. Sir William Ramsey, of another day and with a clearer view, remarked that “In Paul, for the first time since Aristotle, Greek philosophy made a real step forward.”2 In his A Man in Christ, James S. Stewart remarked that “For sheer mental force, apart altogether from spiritual experience, Paul’s place is with Plato and Socrates and the world’s giants of thought.”3 To understand the battle between the flesh and the human spirit, according to Paul, and to learn how that battle can be won for Christ in the process of spiritual formation, we must take pains to use his words as he himself understood them.

“Flesh,” on Paul’s understanding, consists of the natural human abilities, considered in themselves and on their own, unaided by Divine assistance and direction. Flesh is not necessarily bad, and it certainly is not “fallen or sinful human nature.” For one thing, it is not human nature, but only one part of it. For another it is not essentially sinful, fallen, or bad. It is a good creation of God, and needs only to keep or be kept to its proper function in life before God. Thus, “the son of the bondwoman (Hagar) was born according to the flesh” (Gal. 4:23)—that is, from normal human abilities. But “the son of the freewoman” (Sarah) was born through the promise and action of God, along with her and Abraham’s normal human abilities. The mark of the action of the Holy Spirit with our action is always the incommensurability of the result with the outcome you could expect from normal human abilities and efforts alone. The “mind set on the flesh” is death (Rom. 8:6), because it draws upon natural human abilities alone, not upon the gracious actions of God in our life. Those who invest solely in their flesh get back only “corruption” (Gal. 6:8), for that is the only outcome of natural human abilities on their own, dominated by desires. To be corrupt means to be broken into pieces, to perish through internal disintegration.

Flesh naturally works by desire. Obsessive desire (éπιθυμία)—the kind of desire that can rule your whole life—is usually translated as “lust” in the New Testament. Desire is the impulse toward possession or experience of its object. Desire “locks on.” It cares for nothing else but its own satisfaction. “I want what I want when I want it,” the song says. Of course anyone caught in the grip of “lust” is already in real trouble. They will sacrifice what is good, for themselves and others, to get what they want. This overriding drive for gratification is the genuine root of “weakness of will,” and Paul and the other New Testament writers saw it clearly. Desires taken by themselves are inherently chaotic (James 4:1-3), each clamoring for its own gratification. And they are deceitful (Eph. 4:22), for they each promise a fulfillment which they cannot deliver, and they drive us ever onward in the blindness of sensual futility (Eph. 4:17-19). Thus, “fleshly lusts wage war against the soul” (I Peter 2:11), against the inner principle of personal unity and integrity. And we all have to be delivered from “the corruption [the disintegration of life] that is in the world by lust” (II Peter 1:4).

The terrible “deeds of the flesh”—”sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these”—which Paul enumerates as he continues his discussion in Galatians 5 are the natural and inevitable outcomes of “lusts” given free rein.4What is good and right is lost before the onslaught of human desire. The will, the human spirit, cannot prevail going one-on-one with desire. That is the situation described by Paul in Romans 7:19 and Galatians 5:17.

The human will or “spirit,” by contrast, is very different from flesh actuated in unrestrained desire. It considers alternatives. That is its essential nature. It is our God-given ability by which we have an interest, not just in this, but in what is better or best. It takes a broad view of possibilities: not just of one desire and its object, but of other desires and goods. That is where choice comes in. Choice involves deliberation between alternatives, with a view to what is best. It seeks light. It treasures the law. The conflict between “the flesh” and the (human) spirit is the conflict between desire—what I want—and the will for what is best. And hence it is also the conflict between desire and love, which is always directed toward what is good for its objects. Love is will-to-good. Desire and love are two utterly different kinds of things. You may say you love chocolate cake, but you do not—you do not will its good (nor perhaps your own), you just want to eat it. That is desire.

Law also is directed toward what is good. That is why it conflicts with desire. Desire says “Let’s have sex” or “I wish you were dead.” The law says: A greater good is at issue here—the purity of human love and faithfulness toward other human beings, or the preciousness of human life. So: “Thou shalt not.” And beyond the explicit law is the general drive toward what is better and best. That is “the spirit of the law.” That is love, which is committed to the well-being of its objects and so is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10). Hence in my will or spirit “I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good” (Rom. 7:16).

