MESSAGE FOR JUNE 27, 1999 FROM ROMANS 8:5-11
Our text this morning is Romans 8:5-11 as Paul continues his argument that believers can fulfill the law in the power of the Spirit. This morning, I’m going to do something very unusual. I’m going to read the text from the NASB version of the Bible. I know most of you use the NIV and the pew Bibles are NIV, but I will explain why I am doing this later. For those who are reading in the NIV notice the significant differences between the NIV and the more literal NASB. Paul says in verse five, “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.
In this particular text, the NIV is not nearly as close to the original language of Paul as the King James and the New American Standard Version and in this instance, it gets in the way of properly understanding what Paul is saying. Many believers, when they read this text, think that in verse five, Paul begins explaining HOW we live this Spirit controlled life and the NIV translation strongly influences them in this direction. Many think that, given the fact that Paul mentions “the mind” several times, that means that to live a Spirit-controlled life, (as opposed to a carnal, fleshly, Christian life) is to in some way control our minds. Many in the church today would summarize their understanding of this text something like this, “The difference between a Spirit controlled believer and those Christians who live under the control of the flesh is the focus of the minds.” So on this side you have believers who live supernatural lives controlled by the Spirit and on this other side you have believers who live under the control of their flesh. And the difference between the two is that the Spirit empowered believer somehow focuses their mind differently and that enables them to live above the power of the sin.
May I strongly suggest that this understanding of the text, as much as the NIV might lead us in that direction, is fatally flawed and although, (as I mentioned last week) Paul DOES treat the HOW of Spirit filled living later in the chapter, he doesn’t do that here in these verses. Let me briefly give three reasons why this text has to mean something different than HOW to live the Spirit-controlled life by the proper use of our minds.
First, if this text is about HOW to live a Spirit-controlled Christian life, why is it there are no exhortations or commands in that direction? In a text that is allegedly supposed to tell us HOW to do something, don’t you think it would make sense for there to be some exhortations—“do this, not this—make sure you remember this.” There is not one in this text. This text is purely descriptive in character. Verses 5-9 describe the mind according to the flesh contrasted with the mind according to the Spirit. There is no “how-to” language in this allegedly “how-to” text. Second, in verse four, (which we looked at last week) Paul says the reason believers have been liberated from the penalty and power of sin is “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us who, who do not LIVE according to the sinful nature [flesh] but according to the Spirit. Here Paul clearly and explicitly refers to those who “live” according to the Spirit.
But in verses 5-9 he does NOT explicitly speak of “living” according to anything. The NIV supplies or adds that word when it says in verse five, “those who LIVE according to the sinful nature…” Paul did not use it and I would cross it out and put in its place in verse five what Paul actually wrote which is, “those according to the flesh” and “those according to the Spirit.” The verb which is rightly supplied for clarity is “ARE” not, “live”. That’s not what Paul said.
That is speaking, NOT about HOW a person lives, but WHO they are—their essential nature, either in the flesh or in the Spirit. We see the same type of translation in verse nine. The NIV says, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.” Again, the word “controlled” is not in the original. The phrase reads more literally in the NASB, “However, you are not IN the flesh, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Paul here equates being “IN the flesh” with NOT having the Spirit dwell in you and if you have the Spirit, you are not IN the flesh. Do you hear that this is NOT exhorting us to LIVE in a certain way? Paul is using the language of description. If you are “in the Spirit,” you are a Christian and if you are “in the flesh” you are an unbeliever. We see more proof of this in 7:5. There Paul is indisputably speaking about our former lives as unbelievers and says, “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature,[literally, “in the flesh”] the sinful passions aroused by the law, were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.” Paul is saying there, “When we were in-the-flesh unbelievers, sin, working through the law actually energized our sinful desires.” There, only one chapter away, Paul clearly uses the phrase “in the flesh” or “controlled by the sinful nature” to refer to NON-Christian experience.
Those reasons compel me to see this text NOT as a text on HOW to live the Spirit-controlled life (as the NIV influences us to understand it) but this text is really a description of the differences between those who are “according to” or “in the Spirit,” Christians and those who are “according to” or “in the flesh,” non Christians. The intention of this text is NOT to say that believers are partly dominated by the flesh and partly dominated by the Spirit even though that is often how it is understood. It is obvious that believers have to battle against the flesh, but that is not Paul’s point here. All this begs the question, “Well, just what is the point of this text, then?” The point of the text is to continue Paul’s line of thinking in the first four verses of the chapter. He has just said in verse four that the reason we have been set free from the penalty and power of sin is so that we could fulfill the law by living according to the Spirit. His point in these next verses is to move on and show what it is about a believer, in contrast with an unbeliever, that makes him able to live supernaturally above the power of sin.
