Inward Man Vs Outward Man

No. 3 of the Tightrope Series

"Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16).

We have a body and a soul. While in this life the bond between our body and soul is indissoluble. This is how God made us. Whenever we think, say or do something, both our body and soul would be involved. We must not think that a mental exercise is entirely a chemical and electrical process; but neither should we think that it involves only the soul. The fact is: until "our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved" (2 Cor 5:1), all our deeds, speech and thoughts will involve both our body and soul working together so that it is impossible to label any acts of our will as being solely of the body or of the soul.

But this actuality is often not fully understood, and does give rise to a number of questions.

Body and Soul

First, it is often asked: Which is more important? Is it the body, or is it the soul? This question is hard to answer: for those who neglect their bodies will quickly find themselves suffering spiritually (cf. Mt 26:41), and those who neglect their souls will one day lose everything (Mt 16:26), including the possibility of enjoying eternity with a resurrected body.

This being the case, it is proper that we should be concerned to maintain the health of both our body (so the 6th Commandment) and our soul. But does this mean that maintaining a biblical balance would involve giving equal attention to both our body and soul?

I would answer negatively. But not because I believe the body is unimportant. I would answer negatively because, in general, man does not need to be reminded to take care of his body. "For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it…" (Eph 5:29a). We ought, as such, to strive to give greater attention to the health and safety of our soul. We ought to do so that we can echo with the apostle Paul: "Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day" (2 Cor 4:16).

Attitude and Action

But secondly, it may be asked: Is the attitude that reflects the soul or the action that is reflected in the body more important? This question is easier to answer, for the Scripture in many places condemns hypocrisy, which essentially involves actions that betray the real state and attitude of the heart. Our Lord, for example charges the Pharisees for being "full of ravening and wickedness" in their "inward part" while "[making] clean the outside of the cup and the platter" (cf. Lk 11:39). Likewise the apostle Paul tells us that in God’s eyes, the true Jew is "one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Rom 2:29).

The Scripture, therefore, leaves us without doubt that it is foolish and sinful to hide the real state of our soul by pretentious actions and speech. We ought rather to repent of our inward corruptions that we may bear forth good fruit out of our inner man (cf. Mt 7:18).

But does that mean that we should refuse to make use of the means of grace if we find no joy in using them? Does it mean that we should refuse to keep the Sabbath if we do not find it in our heart to delight in it? Does it mean that we must not pray unless we know for sure that we are regenerated? Surely not! Surely, a biblical balance requires that while we must guard against hypocrisy and repent of our hypocrisy, we must not therefore excuse ourselves from our duties. While it is a great sin to hear the Word preached without faith (cf. Heb 4:2), it is surely a greater sin to refuse to hear at all,—for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom 10:17). Likewise, while the prayer of the wicked is abominable, it is surely never abominable to pray; and while the outward Sabbath-keeping of the hypocrite is deplorable, it is surely not worse than the overt Sabbath-breaking of the brazen.

Sinful attitude, in other words, must never be used to excuse sinful behaviour. A biblical balance requires that we honestly work on our heart while maintaining our duties and responsibility with as much zeal as we can muster. Who knows: since our body and soul are inextricably tied to one another and influences one another, our outward use of the means, though arguably hypocritical may be used of the Lord to turn our hearts?

Spirit and Letter

Thirdly, and related to the second point is the question of whether it is more important to observe the spirit of the Law,—generally associated with the motions of the soul; or the letter of the Law,—which is generally thought of as requiring the exercises of the body (cf. Rom 2:29). The apostle Paul reminds us that "we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter" (Rom 7:6). But the question we must ask ourselves is: Does that mean that the letter of the Law is not important? I believe this is not what the apostle is teaching us. He is not denying that we should keep the letter of the Law. Rather, he is saying that we must not keep the Law merely as an outward duty, nor even as a covenant of works out of fear of judgment or of a desire to win God’s favour. Instead, we must keep the Law out of a heart overflowing with love and gratitude to the Lord. This is what is meant by serving "in newness of spirit."

We are by nature creatures of extremes and excuses. Given the opportunity, our corrupt nature will latch on anything to sin against God. We will turn a righteous instruction into a lie. But we must realize that if we rid ourselves of the letter of the Law, we will also rid ourselves of the spirit of the Law! One man may say: "I believe in keeping the spirit of the Sabbath, but not the dos and don’ts that are taught in the catechism." Another man working on the same principle may say: "I believe in keeping the spirit of the 7th commandment, I will not lust after a woman with my eyes, but I do not believe in keeping the letter of the 7th commandment!" Do we not see the absurdity of this principle? If a man can keep the 7th commandment in the spirit while committing adultery in the flesh, then can he keep the 4th commandment in the spirit while breaking the Sabbath in the flesh!


It is Gnostic error to think that the flesh is evil, while the spirit is good. But it is equally an error not to recognize that we have an inward man and an outward man. Let us, therefore, acknowledge this biblical distinction and so seek to walk with renewed understanding in the whole man. Let us not neglect the inner man while paying attention to the outer man. Let us not neglect the health and motions of the outward man while emphasizing the health and motions of the inner man. Let us strive prayerfully to walk in that balance which brings glory to our Father through Christ our Lord, and best promotes our enjoyment of God in this life. Amen.

—JJ Lim