LORD, we beseech thee, grant thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil; and with pure hearts and minds to follow thee, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1928 Book of Common Prayer
In Reformed circles particularly, but in the institutional church at large; this phrase is most often used during the ceremonial act of water baptism. I vaguely remember being asked this question ( or at lest hearing others being asked ), 'do you renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil?' when I was baptized, in my early teen years.
We have probably all heard this phrase, in some variation, at some point or other, in our lives; but what is this phrase really saying? My contention in this article, is that this phrase does not convey an understanding of three separate entities; but, as can be gleaned from the usage of this kind of language in Scripture, especially in the covenantal and historical context of Scripture, that these three things can, and maybe should be 'lumped' together.
In the covenantal context of Scripture; God promised, speaking of those who tried to refute His wisdom and righteousness and replace it with their own, in Isaiah 13:11, 'I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will halt the arrogance of the proud, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible'. ( see also Psalm 9:8 ( John 3:16-19 ),17:14, 22:27, Isaiah 24:4, 34:1, Matthew 13:22, 18:7, Mark 4:19, Luke 12:30, John 1:10, 9:39, 12:31 ( 14:30, 16:11 ), Acts 19:27, Romans 3:19 ( 5:12 & 13, 11:12-15 ), 12:2, I Corinthians 1:21, 3:19, II Corinthians 7:10, Galatians 6:14, Colossians 2:8, Hebrews 11:7, James 1:27, 4:4, II Peter 2:20, I John 2:15 & 16, Revelation 13:3, 16:14 )
I'm sure many of my readers know that there are two ( main ) different Greek words translated 'world' in the New Testament; 'αἰών', or 'age' , and 'κόσμος' which basically means 'orderly arrangement'; some writers also used 'οἰκουμένη', which means 'inhabited earth', and, in the historical context, most scholars will admit, were referring to the Roman Empire.
In many cases; the covenant and historical context of which I spoke above are really one and the same, referring to God's covenant creation, the physical 'children' of Israel ( after, or according to the flesh ). Isaiah prophesied of God's judgment on these 'children', saying 'The earth mourns and fades away, the world languishes and fades away; the haughty people of the earth languish' ( Isaiah 24:4 ) ( see also Isaiah 62:11, Lamentations 4:12, Nahum 1:5, Matthew 24:14 ( 10:23, Colossians 1:23 ), Luke 2:1, John 7:7, 15:18, 16:33 ( 17:9 ), 18:36, Acts 17:6, II Corinthians 5:19, Galatians 4:3, Philippians 2:15, I John 2:17, 5:19, II John 1:7, )
It is hard to prove 'beyond a shadow of a doubt' that 'flesh', as read in the Scriptures, refers to physical Israel; but Jesus, speaking in the context of 'the feeding of the five thousand' and of 'The Bread of Life', told those unbelieving Jews, in John 6:63, 'It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life'. These Jews had the word of God, written on 'tablets of stone' ( II Corinthians 3:3 ), which spoke of the Christ; but they thought that that these words contained life, so when Jesus came, speaking the true 'words of life', they would not believe Him. After Jesus had forgiven and dismissed the women, supposedly caught in adultery; He told the shame-faced Pharisees, who could not carry out their own law, 'You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one' ( John 8:15 ). Paul, referring back to Jesus' statement above, in Romans 8:5, wrote, 'For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit'. He late said, in Romans 9:8, 'That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed'. Again referring, I believe, to the Jew's misplaced hope in their law, Paul reminded the early church, which had just emerged from the shadow of it's Judaistic foundings, and was still fighting their ( Jewish ) influence, in I Corinthians 15:50, 'Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption', and in II Corinthians 5:16, 'Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer'. I've often pondered this passage, and while it could be physically understood to be saying that since Jesus had ascended back to 'Heaven', Paul and the apostles no longer regarded Him as 'in the flesh'; but I believe that Paul was referring to knowing Him 'in Spirit and in Truth' ( John 4:24 ), rather than simply through the 'letter of the law' ( Romans 7:6 ). In Galatians 3:3; Paul rebuked the brethren for listening to the arguments of the Judaizers, by asking them, 'Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?' Paul referred, in metaphor, to our freedom from the penalty, the 'chains' of the law ( of Moses ), in Colossians 2:11, when he wrote, ' In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sinsc]">[c] of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ'. There is, no doubt, an application for today to be made, in, as Peter said, in I Peter 3:21, 'the answer of a good conscience toward God', but the point that Peter was making, I believe, to his brethren after the flesh, was that God had freed them from the tyranny and oppression ( Exodus 1:8-14 ) of Judaism ( Matthew 23:4 ), and that, for their conscience sake, should 'present their bodies as living sacrifices' ( Romans 12:1 ) in His service and for His Kingdom! Today, as twenty-first century Christians; we should do no less!
As a rule; the 'devil' is, to a greater ( in some circles ) or lesser ( in others ) extent, a rebellious, apostate ( Hebrew 6:4-6 ) fallen ( wicked ) angel, who, while not exactly omnipotent or omnipresent, and according to some ( those 'others' ) has no more power ( over Christians, anyway ), still wields much authority, as the 'ruler of this world' ( John 12:31 ), and the 'prince of the power of the air' ( Ephesians 2:2 ), even over Christians ( Job 1 & 2, John 13:2 ), but definitely over the world at large. As we have seen, and as I have stated in previous articles; I believe this to be a 'false assumption' ( though not ( necessarily ) damning ), based on a very simplistic ( at best ) theology! We have noted, for instance, that Jesus Himself said that the Pharisees were children of the devil ( John 8:44, I John 3:10 ), and how, in Hebrews 2:14, we read that Christ came to destroy this 'devil' ( who had the 'power of death'-Romans 8:2, I Corinthians 15:56 ( Romans 9:4, ( Matthew 23:13 ). Although this lesson may also easily be applied to many situations today; I believe that it is important to realize, through the above mentioned covenantal and historical contexts, that 'the world, the flesh, and the devil' that we read about in Scripture, not only had a quite different meaning to the original intended audience, but were all basically speaking of the same thing; the disobedient 'children' of the Old Covenant.
With all this said; I would like to remind my readers that, although these words still hold application for us today, when viewed from the perspective of the original audience, they hold different connotations for us today. No more do 'the world, the flesh, and the devil' wield the power of death ( as under the Old Covenant ), and although we may still ( and should ) renounce 'the world, the flesh, and the devil', we are denouncing, not the rigors of legalism under the Old Covenant ( although this may be arguable ), but rather our 'old man', our former, sinful way of life, which is something that we must struggle with each and every day!
May God continually lead us all to the realization that we have, through Him, the strength to fight this inner battle, and that now 'the world, the flesh, and the devil' no longer hold 'the power of death' as they once did under the Old Covenant: in a sense, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'; we no longer battle against 'principalities and powers' ( Romans 8:38, Ephesians 3:10, 6:12, Colossians 2:15 ), but rather, against our inner 'demons', our own sinful and rebellious ( fleshly ) nature!
In His service,
and for His Kingdom and glory,