So the human will or spirit, the power of choice, always seeks a wider perspective than “what I want.” But in the lives of people who are “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12), desires actually enslave the will, or even pose as the will. Many people lose any understanding that they have a will that is distinct from their desires, and they come to think that freedom is doing what they want, not what is good. We might even speak of a “vital” or “impulsive” will. That would be a willing that is outwardly directed and moved by and moving toward things that simply are attractive. You see this in a baby. A little baby very quickly begins to be attracted to things, to reach for them, and to move in relationship to them. That’s all there really is to will in the baby. If the person does not develop beyond this stage, they will identify themselves with their will, and their will with what they want. They will never subordinate themselves to God and what is good, as a whole person living in God’s world. Thus, “I want to” and “It pleases me” are now widely regarded as overriding reasons for doing something, when in fact they should never function by themselves as a reason for action. The meaning of the cross of Christ in human experience is that it stops any mere “I want to” from functioning as an adequate reason for action. The cross is therefore central to the moral life of humanity.

Impulsive will must give way to reflective will. The reflective will is oriented toward what is good for the person as a whole, in their communal setting, not merely to what is desired. So here arises the conflict that we all know too well, between the good and the bad, the good and the not so good, and the good and the better and the best. This conflict goes on constantly in human lives, and it trips up people at all levels of life in contemporary Christian circles. Moral and spiritual failure happens in cases where, for whatever precise reason, the reflective will has not effectively guided life. We then “do what we would not, and fail to do what we would.”

By contrast, when we bring the reflective will to life in Christ (birth “from above”), and add the instruction of the law and the presence of the Holy Spirit, along with the fellowship of his Body, we have the wherewithal to live in such a way that God is glorified in everything we do. The anticipation of this is seen in such great passages on the life in Christ as Colossians 3:17: “Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father through him.” That becomes a real possibility, and progressive transformation toward inner likeness to Christ makes it increasingly actual.

Vital or impulsive will is where you simply choose what you desire, and reflective will is where instead of just doing what you want, you choose what is good—and especially, as Christians, what is good under God, in the kingdom of God with Jesus. A crucial third perspective on the will (human spirit) is to see it as embodied will. Embodied will is where impulsive will or reflective will has settled into your body to such an extent that you automatically, without prior deliberation, do what they dictate. This is a sad—even a tragic—condition for those who have allowed their desires to enslave their will, but that is the standard situation for most human beings on earth. Their body is running their life in terms of desires (“pleasures”) that have enslaved their will and positioned their desire-enslaved will in their body. In this sense the body becomes the immediate, but not the ultimate, source of “the deeds of the flesh.” This is perhaps what Jesus had in mind when he said that “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34).

Let us say, then, that Christian spiritual formation is the process through which the embodied/reflective will or “spirit” of the human being takes on the character of Christ’s will. Think of Paul’s magnificent statement: “The life which I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Not just faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ—the one by which he lived. I have taken his faith into me. I am now being inwardly the person that Christ has called me to be, and this inward faith has now spread throughout my social, embodied self—more or less, and progressively more than less.

Let us be as clear as possible. When we speak of spiritual formation we are speaking of the formation of the human spirit. The spirit is the will or the heart, and, by extension, our character, which, in practice, lives mainly in our bodies. The main reason why the idea of spiritual transformation through merely being preached at and taught usually doesn’t work is because that does not involve the body in the process of transformation. One of the ironies of spiritual formation is that every “spiritual” discipline is or involves bodily behavior. We have to involve the body in spiritual formation because that is where we live and what we live from. So now spiritual formation is formation of the “inner” dimensions of the human being, resulting in transformation of the whole person, including the body in its social context. Spiritual formation is never merely inward, but is always also explosively outward.

In direct confrontation between human flesh and human spirit, between what is desired and what is good, sin wins. The futile human struggle with evil proves it. But fellowship with Jesus Christ in the new life from above brings new possibilities into play on the side of the human spirit in carrying out its intentions for good. Sin then loses as the desires of the flesh are ordered under the goodness and power of God in us. Thus, Paul tells us to “walk by the Spirit (now the Holy Spirit), and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). After listing the deeds of the flesh and outlining the fruit of the Spirit, he continues: “Now those who are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by (or follow) the Spirit” (vv. 24-25) In the other masterful passage in which he deals at length with the opposition between flesh and spirit, Romans 8:1-16, he states that “if you are living in terms of the flesh, you are about to die, but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live on” (v. 13).