The main truth of this text is: The reason believers can live above the power of sin is because they have undergone an essential change in their spiritual nature by the Holy Spirit. Paul wants to show that the believer’s capacity to fulfill the law is possible only because God has made an essential heart- change in the person. In making this point, he is confirming that the promises of the New Covenant God made through Ezekiel and Jeremiah have been fulfilled in Christ. We quoted these last week but to refresh our memories, God says through Ezekiel in 36:26-27, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” God promises that one day His people will “follow [His] decrees” and “keep [His] laws” BECAUSE he will miraculously transform them to do so by giving them a new heart. What he means by that is He will “put [His] Spirit” in them. In Jeremiah 31 he says it this way, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” These two Old Testament texts are two of the most important in all the Bible for keeping us on track in our interpretation of much of the New Testament. If we would allow these two texts to figure more prominently in our understanding of the New Testament, scores of misunderstandings in interpretation would be avoided.
The first point Paul makes in developing his argument about this change in the nature of the believer is, This change in the nature of a believer is seen in the difference between the mind of unbelievers who are in the flesh and the mind of Christians who are in the Spirit. Paul says that those who are “according to the flesh” or unbelievers “set their minds on the things of the flesh.” What does he mean by that? Remember we saw what the flesh was by looking at its relationship to “the world, the flesh and the devil” in First John chapter two. The flesh is that part of humanity that is, by nature, of this fallen world and is consistent in character with this sinful world. Therefore, it is in rebellion against God. The unbeliever is ALL flesh. That is, their essential nature is flesh. The Christian, although transformed in his essential nature, still carries around a remnant of this world Paul calls “the flesh.” Because the flesh is of this sinful world, we know that one thing the mind of the fleshly unbeliever does is to place his focus on the things of this world because that is all he has.
The fleshly mind is in love with the things of this world. That is, unbelievers make their decisions and root their values based exclusively on how it will effect the things of this world which will be totally irrelevant the moment their heart stops. They are “of this world” and their minds are going to be captivated by this world with all its lies. John the apostle makes the same point in 1 John 2:15 when he says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” To have your mind set or, to use John’s language, to “love the world” means that you cannot be a Christian. Your mind is not set in the right direction. Your values, your priorities, you attitudes are set by that which is temporal and of this world. James 4:4 says, “…friendship with the world is hatred [or, “hostility”] with God.” We see this idea in verse seven when Paul tells us why the unbelieving, fleshly mind is “death.” That is, this mind-set brings death. He says, “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Paul says an unbeliever cannot please God (in part) because he hasn’t undergone this supernatural change in his nature. He is still “in the flesh.” One implication of that is that his mind is still anchored to this temporal, flesh-dominated world and therefore he cannot possibly keep the eternal, spiritual law of God. He’s on a different plane—the false as opposed to the true, the natural as opposed to the supernatural, the temporal as opposed to eternal, the fleshly as opposed to the spiritual, the worldly as opposed to the heavenly. And as such, his mind, his attitudes, values, mind-set are opposed to God and that brings death. Paul contrasts that with the believer who can fulfill God’s law because his essential nature HAS been transformed by the indwelling Holy Spirit. And that transformation produces a very different kind of mind.
This mind is, according to verse five, “set on the things of the Spirit.”
This only makes sense. Christians are those who are “in” or “according to the Spirit.” Because their essential nature is “according to the Spirit” it is natural for them to be people whose minds are “set on the things of the Spirit.” That is, true, heavenly, eternal and spiritual things. And this is the heart of Paul’s point. Christians outwardly behave a certain way because their minds influence them in a certain direction—to fulfill the law. And the reason their minds influence them in that direction is because their essential nature has been changed from fleshly, carnal and temporal to spiritual, holy and eternal. God has planted eternity in our hearts. The essential change in nature by the Holy Spirit changes their mind, which changes their behavior. A Christian behaves in a certain manner because his mind influences him to want to fulfill the law and the reason for that is because in their nature they have been changed to be like Jesus and are therefore able to fulfill the law.
Now what may be a bit unnerving in Paul’s treatment of sanctification in chapters six through eight (and we see it very clearly here in this text) is how his emphasis is so different than much of North American evangelicalism. Paul’s main emphasis in this text is this—“You have been changed by God through the Holy Spirit and therefore will act like Jesus Christ, fulfilling the law. Those who have not been changed by God will not act like Jesus Christ.” To many of us, that seems very black and white. We see the same emphasis in 6:14 where Paul says, “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.”