Instead of engaging in futile, direct confrontation with the desires of flesh, organized by the evil one into a “world” set against God and what is good (Eph. 2:1-3; cp. I John 2:15-17), the wise and inspired Apostle gives us a twofold counsel of indirection: (1) To crucify the flesh, and (2) to walk by or follow the Spirit. These are well summed up in his admonition to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to lusts” (Rom. 13:14)—that is, merely to achieve what the flesh wants. I believe that in following this counsel we should think of the two parts as being carried out simultaneously.

(1) You will notice that crucifixion is not something you can do to yourself (you do not have enough hands). That is why Paul says, “if you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live” (Rom. 8:13, KJV). Endless grief has come to the people of Christ through efforts to use natural abilities and arrangements to restrain the flesh. Such efforts produce the many “circumcisions” that are found in “religious” life. Restraining the flesh is an essentially divine work, though we also must act. And what do we do? We simply refuse natural desires the right to direct our life. We decide that we shall not live for them to be satisfied. Living to satisfy natural desires is, as Jesus pointed out, how “Gentiles,” those who don’t know God, live (Matt. 6:32). We make a general surrender of the right to get what we want in favor of the call to do what is good under God. This is the right and healthy understanding of “death to self.”

Following upon this general surrender is the practicing of specific disciplines, such as solitude, silence, fasting, study, worship, service, and so forth, to quell our desires that have been running our life and embed the will of Christ into our body in its social setting, making his will our embodied will. That is what Paul has in mind with “I bruise my body and make it my slave” (I Cor. 9:27). The radical disciplines of abstinence, solitude, silence, and fasting, are especially useful and necessary to re-train our body, along with the other active components of the self. “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me” (Ps. 131:2). That is our new reality. The chaos and turmoil of the self-life is now quieted, and I can stand firmly and effectively for what is good and right in the strength of the Lord. I am walking by the Spirit.

(2) And what does that mean? It means, above all, to count on, to expect, that the Holy Spirit, God, Christ—the unbodily personal power that is the Trinitarian God—will act in my life to enable me to do the good and right in all things I am engaged with. I no longer “have to” do what is wrong in order to make things “turn out right.” The ancient wisdom of the Proverbs says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own cleverness. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will smooth your paths” (3:5-6). To walk by the Spirit means to recognize Him in everything you do and to expect His action. It means that you “set your mind on the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5; II Cor. 4:16-18). It means, negatively, that you do not place your hopes in what natural abilities by themselves can accomplish (Jer. 17:5).

Jesus has arranged with the Father to give us a “Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My; name” (John 14:26). He will always be with us, and will direct and empower us, as we rely upon him and invite him into our activities. Now obviously the experience of God in our affairs will strengthen our commitment to not having “our way,” and the use of spiritual disciplines will train us away from trying to run things on our own. So (1) and (2) encourage and reinforce one another. They make for and fill out a life that is “from above,” a “resurrection life that is already beyond death” (Col. 3:1-4), a life that is even now an eternal one (John 17:3 and I John 2:17).

In such a life the desires of “the flesh” retreat to the very subordinate role for which they were created. Natural desires are good within the proper ordering of life. But they no longer control us, dictate our actions, and defeat the will for what is good: the love that fulfills the law and goes “beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt. 5:20). Now, by intention, discipline and grace, I do the things I would and do not do the things I would not. Integrity is restored to my soul and spreads throughout my life. No doubt that is not yet perfectly so, but it is increasingly so as I grow in grace and knowledge toward a scene in which “that which is perfect has come and that which is in part is done away with” (I Cor. 13:10). The peace of Christ and the joy of Christ and the love of Christ possess us, and, whatever battles remain to be fought, the outcome of the warfare between the flesh and the human spirit is no longer in doubt. Spiritual formation in Christ conquers the flesh and makes it the servant of the spirit, human and divine. That is the testimony of Paul, and the testimony of disciples through the ages.


  1. All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Version unless otherwise noted
  2. William M. Ramsay, The Cities of St. Paul: Their Influence on His Life and Thought (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), 4.
  3. James S. Stewart, A Man in Christ (New York: Harper, 1935), 21.
  4. Paul gave much thought and expression to the dreadful chaos of the sinful life. See his lists in Romans 1:29-32 and 3:10-18, as well as II Timothy 3:2-7.
Dallas Willard. “Spiritual Formation and the Warfare between the Flesh and the Human Spirit.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 1 (2008): 79-87.