Notice the same pattern. There has been an essential change which has occurred and that change is, we have been taken out from under the reign of sin and placed under the reign of grace. That essential change produces something tangible in our behavior. Namely, we don’t have to be enslaved to sin. The change in nature produces a change in behavior.
There is an edge to that kind of thinking that puts most of the church today off balance. It feels too absolute, too cut and dried, too black and white for us. Where is the PROCESS in this? Where is the battle with the flesh which we have to fight? Paul certainly never denies the battle between the flesh and the Spirit. He writes about it in chapter seven and its clear that this is a process, but that’s not Paul’s primary emphasis. And this change in emphasis is a subtle, but profoundly dangerous shift in thinking away from the New Testament. (Its not just Paul who sounds this way. If you read the Sermon on the Mount and much of the teaching of Jesus he sounds pretty black and white, too. "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other…” That sounds pretty black and white to me!)
The shift in emphasis away from the New Testament emphasis is this. Paul’s main emphasis when he writes on sanctification is this dynamic change in the person which produces a changed life. In that, he is consistent with Ezekiel and Jeremiah who write of a change in nature which will produce a change in behavior in relation to the law—now we will fulfill it. The church today certainly acknowledges that a change in nature takes place in a believer, but the main emphasis of the church today in sanctification is, “it is a long process which requires patience—it’s a marathon race, not a sprint.” That kind of emphasis is primary in the church today.
When you hear a teaching on sanctification, the underlying backdrop is, “but we know it’s a process.” Now, Paul would not argue with that. He makes a similar point in verses 10-11 where he makes the point that we are not perfected now, our bodies still die even with these new natures. But, think about it. What is the difference in impact between, on the one hand an understanding of the Christian life which has as its primary emphasis the supernatural, life altering change which has taken place through the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand an understanding of the Christian life which has as its primary emphasis, “this is a process, be patient?” How are those two very different emphases going to effect how we relate to the message?
The answer is, if we have Paul’s primary emphasis as our own, we will continue to strive, to seek after God with blood earnestness, to live in a manner which is consistent with this change that has been accomplished in our life. And if we are NOT living this kind of life, we are going to pray and seek after spiritual revival—a new infusion of this life of the Spirit, in ourselves and in the church. With THIS as our emphasis we will be more inclined to more closely scrutinize our lives and perhaps question whether or not we have been changed by the Holy Spirit at all because the primary message is, if you have been changed in your essential nature, your behavior will change.
But if our primary emphasis in Christian growth is “it’s a process,” our strong tendency will be to excuse our mediocrity, our lukewarmness our noticeable lack of progress under the rubric of “it’s a process, be patient.” What is often unstated in the “it’s a process” emphasis is, “so its not all that urgent, growth will occur…later.” This is what has happened in the church and it is because we have allowed Paul’s primary emphasis on the dynamic work of the Spirit to be substituted with the patience required for the long process of Christian growth. Consequently, there is little hunger for revival because there is little or no motivation for the Christian to look at his lukewarm life and say, “If God has made this huge change in my nature, why is it I am not ACTING more like a changed person? What on earth is wrong with me?—God have mercy on me—revive my soul and cause me to live out what you have done for me in Christ.” Frankly, that is what the church NEEDS to sound like today in light of its incredible compromise and lukewarmness! There’s appropriate urgency there.
Don’t misunderstand, BOTH the dynamic change brought about by the Spirit and the fact that our sanctification IS a process are biblical truths. But by taking them and flip flopping them in their emphasis away from Paul’s careful balance we have become out of balance. Someone has said, “truth out of balance is heresy.” The call to the church in light of this truth is to repent of our misplaced priority—to replace patience with urgency. Where is the urgency about the state of our souls today!? Perhaps the best illustration of how to approach the Christian life is found in the urgency the apostle had about his own soul. Second Corinthians nine says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. That sounds pretty urgent to me. I don’t hear the stress being placed on, “be patient, it’s a long process.” If perhaps the greatest Christian of all time had that kind of urgency about the condition of his soul, doesn’t it make sense that you and I should? Then again, his urgency probably explains WHY he was arguably the greatest Christian in church history.
Where are we this morning? Do we look at the Christian life the way Paul does? That is, by laying, as the foundation for our thinking, the fact that true believers have been changed by the Holy Spirit to fulfill the law of God. And to the degree that my life is not manifesting this, I need to seek after God with all my heart. May God give us the grace to be urgent about what IS urgent and in so doing follow the Scripture.
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